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Le Mans Series 2008
Round 4. Nürburgring 1000 Kilometres. August 16th - 17th 2008

Weekend Preview

Castles, forests and mountains - Nürburg in the Eifel Region of Germany

After a gap of some fourteen weeks, the Le Mans Series reaches the Nürburgring in Germany for Round Four of the 2008 championship. In the months since the Spa 1000 Kilometres in May most of the teams have been far from idle, with nearly all the leading contenders also taking part in the Le Mans 24 Hours in June and a handful also braving the 24 Hours of Spa in early August – although largely in cars they don’t usually field in the Le Mans Series.

In Germany, Peugeot will be out to avenge their defeat by Audi at Le Mans – an embarrassment perhaps made all the more painful by the high profile advertising campaign that gloated on three successive wins by the French marque in the opening rounds of the Le Mans Series. The tone of the advertising of late has been slightly less gung-ho, but a return to winning ways will be the least that the 908s can be hoping to achieve on Audi’s home turf. On the flipside of that argument, playing to the home crowd may spur Audi on as they attempt to wrest a first win in the Le Mans Series, perhaps ahead of any official announcement that the R10 is to be retired at the end of this season. Aerodynamic tweaks introduced for Spa helped, but not enough to prevent another Pug win. News of an R10 replacement is expected from Audi in October.

One item of very good news is the likely return to the Creation cockpit of Jamie Campbell-Walter. The ebullient JCW has been out of action since breaking several vertebrae in an horrendous accident at Monza, but he safely endured a test at Estoril in Spain in mid-July and then followed that with another good run at Snetterton at the end of the month. Having proved his fitness for duty, he will co-drive with Stuart Hall. The team also announced, just a few days before the race, that American Liz Halliday will step in to the seat vacated, temporarily, by Felipe Ortiz. She will partner Stephen Simpson (South African A1GP driver) and her addition to the squad will mean that Vanina Ickx is no longer the only female driver on the grid.

At the time of writing there have been few major announcements concerning competitors in LMP2, although Embassy Racing will be bringing back Darren Manning to the squad. He replaces Mario Haberfield, who has commitments elsewhere, and will partner Warren Hughes in the #45 Embassy WF01 Zytek. Darren shared the team’s Radical with Hughes in 2007 and has been running high in America, scoring podiums in the IndyCar series. Date clashes there prevented a full season with Embassy, but he’s likely to stay with the team for the last two races.

Kruse will be another outfit looking for a far better run in their homeland. The Mazda-powered Lola has had a pretty torrid time of late, with accidents in Belgium (Jean de Pourtales) that prevented any participation in the Spa 1000 Kilometres, and then that frightening barrel-roll for Hideki Noda during qualifying at Le Mans. A sterling effort from Lola saw the car rebuilt in time for the race, but then retirement came after 147 laps.

Although the teams running them are respectively Dutch, Danish and Swiss, the three Porsche LMP2 squads of Van Merksteijn Motorsport, Team Essex and Horag Racing can also be expected to be on top form at the Nürburgring. With Stuttgart just down the road, so to speak, Porsche will pull no punches in ensuring that their cars top the timing screens come qualifying. A win in the Le Mans 24 Hours for Van Merksteijn and a second place for Team Essex has assured the Spyder of a memorable debut season in Europe, but they still have to battle it out for top honours in the Le Mans Series. Horag missed a Le Mans entry this year, but won’t be far behind the other two in the 1000 Kilometres.

Elsewhere in LMP2, there is little news of significant change. Racing Box seemed unlikely to be returning to the series after the team's Lucchini made a late exit during scrutineering for the Le Mans 24 Hours. The car did arrive in the Nurburgring paddock, where it joined a second Lucchini, that of Ranieri Randaccio, but as a result of homologation issues, neither car will take part in the weekend's 1000 Kilometres. There had also been some questions over the on-going presence of the WR Salini Zytek, but the car is also present at the Nurburgring and scheduled to race.

So, much of the field will pick up where they left off in May, with the Speedy Sebah Lola Coupé (retirement after 194 laps at Le Mans) and RML’s own MG Lola EX265 (ditto 100 laps) the most likely to be taking the pace to the Porsches, harried no doubt by the ASM Lola and Embassy’s pair of WF01 Zyteks.

With the withdrawal of the two Lucchinis, and also the absence of the James Watt Automotive Aston Martin Vantage GT2, the total field for the 1000 Kilometres will be 46.

Other News

Following Le Mans there was a hint from David Richards that Aston Martin is now eyeing a future in LMP2. Having already achieved representation in almost every other category of sportscar and GT racing, LMP2 is the only obvious gap left in the marque’s repertoire, but the first phase is likely to concentrate on the provision of a new powerplant.

The Aston Martin V8 powered Charouz Lola LMP1 Coupé (left) has already demonstrated considerable pace and potential, but clearly has some technical issues to be addressed before reliability brings the results the car clearly deserves. Further intimations at a closer involvement by the factory in the LMP1 project were deftly side-stepped by Richards, but the possibility remains.

