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RML Industry News
GT & Sportscar News from Autosport International 2009
Issued January 15th 2009

GT & Sportscar News from the Autosport Show

Autosport International is reputedly the most significant and influential motorsport show in the world, and the 2009 event (January 8th-11th) came at a time when the industry is facing perhaps its most challenging season in half a century or more. Every level of the sport looks set to suffer as the economic situation worsens, and the withdrawal of Honda from Formula 1 (early December) may prove to have been just the tip of an ever-deepening iceberg.

Confirmation came on the first trade-day of this year’s Show (Thursday 8th) that the decision by Subaru to pull out of the World Rally Championship after more than 20 years will result in significant job-losses at Prodrive in Banbury. The former championship-winning team represents roughly 20% of the company’s business, according to Prodrive chairman David Richards. He took the opportunity of Autosport International to deny rumours that he was in the frame to take over the former Honda set-up in neighbouring Brackley. After discussions with potential backers in Kuwait, Richards ruled out a return to the team he managed for three years (2002-2004) citing sky-high costs in F1 and the likelihood of an uncompetitive package this season as the reasoning behind his decision.

There was some positive news from Prodrive, however. While sales of Aston Martin road cars have slumped by 45% in the last twelve months, and short weeks and lay-offs are threatened at the main factory at Gaydon, Autosport International was the opportunity for Prodrive to reveal the two latest versions of the marque’s Vantage race car. Pristine in gleaming ice-white, examples of both the GT2 (first revealed a year ago, and successfully campaigned last season by Drayson Barwell Racing) and GT4 variants were on display.

On Friday Drayson Racing confirmed that the team would be entering a bio-fuelled version of the Vantage GT2 in selected races in this year’s Le Mans Series, ALMS and endurance races in the Far East, with Lord Paul Drayson and Jonny Cocker again co-driving the car. The team also has ambitions of entering the GT2 Aston at Le Mans for the 24 Hours.

Elsewhere, there were conflicting stories about Aston Martin’s factory options. The work’s team’s DBR9s have won the GT1 class in the 24 Hours for the past two years, but factory driver David Brabham suggested that Aston Martin would be unlikely to be defending the title in 2009. Instead, the success of last season’s Aston Martin-powered LMP1 Lola Coupe, raced by the Charouz outfit, appears to have raised the prospect of a factory move into prototypes.

Historians will note that 2009 marks the 50th anniversary of Aston Martin's first (and only) overall win at Le Mans, in the DBR1 currently campaigned in classic events by Strakka Racing. Perhaps a move into LMP1 with a pair of prototypes might be the factory's best chance of repeating that achievement.

However, even if there will be no works DB9s at Le Mans this year, there seems every chance that factory support will be extended to an anticipated two (or possibly three) privateer Astons expected to compete in the GT1 category at the 24 Hours. The same cannot be said for the Le Mans Series, however. An announcement is expected shortly that appears to imply that confirmed entries for this class in the five-round series stand at just two. What, then, the possibility of no GT1 representation at all? There is still time for additional entries, of course, but the first race is only a matter of weeks away.

Despite the poor economic climate, everything else about the forthcoming Le Mans Series season is looking rosy. GT2 appears to be especially healthy, with two-times class champion Rob Bell preparing to defend his title in the same Ferrari 430 that won him the GT2 crown in 2007 and 2008, although the team running the car changes from Virgo to Team JMW.

To remain competitive the car (which took centre-stage on the Dunlop stand) is set for a major upgrade, but it has always appeared significantly quicker than anything else in GT2 – even if some of that might have been down to Bell’s undeniable talents.

Virgo will be back, however, with another Ferrari 430, as will Team Modena. The British outfit set the pace in GT1 last year with their Aston Martin, but the high cost of racing in GT1 has forced a re-think, and they will also be campaigning a GT2 Ferrari in 2009. All three GT2 teams are hoping for Le Mans entries.

Both prototype categories appear healthy as well, at least in Europe. Peugeot had one 908 coupe on display at the NEC, but there are still uncertainties over what the factory team’s plans are for 2009. Last season must have been especially frustrating for the French factory, with wins in the first four Le Mans Series races, but no single pairing able to dominate.

This allowed consistency and a rousing final outing by Audi at Silverstone (victory to McNish & Capello, fourth to Premat & Rockenfeller) to secure not only the drivers’ title (for Rockenfeller and Premat) but also the team crown to Audi. This came three months after impressive pace rom the 908 in practice and qualifying for the Le Mans 24 Hours had been undermined by strategic and technical errors during the race to deny Peugeot what had appeared to be easy victory at La Sarthe. Once again, Audi was the benefactor.

