Thursday, 6 June 2013

Benoit Froger

I was saddened to hear recently of the death of Benoit Froger, following a long illness.

Benoit was, in a sense, one of the founding fathers of Radio Le Mans, and certainly helped establish the radio station in the late 1980's and into the 1990's.

At that time he was the marketing manager for the ACO, and was extremely supportive of Radio Le Mans in the early days. In effect, if we wanted to do anything, it was Benoit that sorted it out, whether it was arranging for telephone lines from France Telecom, radio frequencies from the French Government, car passes from the ACO, or the allocation of commentary booths amongst a variety of radio broadcasters.

He was usually ready to help, although he could at times be stubborn and intransigent: this was due as much as anything to his having to make compromises to keep as many people as possible as happy as possible for as much of the time as possible.

He left the ACO in 1995 and spent the rest of his career working for GM, providing a valuable link for the Corvette Racing and Cadillac teams with his many friends at the ACO.

His legacy was much broader than that though. During the 1970's it was Froger that encouraged many of the American teams to cross the Atlantic and come to Le Mans. Closely allied with Bill France of NASCAR, one wonders what would become of USCR if Benoit were still involved in the process.

It was also Froger that developed the marketing potential of the TV coverage of the race. Don't forget that during the 1970's the Le Mans 24 hours was seen as a something of a drudge. Contemporary sports-prototypes were not reliable, there were fuel shortages and the race was generally at a low ebb. With the arrival of Group C came increased interest from manufacturers, and Froger saw the potential of a world-wide TV audience for the race.

A man whose vision and enthusiasm is already missed.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Three more litres

It's now been more than a week since the ACO announced that the petrol-engined LMP1 cars are to be allowed a larger fuel tank at Le Mans. At least the organiser of the most important endurance race of the year has come clean and admitted that the additional three litres of fuel that the works Toyotas, the Rebellion Lolas and the Strakka HPD will be allowed to carry is in order to better balance the performance between petrol and diesel-fuelled engines.

So, this year, the hybrid Toyota TS030 cars will be allowed to carry 76 litres, an increase of 4.1% per tank. The non-hybrid privateer entries from Rebellion and Strakka will be able to carry 83 litres, an increase of 3.75%.

In 2012, both Toyotas were only able to manage 11 laps in a stint, which means that they were using about 6 litres per lap. Audi sometimes did 12 laps on its 58 litres of diesel, although some stints were 11 as well.

Just as an aside, before diving into the arithmetic too heavily, and before anyone starts pulling the wool over your eyes about how efficient these engines are, consider this. The diesel Audi, if it used all its fuel to do 12 laps last year, would be achieving 7.8mpg and the Toyota a miserable 5.8mpg (of super-unleaded). That means if you were to drive from Calais to Le Mans, you would need to stop twice en route to refuel, even if it you topped it up to the brim before you boarded the ferry at Dover!

So while we applaud the increased emphasis on more efficient engines, we must never forget these are racing cars, designed first and foremost to optimise performance. Using the same analogy of driving your road-going Toyota TS030 Hybrid from Calais to Le Mans, you could expect to arrive in around two hours - depending on how long the queue for toll booths was!

Anyway, to return from my tangent to the matter at hand, three litres is not even enough for a lap. But it might make the difference between 11 and 12 laps for Toyota. And you get the feeling somehow, that it must make the difference. Such rule changes are not made in isolation, they are made in consultation with the entrants concerned, and we know that Toyota has been lobbying for a performance break.

So it is reasonable to expect the Toyota TS030 Hybrids to be able to manage 12 laps in a stint this year. It will mean that at the start of each stint, the cars will be 2¼kg heavier, and the pit-stops will take around a second longer.

But what I find interesting is that the ACO chose to increase the tank size of the petrol-engined cars and not decrease the size for the diesel-engined Audis. It seems pretty obvious that Toyota needed the increase to get an extra lap and it wouldn't have the same negative impact on Audi - or at least that's what Toyota must think.

From what we have seen so far this year, Audi has a much thirstier car than last year - indeed, by my reckoning, they might only be able to get 10 laps out of a tank.

The other big issue is going to be tyre usage. We have seen the Michelin tyres lasting for three stints at Le Mans in the past - indeed, Audi has been known to run a quadruple strategy in the past. And if Audi can only manage 10 laps on a tank, then a triple stint for the tyres would only be 30 laps.

Of course, there are many scenarios, but let's take just two: first, that Toyota can indeed manage two laps more than Audi on a tank of fuel, but that Audi triple stints the tyres, where Toyota only double stint them.

In this case, assuming that there are no safety car periods, then the Audis will need to make seven additional stops (each) during the race. However, if they can lap, on average, three-quarters of a second faster than the Toyota, then they should (according to my projection software) be ahead at the end of twenty-four hours.

