TeamsWR/Salini Racing: 2010 Le Mans Series By Jeremy McMullen
Gerard Welter is practically a tradition around Le Mans and prototype racing. The long-time designer and engineer with Peugeot has been part of, or, engineered many historic moments around the 8.46 mile road course. This includes a speed record down the Mulsanne which stands to this day, and will probably never be beaten in competition.
Denied entry in the 2008 24 Hours of Le Mans with his new LMP2008, Welter nonetheless entered the Le Mans Series that year and suffered a very disappointing season. Like the furniture in a house, Welter was back at Le Mans in 2009 petitioning for entry into the famous endurance race.
The team would end up scoring points for the first time since introducing its WR LMP2008 and would finish the championship that year in a tie for 11th place. However, WR Racing would again be denied an entry into the 24 Hours of Le Mans. This surprised many, especially those who considered Welter as much a part of Le Mans as much as Audi, Porsche or Kristensen. Discouraged, but undaunted, Welter made plans to try with his chassis again in 2010.
Over the previous couple of years, all of the races WR Racing had been able to compete in had been 1000km races. However, upon the announcement of the 2010 Le Mans Series calendar, WR had the opportunity to truly test the LMP2008 chassis. Heading into the 2010 Le Mans Season it was announced Le Castellet would be the first round of the series championship and it would be an 8 hour race.
Then, in the early days of February, WR Racing received the good news it was waiting and hoping to hear. The entry list for the 2010 24 Hours of Le Mans was released and WR Racing was included in the LMP2 category.
The last couple of years had been a difficult time for the team. Reliability and other troubles had just made for a truly discouraging couple of seasons, especially since its main goal, that of competing in the 24 hour race, continued to elude the team. The toll on equipment and finances led to WR having to make some difficult decisions. The team needed to prepare for Le Mans, but, the finances to compete an entire season in Le Mans Series was not coming to fruition.
The team known for its radical, and unconventional, designs appeared to go the practical route and entered a single car in the first round of the Le Mans Series Championship, the 8 Hours du Castellet. The longer race distance gave the team the best opportunity to prepare for the much longer 24 hour race in a couple of months. Also, the long straight-away enabled the team to get an idea of all-important straight-line speed of its LMP2 challenger and that of the competitors. The race offered another advantage to WR Racing. The race took place at the Paul Ricard Circuit near Marseille in France. This was good for the French-based team as it wouldn't have to travel as far.
WR Racing arrived at Le Castellet with its rather plain white and black livered LMP2008 chassis and a 2009-spec Zytek engine. The team's drivers included Philippe and Stephane Salini and Tristan Gommendy.
Immediately, the WR team found the road hard-going. In practice and qualifying around the 3.61 mile long circuit the LMP2008 lacked straight-line speed. The long straight at Paul Ricard exposed one of the car's weaknesses, though the team believed the problem to be more with the 2009-spec engine than the aerodynamics of the car.
Knowledge of the problem did little to help the team. The team had to strike the importance balance between speed and handling. Therefore, to focus on reliability and making the entire race distance, the team suffered with its low top-end speed and, instead, focused on finishing.
Despite hurting for straight-line speed, WR would still out-qualify a couple of other LMP2 teams. Strakka Racing set the pace in LMP2 with a lap time of one minute and forty-five seconds. This placed the Strakka HPD on the grid 9th overall. The Portuguese-based Quifel ASM Team qualified 2nd in LMP2. Their time was just over two seconds slower than the Strakka HPD. Quifel's time enabled their Ginetta-Zytek to start 10th on the grid overall. OAK Racing's number 24 rounded-out the top three in LMP2. It set a time in qualifying just three tenths slower than the Quifel Ginetta-Zytek, but would have to start 3rd in class and 11th overall.
Lacking straight-line speed, the LMP2008 proved its aerodynamic design could cover a multitude of its engines short-comings. Tristan Gommendy best lap was only four and a half seconds slower than the Strakka's. Although off the pace from the top LMP2 qualifiers, WR's LMP2008 still qualified 15th overall and 7th in class.
