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.

1 comment:

  1. A considerable investment by a hypothetical private LMP 1 newcomer with a single car entry could at best result in a win in a class containing 4 vehicles. Competing in LMP 1 and not having a chance being anywhere near the factory hybrids is clearly not inspiring to very many, and perhaps not meaningful to sponsors (though I know nearly nothing of that part of the equation).
    It would be more interesting if more than 6 cars had a realistic chance of reaching the podium.
    Would an LMPLight with lower tech (no HY)=lower cost, lower weight (than LMPH) =less tyre wear, more fuel =less time at rest combined with adding weight to LMPHs make up for a performance shortfall and attract the interest of privateers?
    Faster GTs would need less overtaking, but would they be more difficult to overtake and thus not really be a solution (to the problem of 60cars on track, of which at least 27 being very much slower than the fastest 10%, might being too many)?
    I for one wouldn´t mind a GT1 class.