After two days of testing at Paul Ricard just four weeks ago the Le Mans Series is set for its first race weekend of the 2008 season. Many new cars have joined the series for this year, with the ultimate battle expected in LMP1, between Team Peugeot Total with its Peugeot 908 and Audi Sport Team Joest with the Audi R10.
The first battleground will be the Circuit de Catalunya in Montmeló, near Barcelona, on April 6th. The 4.655 meter long circuit, which was built in 1991, seems to be a perfect circuit for the Audi and Peugeot cars as the torque generated by their diesel engines will really help the two teams on the long pit straight. The shorter straights and various corners will most likely not harm the chances of Audi and Peugeot against their LMP1 (and LMP2) opponents.
At Barcelona sixteen LMP1 cars will compete in the top category of the Le Mans Series. Audi has made it clear that it has decided to send a factory backed squad to Europe to fight against Peugeot in an attempt to win the championship. With Allan McNish and Rinaldo Capello in the lead R10 they have a strong package. Youngsters Rockenfeller and Prémat will be in the second Audi and are expected to help McNish and Capello clinch the title.
Audi will face fierce competition from the other two diesel-engined LMP1s, the Peugeot 908s from Nicolas Minassian/Marc Gené and defending champions Pedro Lamy/Stéphane Sarrazin. Lamy and Sarrazin will be aiming to defend their title and add a victory at Le Mans to it as well. At Sebring the Peugeot 908 was by far the quickest of the two, but both teams suffered serious technical problems. A great fight is on the horizon though.
Of course there are others in LMP1 that will try to take advantage of the fight between Audi and Peugeot. Pescarolo Sport and Team ORECA Matmut and Creation Autosportif have all entered two cars to fight the diesels, but despite the rule changes for 2008 the Paul Ricard test showed that the diesel cars are still quicker. All the other teams wishing to be on the podium can only hope for mistakes or failures at the front it seems.
The two new coupes that will make their racing debut at Barcelona, the Charouz Racing System Lola B08/60 Aston Martin and the Epsilon-Euskadi ee1 Judd, are an unknown force yet. The Czech Lola was quick at Paul Ricard but that was testing. A podium finish in Barcelona would be a bit early perhaps. Epsilon-Euskadi only finished its first car just ahead of Paul Ricard and will not bring a second car to Barcelona. They are at the beginning of a long-term project, so do not expect them to shine yet.
Wolfgang Kaufmann joins Giovanni Lavaggi in the AER powered Lavaggi LS1. Despite missing out on the initial full season entry list the withdrawal of a couple of other cars meant the Lavaggi will be in action in Spain and adds another manufacturer to the list.
In the LMP2 category the three Porsche RS Spyders of Horag, Essex and Van Merksteijn will go head-to-head for the first time. Even though the Circuit de Catalunya is more of an LMP1 track the Porsches could make the life of some of the LMP1 teams a bit hard. On power the Porsches were quickest at Paul Ricard and if they stay out of problems the LMP2 class winner will likely to be one of these cars.
Behind the three Porsches two familiar Lola’s will try to score as many points as possible: Le Mans Series champion RML, with an updated version of the Lola now called MG Lola EX265, is the perfect example that finishing in the points in every race could be more interesting than taking a win at Barcelona and a retirement later in the season. Quifel-ASM seems to be the dark horse, they were at the front of the LMP2 class in 2007, were fast at the test days, but can they continue this form in Spain?
Like in the LMP1 category the 1000 kilometers of Catalunya will see a couple of brand new cars entering the series, first of all the Lola B08/80 Judd that is entered by Speedy Racing Team Sebah. Despite having two former LM(E)S champions onboard, Zacchia and Pompidou, as well as Andrea Belicchi, do not expect this car to be at the front from the word go. The Embassy Racing WF01s did not test at Paul Ricard but the team opted to continue the development of the car and have some private tests at Adria, Italy. Despite Peter Elleray being the designer it is unclear where the team stands. The final new chassis is the new WR. Like the Embassy WF01, or perhaps even more, this is an unproven car and not much is known about its capabilities.
Outsiders in the LMP2 category for the Spanish round of the Le Mans Series: Barazi-Epsilon with their Zytek, this car was quick last year, the two drivers know each other really well, but have they not lost ground over the winter. Another one is Kruse Schiller Motorsport. Kai Kruse returns to the Le Mans Series after a dismal season with Kruse Motorsport in 2007. Barcelona will see the return of the German with his (new) squad, this time running the former Fernandez Racing Lola with a Mazda engine. Finally the Trading Performance Zytek. Gosselin and Ojjeh are experienced drivers, though Ojjeh needs to keep the car away from the walls. Julien Schroyen is the newcomer here and has not done any LMS races yet.
All in all the LMP battle at the Circuit de Catalunya seems to be promising. One week before we will know who will be the LMP1 and LMP2 winners in Spain.