Much debate has been raised of recent weeks concerning the pace and stability of LMP1 and LMP2 prototypes under existing Le Mans regulations (see separate news item) and the ACO confirmed in late June that serious consideration is being given to schemes that will not only slow down the LMP cars, but also reduce their propensity to get airborne. Having previously announced that the ideal “perfect lap” of the Le Mans circuit should be achieved in around three-and-a-half-minutes, there was consternation in race control in June when Peugeots and Audis were clocking times in the low 3:20s and quicker, while both the Charouz Lola and Dome also beat the 3:30 barrier. The diesel-powered cars seem likely to have their power restricted, while aerodynamic changes are being mooted for both LMP1 and LMP2. However, such changes are unlikely to be enforced before the start of next season.

In addition to adjustments in technical regulations, there are also suggestions that subtle changes may also be introduced to the way teams carry out pitstops, and also the formulation of driver line-ups. There is enormous pressure on teams to carry out refuelling and tyre changes as quickly as possible, with a few seconds in the pits often being easier to gain than the same time benefit on track. It is no secret that the ACO is considering the imposition of a minimum time for certain aspects of the pitstop, such as wheel and tyre changes, but details are unlikely to be given until later in the year.

The rumour mill continues to revolve with regard to the composition of driver squads, typically spitting out chaff and misinformation, but nevertheless, giving further credence to the understanding that major changes are being considered for LMP2. Current thoughts suggest that a maximum of one professional driver per car is a possible rule-change for 2009, and also the prohibition of direct factory involvement in the class. The pro-am approach to sportscar and GT racing has long been a popular one, and while factory squads and all-pro driver line-ups are considered acceptable in the upper categories of prototype and GT racing, LMP2 and GT2 have long been considered the domain of the “gentleman driver”. In a further attempt to emphasise the demarcation between the classes, the ACO is believed to be considering a return to such a regulation for next season.

During the Le Mans week the ACO announced a new feeder series for budding prototype racers. Forged around a one-make open-topped LMP style racecar, Formula Le Mans will be a significant new championship to act as a support for the Le Mans Series. The cars are to be developed by Oreca at their factory in Le Mans, and should be in full production within the next six to eight weeks. Powered by a stock V8 engine generating around 400 bhp, the cars are emphatically not intended to represent a new LMP3 category, insists the ACO, but should offer cost-effecting opportunities for up-and-coming young drivers. A fourteen-race calendar is being prepared for 2009, based around two races each at the five Le Mans Series rounds, plus two other European-based events. If successful - and there seems little doubt that it will be – the concept will then expand into America and Asia in 2010.

This dovetails with the announcement earlier in the year that the race originally scheduled for Shanghai in October 2008 has been postponed until 2009, and will now take place in early November, following the re-launch of what may become the ACO’s Japanese Le Mans Series at the Fuji International Speedway circuit at the end of October. Discussions are well in hand to see the series expand throughout Asia in 2010, perhaps with races in Malaysia and India.

Interest in sportscar racing in India has soared following Tata’s acquisition of Jaguar earlier this year. It was widely known that Tata had been in talks with Richard Lloyd and Apex Motorsport concerning the future of the team's Jaguar XKR project, with every likelihood that factory involvement would be following on swiftly from the car’s early signs of promise. The tragic deaths of both Richard Lloyd and the car’s chief development driver David Leslie in April brought all that hard work and future prospect into question, but in July there was a tantalising re-opening of the door by Tata chairman Ratan Tata. “We want to hit the Le Mans race, for which we are already re-examining whether we can bring back the Jaguar brand to its earlier state," he said, speaking at the company’s AGM (July 25th). The $2.3 billion acquisition of Jaguar and Land Rover (completed on 2nd June 2008) has made Tata Motors the world's 17th largest automobile maker, up from 30th place. Along with the Jaguar and Land Rover brands, Tata also takes control of Daimler and the dormant Lanchester and Rover names.

The Circuit

It would be impossible to conclude a roundup of recent news and a preview of the Nürburgring 1000 Kilometres without some reference to the circuit itself.

The track used for the Le Mans Series race, the Grand Prix circuit, was created in 1984, and modified by the addition of the Mercedes Arena in 2002 (see photograph above). This created a track of just over five kilometres (3.2 miles) that currently shares duties as venue for the German Grand Prix with the Hockenheimring. It’s a good spectator track, with many vantage points and sufficient changes in elevation to provide interest and entertainment, but it is often considered too technical by drivers, lacking in character and with no “heart”. This is as much due to the close proximity of the fabled Nordschleife as anything else, beside which even the finest of modern circuits might pale. It is also one reason why the track is sometimes referred to as the Eifelring, rather than the “Nürburgring”, which is seen as a title that harks back to the glory days of the original circuit.

