99 and counting

It has taken an official pre-qualifying session to whittle down an extraordinary number of Le Mans entries to a manageable level

The surge of interest in the ACO's 24 Hours of Le Mans continues. Three years ago, when the event was tied to the mast of the FIA's sinking ship, it attracted a grand total of 28 entries... and production-based GT cars were strictly prohibited. This year the ACO received 99 entries, most of them in the GT1 and GT2 categories, which have now been whittled down to 48 plus four reserves.

McLaren, winner of six BPR Karcher CT races in succession, will have seven cars on the track, Ferrari three F40s, and Porsche two new 911s in the GT1 group, but the overall winner is likely to come from the World Sports Car category and the chances are it will have a Porsche engine.

Team Jaguar is back at the Sarthe, represented by the Brands Hatch-based PC Automotive with two ex-TWR XJ220Cs. Tiff Needell, James Weaver and Win Percy are the three professionals, joined by team director Richard Piper, British F2 stalwart Phil Andrews and Olindo lacobelli.

The PCA Jaguar, appropriately liveried in British Racing Green, qualified extremely well in the one-day Le Mans trial on April 30. Both Needell and Percy lapped three seconds quicker than the XJ220s managed on their first and last outing in 1993, and the test went so well that the team went home on a cloud.

On the reserve list but with a good chance of starting is the Jaguar V12-powered Lister Storm, with Geoff Lees lined up as lead driver.

Two Marcos 600 LMs will take part, too, and the team has a professional approach about it. Alongside former winner Jan Lammers in one car will be Chris Hodgetts and the young Brazilian, Thomas Erdos, while David Leslie, Chris Marsh and Francois Migault drive the other.

How they qualified

The process of elimination was painful, a culling which had onlookers reaching for their handkerchiefs. Two dozen had their entries returned, including the entire Konrad Porsche team (Franz didn't sign his cheque, apparently) and the Lanzante Motorsports Porsche GT2.

The ACO's selection committee, on which Jean-Pierre Moreau and Alain Bertaut seemed to share the casting votes, decided they wanted no more than a dozen Porsches or Porsche-powered cars on the grid on June 17.

Erwin and Manfred Kremer, winners back in 1979, had one K8 Spyder invited and easily qualified another. With the recent Daytona 24 Hour victory to their credit, they will start as favourites.

Following the factory's withdrawal from the WSC category, a legacy of its spat with IMSA, official Porsche support is shared among the Kremer, Courage and Larbre teams.

Kremer has obtained the services of Hans Stuck, Thierry Boutsen and Christophe Bouchut for its lead car, and will be supplied with so-called Dauer engines — those twinturbo flat-sixes developed for the Dauer 962 LMs that finished first and third last year.

Yves Courage, who runs his team from Le Mans, will also have Dauer 962 power for the C34 in which Bob Wollek set fastest time on April 30. He will share with Lionel Robert and (probably) Henri Pescarolo, leaving Eric van de Poele and Franck Lagorce to handle the attractive Chevrolet-powered C41.

Courage's second entry is also a GM-powered C41, but he is trying hard to get permission to switch this to a Porsche-engined C34. If he succeeds, the Weissach concern will bring Geoff Brabham and Scott Goodyear to the team, along with another factory-built motor.

There are only three Porsches in the GT1 category: two works-built cars for lack Leconte's Larbre team (which will become the outfit's front-line cars in the BPR series), and Freisinger Motorsports' 993-based Biturbo.

There is another blend of youth and experience in the Larbre camp, where Jean-Pierre Jarier, paunchy and greying but still exceedingly quick, Jesus Pareja and Jurgen Barth are joined by Dominique Dupuy and Stephane Ortelli.

The question mark, however, is over the cars. Can the new six-speed GT2 model really handle the 620 horsepower promised by the factory from the Phase 2 engine? Two broken driveshafts and a broken differential in recent weeks have certainly raised a few doubts.

There are six more Porsche GT2s in the category, and although they'll probably be as reliable as Swiss cuckoo clocks it won't be enough to put them in the frame for outright victory.

As the ACO intended, then, a quarter of the grid will be either Porsche or Porsche-powered. Either the Kremer brothers or Courage really should win this race, and in doing so chalk up Porsche's 14th Le Mans victory since its first in 1970.

