It’s hard to believe that it’s been a decade since an ACO rules race was held at Barcelona. That’s right, the last time the Le Mans Series raced in Catalonia was back in 2009, and looking back at that race with fresh eyes, a lot has changed since then.
This week we head back to Barcelona for a European Le Mans Series night race, and there will be just 10 drivers and three teams present who participated in the 1000km race back in 2009.
Sportscar racing was very different in the last decade. Sure there are still plenty of similarities, but so much of what we had back then seems almost alien now. A McLaren-powered Lucchini, for instance, took part in that race. It was a different time…
Cast your mind back to the year 2009. The financial crisis was very much a talking point, with the automotive industry in a state of flux much like it is today, but for financial reasons more than technological ones.
“Did the economy worry us?” Rob Bell, who drove for JMW back then, told DSC. “Yeah, absolutely. Because times were hard for a lot of businesses, so the first thing people pull back on is motorsport, sponsorship and hospitality. We had to focus on being the best, that way if we lost six or seven cars off the grid you’d still be in a seat. And at that point, I was just trying to make a name for myself.”
But despite the financial doom and gloom, 44 cars were on the entry list for what was the season opener that year, a number which DSC was encouraged by at the time when the stability of the global economy was considered.
While LMP1’s diesel era was very much still in its pomp, though neither Peugeot nor Audi made the trip as both programmes scaled back to major races like Sebring, Spa and Le Mans.
This left a top class with Aston Martin Racing’s pair of DBR 1-2s and a slew of privateer efforts to fight for the win. There were two diesel Audi R10s though, Kolles campaigned two ex-Joest cars that year in what was its first year as a sportscar team.
And a fight it was. There was a surprise from the get-go, as Strakka Racing’s Ginetta-Zytek ended up on pole after a stunning lap in Qualifying from prototype newcomer Danny Watts. For him, that weekend laid the foundations for a lengthy tenure with the British team, which is still competing in sportscars to this day.
“It was a shock it was my first race weekend with Strakka,” Watts told DSC.
“That Zytek was a mega car, it was really good to drive. Barcelona has a little bit of everything, low-speed, medium, high-speed sections. The car was perfect for that track and we had Michelin tyres at the time which were really good.
“I always did qualifying for Strakka, and just getting 1-2 laps out of a tyre when they’re at their peak when I was in single-seaters paid dividends in a sportscar. We kept the fuel level low and I banged a lap in, in clear air.
“I couldn’t believe it, partly because I didn’t know what to expect. I found my feet and settled in. I’d come to drive that car from a Panoz with Team LNT with Tom Kimber Smith.
“I was thrown in on the deep end, we didn’t have a big budget to go testing, so I did my seat fitting the week before the race, and I took the mindset of getting in it and ring the kneck out of it. That’s what we did.
“Originally that was a one-off for me, I was new and wasn’t expected to do the full season. I had the offer to do the next round and turned it down because I needed to earn money coaching, but they came back to me and offered me a pay drive for the full season, and that turned into seven and a half years.”
Strakka’s time in the sun though, wouldn’t last, a torrid start to the race by Peter Hardman dropped the car to mid-pack by Turn 1 ultimately left the #007 Aston Martin and #16 Pescarolo Judd to battle hard for the victory.
“It was just unfortunate that in the race we had alternator issues which dropped us down. We had to make an unscheduled result. But over one lap the car was so quick.
“I did a good job and Nick kept faith in me. It worked so well. I enjoyed Strakka because we worked hard but we were friends and mates. And it was that weekend that sold me on sportscars and prototype racing.”
In the end, the #007 Aston of Stefan Mucke, Jan Charouz and Thomas Enge, which would go on to win the title, took the victory by just 14 seconds over the #16 Pescarolo, driven by Jean-Christophe Bouillion and Christophe Tinseau.
It may have come as a surprise to many that Kolles was unable to extract anything close to race-winning pace from the world-beating R10s which were fresh from three consecutive Le Mans wins in 2006, 2007 and 2008.
