Tuesday, 4 May 2010

April Comment column for dsc

I sent this to dailysportscar for my end of April comment, I'm sure they'll post it soon!

I missed the Le Mans series race at Paul Ricard – “les huit heures du Castellet” – as we were flying off on our Easter family holiday. And having to contend with the ash cloud from Iceland’s volcanic eruption, as well as a water pump failure on my car (happily the Airbus was more reliable) getting back was a bit more arduous than I had hoped. As a result, I haven’t done my usual in-depth analysis of what happened.

Of course the re-vamped Audi R15 ran away with the race, and although the British-built Lolas filled the podium places, it is still clear that diesels enjoy a performance advantage over the petrol-powered cars. However, I was interested to compare the works Audi performance to the Oreca Peugeot 908, which finished just off the podium, following an 18-minute pit stop in the first hour. Despite (or perhaps because of) its delay, it managed to complete the race on two fewer pit-stops than the winning car (seven rather than nine), which had to make an unscheduled stop to fix a mirror, as well as a stop for wet-weather tyres. But even taking this into account, the Peugeot was able to cover 32 or 33 laps on a tank of diesel compared to the Audis clockwork stints of 31 laps.

It was running slightly slower than the Audi of course, which might account for the better consumption, and twice round Paul Ricard is still less than a lap round Le Mans, so the difference (if there is one) might not be important. And of course only the men from Ingolstadt know how much fuel actually went in at each stop. Sandbagging has been known before, after all. We’ll see in six weeks time.

Before Le Mans, though, there’s May to survive. I was looking through my diary (checking how long until Le Mans) and was astonished at the schedule facing the sportscar racing world in May. The action kicks off with the Silverstone Supercar meeting, featuring the second round of the FIA GT1 World Championship and the opening rounds of the GT3 and GT4 European Championships, all on the new Grand Prix circuit. The following weekend sees three of the newly revamped Audi R15s battling against a similar number of Peugeot 908s over 1000km of Spa-Francorchamps, and then there’s just week until the classic 24 hour race over the Nürburgring’s tortuous Nordschleife (or to be more precise, the ‘Gesamtstrecke’, which comprises both the Nordschleife and the Grand Prix ‘loop’). A week later sees the second proper round of the 2010 American Le Mans Series at Laguna Seca, California, which clashes with the third round of the FIA GT1 World Championship, again supported by the GT3 and GT4 series, which are at Brno in the Czech Republic.

Five major races over four weekends. I can think of many people who will be at three of those five events – a couple I know might even take in four. And when you think about it, for specialists of sportscar racing – and I am sure you would not be reading this if you weren’t a specialist – these events offer superb variety within the genre. Whatever you think of performance equalisation, the FIA’s GT1 World Championship certainly provides the opportunity for evocative sounding and looking machinery to go racing on a world stage, with a world title at stake.

The Spa showdown provides spectators and analysts alike a wonderful curtain-raiser for the Le Mans 24 hour race in June – just as the Silverstone Six Hours used to in times past. And at the spectacular Laguna Seca raceway, it will be enormously interesting to see once again the battle between the two flavours of Le Mans prototype running in a single class in a battle for overall supremacy.

Brno may be the poorer relation of the group, but at least the circuit has some character and a history, and should provide a stirring backdrop for the spectacular GT cars. One hopes that by then the performance arguments might have been sorted.

Differing formats as well; from the 199 entries (on my most recent list) for the 24-hour marathon at the Nürburgring, to the more manageable grids and easily-packaged-for-TV sprints for GT cars, with the 1,000km at Spa and the six hour distance for Laguna Seca providing a sort of (ideal?) happy medium.

But is this glut of sportscar racing a good thing? “Less can be more”, so the saying goes, but the opposite is also sometimes true. Looking at the amount of emptiness in a glass can sometimes be revealing. Audi was absent from Sebring, just as the factory Peugeots were from Paul Ricard. None of the American based teams contesting the ALMS will be at Spa, which is the first time that we’ll see the two major works teams going head-to-head. Spectators at Silverstone and Brno will see no fewer than six one-hour races, and I’m guessing that there will be many for whom the differences between GT1, GT3 and GT4 will not be apparent. And there may even be some who ask why there isn’t a race for GT2.

I sometimes wonder if it would be possible to have a World Championship for Le Mans cars. A single set of regulations, a single calendar, running at proper venues (Monza, Kyalami, Suzuki?). Send your list on a post card to the editor.

But the trouble is that today, there are too many people with vested interests; too many egos. I think that Bernie Ecclestone is to blame. Thirty years ago, he dragged Formula One out of the state that it was in and made it the global media circus that it now is. And now people see him as a role model. Who do you think is trying to be “GT Racing Supremo”? Or “Endurance ring-master”? “Le Mans Csar”, anybody?

As long as there isn’t a single autocrat (or powerful governing body) in control, it isn’t going to happen and we will continue to get a multiplicity of flavours of sportscar racing vying for our attention, each run by someone with a business model, a financial plan, but not necessarily any heart and soul for the sport. In the long run, the value of each individual event is reduced. The reason that the World Cup in football is special is that it only happens once every four years. Ecclestone has somehow succeeded in convincing us (has he?) that Grand Prix motor racing is still worth the name when there are nineteen or twenty events a year – those with longer memories than me will be able to recall the early years of the world drivers’ championship when only six or seven races counted. There were other races for Formula One cars of course, but a Grand Prix was something special.

Of course there should always be a place for strong national sportscar championships, which may need to cut their cloth differently, but wouldn’t fewer, bigger World Championship rounds bring in bigger crowds and be more worthwhile for the entrants?

Having said that, I have to admit that I’m expecting May to fairly fly by, and we’ll be at Le Mans before you realise it!

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