TopGear.com live from the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup

Hello all. TopGear.com is heading off to the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup (ILMC) for the next three days, and we’ll be blogging live and exclusive from the Team Peugeot garage.

Why? The 1,000km-long second round at the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium, is the last dress rehearsal before this year’s Le Mans 24 Hours race. More importantly, it’s the first chance to see all three new Pug 908 diesels in a full-fat race against arch-rival Audi’s latest oil-burning R18. It’s going to be big.

Over the next three days I’ll be with everyone at Team Peugeot – drivers, engineers, mechanics, team bigwigs and grid girls – posting news and updates from the team and the race. So if you’ve got a question for or about any of the above, write it in the handy comments box below. That doesn’t mean I’ll be able to get a grid girl’s number for you, but anything else, let me know.

I’m currently en route to Belgium in a Peugeot 508 (wasn’t allowed a 908, unfortunately) so keep checking in for updates. And prizes* awarded for not writing ‘first comment’ underneath this story.

*No prizes.

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UPDATE: 4.50pm on Thursday May 5, 2011

It’s official – I’ve landed at the Spa-Francorchamps circuit. And after lots of thinking time in the Peugeot 508 on tremendously dull continental motorways, I’ve fathomed two theories.

Firstly, there’s a good chance the Spa round of the ILMC’s going to be a tad more than a shakedown run for the series highlight at Le Mans. Secondly, Belgians drive odd stuff.

Race theory first:

Last year, Audi took all three podium places at Le Mans in its R15-plus TDI racers, thanks largely to every single Peugeot 908 HDi failing to finish. With its main rivals out of the running, Audi’s victory was a bit like winning a grand in the lottery – tremendously exciting, but not quite what it could have been. For Peugeot, which retired one car after suspension problems and the other two thanks to snapped con-rods, it was just a bit rubbish. And it’s not like it can’t build competitive cars, proven by its undefeated win record here at Spa.

Which brings us back to the race I’m here for, and why it’ll be more than a Le Mans warm-up. The Germans are out to win a fair fight and the French want to show their new diesel V8 908′s got the minerals to beat them at the championship’s main event in France. We’ll get a good idea if it can this Saturday, too – Audi’s also debuting its new Le Mans car, the diesel V6 R18, and both will be racing each other for the first time ever.

Both teams are keeping pre-race chest-beating to a minimum, but I can’t help but think that 1000km of Spa is the perfect pysche-out opportunity in the run-up to Le Mans, which is only six weeks away. I can’t see Peugeot willingly surrendering its Spa record either. It’s going to be exciting.

Now for the weird Belgian car:

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Buick Roadmaster Estate with Goth pack.

And have these other continental spots:

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Late fifties Mercedes 190SL commuting to Brussels.

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Original Toyota Land Cruiser looked awesome.

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UPDATE: 5.40pm on Thursday May 5, 2011

Disaster! Peugeot’s Number 9 car, driven by Pedro Lamy, has just been dragged to the pits after a multi-car collision. This video shows it on its way to the Team Peugeot garage. Can the Pug mechanics fix it for Saturday’s race? Log back in soon for an update.

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UPDATE: 5.29pm on Thursday May 5, 2011

Peugeot’s Number 9 car will be ready to race on Saturday and driver, Pedro Lamy, is OK. The carbon tub’s intact but it’ll need suspension repairs and a bit of bodywork replaced before it’s match fit.

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UPDATE: 10:41pm on Thursday May 5, 2011

As promised, we’ve got some answers for your questions:

@cosme from Peugeot 908 Number 7 driver, Anthony Davidson:

‘Our 908s will be racing its new cars for the first time on Saturday, and both teams are interested to see how close the competition is. We’ll be running more downforce here than in France, but the closeness of the cars should be a good indication for Le Mans. But put it this way – we’re the top two manufacturers and we will be battling it. Neither of us is turning up to finish second wherever we’re racing.’

@Forza Dave from Peugeot Sport Director, Olivier Quesnel:

‘Our priority at Spa is to have three cars at the end of the race. We don’t want to take many risks – Le Mans is our main target, and we’re prepared to sacrifice our unbeaten record at Spa for it. Saturday is our way of checking our racing reflexes and coming back with new information about the cars ready for the 24 Hours.’