Rest assured, Peugeot is unlikely to allow the same to happen in 2009, but rumour has it that the likely scheme is that the team will use the first two rounds of the Le Mans Series (Barcelona and Spa) as preparation for the 24 Hours in June, but will only decide what to do about the second half of the season in July. Will victory at Le Mans equate to “job done”, and retirement for 2009, or could a good run in the first two rounds spur the team on towards the LMS title?

With Audi having announced that the factory won’t be defending its LMS title, and neither will the marque be represented in the ALMS, perhaps Peugeot may think the Le Mans Series a hollow victory, and withdraw? Only time will tell. There was little fresh news regarding Audi at the Show, although an update on the new R15 diesel-powered prototype is expected any day now. The all-new LMP1 was rolled out (in secret) just before Christmas and is expected to make its race debut at the Sebring 12 Hours in March before competing in the Le Mans 24 Hours, while the exciting new venture into GT racing, the intriguingly entitled R8 LMS, is expected to appear on track during the second half of the year.

Peugeot had a generously proportioned stand at the Show, with the 908 accompanied by several other examples of the marque. These included one of the Peugeot 207 Spiders that, last season, had offered support action to the Le Mans Series. An as yet unconfirmed suggestion seems to imply that the 207 Spider is now being prepared for GT4 format and could be eligible for selected races outside the current one-make series.

Whatever Peugeot’s decision, at the moment, LMP1 in the Le Mans Series appears to be wide open. One manufacturer that looks likely to benefit is Ginetta-Zytek. The recently-formed partnership between car manufacturer Ginetta and engine specialists (and chassis constructors) Zytek has resulted in a powerful marketing union that saw Ginetta-Zytek one of the best represented manufacturers at Autosport International. Not only did the company have a significant presence adjacent to the main Autosport stage, but examples of its race cars (particularly the G50) were featured on at least three other stands. Unconfirmed reports suggest that the company took two fresh orders for their prototype racer at the show.

Nigel Mansell and son Leo were testing the GZ09S/1 at Valencia in Spain only a month ago, while long-time RML rivals (and former Lola faithfuls) Team ASM will take delivery of their own LMP2 Ginetta-Zytek chassis later this month. The car on display from Friday at the Show was the LMP1 variant co-driven by Danny Watts and ASM’s Olivier Pla at last season’s Petit Le Mans race, where it lead overall before finally crossing the line fourth in class for Team LNT. A new home for the car is believed to be imminent.

If Ginetta-Zytek was “one of the best represented”, then the badge that appeared more widely than any other across the carpets of the NEC was undoubtedly that of Porsche. Aside from a factory stand (largely dedicated to the Porsche Carrera Cup), there were Porsches of all ages and models scattered throughout all nine halls.

These included cars of historical interest including the Playstation-sponsored Porsche GT1 (circa Le Mans 1998) and the PK Sport 911 GT2 from Le Mans 2001 – the latter having recently found a new owner and expected to appear in this year’s Britcar.

If these harked back to glory days of the past, news of the present and future may have a more significant bearing on RML’s prospects for 2009. Two days before the opening of the Autosport Show the news broke that Kazimuchi Goh had acquired the Porsche LMP2 Spyder that took Dutchman Jos Verstappen to the class title in the Le Mans Series for Van Merksteijn Motorsport. The car had been for sale for several months, as have the other two Spyders that competed in last season’s Le Mans Series, but seemingly with little interest, thanks largely to the high price tags and reputed running costs.

Team Goh won the Le Mans 24 Hours for Audi in 2004, and it seems inevitable that a return to Le Mans will be on the team’s agenda in 2009. However, whether Mr Goh intends to campaign the car more widely in Europe this year has yet to be confirmed, although the two invitation races at Shanghai and Suzuka at the end of the season must rank high on his wish-list.

The news of a fresh owner for the ex-Van Merksteijn Spyder was followed on Thursday by strong rumours at the Show that a second LMP2 Porsche Spyder had also found a home. One, either, or both cars could end up competing in the Le Mans Series, but pending further news, this can only be conjecture.

Also back in LMP2 is the Speedy Sebah Lola Coupe, and this season the driver line-up for the LMP2 car is impressive. The team took advantage of the Autosport Show to announce that Frenchman Xavier Pompidou will retain his seat from 2008, but will now be joined by Jonny Kane and Benjamin Leuenberger. The team also diversifies into LMP1, having acquired the former Charouz Racing Aston Martin-powered Lola Coupe. The drivers will be Andrea Belicci, Marcel Fassler and Nicolas Prost.

Oh, and there were some other cars at the Show too . . .