Audi versus Peugeot at Le Mans: sportscar racing’s fight of the century. The diesel-engined heavyweights will once again head to La Sarthe for their now-traditional scrap, with the French manufacturer hoping to make it two wins on the trot after their rivals stamped their authority on the 24-hour race throughout the last decade.
Of course, Le Mans isn’t just about the two big manufacturers battling for supremacy. While it’s certainly true that there are few, if any, that can mount a serious challenge to either Audi or Peugeot, actually finishing the race is a massive achievement in itself – this is the Le Mans 24 Hours after all.
So this year I will be doing the thing us Brits are biologically wired to do: rooting for an underdog. Not just any also-ran though, but a team run by an ice-cream making dairy farmer who has never campaigned anything faster than an Aston Martin GT car. Oh, and a driver line-up that includes some bloke you may have heard of called Nigel Mansell, along with his two racing sons.
When I first heard of Beechdean Mansell’s audacious plans to enter the top LMP1 category at Le Mans, I knew instantly who I would be cheering on this year. A timely announcement as well, as my other favourites, Aston Martin, had decided to concentrate most of their efforts on 2011, when they hope this whole equivalency formula business will have been sorted out. Who says I’m fickle, eh?
But Beechdean Mansell is where it’s at, this year at Le Mans, lead by Mansell Snr who will be participating for the first time alongside Leo and Greg. Interestingly, he concedes he never really had any aspirations of competing in prototype sportscar racing before, but caught the bug when he attended the event last year, cheering on Leo who drove with the Team Modena Ferrari Squad.
“I found it very exciting,” admitted the 57-year-old racing legend, “I’ve been around too long to be blown away by anything, but the place has a special atmosphere. I found the whole experience very motivating and you could say that it is one of the reasons why I’ve done what I’ve done.”
And what has he gone and done? He’s entered into a 50-50 partnership with Beechdean boss and British GT driver Andrew Howard to create what is effectively an all-new team in Le Mans’ LMP1 division. A mammoth task, especially since it was set up so late in the day, but it’s all part of a super-ambitious, long-term strategy in seeking glory within the next three years.
But back to the present; it’s probably too early for them to score a good result this year. They suffered a few problems at the LMS opening-round at Paul Ricard, and then elected to skip the race in Spa to reduce expenditure and get some testing miles under its belt instead. Weighing up their chances of success is therefore a difficult task, but it’s perhaps safe to say the odds are firmly stacked against them.
They know it, we know it, but frankly it doesn’t matter. The fact they’re even at Le Mans should be applauded, and a credible finish will be a fantastic result for the Mansell clan. It’s certainly possible, especially if the Ginetta-Zytek package works well around the 8.4 mile circuit. Couple this with star driver Greg’s qualifying pace, Leo’s previous Le Mans experience – they should be right behind the best of the petrol LMP1s, and who better to pull a surprise out of the hat than ‘our Nige’?
Beechdean Mansell ticks all the right boxes for Le Mans fans looking for a good news story, and I will watch with great interest to see how they do throughout the entire 24-hour event. Scoffing on their ice-cream, knowing that each mouthful will have (somehow) helped get them a few more yards around the circuit.