Team Oreca Matmut makes a return to the LM P1 category in this year's 24 Hours of Le Mans, but the goal for the successful French outfit isn't an overall win. Team principal Hugues de Chaunac knows there's no way to match the might of the ...
Team Oreca Matmut makes a return to the LM P1 category in this year's 24 Hours of Le Mans, but the goal for the successful French outfit isn't an overall win. Team principal Hugues de Chaunac knows there's no way to match the might of the diesel-powered Audis and Peugeots - at least not this year. Instead, the team is banking on pushing both of its Courage-Oreca LC70 Judds to the finish line, to get a leg up on next year's twice-around-the-clock classic.
De Chaunac's operation has enjoyed the taste of victory at Le Mans in the past. From Mazda's overall triumph in 1991 to a streak of three class wins with the ultra-successful factory Dodge Viper program in the late 90s, Oreca knows how to get around Circuit de La Sarthe. After returning to prototypes in 2000 with factory-backed Chrysler LM P900s, Oreca campaigned top-level prototypes through 2005, when it linked up with Audi France to run R8. The next year, Oreca went back to GTs, making the Saleen S7R into a championship-winning car.
A new chapter in the history of Oreca began last September when de Chaunac's organization acquired the assets of Le Mans-based constructor/team Courage Competition. It then prepared for a full assault on the Le Mans Series and 24 Hours of Le Mans with two Courage-Oreca LC70 Judds - heavily upgraded machinery compared to 2007.
"It's the same chassis with new suspension and complete aero package," de Chaunac explains. "The difference between the car from last year is huge because it's pretty much an 80 percent new car. We have to develop the car again, so there will probably be smaller developments next year."
In its first of a two-year development program for the L70 Judd, de Chaunac has been working on getting both of its cars consistent and reliable on the track. However, the team has been stuck with unfortunate incidents that have set them back a bit. In April, Stephane Ortelli suffered a spectacular end-over-end crash at Monza, preventing driver and chassis from competing in this year's race. Former Atlantic star and De Ferran Motorsports American Le Mans Series driver Simon Pagenaud replaced Ortelli, and a new chassis was constructed.
"It was not very easy because time was so short," de Chaunac said of the race to get the new chassis ready. "You need also to have all the spare parts in time, but we did it. I think the whole team did a great job because it wasn't the same car as last year. We have a new body, we have new suspension and many other new things. So it was not easy, but we did it."
The team made further revisions to its lineup last week as reserve driver Marcel Fassler was drafted in to replace Nicolas Lapierre. The revised squad was therefore finalized, with Soheil Ayari, Loic Duval and Laurent Groppi in the No. 5 machine and Olivier Panis joining Pagenaud and Fassler in the No. 6 entry. Both cars got off to a rocky start with a few on-track incidents in qualifying, but de Chaunac is convinced the team will rebound and perform well in the race.
"The target was to prepare for the race and not to try and be the quickest," de Chaunac said. "We are here to just try and learn the best thing for the race. The target to be the best petrol car is to have both cars running at the end. But the important thing is to learn for next year. Our mind is already on next year."
Indeed, de Chaunac is already thinking ahead to next year, especially after the ACO's recent announcement of altering the air restrictor size between diesel and gasoline-powered P1s. At Le Mans, the quickest gasoline-fueled entry was over 6.5 seconds slower than the overall pole time set by a Peugeot 908 HDi-FAP. This makes it a tough feat to land on the podium this year.
"I think normally with three Audis and three Peugeots, we know they both will probably lose one car," de Chaunac explained. "So that means it's only four [diesel cars remaining]. If one of them loses another car, that means we could be in the top-four or top-five. But for me, that's not the most important thing. It's important to have two cars on that level."
Oreca hopes to build on success this year and in 2009 before creating a brand-new car for 2010 regulations. Despite the fact that the current prototypes will still be eligible to run for the next three to four years, de Chaunac said he wants to support the new regulations, which will be officially unveiled in November.
Before then, de Chaunac expressed interest in competing in the final two American Le Mans Series races of this season, and he said a decision will be made after Le Mans. If the French outfit completes its checklist at La Sarthe, who knows, we could see them on other side of the Atlantic later this year.