2009 Le Mans 24 Hours Class-By-Class Preview: LMP2

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2009 Le Mans 24 Hours Class-By-Class Preview: LMP2
(Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

2008 Winner: Van Merksteijn Racing
Drivers
: Peter van Merksteijn - Jeroen Bleekemolen - Jos Verstappen
354 Laps completed

 

What to watch for in 2009

  • The revenge of Essex?
  • A Porsche repeat?
  • Can the older cars still cut it?

LMP2 is a class going though a change.

For years it was a battle of attrition, the 2007 class winners actually brought their car into the pits as the weather changed for fear of problems, or an accident, costing them victory over the one other car in the class that finished the race.

Then last year something happened. Porsche happened. There was pre-race talk of whether the Le Mans spec of the RS Spyder (which differed from that of the Penske team that had run them so successfully in the ALMS) would be fast enough, and whether the car would last 24 hours. There were questions whether the customer teams that ran the car could do it justice.

Those teams, Dutch Van Merksteijn Motorsport and Danish Team Essex finished one-two in the class. The Van Merkstiejn car took the victory, finishing tenth overall and completing a number of laps the 2007 winners could only have neared if it what the Le Mans 25-and-a-half-hours (and only if they car hadn’t broken down, crashed or miscellaneously fallen part in that 90 minutes).

LMP2 had changed. The kind of cars and teams, and the kind of driving that had previously been good enough was being found out, and the 2009 entry is some sort of attempt to answer that change. There are only a handful of cars the like of which would have been found in the class a few years ago, and the big names of Sportcars are well represented.

There are two RS Spyders, with Essex returning and the Van Merksteijn chassis returning with new owners Team Goh. There are also two Pescarolo chassis run by OAK racing, who took a podium last year as Saulnier Racing, and three new Lola Coupes two of which are Mazda powered, along with three other cars. This is no longer a class where it’s better to pit than race if you want to win.

Changes to the entry list from February have been few, but important. A third RS Spyder that was entered by Vitaphone Racing (the same team that runs the Maseratis in FIA GT) was withdrawn after failing to agree with Porsche on the running of the car, with my belief being that Porsche’s insistence on having one of their own drivers there being a stumbling block as Vitaphone has enough established names to fill the car itself. So, out they went.

In, though through a different withdrawal, came the Barazi-Epsilon Zytek, an entry that languished deep on the original reserve list, and was largely expected to stay there has been the major beneficiary of the high drop-out rate this year.

The eagle-eyed (or analy retentive) among you will notice a second appearance in the previews for Guillaume Moreau – here as the third driver in the #35 OAK car. In the time between writing the GT1 preview and this Moreau has split with Luc Alphand’s Corvette team, and is now confirmed in the customer Pescarolo.

 

#5 NAVI Team Goh – Porsche RS Spyder
Drivers
: Sascha Maassen – Seiji Ara – Keisuke Kunimoto

The fastest Japanese entry this year due to the lack of Domes in the top class the 2004 overall victors return to Le Mans. Seiji Ara also returns from that victory. However, everything else is changed. It’s a new car, having won in an Audi R8 while the Spyder was still a twinkle in Porsche’s eye and Ara’s team-mates that day (a certain Kristensen and Capello) are in other well known whereabouts.

That said the changes have not left the team weak. They have the winning chassis from last year. In the driver’s seat Sascha Maassen (oh look, another Porsche works driver) joins, hoping to go one better than his second place with Essex last year, brings experience of the car.

Kunimoto is more of an unknown quantity, with Japanese single seater experience, he is also the reigning Macua F3 race winner, there is some talent, but at just 20, with no prototype experience 24 hours may be too far, too soon.

Prediction: Podium 

 

#24 OAK Racing – Pescarolo Mazda
Drivers
: Jacque Nicolet – Richard Hein – Jean-Francois Yvon

On the face of it the chassis-engine combination is an interesting one. However, the team has been entered in the this year’s Le Mans Series as a pseudo-works entry from Mazda’s French arm, which, of course gives them expertise that other Mazda powered entrants won’t have.