Widely regarded as the most challenging (and perhaps most dangerous) motor racing circuit anywhere in the world – and certainly so if one considers that it is still used – the Nordschleife last hosted a Formula 1 Grand Prix in 1976 – the year of Nikki Lauda’s fiery crash - and the chequered flag fell on the final motorbike Grand Prix in 1980. Since then the circuit has remained in less regular use for motor racing, although the annual Nürburgring 24 Hours is still raced over the full circuit – but it is busy almost every day as enthusiasts and track-day racers pay a modest 21€ per lap to punish their cars almost to oblivion – and sometimes beyond. It is extraordinary to think that even a complete novice can turn up at the entrance gate, part with a few notes, and head out onto one of the most famous motor racing circuit in the world. Many do not return. Official figures are hard to come by, but it is believed that between 5 and 10 people are killed every year on the Nordschleife.

Although monstrously long today, the original Nürburgring was longer still and was split into three configurations. The entire track, the Gesamtstrecke (see map above) was 28.3 kilometres in length, but comprised the Nordschleife (22.8 kms), the Südschleife (7.7 kms), and the Betonschleife – the latter a short 2 kilometer warm-up loop around the pit area. (Note that the lengths of the two, when considered separately, add up to more than the whole, since each circuit effectively shared the Betonschleife.)

Originally the two Schleifes had been separate circuits, hosting their own independent race meetings but able to be joined into one when the occasion demanded. Of the two, the Nordschleife always had the greater appeal - it was longer, hosted more events, and had some very tricky sections right from the start. Its smaller cousin to the south was invariably the poor relation, although the late Paul Frère always maintained that it was much underrated. Click on either map (above) to view an enlargement.

Opened in 1927, some of the Südschleife has been lost over the years – to car parks at the circuit, the newer Grand Prix track itself and public enclosures – but a large amount still survives and can be traced by the intrepid. The eastern half runs alongside what is now a public road, and can be glimpsed through the trees where it digs deeper into hillsides and follows an older, more forgotten route. At the extreme south the newer road bypasses Müllenbach, while the old Südschleife continues on towards a right-angled bend nearer the edge of the town. There it briefly disappears completely, before resurfacing north-east of the junction with the bypass. Just north of here it is possible to drive off the main road and join the old racetrack, heading north-east towards the castle, swinging round beneath the lofty mound before having to stop at the point where the new circuit cuts across the vestigial track. The only section that remains in use for racing is the original pit straight - still the main start-line straight today.

By contrast, the Nordschleife survives intact, and continues to attract fresh record attempts on a regular basis. The outright lap record was set by Stefan Bellof (right) at the wheel of the #2 Rothmans Porsche 956 in May 1983. It stands at 6 minutes 11.13 seconds. Bellof, widely considered to be one of the finest young talents of his day, was tragically killed in another Porsche at Eau Rouge, Spa, two years later.

The fastest lap by a semi-road legal car was set in 2005 by Michael Vergers (co-driver of the Barazi Zytek in the Le Mans Series) in a Radical SR8. His time of 6:55 has since, reputedly, been beaten by almost two seconds by an unknown driver in an Aerial Atom 500, but the claim has not been validated. The undisputed record by a fully road-legal car is 7:29.03 set by Toshio Suzuki in a Nissan GTR in April 2008, although there is a manufacturer’s claim of 7:27.92 by Pagani for a Zonda (Marc Basseng driving) and another dubious claim of of 7:26.4 from Jim Mero in a Chevrolet Corvette C6 ZR1. No doubt there will be further attempts during the coming weeks.

As if the appeal of the Ring in itself was not enough, there are plans to build the world’s fastest roller-coaster ride at the Nürburgring. Under the working title of the RingoRacer, construction is expected to begin later this year. When finished the Formula 1-inspired ride will feature a pneumatic launch mechanism that will accelerate screaming occupants from nought to 135 miles an hour in 2.5 seconds. Provisional opening is scheduled for June 2009.

Race Coverage from the Nürburgring

Once again, the race will be broadcast live by Radio Le Mans - click the link below. Joining John in the commentary booth this weekend will be Eurosport's regular voice Martin Haven, with Nick Daman helping out from the pitlane.

TV coverage for the race is extensive, with coverage of qualifying and much of the race live, all followed by a series of "highlights" programmes. Eurosport 2 begins on Saturday at 4:00 pm (3:00 pm UK time) with coverage of qualifying, and then the first hour of the race on Sunday (12:00 pm - 1:00 pm (1:00 pm - 2:00 pm UK time), mid-race (2:00 pm - 3.30 pm (1:00 pm - 2.30 pm UK) and the final hour (starting at 5:0 pm (4:00 pm UK).

Motors TV will also be covering the race live and in its entirety across Europe, starting at 10.45 on Sunday for the UK, or 11.45 for the continent. More details can be found here.

Live timing can be found here.

Click here for live feed to RLM
Live radio coverage from John Hindhaugh, Nick Daman, Martin Haven, Graham Tyler, Graham Goodwin and others.