There were a number of ex-Le Mans cars at the recent Parisian Classic Car Show, Automedon, held at Le Bourget.
The most modern veteran of Les Vingt-Quatre Heures du Mans was the Pescarolo Sport Courage C60 in 2003 specification and livery. So that comes with the Sodemo-tuned 3.2 litre V6 Peugeot engine.
I got the books off the shelf and was surprised to discover that this chassis C60 03 had competed in no fewer than six editions of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Or at least that what my research shows. I think I was able to confirm this with the great Henri, hopefully I have not lost anything in translation in tracing the history of the remarkable car.
The La Sarthe saga starts in 2001 when chassis #3 was entered in the LM P900 class as #17 with the talented line up of Jean-Christophe Boullion, Laurent Redon and, local lad, Sébastien Bourdais. Powered by the twin turbo 3.2 litre Peugeot V6 engine prepared by Sodemo, the car had already put miles under its belt by racing at Sebring, Barcelona, Donington and Monza. In Qualifying Bourdais wrung the neck out of the car to record a 3:39.789 which, in the era of Planet Audi and the R8, was good enough for thirteenth place, though its race pace was expected to be closer to the German superstars.
Expectations in the 2001 Le Mans were soon deflated and then virtually drowned as the heavens opened and the race became a fight for survival. #17 was in the top five at the end of the first hour getting up to third by Midnight. That was the high water mark for the local favourite as the gearbox needed replacement and this costs 25 minutes and six places on the leader-board, but at least they get back into the race.
Le Mans often reserves its full cruelty to those it has already wounded and #17 fell victim to this capriciousness. After a great comeback performance, from Bourdais in particular, fifth place was within grasp during the Sunday morning. Then with just over two hours to go a suspected weakness with a piston forced the C60 to wait in the pit till the last lap when they limped across the finish line to ensure classification back where they had started in thirteenth.
A year heals some of the hurt and chassis 03 returned to the great race in 2002, determined to make up for the disappointment. Two cars were entered and this time 03 was given #18 slot. There had been substantial changes to the team with the arrival of André de Cortanze and Claude Galopin to bolster the technical side. De Cortanze’s influence could be clearly seen with with the sleek new aerodynamic body hiding the familiar C60 chassis.
Pescarolo Sport enjoyed the reputation of being a team that punched way above its weight, especially when the relative budgets available to factory teams such as AudiSport were considered.
The drivers of #18 were to be former winners, Eric Hélary and Stéphane Ortelli and ex- Formula One driver, Ukyo Katayama. While it was unlikely that they would trouble the works Audi R8 trio, this was a dark horse team capable of a good result. Nevertheless problems in the Qualifying periods meant that Ortelli’s 3:41.237 was only good enough for 18th.
Come the race the Pescarolo squad faired much better, still way off the Audi R8s but getting stronger all the time the race progressed. #18 edged into the top ten after Midnight but that was far as it would go, an oil leak caused engine failure and retirement, it is a hard to understand Le Mans sometimes.
Fast forward twelve months and the team and the car were back with a new major sponsor, PlayStation. C60 03 was once again entered as #17 and was entrusted to Franck Lagorce, Stéphane Sarrazin and Jean-Christophe Boullion. The car had been further developed under the guidance of de Cortanze and was a regular winner in the FIA Sports Car Championship.
Practice and Qualifying went well for the team, with Boullion proving the fastest in the squad at 3:40.839, good enough for 11th overall. This year the works Audi R8s had gone but in their place were a pair of Bentley Speed 8 coupés and they were strong favourites for the race.
The first issued encountered in the race came at around 19.00 when there was an unscheduled pit stop to change a brake calliper that was causing the brakes to lock, eleven minutes and nine places were lost as a result. The fight back began in earnest and by the halfway mark, the #17 was back into the top ten.
Thereafter the car ran well with the only other problem being the car catching fire as it crossed the finish line taking the Chequered Flag. Eighth place, four laps in front of its sister car was a solid result, reflecting the quality of the whole team.
The 2004 edition of the Le Mans 24 Hours saw the 03 chassis renamed as a Pescarolo C60, reflecting the enormous amount of development that the team had put into the original concept. Another major change was that of engine, with a 5 litre V10 Judd replacing the Peugeot unit, this course requiring a major revision to the car. Experienced Emmanuel Collard joined Pescarolo old boys Sébastien Bourdais and Nic Minassian on driving duties. The whole programme exuded a quiet confidence that the gap to the privateer R8s was finally bridged and that the team could have a serious shot at victory in their local race.
Qualifying and practice went well with Bourdais posting a 3:34.252 for fifth place overall, less than two seconds behind pole sitter Johnny Herbert in the Audi. Things were looking promising for Pescarolo Sport.
As anyone who has followed motor sport at Le Mans will attest, promise often turns to disappointment at the Circuit de la Sarthe and for #17 that was the case. Running a strong fourth the car lost over seven laps while in the pits having a problem with the injectors rectified. The race for victory was lost for them but there was the honour of the team to fight for, getting the car to the finish in the top six would be the aim.