This is undoubtedly the weaker of the two OAK cars, with team owner Nicolet joined by “gentleman driver” Hein joined by Jean-Francois Yvon, who may be the most experienced man in the field, with Le Mans starts going all the way back to 1984, when he finished 14th in BMW M1. One of the winning drivers that year? The man the chassis of his car is named after – Henri Pescarolo   

Prediction: DNF

 

#25 RML – Lola B08/80 Mazda
Drivers: Mike Newton – Thomas Erdos – Chris Dyson

Ray Mallock was also driving in that 1984 race, and his team – Ray Mallock Limited (RML) – have been P2 or at least P stalwarts for many years at Le Mans, winning this class with a previous design Lola in both 2005 and 2006, and this is their best chance since of winning again. They are probably the best team to be running the chassis/engine combination, having moved away from a 2005 design Lola that was among the cars being outdated by the new P2 entrants, and have the driver trio to challenge the Porsches.

Dyson drives these cars in America, and even with stories of “Dysonising” the ALMS car every shred of knowledge could be crucial, Mike Newton and Erdos have been with RML since 2004, with all the accolades and expertise to call on.

Prediction: Podium

 

#26 Bruichladdich Bruneau – Radical SR9 AER
Drivers: Pierre Bruneau – Marc Rostan – Tim Greaves

As RML have moved on with their choice of car the Bruichladdich team have not. The SR9 has been making visits to La Sarthe since 2006, with very little glory, in fact the highlight of the 2008 race for the team was the fact they were able to escort the winner through the chequered flag, guaranteeing their sponsors some exposure even it wasn’t because of their own success.

What has changed is the team name, with Bruichladdich Radical becoming Bruichladdich Bruneau, as the long time Le Mans entrant put his money into the tea. There he was reunited with Marc Rostan, and joined Tim Greaves, who despite being overlooked for the Le Mans team last year, has been in Radicals since 2006.

However, the Radical is a piston engine car in a jet age now in P2, and even a finish will see them well down the field.

Prediction: DNF

 

#30 Racing Box – Lola B08/80 Judd
Drivers: Matteo Bobbi – Andrea Piccini – Thomas Biagi

 

Racing Box return to the site of their embarrassment last year after their Lucchini chassis failed scrutineering. Seemingly in response the team have moved to more recognised (and competitive) combination, which has had an almost immediate effect as the team, with the same three drivers here took victory in Barcelona, looking positive.

However, the very next race they only seven laps, while the other team car was disqualified. Their chances at La Sarthe just depend on what side of the team turns up, as the three drivers have the skill to contend and the basic chassis and engine package is good enough.

Prediction: Finisher

 

#31 Team Essex – Porsche RS Spyder
Drivers: Emmanuel Collard – Casper Elgaard – Kristian Poulson

Last year’s runners up come back for another go with the same car and one of the same drivers, in multiple time Le Mans starter and three time Danish Touring Car Champion Casper Elgaard. He is joined by Porsche works driver (yep, another one) Collard and fellow Dane Kristian Poulson.

The big unknown (almost as last year) with the Spyders is the level of factory involvement, as with the end of the ALMS program and the changes to the regulations there has been no factory car for development work. On the other hand, Collard’s presence (and Maassen’s in the Goh car) show that Porsche are invested heavily enough in the program to want some representation in the driving seat. However, whether they are represented amongst the engineers and mechanics may be more important.

Prediction: Winner

 

#32 Barazi Epsilon – Zytek 07S Zytek
Drivers: Juan Barazi – Stuart Moseley – Roland Berville

Barazi Epsilon appear to be running a limited program (perhaps due to not having a guaranteed Le Mans until relatively recently), having only appeared at Spa this year, where a Juan Barazi-Fernando Rees combination was disqualified from fourth position for reasons unknown.

While this doesn’t give a whole lot to base predictions on I think just getting to Le Mans might be Juan Barazi’s team biggest achievement this year. Like Bruichladdich’s Radical the 07S is likely to be showing its age against the fleet of Spyders and new Lola coupes, both in terms of speed and reliability.

Juan, get yourself an 09 Ginetta-Zytek (or a Lola Coupe) and come back next year.

