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!
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