I know that the Le Mans Series is holding its official test this weekend, that Sebring is just around the corner, and that the attention of many sportscar teams and fans will be focussed elsewhere at the moment. But as the wintry days of February give way to more spring-like weather of March, I find myself pondering the prospects for “The Big One” in June – from a wider perspective.
One of the benefits of being alive in the 21st Century is the fact that everything works more reliably. Wherever you look, televisions, washing machines, central heating systems, even stuff like clocks, telephones, etc. they just work. Sure, things go wrong, but we have a much better understanding nowadays for why they go wrong, and almost inevitably, we take actions to ensure that they don’t go wrong again.
My parents, and their parents before them, became used to the unreliability of things, and became adept at fixing things, or at using things in such a way so as not to wear them out in the first place. They were cautious in their acceptance of new technology, as ‘new’ often meant ‘fragile’, and frequently also brought a level of complexity that meant that fixing became out of the question, and replacing became the norm.
Cars are especially a case in point. A perfect Sunday morning for my father was to be under the bonnet of his Ford Zephyr 4 (while the rest of us went to church), adjusting the points and fine-tuning the carburettor. Vocabulary, I fear, that will soon be lost forever. Apart from topping up the washer fluid, there is not a lot for me to do under the bonnet of my car, even if I would have the mechanical know-how.
The point is that, these days, we do not expect to have to carry out arduous maintenance on anything – we expect it merely to work. The Le Mans 24 hour race is similar. So many teams arrive at the race with a ‘package’ so reliable and so well-engineered, that they can justifiably expect (and not just hope) to get through the 24 hours without having to do much more than change the wheels and put fuel in the car.
I suppose I should applaud advances in engineering that allow sports racing prototypes these days to be driven flat-out for twenty-four hours. For it is the engineering precision and the understanding of the life-ing of components that go a long way to providing the improved reliability of many household items. It’s just that component failure during a 24 hour race is so unlikely these days, that it takes away some of the fascination of the race.
One of the (many) reasons that I stay up all night and monitor what is going on so closely at Le Mans is that ‘things happen’. But ‘something happening’ is becoming less and less common. I’m not really talking about accidents, or weather (it has been alleged that ‘it always rains at Le Mans’), but more about those failures of gearboxes, turbo-chargers, wishbones, etc, that ‘just happen’. Something that the team manager knew was a weak spot, and hopefully something that he had a contingency plan to deal with – be it telling the drivers to be careful over the kerbs, or a smart way of repairing – Audi’s quick-change drivetrain replacement being an example.
These things add uncertainty - add spice - and for the spectator add interest and fascination. In recent years, the 24 hours has turned into a bit of a long Grand Prix, in which if you have a problem, however small, your chances of a good result are ruined, as it is so unlikely that your competitor will have a similar problem.
Remember 1988, when Klaus Ludwig ran out of fuel in the works Porsche, and was forced to complete a slow lap back to the pits? Even though this handed an advantage to the no 2 Jaguar, there were sufficient (and justified) doubts about the Silk Cut car that everyone present was enthralled by the chase. In 1995, no-one really expected a McLaren F1 to survive a 24 hour race, let alone win. The film “Pursuit of Perfection” captures team manager Paul Lanzante stressing to his drivers the need to be gentle with every single gear change, to avoid hitting kerbs, to treat the car carefully. He knew that the only way to be in with a chance of victory was to ensure that the car was still in the race when the chequered flag fell. To put it another way, “to finish first, first you have to finish”.
Nowadays, though, (and this is not just my opinion, but one echoed by a number of drivers and team managers up and down the pitlane), to win Le Mans, you need to be flat-out throughout. Realistically, with three works diesels from each of the Peugeot and Audi factories, it would be a surprise if at least one car from each team didn’t make it to the flag without an unscheduled stop. And, most likely, the outright winners will be one of these. The romantic notion that all the works cars will have a problem and allow an Aston Martin, a Rebellion Lola or even the Mansell’s Ginetta to win is just pie in the sky. The fact is that the Le Mans 24 hours is simply much more predictable nowadays than it was in former times.
I am being a little unfair here. No disrespect to David Brabham, Marc Gene or Alex Wurz, but their car was not the fleetest of the Peugeots last year. Nor was the Audi R10 which won in 2008 quicker over a single (dry) lap than any of the French cars. In both cases, the triumph was one where efficiency and teamwork played vital roles. But the margins are so tight now, that pace cannot compensate for a problem.
Short of making it into a 48-hour race (now there’s a thought), I am not sure if there is a way to change this – you can’t un-invent technology, after all. However, there is one simple change that I would like to see to the ACO regulations concerning pit stops (although I am not sure that it really addresses the point I have been making here) and it is this. Forget about all this choreography about changing the wheels with one wheel gun and two mechanics and go back to a simple limit of four mechanics in total, who have to do everything: re-fuel, clean the screen, change the wheels, etc. And disqualify the car if it goes into the garage. Simple as that. All work has to take place on the apron in front of the car’s pit, where everyone can see it.
Think about it for a while, then tell me (or email the editor) with all the reasons why it would make things any worse. I know that this means that a more reliable car will be at even more of an advantage, but I guess I’m thinking that if certain repairs would cost a car more time being fixed in the pits, it would place a greater premium on the driver to ensure that the car steered clear of trouble, or the engineers coming up with better ‘endurance’ cars.
And of course it would improve the show for the spectators and make life easier for the Radio Le Mans pit reporters.