Le Mans Preview

This year's 24 Hours promises competition of the kind only Le Mans can throw up - a battle between the might of the Works teams and genuinely competitive privateers

Le Mans Preview

You can find detailed coverage of the race on AUTOSPORT.com, or receive the latest news and comment on Radio Le Mans. For up-to-date Le Mans coverage click 'here'.

The field has lost several of the competitors who helped make the 1999 event so intriguing and competitive, but the 2000 24-Hours will be no less exciting for that - indeed, it makes the possibility of a wild-card winner even more of a likelihood.

The theme for this year's race is very much along the lines of 'David versus Goliath'. The works manufacturer teams will line up against various smaller - but no less professional - outfits, aiming to make a name for themselves at the race that has a strong claim towards being called 'The World's Greatest'.

1999 winners BMW will not compete this year, despite running a campaign in the related American Le Mans Series. Equally, Toyota, who tried so hard to win the race, and came so close on two occasions will not be entering, with their resources directed towards an F1 entry in 2002. Finally, Mercedes were the first to join the list of big runners destined not to return after their Le Mans jinx struck once more.

That leaves Audi and Panoz as the only 1999 front runners in the prototype class to return. However, the battles these totally different cars and teams have instigated in the ALMS so far this year indicates that the front end will be as hard fought as ever. Add to that the newcomers Cadillac, and the enormously competitive Rafanelli Lola and the field has taken on a look of tantalising competitiveness...

Audi returns for a second crack at the 24 Hours, after finishing on the podium in 1999. A combination of ferocious development on the part of the team, and the loss of potential competitors means that Audi enters the race very much in the position of favourites. However, this does not in itself guarantee success as Toyota can testify only too well...

The Ingolstadt marque's R8 won on what is so far its only appearance - the 2000 Sebring 12 Hours, but the competition at Le Mans will be on another level. The driving team is formidable, with no less than five previous winners of the race. 1998 winning combo Allan McNish, Stephane Ortelli and Laurent Aiello will regroup in one of the R8s, and that car has to be favourite for pole position, if not the race. Sebring winners Frank Biela and Rinaldo Capello will team up with 1996 winner Michele Alboreto, who is reunited with Reinhold Joest - the team manger who took him to victory.

The car appears to be not only fast, but phenomenally reliable, if its testing form and the Sebring win are anything to go by. With this in mind, it appears that only a crash could spoil Audi's party - though with the traditional mix of tired drivers and massive speed differences between the classes, this eventuality should not be considered as entirely off the cards.

However, the car has kept its own counsel for a large part of the time between Sebring and Le Mans qualifying, so true form is difficult to gauge. In fact, the final test before the race suggests that the Lola of Team Rafanelli, at least, is right up there with it on pace.

Audi represents a large manufacturer, with a veteran team running the cars, very little expense spared and a driver line-up including the pick of the available talent. Panoz, on the other hand is not associated with a large force in the motor industry but for the first time operates the whole programme, including the engines, in house. Nothing should detract from the sense that this is a works team in the truest sense of the word.

The Panoz LMP team has benefited greatly from the driving ambition of owner Don Panoz, who has sought to add the expertise of Dave Price on the organisational side, and such luminaries as Jan Magnussen and David Brabham on the driving squad. Panoz has entered no less than five cars under three teams.

The spectacular front-engined roadsters starred in pre-qualifying last year, only to fade in the race somewhat. However, this year the cars have their best chance since the Panoz name first went to Le Mans in 1997. The under-powered and over-thirsty Ford V8s of the programme's early days have steadily developed into a fast and reliable unit tuned by Elan, a Panoz-owned concern.

David Brabham is the star of the driving line-up, but sometime F1 and CART driver Jan Magnussen can give him a push. Mario Andretti joins this partnership in his bid to match Graham Hill's triple crown of wins in the Indianapolis 500, the Formula 1 World Championship, and the Le Mans 24 Hours.

And attempting to challenge the dominance of the established favourites for the first time in fifty years will be Cadillac, entering their Riley & Scott Northstar prototype. The works GM team will be backed up by two DAMS run cars.

Riley and Scott have learned a vast amount about sportscars over the years , and the fruits of that process have been made manifest in the Cadillac Northstar prototype. The car features a turbocharged V8, and the legendary 'Riley Rocker' suspension system which has served the team so well - and which, it believes, gives it a secret weapon.

The cars have not performed as well as the leading Audis in the ALMS, and it will be some time before they are able to challenge on pace. However, satellite team DAMS has a history of being able to extract considerable performance from sportscars, and with reliability on their side, the Northstars could get a reasonable result.

First in the queue to topple the giants is the Olive Garden Rafanelli team, running a Lola-Judd B2K/10. The team has performed, even by its own admission, beyond all expectations this season. A pole position, fastest lap and a podium finish in the ALMS all bear testament to the competitiveness of the squad

Moreover, the team has now taken delivery of the Le Mans spec bodywork package, and has reportedly set extremely encouraging times at a test at Magny Cours alongside Audi. Question marks remain over the durability of the Judd V10, which is considered in some quarters to be too highly strung to go the distance, but this is the team's only visible weakness at this point.

Even so, expect Rafanelli to star in qualifying, and to lead the race at some point, with drivers Mimmo Schiaterella, Pierluigi Martini and Didier de Radigues quick and experienced. Other notable privateers include the Konrad Lola, and Phillipe Gache's Courage-Judd C60, which was built with Le Mans in mind and is optimised towards the long straights - though the works team's decision not to enter the race may have stymied development of the chassis.

The LMP675 class, for lower power and weight prototypes is expected to be dominated by ROC and its modified LMP900 Reynard. The team has some degree of works backing from VW, as a prelude to a full works assault by the manufacturer in the next few years. The only other team in the class with a chance is the Canadian Multimatic outfit, which is running Lola's new smaller Lights chassis.

The GTS class appears to be resolving into a battle between the Dodge Vipers of Team ORECA and the Chevrolet Corvettes of Team GM. This contest would seem, on the face of it, to favour ORECA's experience, but the Corvettes ran the Vipers close at Daytona, and they have had more development since. Audi star Allan McNish rates the Corvettes very highly indeed, and what cannot be denied is that for the first time in three years, ORECA and their Vipers have some serious competition.

The GT class should be evenly matched, if for no other reason than all the entrants are running Porsche's 911 GT3R. Dick Barbour Racing has won Le Mans overall before, but Team Skea's driving line-up alone will go a long way towards offsetting the team's relative inexperience.

For details of road and rail routes to Le Mans, click 'here'.

to see the full Le Mans 24 Hours schedule, click 'here'.

To see the full entry list of cars, teams, and drivers, click 'here'.

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