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 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 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.

1 comment:

  1. Paul, I think Lamy drove more like 80 - 90 meters against the flow back to the beginning of the carousel. He was nearly at the apex by the time he came to a stop.