Second, let's suppose that Toyota's fuel advantage is only one lap, but that both teams can triple stint the tyres. This will enable Toyota to complete an extra lap over 24 hours, but it will have to maintain an average lap time within half a second of Audi in order to win the race.

In a nutshell, it is all finely balanced. The underlying theme is that Audi has the quicker car, but it will have to stop for fuel more often. The projections above both assume the ‘perfect race’ though - i.e. no fumbles on track or in the pits, no safety cars and no rain.

These days, that is not such a wild assumption, but bear in mind that each of the works hybrids will need to make more than thirty pit stops and over a thousand overtaking manoeuvres during the race, so achieving perfection is a very tall order indeed.

Monday, 3 June 2013

Continental Notes - May

A feature of my youth was growing up with Motor Sport magazine, and readers may recall the columns written by the irreplaceable and incomparable (and perhaps irascible) Denis Jenkinson under the same title. I do not for a moment pretend to be in Jenks' league as a journalist, nor as a writer, but wish to preserve his memory by using - I hope he'll forgive me - one of his headings for this post.

It was at Spa, at the beginning of May, that Nick Daman mentioned to me that he had noticed that I was at more races this year. And I explained to him the conscious decision I had taken at the beginning of the year to devote more time to racing, at the expense of my day job. Inevitably, it has been, to an extent, at the expense of my family life as well, but I have an understanding family (I think...) and May was a good month, featuring a trip to Spa-Francorchamps for the Six Hours WEC race, and to the Nürburgring for the 24 hours.

I first went to Spa in 1986, for the 1000kms sports-prototype championship race, and had a most memorable time, including being driven round the old circuit by Howden Ganley. In those days, even though the new circuit was in use, parts were still public road, including the run up to La Source and then back down to Eau Rouge, although Raidillon itself was coned off, you could then drive up the Kemmel straight towards Malmedy.

My last visit had been in 2001, and although in the interim I had visited various events, including some GPs, I must admit I had forgotten some of the charms of the place. I was able, during the Saturday morning warm-up session to wander off and watch the cars.

And I have to say that Spa is (in my opinion) one of those very special places to watch racing cars. It's not just the proximity - at some points you can get very close - and it is more than just the legendary status of places like Eau Rouge. It is to do with the age, the venerability of the place. If race circuits were in the Queen's honours list, Spa would have a knighthood.

You almost want to talk to the trees and ask them what they think of the current breed of WEC car, compared to the D-Types, Aston Martins, Ferrari Testarossas and Porsche 956s.

Time moves on of course, and now there is a nice new media centre in the paddock, but the old start finish line is still overlooked by the main grandstand. And the old commentary box, at the top of the hospitality suites in the centre of the picture below, brought back memories of times that aren't really that long ago.

The old 'bus stop' has gone too, but from the top of the pits is a marvellous viewing area (and a bar!), not just of the start finish, but of the run down towards Pouhon in the distance. Simply magnificent.

Audi UK had provided me with an A5 in which to make the trip, and as the race was held on Saturday, finishing at 8:30 in the evening, it was possible to drive home on Sunday morning on some delightfully empty Belgian autoroutes.

To make the weekend practically perfect, the weather was fine throughout, most unlike some very dreary weather that I've experienced in the past in the Ardennes.

A mere fortnight later, and it was off again, this time to the Nürburgring, for the 24-hours, with transport this time from Toyota GB, and a rather spiffing Lexus RX450h. It wasn't the first hybrid that I had driven, but it was certainly the best, the car easily returning 35mpg, despite being driven with some gusto at various points by John Hindhaugh and Jim Roller, who both drove it on occasions.

It's not really fair to compare Spa-Francorchamps with the Nürburgring, for although they are only 50 miles apart, they are quite different animals. The Nürburgring is itself something of a 'Jekyll and Hyde', with the rather bland Grand Prix circuit attempting, but failing, on 24-hour weekend, to cast a shadow over the mighty Nordschleife.

Although Spa was modernised before the Nürburgring (in 1979, rather than 1984), somehow the Germans managed to get everything wrong that the Belgians got right. The beauty of the 24-hour race at the Nürburgring is that you get to see both sides of the place: and in some ways the German character is similarly dichotomous. Never did we see an Autobahn as empty as in Belgium, and yet we were allowed to drive as fast as the poor little Lexus would go, once the de-restricted signs were shown.

Drivers in Germany are a lot more aware and disciplined than in Belgium, for good reason.

At the end of the long weekend though, driving home provided the opportunity to reflect on two rather different races and two rather different tracks. And yet, both stir the soul of motor racing aficionados.

When I was deciding on my 'Classic Tracks' recently, I didn't include either Spa or the Nürburgring - you'll have to wait for the final part of my trilogy to see what I added to Indianopolis and Monza - but having visited both in the last month, they are undoubtedly worthy of inclusion, and certainly both are well worth a visit. Even if you've been before, Spa Francorchamps and the Nürburgring are tracks that get under your skin and suck you back for repeat visits.