Tuesday, 19 July 2011

The FIA World Endurance Championship of 2012

Essentially, I am an old-fashioned sort of bloke. I get a great deal of pleasure from remembering how things used to be and wishing, wistfully, for those days to return. Of course I don’t really mean it; the fact of the matter is more that I yearn for the days of my youth because I yearn for my youth. The days when I was younger, I was fitter and more carefree, I suppose. Now I am older, I am wiser, but have to consider more carefully the fact that I shall not live (in this world) for ever.

History is important though. Although Winston Churchill is often credited with saying that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, it was George Santayana who originally coined the phrase in 1906 (The Life of Reason) - “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

I would like to think that by not merely remembering, but more importantly, understanding what happened in the past, we can behave more appropriately in the present. And it is this that motivates me to pay attention to what is going on and to try and get under the skin of it a bit, and not just take everything at face value. I know that this can be infuriating to those close to me, but it’s just the way I am.

I am also fundamentally a positive person. I tend to think that things will be OK. As the toast slips from my fingers, I just know that the butter side will land uppermost. Even if things don’t quite go OK, I know that they will turn out OK in the end. There’s always another piece of bread that can go in the toaster. I tend only to prepare for the worst when it happens (perhaps I have more in common with the Murdoch family than I ought to have).

So when the announcement was made that there would be an FIA World Endurance Championship next year, my initial reaction was one of welcome. I had, after all, posed the question at the beginning of the year, asking why we had the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup and not an FIA-sanctioned world championship. And most of the people that I posed the question to thought that although the ACO was doing a reasonably good job of organising the ILMC, an FIA World Championship would be a good thing.

Indeed, now that the announcement has been made, most of the major players are saying publicly that it is a good thing, that to have a World Endurance Championship - organised by the FIA - will improve things for everybody. However, in private, a number of people have vouchsafed to me their misgivings: where will the rounds be? How will it be organised? Who will take part? Is there a place for privateers? How will performance balancing be achieved? What about the GT classes? What happens to the Le Mans Series and the FIA GT World Championship?

But on the positive side, there has been no shortage of announcements. At Le Mans came news of the Le Mans Delta Wing car, to run at Le Mans in 2012, but outside the regulations, making use of the provision of the ACO for innovative technologies. There were two other “new technology” proposals as well, applying for the 56th entry at Le Mans. Then Porsche announced their intended participation with an LMP1 car in 2014. And hot on Porsche’s heels, an all-electric Lola from Drayson Racing. This week came news that Jaguar is going to build an LMP1 car. The intentions of Lotus in LMP1 are perhaps more hopeful than realistic, but these are all the kinds of announcements which indicate that interest in Endurance racing in general, and Le Mans in particular, is high.

The FIA may be the senior partner, but in the coalition of the ACO and FIA that now exists, it is the ACO which seems to be forcing the pace: particularly in the areas of new technologies. The ACO has long appreciated the value of diversity in the entry list at Le Mans, but by reserving its 56th garage for a “special case”, where someone can run outside the regulations, they need to take care that the recipients of this entry do not turn into too many blind alleys. New technology, yes - wacky racers, no thanks!

Talking of the 56th entry, when 56 cars took the start this year, I was blithely commenting that it was the first time that more than 55 cars had started since 1955 (when there were 60). But I had overlooked 1975. Reading Quentin Spurring’s excellent “Official History” book provided the nugget that in 1975, 56 cars also started the race; even though only 55 had qualified. Fausto Morello, from Ecuador, entered in a Porsche Carrera RSR which had failed to qualify, decided to take the start anyway. He managed three laps before anyone noticed!

Anyway, back to the present and the World Endurance Championship. Despite the major revisions to the regulations this year, I think that next year will prove to be more of a new start. Certainly there are questions hanging open at the moment. But importantly, there is time (at the moment) to address them. Provided that things get nailed down before the end of October, then there is every prospect of a successful championship. It may sound a little harsh, but the ALMS and the LMS have no intrinsic right to exist. As I have argued before, a World Championship, of which the 24 hours of Le Mans can be a part, should exist - even though it has not always been so. To my mind, the hierarchy should be ‘top-down’ - in other words, the top level championship should be well-defined, before subsequent layers beneath that can be formulated. What has happened in recent years is that the ACO and the ALMS have ‘gone global’, without the full sanction of the world governing body. And while that has worked well in the last 10 years or so, there needs to be a controlling influence. My big concern is that the control that the FIA will impose will be benevolent and not malicious. But hey, I’m optimistic.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

2011 - 2012 Calendar

I was surprised to receive in the post yesterday a Le Mans calendar. It has been produced by one of those companies that produces small-scale publicity material for small businesses - and has some great photos from last year's 24 hour race, as well as some photos from the Silverstone 1000kms.

It also contains some amusing notes in the dates - not least the fact that next year, Good Friday will fall on a Sunday (which is a bit of a worry).

Anyway, I am very grateful to whomever it was who sent it - by all means remain anonymous if you wish, but I am sure that I owe you a beer, if you'd like to make yourself known to me!