Andy Meyrick was part of the Austrian team’s line-up that weekend and remembers it being a real challenge, especially as like Danny Watts, he too was new to prototype racing.
“It was my first sportscar race!” remembers Meyrick, who ended up with Kolles after an eye-opening shootout test at the Lausitzring, which he was selected to attend along with Stefan Johanssen, Christian Albers, Narain Karthikeyan, Michael Krumm and Antonio Liuzzi.
“The longest race I’d done before then was a 30-minute F3 race. It was a complete shock. But luckily I had someone like Michael Krumm as a teammate, and he was brilliant, a top bloke, great to learn from.
“I didn’t want to be in sportscars at the time, I was chasing the single-seater dream but once I’d been to that first meeting I wanted a career out of it.
“And I paid the price for being a young single-seater driver who had no sense of being conservative because my tyres went off like you wouldn’t believe in my race stint!
“It wasn’t a great year. We didn’t enjoy any strong results because Kolles struggled to run the car compared to the Joest factory guys. They just didn’t do the small things right.
“The R10 was a heavy lump of a car too, fantastic but so heavy and required a lot of adapting to drive. It was only good at circuits like Le Mans where it could stretch its legs. Once you got your head around it it was ok, but it was tough. Just getting used to it being silent was hard. It certainly was a pioneer, and it felt like it.”
LMP2 meanwhile, was won by Racing Box, the Italian team taking a win on its Le Mans Series prototype debut with its Lola Judd driven by Thomas Biaggi, Matteo Bobbi and Andrea Piccini. The plucky Italian outfit’s leading Lola finished 46 seconds ahead of the Quifel ASM Zytek which would end up taking the title at the end of the season.
It was the wild west in LMP2 back then, with eight different chassis suppliers represented (Lola, Radical, Pescarolo, Courage, Lucchini, Zytek, WR and Ginetta), five engine brands (Mazda, AER, Judd, Zytek and Nicholson McLaren) and three tyre brands (Dunlop, Michelin and Avon).
Some were open-top, some were closed. There was real variety, something many will argue we lack now, with ORECA chassis now dominant, in a field of cars with spec engines. We have a tyre war still, but the days of anyone being able to design a chassis to a set of regulations are long gone.
“We must remember LMP2 back then,” Watts said. “It was great. A year later, in 2010 at Hungary don’t forget that Strakka stuck it on pole overall in a P2 and won. It was a really good time, and for privateers in general.”
Then there were the GT classes. GT1 was coming to the end of its life and GT2 was taking over. Both classes though featured both excitement at Barcelona.
In GT1, an ISB Spartak Lamborghini Murcielago stormed to a win from the very back of the grid after losing its pole time in post-Qualifying scrutineering.
The victory came as a surprise to the eventual championship winners at Luc Alphand Aventures, and marked the Italian marque’s first Le Mans Series class win.
Peter Kox and a young Roman Rusinov were aboard the winning car and managed to fend off the French-flagged Corvette C6.R driven by Luc Alphand, Patrice Gouselard and Yann Clairay) after a battle which lasted almost the entire race.
“It was a good programme, doing the Le Mans Series and Le Mans. From the outset, this team should have been coming back for three years, but it ended after one very good season. And it started off well, with our only win of the season.
“Before the season I’d driven the Murcielago with Hans (Reiter) before this programme, he’d taken a lot of financial risk with the car to develop it. And he believed in it. He was from the old school of racing. We didn’t have the performance that other teams had, but in 2009 everything fell together, and a big part of that was Michelin.
“We always struggled with the front-tyres, and it was in that period the only GT1 car with a mid-engine, the rest were front-engined. We always down-played that but when 2009 started the French Corvettes switched to Dunlop and suddenly Michelin was keen to push us forward.”
Elsewhere, the class, which featured just four cars, also included a pair of Saleens, one fielded by Larbre Competition, the other by series debutant ARC Bratislava (yes, it was yellow) in addition to the Lamborghini and Corvette.
