Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Some Questions for Toyota

I have spent much of the last two weeks going over the data from this year’s astonishing Le Mans 24-hour race, and in the analysis of the numbers, some of the emotion has been lost. Probably, this is good thing, because for several hours after the race a sense of numbness overcame me – as I am sure it did for a lot of people.

Make no mistake, there has never been a finish like this one. Not just in terms of the proximity to the finish when the leading car coughed, spluttered and died – at least temporarily – but also in the fact that the chasing car – a Porsche – was only just over a minute behind when it happened. And that minute would have been a lot less but for a puncture in the last 15 minutes.

I must admit, in the immediate aftermath, the biggest injustice seemed to me that the no. 5 Toyota, so ably driven throughout the race by Sebastien Buemi, Anthony Davidson and Kazuki Nakajima, was not even classified. No wonder that the Audi crew of Oliver Jarvis, Lucas di Grassi and Loïc Duval was so reluctant to take up the third step of the podium.

But “rules are rules”, came the cry – and it clearly states in article 10.15(e) of the Le Mans Supplementary Regulations, that the final lap must be completed in less than six minutes, except in cases of force majeure, at the Stewards’ discretion. Exactly what constitutes force majeure was the subject of some debate, albeit somewhat briefly – and there didn’t seem to be much stomach for it in the Module Sportif. There would be two German flags and one Japanese flown over the podium, and that, it would seem, was that.

The first time that a limit was imposed for a time to complete the final lap was in 1949, when the rule was introduced that the final lap had to be completed in under 30 minutes. The rule was introduced, as much as anything else, because the organisers wanted to ensure that the marshals could be safely stood down at the end of the race, and that the track be re-opened to the public, without some racing car still trying to complete its twenty-four (and a half) hour race.

It was not until after the millennium that the maximum time for the final lap was reduced to six minutes, and the reason it was done was not merely to allow the marshals to stand down sooner.

After the 24-hour race of 2007, there had been some criticism of the ACO that various rules had not been strictly applied, and early in 2008, the organising body issued a statement to clarify matters. Interestingly, two of the specific complaints had been that bodywork had been used to block the view into the garages and the race numbers were not visible at night – maybe progress has not been as great in the last ten years as we think.

However, and more significantly to my mind, was that the Peugeot 908 driven by Sébastien Bourdais, Pedro Lamy and Stéphane Sarrazin had not completed the final lap in the required six minutes – indeed it had come out and waited by the start finish line for the chequered flag to be waved at the winning Audi before crossing the line in ‘second’ place, strictly against the provision of the same article in the regulations that led to the exclusion of the Toyota this year.

In fact, none of the final four laps of that Peugeot had been under six minutes – although there was the mitigating factor of rain, but we will return to the subject of the weather later.

Ah, said the ACO, but the spirit of the rule had not been broken. The rule had been introduced, they said, to prevent an “endless victory lap before the end of the race and thus endangering safety of other cars that were racing for position”. This was merely the case of the car trying to get to the finish of the world’s greatest endurance race. No-one mentioned the fact that it was a French car, of course.

I reminded a seasoned hack of this immediately after the race. “Yes, but that was nearly ten years ago,” I was told, “now we have an FIA/ACO alliance and a World Championship. Things are different.”

Maybe so, but only two years ago (when there was indeed a World Endurance Championship to be fought over and points to be won and lost), there was a little bit of trouble and fuss when the Porsche driven by Romain Dumas, Neel Jani and Marc Lieb (remember them?) completed the final lap of the race in 1h 26m 09.430s and yet somehow that counted as force majeure and their fourth place in the LMP1-H class enabled them to score 24 points in the championship.

In case you missed it, the Porsche had made a long pit stop, and came out just in time to complete its final lap, but as the start finish line is before pit, the time that the car spent in its pit counted towards the final lap time. Although the final lap time should have led to the car’s exclusion, the ACO reasoned that the final lap time should not be defined as the time between crossings of the timing line, but should be calculated as the time from the pit out to the finish line.

Fair enough I suppose, but in that case why didn’t Nakajima bring the Toyota into the pits when the car suffered its problem at 14:57 on Sunday afternoon? The pit lane would have (should have) remained open until Neel Jani got round his final lap, so getting out of the pit again would not have been a problem. The fact is, Kazuki panicked. Rafal Pokora, the race engineer on the car, panicked. I suspect everyone in the Toyota garage who had any influence panicked.

The other option would have been for Nakajima to stop his car just before the pit lane entrance. Assuming that whatever was done could have been done just as well there as three hundred yards further on, again, it would have ensured that the long ‘problem’ lap was the penultimate lap and the final one would have been covered in less than the six minutes required by the regulation.