Keep ‘em coming, people.

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UPDATE: 12:52am on Friday May 6, 2011

I’ve just spent the morning at Peugeot HQ and there are some surprised rumblings after Audi’s august performance. The new R18s ran the two fastest lap times during the first and third free practice session, beating Pug’s Number 9 car by 0.4 seconds.  It’s not an enormous margin, but it’s definitely elicited chin-scratching at the French team’s trailer.

Both Audi and Pug have just come in from this morning’s pre-qualifying practice, and the Germans are on top again, leading by 1.86 seconds. There’s a chance that its lead could be down to differing fuel volumes, but we’ll have to wait till qualifying this afternoon to see.

In the meantime, have a bit of video from FP1 – the sound difference between the petrol and diesel cars is ridiculous – and, as requested, a side-by-side spec of the Audi and Peugeot.

PEUGEOT 908 HDi FAP

Engine
3.7-litre V8 HDi FAP turbo diesel
Power
550bhp (regulated)
ILMC Points
27
Fastest Free Practice Lap
Peugeot 908 Number 3 (Lamy/Bourdais/Pagenaud): 2m 04.217s

AUDI R18 TDI


Engine
3.7-litre V6 TDI turbodiesel
Power
550bhp (regulated)
ILMC Points
17
Fastest Free Practice Lap
Audi R18 Number 1 (Bernhard/Dumas/Rockenfeller) 2m 02.697s

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UPDATE: 5:22pm on Friday May 6, 2011

Oh dear. Team Peugeot’s had rotten luck during qualifying for tomorrow’s big race. Because of its garage position way back in the pit lane, the French team waited to put in its laps till traffic had cleared.

Trouble was, qualifying was red flagged after Matthieu Lahaye crashed his Oak Pescarolo on the straight before Pouhon corner, so there wasn’t a chance to put in a respectable time.

The upshot is 4th, 13th and 50th position on the grid for the French team tomorrow. Ouch. As you can imagine, there’s a few long faces in the Peugeot garage now that its chances of holding on to the unbeaten-at-Spa record look slim. Nevertheless, I’ll be having a look round later and reporting back.

Peugeot waiting to run.

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UPDATE: 7:12pm on Friday May 6, 2011

After a bit of badgering, Team Peugeot’s finally let me look around its garages. And after getting through the bouncers (no, really), I got to see how it unfolds its five trailers into a race team:

Each of the three cars has six mechanics, all with specific roles – gearbox, engine, suspension and brakes, two car builders and a chief.

This is the telemetry room. Strategy and engineering teams decipher all the information about the 908s and work out what adjustments drivers need to make. These guys never see the car on track – to them, they’re a list of numbers.

Tyres pick up rubber deposits on the circuit, which are left by previous racers. This bloke shaves them off with a heated scraper so the tyre’s performing as it should. Behind him you can see the tyre warmer – effectively a spinning sun bed – which heats them to 100 degrees Celsius ready for racing.

This is the inside of one of the two car transportation trailers. It opens out and turns into a storage room for radio equipment, spares and there’s a backroom for engineers to work in.

There’s another for transportation, two just for the spare parts and another that turns into a base camp. Inside the latter (pictured), there’s a conference room, logistics desk and bank of team computers. Upstairs, there’s a director’s lounge, driver salon and osteopath (who Simon Pagenaud’s just visited, which explains why he’s in his pants).

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UPDATE:  12.50pm on Saturday May 7, 2011

For the first time this weekend, Team Peugeot’s bared its teeth. Car Number 8, driven by Franck Montagny, got round Spa in 2m03.744s during his second warm-up lap this morning, beating Audi’s Number 2 car by a second.

There’s still the slight problem of said 908 languishing in 50th position on the grid, though. Montagny’s needs to pass 43 cars – some of which are lapping 30 seconds slower than the LMP1 cars – before he gets to the slowest Audi’s back bumper

The speed discrepancy’s also been a concern for organisers. According to Peugeot insiders, both LMP1 teams were called to a pre-race conference where they were asked to exercise extreme caution at the first corner. Despite the warning, there’s still a good chance it’ll get messy.

Right – Warm-up’s over, pre-race paradery’s been and gone and the cars are on the grid waiting for the green flag. It’s (very nearly) on. I’m off to the start line…


Audi ‘s R18 pre-race, looking very Vadar.