Hopefully I shall get around to writing some more on this blog in the near future - sadly there hasn't been much going on recently which has inspired me. Possibly some thoughts on the World Endurance Championship might emerge soon. And I have driven a couple of very nice Audis recently, impressions of which I really ought to share. Just a question of time, really.

Friday, 1 July 2011

24-Hour Reflections from Le Mans and the Nürburgring

I spent two very different weekends at the two twenty-four hour races at Le Mans and at the Nürburgring in June. It is very difficult to compare the two events - indeed the venues themselves, their traditions, cultures; the very heart of each event makes comparisons pointless. As Tom Kristensen said when asked to choose between his Le Mans victories, “it’s like choosing between your children - they’re all different, but all very special”.

What both races had in common though, was that they were close. Obviously, getting a lap ahead at the Nürburgring is a somewhat different proposition than at Le Mans, but in both races, the leading two cars were always on the same lap, throughout the race. As I mentioned a little while ago on this blog - this is the “new era”, in which endurance racing has to be approached in a “zero fault tolerance” way: to win, you must be perfect.

And largely, that is what Audi managed at Le Mans, with the Lotterer / Tréluyer / Fässler R18 TDI, and what Manthey Racing managed at the ’Ring, with their Porsche 911 RSR of Luhr / Dumas / Lieb / Bernhard. Both cars had a competitor close behind, which arguably did not have the same pace, but which was close enough to overtake if the slightest problem arose. Both were specialists in their field, and as each race progressed, the leaders looked increasingly unlikely to have such a problem. A bit like watching a circus tightrope walker, when you somehow know that he isn’t going to fall off - but that doesn’t make it any less exciting or less tense.

I do not propose to give a race report here, as there are others available elsewhere. And in case you are watching here or on dailysportscar.com for an analysis of the Le Mans 24 hours, you'll have to look in the next issue of Racecar Engineering - so I encourage you to go out and buy that! Or have a look at www.racecar-engineering.com in the coming weeks.

As far as the Nürburgring 24 hours is concerned, though, it struck me that the Manthey approach of having a car that would be able to stretch its legs in the second half of the race, as the amount of traffic reduced, was very wise indeed. It is a fact that on busy circuits, it is difficult to make the most of a performance advantage, since much of your pace is dependent on the pace of the traffic. Nürburgring must rank as a busy circuit - perhaps not as busy as Sebring, but a lot busier than Le Mans.
Both the Manthey Hybrid Porsche and the Hankook Ferrari demonstrated in last year’s race that they were capable of winning the race. It was therefore a disappointment that both of them struck problems this year. Both clearly had the pace, but were not able to run fault-free. The Audi R8 LMS were unable to challenge for the lead, but the no 17 “Playboy” sponsored car seemed indecently quick at times, and one wonders what would have happened had it not had its delays fixing a minor electrical glitch in the first quarter of the race and recovering from a collision with another car at around half-distance. And the Mercedes SLS were pretty spectacular too. In terms of pace, the #30 was probably the one to watch - indeed it led the race for some 30 laps, but the #46 was lapping just as quickly at times. Could either have won? Probably, and the Mercedes SLS should certainly go on the list of potential winners next year, subject to balance of performance issues.

Here’s an interesting way of looking at the numbers, although I am not sure what it proves, if anything:

In the end the battle was between the #1 Schnitzer BMW M3 and the #18 Manthey Porsche RSR. Just as last year, a battle between Charly Lamm and Olaf Manthey, two of the great characters of endurance racing and with enough enthusiasm and experience to write a novel about. However, unlike Le Mans, it was very easy to spot the moment when the race turned away from BMW. On lap 24, the BMW took to the grass on the left as it passed a slower car on the way into the Karussell, and was then unable to slow down enough to avoid a collision with the same car (another BMW) as it turned through the corner. Both cars spun through nearly 180 degrees, and the Schnitzer car ended up in the middle of the circuit, facing the wrong way. Pedro Lamy was the driver, and he then drove forwards, against the flow of the oncoming traffic, to a point where he could turn the car across the track and head back to the pits - where he was anyway due at the end of the lap - for repairs.

The to-ing and fro-ing on the track only cost the BMW about 15s, but then a further 1m 10s was lost in the pits as the front bodywork was replaced. Not long afterwards came the news that the incident was being investigated by the race stewards, and after three hours, a three-minute stop-go penalty was announced, not for the contact, but for driving against the flow of traffic (around 30 metres, by my reckoning).

So, 15s on the track, 1m 10s in the pit and 3m penalty, a total of 4m 25s. The winning margin of the Manthey Porsche? 4m 23.792s. Poor old Pedro - having being pushed out of the second-placed Peugeot at Le Mans by the speedier(?), (French) co-drivers, he’s then the guy who costs BMW victory at the Nürburgring, two weeks later.

Lamy is back at Imola this weekend, driving for BMW again. Now here’s a poignant link, for it was he (remember?) who drove into the back of JJ Lehto at the start of the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. I hope he has a really good race this weekend - he probably deserves one.