It wouldn’t have given them the win that they wanted, but at least Anthony Davidson, Sébastien Buemi and Nakajima would have had a second-place podium consolation prize. And the humiliation of being stationery under the famous Rolex clock, in front of the packed grandstands, would have been avoided as well. Somehow, that image smacked to me of a stereotypical Japanese melodrama. I’m not sure that I would have reacted any differently in that situation, but I suspect that some of Hugues de Chaunac’s tears were due to the missed opportunities. The people who are paid to know what to do failed to come up with the correct answers in a crisis.

Let’s take a look at the matter from a different angle. I can see an argument for dispensing with the six-minute rule altogether (although I grant you that some means has to allow the poor soul waving the chequered flag to be able to furl his flag and go home). In recent years, crowd control at Le Mans has improved vastly – we no longer have spectators invading the track as the cars are on their last lap, blissfully unaware of any class battles that may be going on. The introduction of a proper slowing-down lap and the positioning of the parc fermé on the track at the Ford Chicane means that the marshals can leave their flag-waving appreciation of everyone’s efforts until after the race is over.

When the cars were waved off the track at the end of the pit lane, the only opportunity for drivers to appreciate the crowd was on the last racing lap. Of course they milked it (if their lead was big enough).

Now, consider the possibility that the no. 5 Toyota, instead of being just a minute or so ahead of its nearest competitor, had been a lap or more ahead. Then, when the Porsche had gone past the stricken Toyota, it would only have been unlapping itself, not going into the lead. If, as it did, the Toyota got going again to complete its lap, it would have won the race, surely? Not if its final lap was discounted for being over six minutes long! Thankfully, it didn’t happen – but it would have presented the stewards with an interesting dilemma.

Alternatively, consider what would have happened if the weather conditions on Sunday would have been as bad as on Saturday. Would we have had a finish behind the Safety Car? The ACO considers such an eventuality extremely unlikely, but would the need to follow the Safety Car be regarded as force majeure? Maybe the whole field would have been excluded!

Feel free to leave your comment below.

Friday, 10 June 2016

Team-mates - Thoughts from Allan McNish

Looking through the entry list for this year’s Le Mans 24 race, it occurs to me that this year will be the seventh consecutive time that Marcel Fässler, André Lotterer and Benoît Tréluyer will have driven together in the same car. Apart from this being remarkable in its own right, it is also significant because it equals the record set by Tom Kristensen, Allan McNish and Dindo Capello, who also shared the same car on seven occasions, between 2006 and 2012.

“I wasn’t aware of that!” said Allan McNish when I drew his attention to the fact earlier this week. “But it is an interesting reflection on the fact that there are not many manufacturers around that are in a position to provide that sort of an opportunity, where drivers can work together for that many years.”

Although Allan, Tom and Dindo only won the big race once as a team of drivers (in 2008), McNish believes it gives a big advantage to have that kind of longevity for a driving crew. “Knowing your co-drivers is very important,” he says. “It is harder for three drivers to make it work than if you would only have two, but it is very important to be able to understand and work well together. Tom, Dindo and I are all very strong characters – you have to be a strong character if you are a racing driver – but it was Dindo who really brought us together as a team. He was the key ingredient: he would put his arm round your shoulder when you needed it.”

The combination of the Briton, the Dane and the Italian came together in the first year of the Audi turbodiesel engine. Although they had never all driven together before, all had been part of the Audi family for many years, and all had already won the 24 hours before – Kristensen and Capello having shared the winning Goh Audi in 2004 as well as the Bentley that triumphed in 2003. “It was a good time to get together,” opines McNish, “as the new technology meant a new start in some ways. On the other hand, we all knew each other well already, so it didn’t take long to be effective, as a team.”

It is more than just a team of three drivers, though, as McNish readily admits. “People like Dr. Ullrich, Ralf Jüttner, Ulrich Baretzky and Jo Hausner have all been involved since the very start,” he says. “Even if there has been change [Howden Haynes, Chris Reinke have both now moved on], the nucleus of the team has remained. That’s especially true on the design side and in the engine development, which is vitally important.”

The German/French/Swiss combination of Lotterer, Tréluyer and Fässler has been immensely successful of course: on the six occasions they have shared a car at Le Mans, they have won the race three times. Does McNish see any parallels in the driving crews? “Not really, Marcel, Ben and André are quite different from Tom, Dindo and me. With them, you have someone for every occasion. André may seem quite laid-back, but he is pretty intense. What you have to remember is that they all had quite varied careers before joining Audi – they haven’t been successful all of the time. Ben has quite a lot of other elements to his career. He and Marcel are both a little older – they have families, in fact Marcel has four girls!”

