Group C Racing: Le Mans, Report
Two years ago, the Group C Racing series raced at Le Mans in horrendous weather, which even Derek Bell described as “the worst conditions I have ever raced in!”; and while conditions could not have been more different in 2014, with glorious weather throughout, the challenge was just as tough as a mixed Group C/GTP field of great variety came together once more on this most historic of tracks for the LM24-supporting Le Mans Legends race.
The Le Mans 24 Hours is rightly renowned for being one of the toughest endurance challenges there is – as would be proved later that weekend – but while the Qualifying Practice session for the Legends race was just one hour long, it would prove to be quite a gruelling trial for several of the Group C runners as they returned to the scene of their greatest moments.
With the Jaguar XJR-14 unfortunately having failed to make the trip across the Channel on account of gear ratio problems, Gareth Evans was out of a drive, leaving Bob Berridge as the main hope for Chamberlain Synergy in the #31 Mercedes C11. Things started positively enough with a 3:51.286 on his first flier, but then it all went horribly wrong; “We’d just fitted a new alternator and bracket, but after just one lap the bracket broke, taking the water pump with it,” explained Bob. “We lost all the water and at first I thought we’d lost the engine, but it now looks like it should be okay.”
Despite this misfortune, it would be another 40 minutes before the Mercedes’ time was beaten, with Katsu Kubota putting in a mighty late effort to take pole in the #25 Nissan R90CK by more than five seconds with a 3:45.675. “This car took pole position here in 1990, so I am happy, ” said the Japanese racer, who was sharing the car with Spaniard Joaquin Folch. “This isn’t an easy car to drive. The power comes in very quickly and we had to change the Motec unit as originally I just couldn’t control it.
“I’ve not driven the circuit before, but I’m enjoying it – you need big balls round here! We had a few small issues and the car is porpoising a bit along the straight, but the biggest issue for me is the braking; you arrive at the braking zones so quickly that I keep braking at 300 metres instead of 200 metres!”
The reason Katsu was arriving so quickly at the braking boards may well have had something to do with the car’s top speed was so high – his 338.1kmh on his 10th lap being bettered only by the #2 Audi R18 e-tron quattro of Benoit Tréluyer (in the race) and the #7 Toyota TS040 of Anthony Davidson (during Free Practice), both of which managed 339.1kmh.
Porpoising was also experienced by several other cars, including Richard Eyre’s Jaguar XJR16, Aaron Scott’s Spice SE86 and Frank Lyons’ Gebhardt C91, meaning several teams would have to come up with a solution without the luxury of more track-time before the race.
Tom Kimber-Smith knows the 13.629km Circuit de la Sarthe like the back of his hand, having already accumulated three class wins in the 24 Hours in his racing career. However, the Group C Aston Martin AMR1 was a completely new experience; “Paul (Whight) phoned me up a couple of months ago to see if I was available, and as soon as he mentioned it I jumped at the opportunity,” said Tom, who would also be driving in the 24 Hours. “I hadn’t sat in or even seen the car until this week at the track, so I was actually pretty nervous about driving it; more so than driving in the main event. I just said to myself that all I needed to do was drive it well within my comfort zone and I would be fine.
“As soon as I set off in qualifying the racer took over and I wanted to keep pushing the car to the limit. I could not believe how hard the steering was. I only did a handful of laps and I could already see why they were called proper men back in the day!”
With Paul Whight being unable to attend the race due to other commitments, Tom would be doing the whole event solo.
The Aston was second quickest early in the session on 4:03.786, but as Tom got used to the Class 1 car his times increased, eventually finishing with a fifth-fastest 3:57.800. Mark Sumpter was going quicker still in the #6 Porsche 962 he was sharing with Derek Bell and was third quickest on 3:55.213 with 20 minutes to go, before improving to 3:52.731 near the finish. Sadly, a major technical issue meant that the car would not make the race and the crowd would be deprived of seeing the five-time Le Mans winner in action once again.
Shaun Lynn was dialling himself in steadily in the #2 Mercedes C11 and piped TK-S to fourth with a 3:56.223 in the closing stages. The top six was rounded out by Class 2 leader Mike Donovan in the ever-rapid #111 Rexona Spice SE88; his time being just 27-thousandths slower than the Aston Martin.
Donovan’s Class 2 competition, Aaron Scott’s #170 Listerine Spice was five seconds further back in ninth; “We just couldn’t get the set-up right,” said Scott. “It’s quite a straightforward circuit to drive, but it’s very quick and not much fun when your car’s not right; and we had massive blistering on one tyre, which is a concern.”
The most serious incident of the session came early one when Paul Stubber’s Lola T711 caught fire on the high-speed run down to Indianapolis. Fortunately, the Australian was able to stop the car and bail out before serious injury was inflicted. The car, however, was done for the meeting.
