With the 77th Members’ Meeting just one week away and several LMP high-speed demonstrations across the weekend, we thought it would be a good idea to look back at the world of top-level prototype racing and decide on our top five…
Panoz LMP-1 Roadster S
When the late Don Panoz revealed he was going to lop the top off his Esperante GTR-1 to create an LMP car, many thought he was joking. The idea of a front-engined prototype appeared laughable. Anyone who did snigger was laughing on the other side of their face as the car went on to notch up eight American Le Mans Series victories, all bar six of them ahead of the mighty Audi R8.
The car that became known as the Panoz LMP-1 Roadster S was at its best in rough and tumble of the North American series. The Ford-engined machine did claim a famous victory at the Nürburgring in 2000 when the series came to Europe, but its greatest victories were on tight and twisty circuits, the best of all surely on the Washington DC city circuit in 2002. David Brabham and Jan Magnussen triumphed in a back-and-forth thriller ahead of the two Joest-run factory Audis at a car-park venue that made just one appearance on the ALMS schedule.
The Panoz raced at the 24 Hours of Le Mans with the Roadster S — no fewer than five times, in fact — but the Circuit de la Sarthe wasn't the LMP-1 Roadster's natural habit. A fifth position in 2000 was its best result.
It may seem strange to suggest that Audi underachieved on its Le Mans 24 Hours debut in 1999, but its third and fourth positions were garnered through reliability rather than pace. Work on a successor to that year's R8R began the moment the Audi Sport team returned home from France and the result of those efforts was one of the greatest racing sportscars of all time: the Audi R8.
The new car, designed from a clean sheet of paper, won on its debut at the Sebring 12 Hours in 2000 and then notched up a one-two-three result at Le Mans three months later, Tom Kristensen, Emanuele Pirro and Frank Biela taking the first of a hat-trick of victories.
The remarkable thing about the R8 was its longevity. There were another two Le Mans triumphs in the hands of factory-supported privateers, first with Team Goh in 2004 and then Champion Racing in '05, but it was still notching up ALMS wins in 2006. Champion, now Audi Sport's factory representative in North America, fell back on the car while it awaited its new R10 TDI turbodiesels and notched up two more wins for the ageing design at Houston and Lime Rock. They were victories number 60 and 61 for the car.
Bentley made a return to Le Mans in 2000, exactly seven decades on from its fifth victory and the year of its previous works campaign. The original EXP Speed 8 GTP contender had been conceived for a Volkswagen W12 powerplant, but two years later the British marque got serious.
An all-new car, the Speed 8 was produced in the UK, and sister marque Audi threw its weight behind the project on the end of its factory programme with the R8. Joest Racing was co-opted to run one of the cars and Kristensen and Capello were loaned out to drive with Briton Guy Smith.
Bentley dominated, Kristensen, Capello and Smith coming out on top by two laps over the sister car shared by Johnny Herbert, Mark Blundell and Brabham.
Peugeot 908 HDi FAP
Peugeot's take on a turbodiesel LMP1 racer is for the most part seen as a failure. The original V12-engined car that carried the 908 nomenclature went to Le Mans four times in 2007-10 and was beaten three times by Audi. But look beyond its solo victory in the jewel in the crown of sportscar racing in 2009, and it generally had what the German manufacturer had to offer licked.
When the in-house Peugeot Sport team pitched its first-generation 908 against factory-entered Audis, the scoreline was 12-6 in the French manufacturer's favour (not counting one for Porsche). That tally includes victories over Audi in its traditional stomping grounds of the Sebring 12 Hours and Petit Le Mans enduros in North America.
The history books might look back on the 908 HDi differently but for a couple of twists at Le Mans. Peugeot had the misfortune to lose out in 2008 to one of the greatest performances of all time by Kristensen, Capello and Allan McNish, aided by its own cooling issues, and then conrod failures did for three of its four cars when it was dominating in 2010. The plan had been to mix a new spec of titanium connecting rods with the previous steel components. Supplier problems forced it to abandon its hedge-betting strategy...
Sportscar legend Henri Pescarolo took his first steps in team management at the end of the 1990s with petrol giant Elf's La Filiere young driver programme, and then for 2000 he established Pescarolo Sport after hanging up his helmet having entered 33 Le Mans 24 Hours and claiming four victories. He might have added to that tally as a team owner with the first car to bear his name.
The nascent team had bought a pair of Courage Competition's C60 LMP900 chassis for 2001 and created its own bodywork for the Peugeot-powered contenders in 2003 with the help of former Peugeot sportscar designer Andre de Cortanze. With Judd V10 power and further developments, the cars became Pescarolo C60s for 2004.
The team's number one entry claimed the best of the rest sport behind a trio of factory-supported Audi R8s at Le Mans that year, but 12 months on Pescarolo should have won Le Mans. The team, based within the Circuit de la Sarthe, now had a car in the C60H that was three seconds a lap faster than the Audi thanks to regulatory changes.
The big chance for the team to become the first garagiste to win Le Mans since Jean Rondeau came and went. Its lead car hit gearbox problems early on and finished two laps down in second, while its second-string entry could have beaten the winning Champion Audi had it not crashed three times.
Pescarolo Sport would have notched up further Le Mans podiums over the following two years, first with the C60H and then its own 01 design, but the door had shut on the chances of a privateer winning the big race.