The Spartak Lamborghini, despite winning by just over two laps in the end, didn’t have an entirely fault-free run to the flag.
“The only thing I remember about the race was that in the end, the side window of our car came loose and was flapping while we were leading. I was praying we didn’t get a meatball, we didn’t and won this race. It was a relief to win a race with the Murcielago.
“You can always say the old days were better, but I don’t want to do that. You can see now that in GT3, which is fantastic and competitive if you take the ABS away and give us a proper manual box, it would give the organisers a different look at BoP. Back then tyres were so important and we were always the underdog with Lamborghini.
“The Lambo was so compact in the middle of the car. When we started with the car it was so difficult to drive, but it got better and better. I drove the Aston Martin and Ferrari GT1s too so I had a good perspective. That variety made me a better driver.”
GT1 was up and down all season in terms of entries and didn’t last much longer as a class. A year later, 2010 became the final season of GT1 in ACO rules racing. And looking back, Kox says he didn’t see its demise coming.
“To be honest I didn’t see it coming. I could see the GT1 World Championship collapsing because the driving standards were absurd, it was professional drivers racing expensive cars like they were in a TCR race. But in the Le Mans Series, I didn’t see it. In those days GT1 could attract a strong field.”
GT2 also saw a surprise winner, the #77 Felbermayr Proton Porsche scoring its first-ever win, with Marc Lieb and Richard Lietz combining for a strong performance, finishing a lap ahead of the JMW Ferrari 430 GT2 driven by Rob Bell and Gianmaria Bruni, which had to pit for a splash at the end.
Bell, who was a key part of JMW’s relationship with Dunlop and did a lot of work developing tyre compounds, remembers those days fondly. His time spent in the 430 laid the foundations for his career.
“That car put me on the international map,” he told DSC. “I’m most fond of that car of any really. It was the early days of my GT career, and I came from the Panoz, and with Ferrari, we worked with Dunlop and found big chunks of time over the period of a year or two. We found a tyre which worked with the car, and eventually dominated some events. We won races in 2009, but not Barcelona, even though we had the speed to take pole.
“JMW had the deal with Dunlop and I was the driver they chose for testing. I miss tyre wars. We were on the right end of it too, we had a great team and Dunlop was so committed, we’d go away testing and push the boundaries. We had failures in the early days, but we were up against Pirelli at first, then Michelin and had a proper ding-dong. We went as fast we could and there wasn’t a BoP structure like there is now. It brought the best out of us.
“Back then they’d look at engine restriction. It was open doors, you’d do what you wanted and they’d restrict the engine and add weight.
“We’d be weary but nobody ran off into the distance. In the race at Barcelona, the Porsches were half a second quicker, but we had races where we were a second quicker. It wasn’t such a big factor back then. They didn’t police it so stringently. They had to when the series started to die a few years later because they needed to keep customers coming back with a chance of competing.”
As for the 430 itself, Bell remembers it as a tough car, heavy, with a sequential gearbox that made it hard to drive for long periods of time.
“It was a physical car. We’d double stint tyres sometimes, but if it was a really hot day you couldn’t double stint a driver. So we often single stinted through the race. And actually in 2007 and 2008, we worked on it, but in 2009 we had a different suspension pick up point and I didn’t like it actually. It was quicker but harder to drive that year. It was edgy but fast.
“It was great to drive it with Bruni too. He was brilliant as a teammate. We first drove together in 2007 at Silverstone because Allan Simonsen couldn’t make it. Gimmi and I got on straight away, we clicked, we go to the same barbers too, which helped, we had that talking point. And as he became more immersed in Ferrari, he hit the scene and started winning everything all over the world. We still have a great relationship to this day.
“He was very sweaty though, I always remember that the seat would always be soaking wet when he got out…”
And that battle at Barcelona would prove to be the start of a year-long battle between Felbermayr Proton and JMW for the GT2 title, which would last the whole season. In the end, The German Porsche team took the honours, by just two points.