The climb up the order was helped by a race of attrition that saw two Audis collide on spilt oil, causing them both to suffer serious delays, but this progress was halted when Bourdais hit a stationery car on track. As if this was not enough #17 had to change the alternator belt. The struggle to get back up the leader board began all over again and at the mid point in the race they had recovered to eighth, some eleven laps behind their team mates. Bourdais was involved in another racing incident just after dawn on the Sunday morning but was still running in eighth position.
Then with around 4½ hours to go the call came in on the radio, Bourdais had ground to a halt at Les Hunaudières after the engine failed. Game over. If there was any consolation to be had it was that their sister car scored a fantastic fourth place.
2005 saw another major set of changes to the regulations governing the prototypes, these were aimed to increase safety and control performance. New cars complying to these rules were mandated by 2007 but recognising that such changes were not financially viable in the short term for the non factory outfits, there was a set of compromises introdced to accommodate a more gradual transition to the new rules. Keeping the old cars running was possible, at some cost to performance. The middle ground was to adapt the old cars to comply with most of the new features and this route, known as Hybrid, was the path that Pescarolo Sport followed.
André de Cortanze and Claude Galopin excelled themselves creating a package that was both fast and reliable. In fact the team found themselves as favourites for the big race as they easily outpaced the Audi R8s. Chassis 03 was employed again as the basis for the #17 Pescarolo C60H, its drivers were Pescarolo regular Eric Hélary who was joined by Soheil Ayari. Making his début at Le Mans was Rallying legend and World Champion, Sébastien Loeb. The stakes were high, the fastest car and France’s greatest sporting hero, the pressure was all on the team.
The best way to deal with such pressure is to perform, Ayari did so by setting the fastest time on a wet Wednesday evening. The following evening, in dry condition he was pipped to pole position by Collard in the sister car, Pescarolo Sport had locked out the front row!
So the race got underway under scorching skies with the whole French nation behind their favourite team, how would the dream pan out?
Well despite pulling away from the rest of the field at a rate of five seconds a lap it was not an easy ride. Hélary collided with a GT and that cost five minutes repairing a steering arm. So despite breaking the lap record on several occasions their progress back to the top was slow, impeded by a puncture at the four hour point. Then around Midnight Ayari was hit from behind and the ensuing repairs took 23 minutes dropping #17 down to fourteenth, it would be a long night.
The early morning sun found the car back up to fifth and then disaster struck, Ayari flew off the road at the PlayStation Chicane, #17 was out of the race damaged beyond repair. There would be no fairytale ending for Henri Pescarolo and his team that was running 03 but there was great result on the other side of the pit box with #16 finishing second, so near, yet so far.
Another year passed and once again Pescarolo Sport entered Le Mans with a pair of their C60 cars, including the great warhorse, 03. Running in the familiar #17 guise, the 2005 driver pairing of Hélary and Loeb were joined by Franck Montagny, then a current Formula One driver. The opposition would once again come from Audi who were back as a works outfit running a brace of diesel powered prototypes. The general feeling in the paddock was that it was now or never for Henri, the diesel technology was unproven at this level and even Audi might stumble, also there were rumbles of others looking at programmes notably Peugeot. Once that spending and technology war was declared even the best privateer teams stood little chance.
De Cortanze had once again worked his magic, as had Judd, making detail improvements throughout the car and engine so that the package was stronger than 2005 but would it be enough?
The first signs were encouraging, especially after the Test Day when a demon lap from Montagny at 3:30.195 was nearly two seconds quicker than the best of the Audis. The situation was reversed during Official Qualifying but the Pescarolo Sport outfit monopolised the second row behind the two Audis with Montagny posting a 3:32.990 complaining of traffic. Whatever the reason, Audi knew that it had a real fight on its hands.
However in the race it soon became apparent that the Audis were quicker in race trim that the Pescarolo and had significantly better fuel economy, so it would all be down to reliability.
The first chink in German armour came just three hours into the race when Kristensen was forced to pit to change injectors, losing 21 minutes in the process. One Audi down, would the other last? The next sign of hope came when fifth gear failed on leading Audi but great work by the crew got it back out and repaired in ten minutes. However other than a headlight change around dawn this was the only problem encountered by the #8 Audi who never surrendered their lead but the #17 Pescarolo C60 kept up their challenge running in second place for over 20 hours.
That is how it played out at the finish Pescarolo Sport got both cars to the finish, Collard, Minassian and Comas producing the come back drive of the race to grab fifth in #16. Their team mates almost got there taking second spot behind the Audi. Chassis 03 had ended its illustrious career on the highest possible note.
It is difficult to look back now and see how hard the small French outfit had pushed the factory Audis and then consider that they have been forced out of business. The reasons are many and varied, but it is also true to say the Endurance Racing and the Le Mans 24 Hours is the poorer for their absence. Pescarolo Sport were one the great Le Mans competitors, performing miracles on a shoe string budget, they are much missed.
Salut Maddie et Henri!
John Brooks, November 2014