The open-top WSC cars are restricted to 550 horsepower and the Porsche turbo examples must weigh at least 1,950 pounds (885 kg), the figure that IMSA suddenly upped by 100 pounds just prior to Daytona.

The Kremers have sadly admitted that their K8 weighs more than 2,050 pounds anyway, though factory help with components such as new uprights and carbon discs will allow some reduction.

Massimo Sigala's Ferrari 333 SP, run in America by Antonio Ferrari's Euromotorsports team, was completely wrecked in the terrible accident at Road Atlanta, as was the brand-new car driven by Freddy Leinhard.

With Fabrizio Barbazza on the mend, but certainly off the track, it seems that a substantial sponsor will persuade Sigala to wheel out his 1994-model Ferrari 333 SR with a choice of Elton Julian, lay Cochran and Didier Theys as co-drivers. Their chances of going the distance without problems are minimal.

The remaining WSC car is a good one: the Mazda rotary-powered Downing DG3, better known as Kudzu. It isn't the quickest in the field, but the triple rotor power unit package gave Japan its first-ever Le Mans victory in 1991 — and Jim Downing has a wealth of experience, He, Yojiro Terada and Franck Freon could well be the dark horses.

Some people believe that the Le Mans Prototype 2 cars — centre-seaters with one-piece bodywork — don't belong at the Sarthe. They will remain as Alain Bertaut has anything to do with it, though, and Welter Racing's Peugeot 2-litre turbo Powered WRs are quite capable of starting from the front of the grid. Finishing is another matter...

Finishing is the name of the game for McLaren and Ferrari in the GT1 category, however. Ferrari's track record suggests that the Italians will be dining in town on Saturday evening, gearboxes being the Achilles' heel, but what about McLaren?

A couple of busted gearboxes among six sweeping successes doesn't set alarm bells ringing, but Gordon Murray knows that the six-speed, transverse transmission is the F1 GTR's weakest link, still unproven at anything over four hours.

Murray has redesigned the lubrication system for the second time, and a 24-hour test was being planned at Magny Cours late in May. All the McLaren teams, principally those run by Michael Cane/Ray Bellm GTC Motorsport outfit and Dave Price Racing, will start the race in sceptical mood and keep spare transmission/suspension packages in the back of their garages. One hour is the bogey time for changing the back end of a McLaren: 15 laps down if all goes well.

Toyota's SARD and Team Nisso Trust teams have been decimated by unplanned crash tests, and Honda is still proceeding very slowly towards its goal. It is the NISMO Nissan GT-R LM, therefore, that seems likely to produce the goods. The operation is 100 per cent Japanese this year, and the Skyline-based GT1 is a proven winner.

Porsche may be the hot tip in GT1 just on account of experience — the car is 31 years old, after all — but Nissan could produce a surprise, and so might the PC Automotive Jaguars. If the British cars run as well as they are capable of, why shouldn't they repeat the 1993 result for real?

Two Marcos, two Honda NSXs and three Callaway Corvettes take on Porsche in GT2, but in truth I can see only one result: a sweep for the Porsches, perhaps with the 'Royal Couple', Enzo Calderari and Lilian Bryner, on the podium on Sunday after noon.

When is Le Mans?

Weekend June 17/18, starting and finishing at 4 pm.

Scrutineering takes place at the Place des Jacobins, the Cathedral Square, on Tuesday June 13.

When do the teams qualify?

Qualifying is on Wednesday and Thursday evenings, from 7pm to midnight with a short break at 9pm. All three drivers must qualify in daylight and after dark. Friday is a rest day, a good opportunity to see the cars in the paddock and garages.

How much are the tickets?

A 'circulaire' ticket allowing you to visit any corner costs 310 francs, plus 90 francs per evening for qualifying. At 7.5 francs to the pound, these are getting rather pricey!

Grandstand seats range from 470 francs along the pits straight (350 francs to stand along the frontage) down to 200 francs for the less spectacular seats.

Parking and camping?

Ample. Le Mans has this down to a fine art: camping from Monday onwards costs 170 francs at Tertre Rouge (including the vehicle) to 240 francs at the Maison Blanche and 300 francs nearest the paddock (Camping des Tribunes). A reserved parking space costs 160 francs, unreserved 90 francs.

Can we book ahead?

Yes. Contact the Service Billetterie, Circuit des 24 Heures, Les Raineries, 72100 Le Mans. Phone: 0033 4340 2424. Fax: 0033 4340 2415.