Fire also accounted for Zak Brown’s 962, which met its demise in the Ford Chicane, but fortunately with fire marshals quickly on the scene.
The Mazda 767B of Moritz Werner unfortunately lost its engine on only its second lap. However, a team member was despatched to Banbury to collect a spare and the replacement unit would be installed prior to the start of the race on Saturday morning.
Adrian Watt’s Class 1 Spice SE89 also lost its engine, but there was no spare to collect for him, alas.
Michael Lyons had taken over from dad Frank after four laps, but was a bit embarrassed to end his first experience of the circuit with a spin into the Armco at Indianapolis; “There’s a bit of bodywork damage and a bent toe link, but we’ll be okay for the race,” he said afterwards. “I was aiming for a 3:52, but the car was porpoising and Le Mans isn’t really a circuit for this car – when we get to Zandvoort we’ll have some fun and maybe upset a few people!
“The Gebhardt feels similar to a ground-effect F1 car, but with a bit more weight behind it.”
With the session at an end, the teams now at least had a full day to prepare – or repair – their cars.
After enduring miserable weather conditions in 2012, the surviving Group C runners formed up in the pitlane just before 10 o’clock on Saturday morning with the sun beaming down in a cloudless sky and with no likelihood of rain for several hours yet; and despite the usual Friday night excesses in the campsites, a good crowd was on hand to witness the first race of the day.
This race would run for 45 minutes or 10 laps, whichever arrived sooner. A compulsory two minute stop would be required, with the pit-in/out run requiring to be timed at no less than 30 seconds (so two and a half minutes in total).
The Audi pace car pulled off and Joaquin Folch led the field towards the line in the Nissan, but the blue and white car had fallen back to fifth by the time the cars reached the Dunlop chicane after a cautious start by the Spaniard.
Instead it was Bob Berridge who led the field under the famous Bridge, and he was followed by Tom Kimber-Smith who had made an excellent start in the Aston Martin. In third place was the Jägermeister Porsche 962 of Belgian racer Christophe D’Ansembourg, which had made an even better start having started sixth, while Shaun Lynn was fourth in the #2 Mercedes.
Aaron Scott began his first race at Le Mans by taking the #170 Spice into the Class 2 lead and sixth place overall, but as the Listerine-liveried car approached the first chicane a four-way fight broke out for the position that also involved the #111 Spice of Mike Donovan, the #3 Jaguar of Richard Eyre and the #6 Tic-Tac Porsche 962 of Henrik Lindberg. The power of the Class 3 XJR16 took it past both Class 2 cars before the second chicane arrived and Eyre was soon challenging Folch for fifth.
D’Ansembourg was right with Lynn on the run down to Indianapolis, but couldn’t quite close the gap; while further back, Donovan found a way past Scott for eighth.
All the while, Bob Berridge was pulling away from the rest at a tremendous rate in clear air and was an incredible 12.466s clear after just one lap; and this became 26.167s after two.
However, the #31 C11 was not destined to complete another lap at race pace. As Berridge made his way down the Mulsanne at 300kmh on that third lap, the Mercedes suffered a front-left blow-out. Fortunately, the driver managed to hold it and was able to nurse the car back to the pits. Once there, however, the decision was made to not risk another tyre failure occurring – the team had followed the advice of the tyre technicians to the letter, but the tyre had still failed – and the car was retired.
The Silver Arrows was not the first retirement, however, as the Mazda had sadly also fallen by the wayside with a non-identical failure of the newly installed second engine. Moritz Werner was again at the wheel, meaning brother Max didn’t even get to sit in the car during the meeting.
But a Mercedes was still leading the race, with Lynn having found a way past Kimber-Smith on the second lap. D’Ansembourg was third, Eyre fourth and Folch fifth, while right behind the Nissan was a great fight for sixth between Donovan and Lindberg, which went to the Dane – clearly enjoying himself this weekend – on Lap 3.
Australian racer Russell Kempnich was also enjoying himself in the #12 Porsche 956 and celebrated the opportunity for his car to stretch its legs by taking eighth from Scott’s Spice with a great move into the Dunlop Chicane on Lap 4.
Further back, meanwhile, Erik Rickenbacher was making progress in the #60 Cheetah having just taken 10th from the #7 962 of Manuel Monteiro having started 17th.
As Lynn emulated Berridge and began to pull clear, the pitstops had already begun, with Folch, Donovan, Rickenbacher, Monteiro and Frank Lyons all stopping at the end of Lap 4. D’Ansembourg, Lindberg and Scott would stop a lap later, as would Kriton Lendoudis in the #9 Rothmans Porsche 956. Shaun Lynn stayed out until Lap 6, by which point he held a 23s lead over Tom Kimber-Smith, but the Aston Martin would enjoy a lap in the lead before it made its stop; and when this happened, it would be Russell Kempnich who would have that honour for a lap.
