Well here we are on the eve of the the great Grand Prix D’Endurance, and with no shortage of topics to discuss! Toyota may very well be on the verge of breakthrough, GT is looking stellar albeit tainted by the stewards yet again, and we finally have our first clear picture of what the next chapter of the great race might look like.
I’ll just come right out and say it, with both cars quite comfortably positioned on the front row, this is clearly Toyota’s race to lose! Kaz Nakajima surprised no one with his 3:15 thrown up last night during Q3, a full four seconds clear of the leading non-hybrid P1 car in the hands of Rebellion Racing. We keep hearing that if anyone can find a way to lose Le Mans, its Toyota, but I’m just finding it hard to believe at this moment. Their car is now a seasoned veteran in LMP1 terms, as the team has apparently not felt the pressure to redesign or update it given their newfound competition, or lack thereof. Barring some significant sandbagging on the part of their pursuants, I’d say they were safe in making such a decision. Now don’t get me wrong, anything can happen, but they are looking pretty at the moment to be sure. A flawed run may hand victory to one of their rivals, but let’s not forget these cars are all extremely early in their own development both in terms of speed and reliability. Rebellion does indeed appear to have the best shot, with what is essentially a developed version of the well-exercised Oreca LMP2. In theory they should be there at the end should Toyota falter, but I suspect the hybrid outfit will have little issue finding the speed and efficiency necessary to maintain a comfortable gap without pushing their equipment as hard as previous years where the likes of Audi and Porsche pushed them to their limit.
Grand Turismo Endurance (GTE)
Things are much more up for grabs in GT, it would appear all but Aston Martin have a real shot. The scenario has quickly and unsurprisingly rekindled discussions of balance of performance. The changes this week have just re-highlighted what it is a clear ongoing problem for sports car racing. For countless years now in GT, BoP has been the story, tragically, as the multiple manufacturer entries have made it a highlight of the 24 hours for over a decade. Now some might say the close (enough?) competition BoP affords is a main reason for classes success, but I’d like to offer a radical opinion. BoP doesn’t work (and neither does EoT for that matter). What I mean by that is I reckon it creates more problems and more baggage for the sport than it is worth. I’ll be putting out a piece that I’ve titled The BoP Manifesto in the coming weeks outlining in more detail what I think the real problems are with this system, and why we need a better one (and don’t get me started on maximum stint length!). For now, I reckon come Saturday afternoon we’ll all have to pull the blindfold over our eyes and appreciate what we have.
The Le Mans Hypercar?
With all this talk of the new “LMP1”, I’ve been wondering when we’re going to hear about what’s next for GT, but alas beggars can’t be choosers, and this morning we got our first good look at the next chapter for prototype racing at Le Mans. It would appear those of us in the hypercars camp have gotten our wish, at least partially. I’m honestly somewhat pleasantly surprised by this decision, if not somewhat guarded about how it will ultimately materialize. Let’s take a look back at my article earlier this year and see what concerns have been addressed:
The devil will indeed be in the details here, but it would appear at first glance the organizers had done a good job to significantly reduce the budgets for a P1 program. It shouldn’t be a surprise if some manufacturers chose to or if indeed it becomes necessary to spend a bit more than the advertised 25-30m euro. If factory race teams know how to do one thing it is hemorrhage money, something tells me they’ll find a way, but we should still be well south of previous spending figures. Notably though, today’s press release outlines this spending figure as applicable to a single 8 race WEC season. Surely IMSA’s 10+ race schedule including another 24 hour and a 12 and 10 hour event would then be assumed to cost a bit more? I’m sure this disparity could be justified…
This brings us back to universality, which remains one of the biggest questions going into 2020. For most of sportscar racing history the same cars that have graced the french countryside have also adorned the high banks of Daytona and the brutal runway’s of Sebring’s historic airfield. It has been a great tragedy that this has not been the case in recent years, and has undoubtedly hurt sportscar racing. These are world class events that play a large part in making Le Mans racing relevant stateside in what is not an insignificant market. It sounds like the two sides still have some coming together to do before this will be the case again, largely based on the concerns just mentioned regarding costs. Perhaps IMSA could mandate a couple more areas of the cars to bring things down a bit, I suspect this will be the solution and the cars will largely look and feel the same to the casual spectator. I suspect Scott Atherton’s comments earlier today can largely be summarized as smart negotiating. They know the ACO needs them on board to reach the highest level of success, perhaps even more so than vis-versa as evidenced by the success of the DPi era. Still, I applaud the ACO for not compromising too much, in my opinion if a Mazda, Cadillac, Acura, or Nissan don’t want to invest more than is required to put together a stylized LMP2 with a GT3 engine in the back, they don’t deserve to stand upon the top step at La Sarthe. Cheers to the ACO for protecting this sacred ground.
Ah, perhaps as a fan this should have been listed first, as I actually think this is just as important if not more so than costs. If you have no appeal than you have no product, whatever the cost. I think today’s compromise did a great job of addressing this. As I mentioned previously regarding Le Mans prototypes and DPi’s, they just never stood a chance of having a broad appeal beyond the sport’s core fan base. I mean what are they? It’s unlikely cars will ever look like that. The new rules remedy this, with aerodynamic development restrictions that will allow the manufacturers to maintain more that just “styling cues”. The cars will also feature wider windscreens and be in the two-seater configuration again. Rejoice! I read this as yes, this car will actually be able to look like, well, a car! This is huge. I know many sports car fans who are not sports car racing fans that will have a new connection to the sport. You’ve heard of the Aston Martin Valkyrie, McLaren P1, etc., well I see your hypercar and raise you one Le Mans hypercar (official name tbd). Here’s some juicy goodness from Marco van Overbeeke to get you excited for 2020. Here’s to the new cars being anywhere near this cool!
Based on the fact that a whopping six OEM’s were involved in hashing out these regulations, I’d say the prospect for constructors is looking good. Again the devil is in the details, like I mentioned previously, I don’t really consider DPi manufacturers true constructors, they are simply engine and body work providers.
The crux of it all… This is where things get somewhat concerning for me. I’ve stated previously I can accept some level of “dumbing-down” of the hybrid technology, an obvious necessity after the previous regulations indeed proved we are a bit ahead of ourselves. I’m a bit scared off by the notion that development will be made unnecessary in the new regulations. It was wonderful to see the road relevant gains made my Audi, Toyota, and Porsche, and they were indeed monumental! This is the true power of racing! Ultimately I do think Le Mans will need a technological development connection to on road automobiles to justify costs, even if they are substantially lower. Do we need a platform which creates a scenario that manufactures will be compelled to participate for reasons beyond marketing? I suspect yes to some degree, but I think this is a good start. Let’s build from here.
A FINAL THOUGHT
It’s easy to get wrapped up in these storylines, but when the tri-color falls I find a peaceful solace in the passing of a race car in anger. Somehow all this BS and the clutter of my own life simply falls away. Enjoy the race.