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Peugeot Poised For Two Straight at Le Mans?

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, June 11 2010

The Peugeots appear to be the cars to beat at Le Mans this weekend. (File photo courtesy of the American Le Mans Series)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

Le Mans, France – After Peugeot Sport swept the top four starting positions in qualifying for the 24 Hours of Le Mans with a speed that Audi Sport found difficult to match, could the annual struggle between the two endurance racing powerhouses be over before it starts?

Not so fast, said Allan McNish, an Audi driver who specializes in strong race starts, comebacks and surprise victories. With a new “plus” evolution of the Audi R15 TDI, the Audi team knew it would be concentrating on race set-up prior to the Saturday afternoon start rather than trying to match the French team’s lap times in qualifying.

“It was clear from January that we were going to focus on the race preparations at Le Mans and that qualifying was not going to be the focus,” said McNish of the 8.47-mile track that uses public roads, which meant no testing was possible prior to the first practice session on Wednesday.

But it’s also clear the three-car Audi team has been playing catch-up with its new “plus” prototype versus the Peugeot 908 HDi FAP, now in its fourth year and the defending winners at Le Mans. “We didn’t think we would have gotten the pole if we had focused on it,” acknowledged McNish.

Hometown favorite Sebastien Bourdais, making a full-time transition into sports cars after Champ Car and Formula 1, posted a pole-winning lap of 3:19.711 on the lengthy, high-speed circuit in his No. 3 Peugeot. Bourdais averaged 245.677 kilometers per hour, or roughly 147.42 mph.

Bourdais’s lap was 1.481 seconds faster than the closest of the three Audis and 4.977 seconds faster than the R15 that McNish will start in seventh place. In addition to speed, Peugeot Sport has numbers on its side. A fourth 908, entered by veteran team owner Hugues de Chaunac’s ORECA squad, is a de facto member of the French team.

The Peugeot 908 has evolved from the original slippery car with very low downforce for the long straights at Le Mans. Initially, it had difficulty adapting to changing conditions, especially rain. Now the 908 is considered a chassis for all occasions, which once again could include rain at the Sarthe circuit. “I was really surprised at how well I could go in the slow corners,” said Stephane Sarrazin, a three-time pole winner at Le Mans for Peugeot. “It’s a big improvement since last year.”

This year’s pole winner Bourdais, known as the grumpiest member of his team, pronounced himself very happy with a Peugeot that has only the same windshield from its original iteration that debuted at Le Mans in 2007. “We’ve all worked well with the car,” he said of teammates Pedro Lamy and Simon Pagenaud. “It is very (fast) and extremely easy to drive.”

All four of the Peugeots and the No. 9 Audi driven by Mike Rockenfeller were under Sarrazin’s pole time from last year – despite the fact the rules have reduced the size of air restrictors for both diesel-powered cars.

The need for more aerodynamic efficiency to reduce the effect of the rule change and the need to catch up with the Peugeot prompted Audi Sport director Wolfgang Ulrich to produce the “plus” version of the R15 despite its completion just before the season began.

“It was a tough development schedule,” said Ulrich. “Our development plan went smoothly. We’ve had a lot of experience and we know how it works when it comes to developing the cars just-in-time.”

When it first appeared in 2009, the R15’s technical innovation comprised tunneling air through the car for better efficiency. But this year’s “plus” version was required due to too much aerodynamic drag. It also had devices located at the air intakes in the nose that Le Mans officials eventually decided were illegal aerodynamic aids.

“You can see visually that there’s a lot of difference with this car,” said McNish. “The aero has been changed partly for performance and partly because of the changes in the rules. We changed the downforce and there’s less drag so there’s more speed on the straightaway.”

Will it be enough to catch the Peugeot’s in racing conditions? With a starting field of 56 cars, the traffic will play a role in the lap times. In a down economy, there are more paying drivers throughout the four classes of LMP1, LMP2, GT1 and GT2.  With less power, the drivers at Peugeot and Audi found the traffic more challenging than ever. “With the new rules, it’s more difficult to overtake than last year,” said Sarrazin.

Audi’s Tom Kristensen, an eight-time winner at Le Mans, blamed the problem on more rookies as well as the “gentlemen drivers.”

Some of those rookies are well known in other disciplines. Former F1 and CART champion Nigel Mansell is co-driving an LMP1 prototype with his two sons Leo, age 25, and Greg 22. The 25-year-old Leo is the veteran on the team with one previous start at Le Mans. Other well-known rookies include former F1 drivers Jean Alesi and Giancarlo Fisichella and IndyCar’s Marco Andretti, co-driving an LMP1 entry for Rebellion Racing.

“You have to expect the unexpected,” said Kristensen. “You have a lot of rookies. Some of them, like Nigel Mansell, have a lot of experience. But that is not the case for some others. This will create some interesting circumstances.”

The gas-powered, Lola-built Aston Martins, which qualified eighth, ninth and tenth, have closed the gap to the Peugeots and Audis thanks to the smaller air restrictor on the diesels. But the focus remains on the Franco-German battle, where making fewer mistakes on the high-speed circuit may well spell the difference between who takes home the trophy for the over-all victory.

– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, June 11 2010
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