WITH TOP THREE PLACES ON SATURDAY'S GRID AT LE MANS
For the second year in a row, a stunning lap from Stéphane Sarrazin has put Team Peugeot Total on pole position for the start of the Le Mans 24 Hours. The Frenchman was the fastest driver on the track during qualifying thanks to a time of 3m 18.513s on Wednesday in the Peugeot 908 HDi FAP he shares with Pedro Lamy and Alexander Wurz. The N°8 car will consequently lead the field away when the endurance classic begins at 3pm on Saturday afternoon, ahead of the N°9 and N°7 sister cars of Franck Montagny/Ricardo Zonta/Christian Klien and Marc Gené/Nicolas Minassian/Jacques Villeneuve. The French machines completed qualifying more than three seconds quicker than their best-placed rival as the top teams spent the majority of the week's two practice sessions concentrating on fine-tuning the race set-ups of their respective machines.
Several statistics underline the ongoing progress that the 908 HDi FAP has made in terms of outright speed since its second place on its debut outing at Le Mans this time last year. To begin with, Sarrazin's pole-winning time on Wednesday evening marked an improvement of almost eight seconds over the lap (3m 26.344) which saw the Peugeot driver top the qualifying timesheets in 2007. It was practically four seconds quicker, too, than the best lap he set during the preliminary test day on June 1 (3m 22.222s), and it is also the fastest anybody has been round the legendary French track since 1989, despite a number of time-sapping changes that have been made to the track since, including the addition of two chicanes along the Hunaudières Straight!
For the record, it is also Peugeot's fourth pole position at Le Mans after those claimed in 1992 (Philippe Alliot/Peugeot 905), 1993 (Philippe Alliot/Peugeot 905) and 2007 (Stéphane Sarrazin/Peugeot 908 HDi FAP).
"A fast lap here calls for an extremely precise driving style, but I feel so confident with this car; it is wonderfully balanced," said Sarrazin. "We have done some solid work since pre-qualifying and I'm very pleased with the race set-up we have found. It also suits Pedro and Alex, and that's obviously very important. The thing now is to analyse all the information we have collected to determine what sort of pace we can put in during the race."
One of the unique features of the Le Mans 24 Hours is the fact that teams get only two opportunities to practice round the full 13.629km circuit. One of those is the traditional preliminary test-day – a fortnight before the race – and the other is race-week itself, which includes two four-hour test sessions on the Wednesday and Thursday evenings before the big day. "Given that the test day earlier in the month was marked by heavy rain which upset most people's plans," observes Peugeot Sport Technical Director Bruno Famin, "it was important to get in as many useful laps under our belts as possible this week in order to gather data and information in several specific areas."
A number of red flag incidents on both evenings deprived the teams of valuable track time, however, while Team Peugeot Total's programme was dealt a blow last night when the Peugeot 908 HDi FAP of Montagny/Zonta/Klien was damaged after being punted into a concrete barrier by another car through the Porsche Curves. The man behind the wheel at the time was Ricardo Zonta: "I was out working on the race set-up and tailing an Audi when we came up behind a slower car into one of the Porsche Curves left-handers. The driver of that car pulled over to the right, seemingly to let the Audi through and I went for the same gap. I had practically passed when I suddenly felt him clout my rear right corner and the impact sent me off the track into the wall. Did he fail to see me, or did he have a problem? I don't know, but it's obviously a shame that it put an early end to our programme."
Despite Zonta's misfortune, Peugeot Sport Director Michel Barge was understandably enthralled with the outcome of qualifying which saw the three Peugeots total 222 laps*. "There simply couldn't have been a better way of rewarding the team which designed the Peugeot 908 HDi FAP, the technicians and all the mechanics than putting our three cars at the very front of the grid," he beamed. "We all know it's going to be a long race and we are all aware that we won't know how it ends until Sunday afternoon, but we've shown that the car is competitive and that the basic concept is sound. Our only big setback was the incident in which the N°9 car was hit by another car. That's given a great deal of work, but we've already completed much of it. After the need to rebuild the N°7 car last week, it's yet another challenge for the team and we've had a very, very busy two-week build-up to this year's Le Mans 24 Hours!"
(*) 91 laps (N°7 Peugeot 908 HDi FAP) + 76 (N°8 Peugeot 908 HDi FAP) + 55 (N°9 Peugeot 908 HDi FAP)
Stéphane SARRAZIN (N°8 Peugeot 908 HDi FAP): "A fast lap here needs you to be very precise, but I feel so confident with this car. I had been expecting to improve on our best time during the preliminary test-day time, but I didn't know by how much. We have done some good work since pre-qualifying and we have been using a race set-up all week, so that's encouraging. It's a good set-up which works for Pedro and Alex, too. Now we need to decide how fast we can go in the race."
Christian KLIEN (N°9 Peugeot 908 HDi FAP): "I have to say that switching from a modern F1 car to a competitive diesel-powered LMP1 like the Peugeot 908 HDi FAP hasn't been that difficult. The difference really isn't that big. The Peugeot has lots of downforce and big tyres which give great grip. It is very powerful, too, although it initially felt strange revving no higher than 5,000rpm when we peak at 19,000 rpm in F1! But that makes it quieter in the cockpit, too, which is nice; it makes it easier to communicate with the team while out on the track."
Jacques VILLENEUVE (N°7 Peugeot 908 HDi FAP): "Our car is quick and handles well; we are ready for the race. I put in a lot of laps at night on Wednesday, whereas today I put in a short run early on and then another in the dark. Everything's fine. The Peugeot team is fantastic: the guys are totally committed and passionate about their work. They did a great job rebuilding our car in such a short time after its accident on the preliminary test-day."
Alexander WURZ (N°8 Peugeot 908 HDi FAP): "My car is nicely balanced for the race and I believe we're ready. ‘Touch wood’, but it would be really nice if I could keep up my 100 per cent record here at Le Mans: I won my first race here in 1996 and the N°8 Peugeot HDi FAP will start from pole position on Saturday for my second attempt, so it would be great to win on Sunday. That's a high aim, I know, but that's what we're here for. Everyone in the team has worked so hard in the eight months I've been involved and I've found the same approach and professionalism that I was used to in F1. I love it!"