Looking forward to Le Mans


At 3pm on Saturday none other than Luca Cordera di Montezemelo will drop the flag at the start of another Vingt-Quatre Heures du Mans.

Sunday June 14 will be the 60th anniversary of the first of nine victories for Ferrari at Le Mans, hence the presence of Il Presidente at La Sarthe. Not to mention the fact that there are no less than 10 Ferrari F430 GT cars entered for this year’s race.


Back in the summer of 1949 Luigi Chinetti and Lord Selsdon scored that first victory for the red cars, in a 166M. The cars from Maranello became synonymous with Le Mans, Enzo Ferrari taking sports car racing very seriously alongside his beloved Grand Prix team. A win at Le Mans does no harm at all to a company selling high-performance cars for the road.


The last win came in 1965 when Jochen Rindt and Masten Gregory triumphed in a 250LM run by the North American Racing Team, an outfit supported by the factory and with close connections to the import of Ferraris into the USA. Then along came Ford, on a mission (and with a blank cheque) to beat the red cars. And this they achieved, winning four years on the trot with the wonderful GT40.


For years Porsche dominated the race, just as Audi has done since the turn of the century, though there have been famous victories along the way for Jaguar, Renault, Matra (three times in a row), Mazda, McLaren, Mirage, Rondeau and Peugeot. In 2003 Bentley came back and beat Audi, upsetting the dominance of the cars from Ingolstadt.


This weekend it is Peugeot that has the only real chance of getting on terms with the Audis and, as we saw at Sebring, its car has the pace to beat them. A wild card is the new Lola Aston Martin, powered by old-fashioned petrol, and an outside bet to take the pole away from the diesels. New rules, concocted by the ACO to make the racing closer, mean that both Audi and Peugeot will be carrying more weight this year and a reliable petrol car could just spring a surprise. Not likely, but at Le Mans you never know.


The dominance of Audi has been quite extraordinary, first with the R8, then the R10 and now, perhaps, with the new R15. It is an important battle for supremacy because Le Mans still means something to the man in the street – after all, you can go out and buy an Audi with a TDI engine and a Peugeot with HDI technology.

Many of us from Motor Sport will be in France this weekend, reporting on what is undeniably still one of the most famous sporting events in the world. I will be spending time with the Audi team, keeping my ears open for the inside story, and finding out what makes this mighty band of people tick. And it’s not just the engineering that is so impressive – the Audi drivers do triple stints to maximise efficiency. That’s twice the duration of a Grand Prix.


There’s plenty more going on, as is always the case at Le Mans. Gordon Spice has organised a reunion of the little Rondeau team, Vanina Ickx (daughter of the legendary Jacky) is racing, and so is actor Patrick Dempsey if he gets through the mandatory 10 laps of familiarisation this week. He’s raced in America but never on this dauntingly fast circuit.

At scrutineering yesterday a huge crowd gathered in the pouring rain. So will it be umbrellas and boots, or sun hats and shorts this weekend? At Le Mans you never know what’s round the corner.

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