Although André Lotterer is regarded by many people as the outstanding member of the crew when fast laps are required – indeed some would regard him as the outstanding endurance racer of the current era – both Marcel and Benoît have turned in race-winning performances of their own. “Absolutely!” agrees McNish, “there have been races in the past where Marcel and Ben have both stepped up and, quite frankly, won the race. All three drivers have the ability to raise their game when they have to. They are all extremely strong under pressure. With Marcel, well, he’s Swiss! There are no secrets with him – what you see is what you get. If he’s feeling an emotion, you will know exactly what it is!”

In 2009, the year before Fässler, Lotterer and Tréluyer came together at Audi for the first time, they had all been at Le Mans, but in rather different machinery. André Lotterer had been at the wheel of the older, Kolles-entered Audi R10; Tréluyer had been employed by Henri Pescarolo to drive his privately-entered Peugeot 908 and Fässler had been at the wheel of a factory GT1 Chevrolet Corvette.

“It wasn’t a crew of drivers that seemed a natural fit at first,” accepts Allan McNish. “Marcel was part of the Audi team already (having driven Audis in GT racing) and the relationship between him, Ben and André was a bit like a marriage: it had to be worked at. It took a bit of time to get it right.”

What is not in doubt, as the teams assemble for the 84th running of the 24 hour race, is that the relationship is now absolutely right. With Leena Gade on the pit wall, masterminding the crew for the last time before moving on to pastures new at Bentley, the no.7 Audi e-tron quattro must be counted among the favourites for what would be a fourth win for the four of them together!

Monday, 6 June 2016

A Gnawing Concern

I am looking forward to the Le Mans 24 hours, of course I am. This will be my 36th time at the race and the week is always a highlight of my year, even if it means I miss my wife, family and home life while I am away. However, there is a concern that has been growing steadily over the past few years, that I fear – a bit like global warming – that we ignore at our peril. And a bit like David Cameron’s referendum, if it goes wrong, it will be entirely self-inflicted. It is one of those things that has been gnawing away, like a rat through a telephone cable and I just want to flag it up so that someone, somewhere, might be able to take some preventative measures.

Here’s the subject:
Year Starters LMP1 cars Percentage
2015 55 14 25%
2014 54 9 17%
2013 56 8 14%
2012 56 13 23%
2011 56 17 30%
2010 55 18 33%
2009 55 20 36%
2008 55 22 40%
2007 54 16 30%
2006 50 12 24%
2005 49 13 27%
2004 48 19 40%

Although the entry list has been extended to allow 60 cars to start this year, only 9 of them are in the LMP1 category – that’s just 15% of the entry, nearly the lowest ever. Last year’s renaissance in the percentages came largely (but not exclusively) as a result of the arrival in the entry list of the three Nissans, and I would regard 25% as an absolute minimum for the top class at Le Mans.

But it is not just the percentage, it is the fact that there are six – only six – LMP1 Hybrids in the entry. The performance differential among these six seems (from the evidence of the Test Day) to be pretty small, certainly compared to last year. But the difference to the rest of the field is significant, and the fact that the entry has been expanded by nearly 10% means that there is likely to be a lot more overtaking to be done over the course of the 24 hours.

The original plan, as it was announced last year, was to invite 58 cars to enter the race this year, and extend to 60 only in 2017. The decision by the ACO to accelerate this progression was made after the decision of the Volkswagen Group to reduce the factory efforts from both Porsche and Audi to just two cars each. So was someone at the ACO thinking that 27 GT cars and 23 LMP2 cars was a reasonable number (compared to 23 and 19, respectively, last year) and that they would just be absorbed into the path of the LMP1 Hybrids? Or was it merely an opportunistic move because work on the additional garages had gone smoothly? I wonder.

It’s a somewhat tricky calculation, but a few years ago, I worked out that the winning car at Le Mans made over 1,000 overtaking manoeuvres on the race track. In total, there were something like 25,000 moves where one car passed another during the 24 hours of the race.

By my reckoning, the additional cars (and the speed of the P1 Hybrids) will add around 1,000 to that number. Whoever wins this year – be it a Porsche, an Audi or a Toyota – will have to make an additional 200 or so overtaking moves.

If a snap decision was made by the ACO to build the additional garages, then I hope that a driver’s snap decision does not have long-lasting consequences.

I have written before about narrowing the gap between the GT and Prototype cars (here), but that vision was a longer term one. If ever-larger grids is to become a sustainable objective, then maybe this would provide a way forward.