Monday, 28 March 2011

Looking back, looking forward: a new era for long-distance racing?

"Mighty oaks from little acorns grow", goes the saying, and whilst it is true that oak trees do not grow overnight, so it is equally true that some of my ideas grow over a period of time. One such is that we are moving, or perhaps that we have moved, into a significant new era for long-distance sportscar racing.

I have covered some of this ground before, but in the hope that I am not banging the same old drum, I am putting a different slant on this essay.

The transition to the new era probably started around the turn of the millennium, when reliability in long-distance races became less and less of an issue. Understanding of the ‘life’ of components improved, and it became a realistic anticipation for a car to run without a problem for twenty-four hours, especially if your car was one of a multi-car team. In the eighties and nineties, teams often hoped for trouble-free runs, but rarely was it achieved. Often it was a case of throwing a large number of team cars into the race, in the hope that one of them would reach the finish. That was certainly Tom Walkinshaw’s successful approach in the days of the Silk Cut Jaguars, and Nissan and later Toyota tried similar tactics in the 1990’s without success.

As the new millennium dawned though, that hope became something more of a realistic expectation as Audi first drastically improved repair times, and then increased reliability to where component failure was unexpected, rather than inevitable. The contrast between “fast but fragile” and “steady and reliable” became less distinct.

During the same period, race organisers tended to concentrate more on structuring regulations to ensure greater equality of performance across the entry. If a car looked to be in a position to dominate, its technology would be handicapped.

So there is a tendency nowadays - and Sebring was a very good example of it - to get a number of cars running very reliably and at the same speed. Then the only way to make a break and get a decent margin ahead is to pull a smart - or lucky - pit stop move during a caution period and hope that it then doesn’t backfire on you and leave you having to make an extra stop later in the race.

And if you do fall behind, through mechanical misfortune, on-track incident or pit-stop fumble, it has become unlikely that you’ll be able to recover the lost ground.

This brings a different philosophy to the whole approach to long-distance racing, in my opinion, and those who have not recognised the arrival of this new era are destined to be regarded as old-fashioned, rather than wise. The new generation may look at their elders with kindness and respect (I hope), but will not understand the way things were in the fifties, sixties and seventies sportscar racing.

I believe Sebring, Le Mans, Road Atlanta, etc. are now tests of concentration, rather than endurance. And I leave as an exercise for the reader to discuss the difference.

Is it the case that today’s Le Mans prototypes have been so restricted that the skill of the driver is less important? I think it might be. When you look at the relative times of different drivers in the same car these days, it is often the case that they are closely matched. I suspect that you could take many of the ‘platinum’ graded drivers, put them in a top-class car, and you would find them within a few tenths of each other. Today’s prototypes are not the highly-strung, finely balanced thoroughbreds that their predecessors were. As a result, their drivers do not need the same delicate touch and finesse.

On the other hand, it might well be argued that the close racing of the new era provides a great spectacle and draws in the crowds, not only at the circuits but also on television. And if that is the case, then surely sponsorship money will be quick to follow, more teams will be drawn in and the quality of the show will improve still further. A virtuous circle indeed.

So do not imagine that I am suggesting that the new era is necessarily a bad thing - my intention is merely to highlight that it has happened. I wonder if Twenty20 cricket will one day surpass the Test Match in its importance?


  1. Thanks again for your thoughts. The restrictions by ACO are working in a good way, I think. They should do ahead with the hybrid stuff and we need companys like Toyota in the race.

  2. It is impressive to see, across other categories of racing as well, how far the teams and constructors have managed to develop the reliability of the cars. It still is complex and difficult enough, though, and I think Le Mans last year with the problems at Peugeot showed very well that even that biggest endurance race is still about finding a compromise between how fast and how reliable you can make a car.

    I wonder if the drivers being matched closer together isn't a result of much more sophisticated preparation these days, too. Driver fitness programs have been developed to the (natural) extreme, the big manufacturer teams do 36-hour trial runs at testing where every driver spends hours of time in the car, setting up the car and finding out some information on how doing this and that affects balance and performance for everyone can be simulated far in advance with the kind of technology they have available to them now. All of that, I think, can make it easier for the driver to get closer to realising the car's full potential.

    On top of that, what happened, I think, is the same thing as in Grand Prix racing: The cars have more downforce at less drag than decades before, which should make it faster and more "comfortable" to drive at the same time.

  3. Apropos of Peugeot's engine problems at Le Mans last year, I have recently been told that the damage (to the titanium conrods) had been done by sunset on Saturday. Thereafter, it was simply a matter of hoping for the best, but fearing the worst.

    But you're right - the driver really only makes a difference these days when something unexpected happens - bad weather, traffic, unexpected mechanical issues, etc.