Well, dear reader (if I have any readers, that is), we are now in 2011, and that surely must be sufficient of a reason for another entry in this little Blog of mine.
And to my loyal (if occasional reader) I wish a very prosperous New Year. But also I must offer an apology for not being as prolific a writer as I would like to be. As an excuse, I can only offer that I got laid out by a bout of flu just before Christmas, and then spent a much longer time recovering that I wanted to. But in any case, I have been lacking inspiration, and despite several aborted starts, did not find that any of my attempts passed my own (admittedly somewhat lax) standards for publication.
But hang it all, who cares? This is largely for my own benefit anyway. And I would dearly love for someone, just once, to write me a comment. Please? At least give me the feeling that I have a readership!
Anyway, enough waffle. Down to business. This is the time of year when reviews of the past season are published, and prospects for the coming season discussed. So I shall not be very different. Over the past twelve months, and, from the looks of things, the coming twelve months, sportscar racing can be divided into two camps.
I might be being unfair, but I find that the division comes down pretty much in organisational terms. On the one hand, is Stephane Ratel and the various GT championships, and on the other is the ACO and the various categories carrying the Le Mans tag.
Now at my age, cynicism is an occupational hazard, but I find it impossible to swallow every press release from either the ACO or the SRO without a pinch of salt. I felt a bit sorry for Andrea Bertolini and Michael Bartels when I saw the pictures of the FIA Gala presentations in Monte Carlo. There they were, standing alongside two very scruffy world champions, in the shape of Sebastian Vettel and Sebastien Loeb, having received their trophies for the FIA GT1 World Championship from Jean Todt, and yet I had to ask myself who really cared that they were there. Who would have got up at three in the morning to watch the final round of their championship? Particularly given the nature of the spectacular St Luis circuit in Argentina? I have added it to the list of circuits I ‘must visit’, but whether in hope or anticipation, I am not sure. I am sure though that I am not alone in thinking that people care much more about the outcome of the 24 hours at Le Mans than Ratel’s funny little championship, even if it has the cachet of a world title. An FIA World Championship does not necessarily bring with it gravitas though. And even if the ‘man in the street’ couldn’t name a single driver of the three who won this year’s Le Mans 24 Hours, both Vettel and Loeb are practically household names and as such deserve the FIA accolade.
Despite Ratel’s efforts though, despite the fact that the FIA GT1 championship visits some great circuits, despite the fact that the cars look and sound terrific, I still can’t take it seriously as a proper sportscar world championship. And in 2011, it will all happen again, building on the success of 2010, according to the press release, visiting a new circuit in China, to further warrant the “World” billing. But who’s going to participate? I get the impression that it might fall before it even gets going. Ratel’s biggest problem, it seems to me, has been to fail to win the hearts and minds of the competitors in a way that they are beating a pathway to his door. The lessons of the premature death of last years GT2 championship do not seem to have been learned.
Then there’s the FIA European GT3 championship, which will extend itself into Russia for 2011. But again, it seems dependent on the participation of certain factions who will pander to Ratel’s ego, and I am sure that there are many, like me, who do not really go for the sprint formats.
So I was quite interested to read of the Blancpain Endurance Championship for GT3 and GT4 cars. The Spa 24 hour race is a classic, which will in 2011 be part of this championship. The rest of the series will comprise of three hour races, and I must confess, it holds a certain appeal for me, as a spectator. Time will tell whether it succeeds, but many of the ingredients for success seem to be in place.
One of the things that comes with the passing of the winter solstice, is the publication of the regulations for the coming year’s 24 hours race of Le Mans. And this year, a number of significant changes have taken place. The most compelling of these, I found was the way – I almost want to say ‘the insidious way’ – that the ACO is proliferating its regulations across many areas that it previously left well alone. Whereas in the past, the ACO has held to Le Mans as its holy grail, and the FIA has veered towards and away from the French classic as its politics has driven it, so today, the FIA is leaving well enough alone, and the ACO is now filling the vacuum that is left and providing a series for everyone. At least for everyone who wants to play. With the arrival of the Intercontinental Le Mans Series as the principal series of interest for those wishing to compete more than simply at the 24 hour classic at Le Mans, the American Le Mans Series and the European-based Le Mans Series races are now left with an uncertain position in the world-class racing hierarchy. And then there are two Asian Le Mans Series pencilled into the 2011 calendar as well.
On one hand, a co-ordinated approach must be a good thing, but on the other, the way that the series overlap one another is as confusing as anything that the sportscar world has ever dreamt up. And those with long memories will remember how confusing the various categories and championships of sport car and endurance racing have been over the years.
Despite my concerns for a world endurance series (is it a championship? is it a cup?) run by the ACO without the FIA’s blessing, I am optimistic for 2011 though. And I haven’t even mentioned Grand-Am, Dutch Supercar, Japanese SuperGT, VdeV or the British GT Championship, all of which have their individual strengths.
Finally though, a thought of a possibly unintended consequence. One of the overriding themes of the ACO regulations is the need to increase lap times for LMP1 cars to the ‘magic’ 3min 30secs, by reducing engine power. In consequence, the other classes also have to make do with less power this year. At the same time, the desire is clearly there to improve efficiency, in terms of fuel consumption, tyre wear, etc. But despite increasing numbers of very competent drivers, the ACO still wants to have (indeed, by insisting on ‘bronze’ level drivers in GTE-Am, will encourage) some drivers who, by definition, are not as skilled as their counterparts on the track. If you’re going to reduce power, then improved lap times are going to come through increasing cornering speeds. My concern is that this will lead to some difficult moments at Le Mans, and possibly more ‘Anthony Davidson’ moments, especially as Le Mans increasingly features sequences of high-speed corners where commitment is all-important.
In general, the aims of the regulations are exemplary, and it may well be that my concern is ill-founded – in the past few years driving standards at Le Mans have been extremely high – and I am particularly looking forward to how the diesels fare against the petrol-engined cars, and to see how the ACO manages to manipulate the regulations mid-season (importantly pre-Le Mans) to ensure parity between cars using different fuel types. What will Peugeot do? A fascinating season in prospect – I’m looking forward to it!