I am often asked to justify my assertion that sportscar racing, and the Le Mans 24 hour race in particular, is a more worthy thing to follow than Formula 1, and although I wholeheartedly believe it to be true, I usually struggle to find a way to present my case.
One of the things that I enjoy about Le Mans is the variety it provides. Although, having said that, the technical regulations usually end up giving one form of technology an advantage over others; and reliability is so strong these days (as I have discussed before) that generally means that there is only a handful of cars in a position to win the race.
Compare that to Formula 1, though, where to have even a handful of cars from which to pick a winner would be a luxury. The heart of the problem lies beyond where we are today, but in how we got here.
When I first started following motor racing, the only category in which all the cars were the same was Mini racing. Now don’t get me wrong, I love Mini racing: I always have and I am sure I always will. But, in my book, it loses a certain cadre because of the “single make” tag.
Motor racing has traditionally been about first and foremost getting an advantage over the competition by virtue of a technological advantage and then finding a driver capable of handling such a vehicle. Yes, Formula 1 is all about the drivers, but there have been many occasions in the past when the World Drivers’ Champion has won his title by virtue of being in the best car, not by virtue of being better than everybody else.
It is a paradox, but one which lends interest and gives the sport more charm. While I am sure that innovative thinking is still an intrinsic part of the Formula 1 world, these days it is in tiny, narrow back-alleys that few see or understand. Blown diffusers and F-ducts may be inspirational developments, but when I was young we had big high wings, air-boxes, turbines (as well as turbo-chargers), six-wheelers and fans, to name but a few.
This was radical thinking that you could see, that made you sit up and take notice. That’s what I like about Le Mans’ “56th garage”. The ACO may never quite have got the equivalence right, but they have encouraged alternative approaches for years and have been a far better shop-window for technological development - certainly in more recent years - than Formula 1.
Formula 1 may not be a single-make ‘spec’ formula, but both GP2 and GP3, the official ‘feeder’ series, are. And the Formula 1 regulations these days are so restrictive, that you are not free to alter any of the bodywork dimensions, still less choose your engine configuration, your fuel type or your tyres. Partly of course this is all due to cost-control; but if the money were not there, it would not be spent. Much more it is due to a restrictive rule book.
I read a quote from Pat Symonds earlier this year, that in 1983 the F1 technical regulations ran to 11 pages. In 2010 it was 67 pages - to say nothing of a 62 page appendix and various ‘technical directives’. But the heart of the difference between this and Le Mans is that if you come up with something a bit wacky and take it to the organisers, you can then make a case for getting an entry. In Formula 1, the doors to technical innovation are constantly being slammed shut.
However, a bit like any good thing, it is only good if it is under control; uncontrolled freedom is anarchy. With the number of turbo-charged and diesel-fuelled cars on the public roads these days, their participation in the 24 hours is obviously reasonable. I am all in favour of Ben Bowlby’s DeltaWing project and I wish it the best of luck in the 2012 event. Aside from its obvious visual impact, I applaud the principle of less power and less weight. It is, for me, an appealing idea.
Less appealing (to me) is hybrid technology. I was never one to follow conventional wisdom, and at the risk of being proved completely wrong, I think Hybrid will not be with us long.
In the mid-1970’s, the world was in the grip of the Middle East fuel crisis. In the UK, the government went as far as issuing coupons, in order to be ready for the increasingly likely scenario that fuel rationing would be introduced. In France, the ACO reacted against the inevitable criticism that the Le Mans 24 hours was a dreadful waste of fuel, by introducing a rule that forced cars to complete at least 20 laps between refuelling stops for the 1975 race. This represented something like a 20% improvement over the previous year and added around 15 seconds to lap times. In the end, the reduced pace meant that reliability was better and more cars completed the race than ever before. So the amount of fuel consumed by the race was actually more, rather than less, than in previous years.
My concern is that similar unintended consequences arise with hybrid technology. Fuel consumption is improved, but marginally. And the environmental cost of getting hold of the lithium required for the battery elements of a Hybrid is far in excess of the fuel saved. Half of the world’s known lithium is in Bolivia. Recent US investigation has suggested that a similar amount might be in Afghanistan. The sad fact is that the Western world sees it as acceptable that we ravage such states with impunity, with little regard for rain-forest or other environmental aspects.
The clue is in the name. Should not a racing car be a thoroughbred? By its very nature, a hybrid is a compromise, a halfway house, neither one thing nor another. Be assured, the R&D departments of the world’s motor manufacturers are busy beyond hybrid towards other fuels and types of engines.
And do you know what? I bet we see those technologies at Le Mans before we see them in a Formula 1 race.