Thursday, 7 November 2013

The Importance of Drivers

Historically, endurance racing in general and the Le Mans 24 hour race in particular, have been less about drivers and more about the manufacturers of their cars. Traditionally, it has been the car that matters, not who drives it. Acquaintances of mine who have been to only one or two endurance races will remember that a Jaguar or a Porsche – or more latterly, an Audi – won the race but are rarely able to recall (if indeed they paid sufficient attention to have even noticed in the first place) who the drivers were.

Although Formula 1 has its Manufacturer’s Championship, and although car manufacturers spend vast amounts of money, not only on engine development but also on the promotion of their brand through Formula 1, it has always struck me that it is the arena of Sports Car Racing that provides the better shop window for car brands to market their wares.

As one reflects on the first decade of this century, it is easy, with a little thought, to recall which ‘R’ of Audi won at Le Mans: three wins for the R8, then the Bentley win, followed by two more R8 wins, then three for the R10 diesel, before the Peugeot finally got a look-in, in 2009. But, if you’re anything like me, you’ll struggle to remember which races were won by Pirro and which Biela. (Actually, that’s a trick one, because they always won together!)

The point is, though, that it is the winning car that leaves the impression, and if it has its act together, then it is the manufacturer of that car that puts the full page advertisements in the national papers on the Monday after the race. But, as one who often is one of the last to step onto a new bandwagon, I do believe that we are now in an era when drivers count more in endurance racing than ever they did in the past.

The funny thing is that it is a phenomenon that has come to pass in all classes of endurance racing. Not just in LMP1, but also P2 – and especially in the GT classes. And it has come to pass in the marathon sprint that Le Mans represents these days just as much as the six-hour sprints that constitute the greater part of the World Endurance Championship.

I have reflected before on these pages about the way things change; particularly in the culture and conduct of the sport, and I find myself once again putting on the nostalgia hat. I am not – indeed I would like to think that I am not generally – suggesting that the past was so much better and that “fings ain’t wot they used to be”. No, instead I wish to draw attention to the change as it is happening, and be aware that living in the past is for dinosaurs.

As I have already suggested, though, this is a change that has already happened. We live now in an era of endurance racing where the driver has a very real role to play, and make-weights cannot be tolerated. To keep your car in with a chance of a podium place in whatever class it is competing, it can no longer be driven by a good, consistent journeyman. It has to be driven with verve, spirit, daring and skill. You have to, in a well-worn phrase much beloved by race engineers everywhere, “push without risk”. This requires high levels of concentration and ability, not found in every aspiring racing driver.

These days, therefore, there is a much greater dependency on the drivers that you choose when you are selecting your crew for a top prototype or GT car. And the World Endurance Drivers’ Championship is surely a title worthy of high acclaim. One small error in today’s endurance races rarely goes unpunished, and ‘fault-free’ is generally insufficient to win unless it is also ‘flat-out’. Gone are the days when anyone other than a truly top driver will get onto the top step of the podium.

The trouble is, of course, that the World Endurance Championship and particularly the Le Mans 24 hours, is dependent on wealthy enthusiasts, on drivers for whom the word ‘amateur’ is perhaps inappropriate, but who nevertheless do not make a living from racing and therefore cannot really be counted as professionals. And if they are not going to get their reward, then there is a danger that they will go elsewhere and do something else where good teamwork, clever organisation and raw competitiveness can beat young, talented professionals.

Except that they don’t. The World Endurance Committee of the FIA (or is it the ACO?) have thought of that and have implemented a system of driver classifications: Platinum, Gold, Silver and Bronze. Having classified everyone, they have then stipulated that to run in the LMP2 class, you have to have a driver who is classified Bronze or Silver in the driving crew. Similarly, in GTE-Am, the driving crew must (now) consist of at least two Bronze or Silver drivers.

On top of this, the rules then demand that to score world championship points, each driver must drive at least 1h 45m in a six hour race for the GTE-Am class, and 1h 15m in LMP2. In effect, this means that the least-able driver must drive for more than the distance that the car will go on one tank of fuel.

So what does this all mean? For the moment, all is well in the world. You have two strong professional-only classes in the World Endurance Championship, populated with a string of ex-formula 1 drivers and experienced and well-established ‘names’ in the sportscar racing world. Then, to fill up the grids, there are two classes for fully-privateer entrants with rules specifically tailored to ensure that the classes are attractive to wealthy amateurs and other non-professional drivers. A broad mix of manufacturers involved on a number of different levels is testament to its success (although an additional P2 engine manufacturer would not go amiss).

But most importantly of all, you have a meritocracy. A category where stars can shine and chumps have no place to hide. The trouble is that all good things have a tendency to come to an end. The challenge for those in charge is to preserve the good in the WEC as we move on into a possibly different-looking future.

As always, your comments are very welcome: let me know what you think below!

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