Peugeot’s 908 pulling in crowds.


Grid girls tottering through the pit lane.

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UPDATE:  1.01pm on Saturday May 7, 2011

It begins…

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UPDATE: 6.02pm on Saturday May 7, 2011

I’ve just sprinted back from the Team Peugeot garage where I got a real-life, in-front-of-my-face view of an ILMC pit stop.

I was told to stand well back, move no more than a foot and that the consequences of touching ANYTHING would compromise my ability to father children. Obediently, I obliged, consuming as much of the pit-stop preamble as possible without ending my bloodline.

Before the cars drew in, the pit crew were making as many minuscule adjustments to their goggles, gloves and genitals as they could without breaking an endlessly rehearsed formation. When the car was half a lap away, fingers stopped fidgeting and everyone squatted down a few inches into pounce position. The tension was palpable.

The car drew in approximately 5000 times faster than I expected, and even though I was way back in the garage, instinct told me to jump back – how the pit crew tempt 40mph carbonfibre with their ankles is beyond me.

Before the 908 reached a complete stop, the screen cleaner was already in the air – space between it stopping and him wiping didn’t seem to be occupied. He was, quite literally, a quantum mechanic. Fueling was just as slick. Without any wiggling or levering, each nozzle locked in till levels were reached, then the hose was heaved out with a twist, like a supersonic wine waiter.

Doors locked, infinitesimal checks were made with hands and eyes and the 908 pulled back into the race, punctuated by its guttural, turbocharged-foghorn soundtrack. The crew waited a few careful seconds then launched themselves back to work with robotic purpose.

Naturally, I’d managed to position myself in the way. A fueler grazed my shoulder (which moved him to mutter the one French word my exchange student taught me) before disappearing behind a screen to check the tools dangling from his belt. Everyone was either re-filling or adjusting their equipment – even the screen wiper was experimenting with his bottle’s spray pattern.

After enough checks were made to confidently bet lives and fortunes on their kit, the pit crew returned to their positions and rather more intimate adjustments. I was ushered out, slightly baffled by how quickly it’s possible for humans to work on cars.


A few seconds before the 908 draws in.


Pug’s 908 closes in on the pit crew’s ankles.


The window cleaner pounces.


The fueler practices post-pit stop.

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UPDATE: 8.59pm on Saturday May 7, 2011

Despite brutal grid positions, team Peugeot’s held on to its unbeaten record at the 1000km of Spa-Farncorchamps.

908s Numbers 7 and 8 took the top two places in front of Audi’s Number 3 R18, giving the French team its 5th win in a row in Belgium in front of 34,600 fans.

Alex Wurz, driving the victorious Number 7, worked his way up from 13th position on the grid before passing over to co-drivers Anthony Davidson and Mark Gene for the win. The second-place Number 8 Pug, driven by Stephane Sarrazin, Franck Montagny and Nicolas Minassian, finished 42 seconds behind.

Davidson says: ‘The car that doesn’t break down wins, and this time that was us.’ Teammate Gene added: ‘It looks like [it’s going to be] the closest Le Mans for the last four to five years.’

The Number 9 908 was on course to give the manufacturer an all-Peugeot podium white-out, but driver Pedro Lamy found the gravel trap at Rivage corner. 45 minutes before close of play, co-driver Simon Pagenaud experienced major suspension problems, forcing him down to eighth position.

Audi’s third-place Number 3 car driven by Allan McNish, Rinaldo Capello and Tom Kristensen ran into problems in the fight for second after a slow puncture and contact with LMP2 racer, TDS ORECA. R18 Numbers 1 and 2 placed fourth and fifth respectively, the latter falling down from an early lead. Marcel Fassler stopped at the pit lane entrance after accidentally hitting his rev limiter before his penultimate pit stop.

So, the racing’s been close, Peugeot proved its new 908′s reliability, Audi’s had a chance to test out the R18s and the drivers think the 2011 Le Mans 24 Hour’s set to be a belter. And I can’t wait to see how the ILMC’s French stage plays out. For now, though, I’m off to collapse in an undignified heap.

Here’s your parting gift – a video of the victorious Peugeots crossing the line.

Over and out.


Peugeot takes a one-two podium.

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