Prediction: DNF

 

#33 Speedy Racing Team Sebah – Lola B08/80 Judd
Drivers: Jonny Kane – Benjamin Leuenberger – Xavier Pompidou

The P2 Sebah entry runs the familiar Judd engine, rather than the Aston powerplant of its P1 brother, while the driving line-up brings together 3 drivers who were in very different cars last year, but all with a similar fate – DNFs at Le Mans.

Frenchman Pompidou is the sole survivor from Speedy’s P2 attempt last year, (the delightfully named) Leuenberger moves up from Speedy’s GT2 Spyker team, and Jonny Kane joins from the Embassy team, who were probably the largest financial casualty of the off-season.

The results from this year’s Le Mans series point to the team being serious contenders – the same threesome of drivers were runners-up behind the Essex Spyder at Spa against a lot of the same competition.

Prediction: Finisher

 

#35 OAK Racing – Pescarolo Mazda
Drivers: Mathieu Lahaye – Karim Aljani – Guillaume Moreau

By far the stronger of the two OAK cars, and perhaps a dark horse for a podium, just as the Saulnier P2 car was last year. Of the three drivers who took to the lowest step in 2008 only Mathieu Lahaye survives to defend the position.

The Frenchman’s new regular partnership with Aljani has already reaped rewards, with a third in Spa amongst many of same teams they will face at Le Mans. The third member of team came over from Luc Alphand’s GT1 team but comes with Le Mans prototype experience in tow, having run in a P1 Courage in 2007.

Prediction: Finisher

 

#39 KSM – Lola B07/46
Drivers
: Matthew Marsh – Hideki Noda – Jean de Pourtales

Kruse Schiller Motorsport (KSM) are another team of P2 stalwarts, with a P2 stalwart car in the 2007 Lola (Lola’s car naming system is so wonderfully unoriginal). They have, however, upgraded from the 2005 chassis that didn’t finish last year (although that was partly down to the fact it had to be almost completely repaired after Noda decided to take it for a test flight over the Dunlop chicane).

De Pourtales also comes back for another go at the 24. The new driving component could be the weak link with Marsh’s top echelon sportscar experience amounting to a few DNFs in GT2 cars. The other new component – the car – could be out of it’s depth as well, and Marsh can add a P2 DNF to his CV.

Prediction: DNF

 

#40 Quifel-ASM Team – Ginetta-Zytek 09S Zytek
Drivers: Miguel Amaral – Olivier Pla – Guy Smith

Another team that should be familiar to regular Le Mans followers. However, this team do have a new car – the only new Ginetta-Zytek design in the class. The three drivers remain the same, bringing together the kind of experience in sportscars and Le Mans that could end in a good result, with team owner Amaral and Pla sharing the car in LMS races. Guy Smith is by far the most recognisable name, with the 2003 overall victory with Bentley to his name alongside copious amounts of other prototype racing.

Smith also brings possibly the worst (or best) preparation for Le Mans, having spent last Wednesday “having a baby”, with Priya Mae being born at 10:22am.

Prediction: Finisher

 

#41 G.A.C. Racing Team – Zytek 07S
Drivers
: Karim Ojjeh – Claude-Yves Gosselin – Philipp Peter

The final P2 team entered and while I would forgive for never having heard of any of the drivers, they all come with some serious endurance pedigree. Ojjeh and Gosselin have a Le Mans podium in P2. However, it is from back in 2005 with the then well established Paul Belmondo outfit while Peter’s experience can be mostly found in the GT classes.

However, the team’s last Le Mans attempt was as Trading Performance, when they completed only 22 laps and G.A.C.’s results so far this year have suggested that the change in name hasn’t helped their results. Ojjeh and Gosselin were also in that team, so perhaps the experience is a little past its sell-by-date.

Prediction: Finisher

 

The 77th running of the Le Mans 24 Hours take place over the 13th and 14th of June, with TV coverage varying. However, there will be full, live-from-La-Sarthe commentary from Radio Le Mans, at www.radiolemans.com (or 91.2 FM at the track if you're lucky enough to be going). 

Also worth reading:

LMP1 Preview

LMGT1 Preview

LMGT2 Preview

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