With the majority of stops out of the way, Lynn found himself with a huge lead – almost 90 seconds – over the Aston, which itself was some way clear of the #17 Porsche.
However, that did not mean that the racing was over, for an excellent battle for third place had developed between the cars of Christophe D’Ansembourg, Richard Eyre and Katsu Kubota (now aboard the Nissan).
The Japanese driver had taken position from Henrik Lindberg on the Dane’s outlap and closed quickly on the fight ahead. Eyre, meanwhile, caught and passed D’Ansembourg just before Mulsanne Corner for fourth on Lap 8, which became third when Kempnich made his stop.
The orange Porsche responded immediately, however, and caught back up to the Bud Light-liveried Jaguar before the end of the lap; third changing hands on the run down the Esses.
Kubota was now right with the battle and the Nissan had a look at Tertre Rouge, but Eyre closed the door. Just a few lengths covered the three cars as the contest raged for the rest of the lap, but Kubota was looking impatient. As Lap 10 began, the Nissan was right behind the Jaguar and out-dragged it up to the Dunlop Chicane. Once clear, the Nissan gobbled up the pace between it and the Porsche ahead, but time was running out.
Almost two minutes further up the road, however, Shaun Lynn was rounding the final part of the Ford Chicane and could see the chequered flag being waved.
“That was fantastic!” beamed Shaun afterwards. “I used to come here camping from ’86 to ’90 and have always loved the Group C cars, so to win here – in Michael Schumacher’s old car – is just brilliant.
“I drove in the 24 Hours in 2011 in a GT car, so I know the track well; but the Mercedes is night-and-day different to the GT Ferrari. There’s so much more grip in the C11, and for a classic racer like me that takes some getting used to. I’m learning all the time though – the fact that I went 12 seconds quicker in the race than I did in qualifying just shows what a learning curve I’m on.
“It’s amazing how advanced the car was in 1990!”
So large was Shaun’s advantage at the line that not even a post-race one-minute penalty for a too-short pitstop could affect the result.
Tom Kimber-Smith brought the Aston Martin AMR1 home in second after a fine debut drive, having thoroughly enjoyed himself.
“To get second place behind the Mercedes is a great result, as the Aston just doesn’t have that top end speed,” said Tom. “But everyone at Damax provided a great, reliable and, most importantly, safe car. I would also like to say a huge thank you to Paul, who gave me this opportunity.”
But third place was only resolved on the last lap with Katsu Kubota managing to find his way past Christophe D’Ansembourg to take the final Class 1 podium spot by three seconds.
“I’m happy with that result,” said Christophe. “I went 10 seconds faster than I did here two years ago – we’ve found speed in the car and the driver’s better too!
“I had a very good start and really enjoyed the fight with the Jaguar and the Nissan.”
Richard Eyre came home to fifth overall and Class 3 glory in the Jaguar XJR16 five seconds after that, but the fight for sixth went right down to the flag, with Henrik Lindberg just managing to fend off Class 2 winner Mike Donovan by just a third of a second.
“I’m happy today – a lot more than I was on Thursday,” said Henrik. “The car ran really well today. The boys changed loads of parts since qualifying and did an excellent job in giving me a quick car for the race.
“I’ll be back here for the Classic in a couple of weeks, when I’ll be driving the De Cadenet Lola – I just need to remember that it’s not a downforce car!”
Russell Kempnich finished eighth in his 956 after a great drive, while Michael Lyons atoned for his qualifying shunt to bring the Gebhardt C91 home in ninth place, second in C3, having found some great speed in the 3.5ltr car.
“Having father and son on a podium is a special feeling, regardless of the race,” said Michael. “We’re looking forward to more at Silverstone.”
Tommy Dreelan rounded out the top 10 in his Leyton House Porsche 962 after what had, for him, been a quiet race; enlivened only by a quick spin into the gravel on his outlap after the stop.
A good run for Eric Rickenbacher was ended by a recurrence of earlier clutch problems on the Cheetah, while Aaron Scott’s run was hampered by more handling problems with the Spice. The final finishers were Peter Garrod’s Jaguar XJR-12, Peter Harburg’s #5 Jägermeister Porsche 92 and Kriton Lendoudis’ 956.
Manuel Monteiro’s race came to a halt on Lap 8 with a loss of drive at the end of the pitlane.
The action at the pointy end may have been missing from the Le Mans Legends race, but there was enough going on through the field to keep the crowds entertained in the glorious weather. And there will be more large crowds on hand for the next Group C outing – the Silverstone Classic at the end of July – when (weather permitting) a twilight race is sure to again be a highlight of the meeting.