Tristan Gommendy had qualified the LMP2008 and would be behind the wheel for the team's false-start. Gommendy lined up in his position during the pace lap. All appeared fine when he left the grid, but as the green light came on to start the race, Tristan dove into the pits at the last moment.
By the time the team returned to the race, its car was outside of the top-forty and would stay there for its next 50 laps. The troubles the team experienced right from the very start relegated the team to being concerned about finishing and gathering important data for its run at Le Mans. The team's troubles also hindered its LMP2008 from really going at speed. The team's best lap during the race was actually slower than a number of the GT2 competitors.
The team tried to continue on with its troubles, but finally, after completing 168 laps, the team's first and only Le Mans Series race of 2010 came to an end.
After a test day in May, WR Racing prepared for the goal it had been hoping for over the past two years, the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Philippe and Stephane Salini had been driving for WR for three years fully expecting to be able to take part in their ultimate goal, which was the 24 Hours of Le Mans. After three years of trying, the Salinis would finally get their chance. But they knew the challenges that were before them were not going to be easy.
Philippe stated, 'The road to Le Mans was long and difficult but I finally realized my childhood dream with this team and it is a great project. The elation is here after our previous disappointments, but we quickly forgot all about that when we arrived at pesage for the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Now we have to race, get into competition mode and enjoy the adventure.'
Philippe also discussed his 8 Hours of Castellet experience and noted the troubles the team had. He would share, 'For The 8 Hours of Le Castellet we used the 2009 version of the Zytek engine and we were short of power so our straight line speed was heavily penalized but the distance we covered was far beyond what we had expected.' If 168 laps were more than the team expected, then its first 24 Hours of Le Mans experience would end up being like a victory.
Full of excitement and tension, WR Racing prepared to take part in the 78th running of the famous endurance race. In contrast to Le Castellet, WR's LMP2008 showed up for its first turn at Le Mans with a much more patriotic white, red and blue livery. However, the realities of their performance deficiencies would quickly turn any elation into a serious reckoning of the task before them.
Strakka Racing proved to be the pace setter in LMP2 when it qualified with a lap time of three minutes and thirty-three seconds around the 8.46 mile road course. It would start the race 15th overall. Its American cousin, Highcroft Racing, would be the second-fastest qualifier in LMP2. They would start 17th. RML, in their HPD-powered Lola, would start 3rd in class. The best lap the LMP2008 could turn was a three minute and fifty-three second lap. This was twenty seconds slower than the Strakka entry. This slow lap time meant WR Racing would start the race from 29th overall on the grid.
The 24 hour race is about speed, but it is still all about endurance. Despite not having the straight-line speed, the real success WR would be looking for was finishing the race after a constant, and disappointing, battle just to get an entry in the race.
The race started and WR was by no means in a hurry. The team's drivers continued to complete lap after lap. Difficulties would continue to hit the team throughout the event, but they would continue to carry on.
By dawn on the morning of the 13th, WR's LMP2008 was one of an ever-shrinking number of entries still running. By the time the race was down to its last hour, all of the fast diesel-powered Peugeot 908 LMP1s were out of the race. Even the Highcroft Racing HPD was behind the WR LMP2008.
Only twenty-seven cars were classified as still running at the end of the race. One of them was the WR LMP2008. The team drove a smart, steady race and made very few errors. This helped the car complete 308 laps and finish 23rd overall and 7th in LMP2.
The finish in the toughest race in the world greatly encouraged WR to look toward the future. After the team's test in May before the Le Mans endurance race Philippe was quoted as saying, 'Our future projects depend upon the release of the new regulations. What is certain is that the car deserves better than a standard engine, perhaps we will change the category.'
If true to their word, the LMP2008's potential pace could become very clear for all to see. Welter and Salini announced that by 2011 they hoped they would begin making V8 diesel engines for its own car and for customers. WR Racing thoroughly believes in its LMP2008 design's capabilities. If it can be mated with a powerful diesel engine, endurance enthusiasts may see Welter once again come to the forefront of competitive Le Mans racing.