With the great race behind us let’s take a few moments to reflect on what happened. Let’s be real folks, they can’t all be thrillers, but at this point we can comfortably say this race could easily have been a heck of a lot better.
It wasn’t all bad though, the cars as always, were simply stunning. Especially down the field in GTE, with 10 wonderful Porsche 911 RSR’s audibly reminding us of what once was at Le Mans. I was especially struck this year by the sheer beauty of the cars flowing through the French countryside during the dusk hours of the race. While I couldn’t attend this year, the lighting was simply perfect for television. I can still recall one particular shot of the BMW cruising through the run towards the Porsche curves, again, simply stunning.
On the opening corner of the race we had our first dramas. In what first appeared to be a shortage of talent by Andre Lotterer (yeah, I didn’t believe it either), we can now see on replay that the Toyota does appear to just ever so slightly graze the nose of the Rebellion. The two were certainly very close to the point of contact before the camera angle was shifted, by which time we can see that Lotterer has begun to check up significantly and then actually fell back several car lengths. He did not in fact overshoot the corner as it initially appeared but rather suffered from a lack of front down-force which prevented him from turning or slowing the car. I’m not sure the Toyota guys got quite enough flack for what was pretty clearly an unnecessary block, and technically avoidable conflict that did impact their closest competitor’s race (if you can call it that).
Interestingly enough, the Toyota team took quite a few risks during the 24 hours, perhaps in a bid of desperation to prove they deserved their crown despite the lack of competition. I was surprised to see the team allowing the two cars to battle so tightly at times, and even more surprised to see the risks taken to carve through the traffic (outside of track limits mind you) following one of the safety car periods. A grave mistake by the number 7 car missing its pits stop (as if was caught snoozing playing Gran Turismo), surely would have seen it challenged or left behind by an Audi or a Porsche in previous years. The number 8 had a flawless run save a speeding penalty in a slow zone, but one has to wonder if this too might have cost them the top spot had there been a rival to hold them accountable. I won’t say this Toyota win was unearned, they beat the track and ran mechanically sound, but it was certainly less earned. Had their rivals been there to push them to run harder and take more risks, I suspect we might still be asking when the first win for the Japanese manufacturer might come.
There’s not really much need to go into detail about the equivalence of technology (EoT) situation in the P1 class. There seems to be a significant amount of breath expended to stress that EoT is not BoP. Sure, they’re quite different, but they are designed to remedy the same problem through the same mechanisms: adjustment of performance capabilities to balance fundamentally different designs. But I digress, the FIA got it wrong, clearly, and predictably. You can listen to the Week in Sports Cars podcast with Marshall Pruett and Graham Goodwin for a more exhaustive discussion of the balance, or lack-there-of, between the hybrid and non-hybrid cars. I’m not going to argue that a private team on a fraction of the budget deserves to compete with the factory Toyota Gazoo Racing team, but the fact of the matter is this is precisely what they were promised when the class rules were amended to attract new entrants. I think we can all confidently say our confidence in the FIA/ACO’s promises is pretty low at this point.
Moving down the grid to GTE (at this point I’m pretty un-enthralled with LMP2), we had a fantastic suite of the worlds most spectacular GT racing cars, and a race dominated by an unfortunately familiar set of circumstances. Balance of Performance was once again the story, much to pretty much everyone’s dismay. Never mind that the system will never be perfect, there will always be winners and losers with BoP. What seems to be an increasing problem is the ever-growing disparity between entrants in the GTE/GTLM class. If the point of BoP is to have closer competition, I’d say its a pretty resounding failure when you have a manufacturer nearly five seconds off the pace. Sure Aston Martin Racing has some work to do, and they have admitted this much, but how can anyone say what is their onus to develop on their own and what is the FIA’s responsibility to “balance”? This is the inherent problem with BoP, but more on that another day.
I’ll be frank, what happens in GTE each year is simply unacceptable, I’m somewhat surprised so many manufacturers are still willing to participate at this point. No doubt Le Mans is the biggest GT event for any of the six manufacturers that participated this year. For a relatively “boutique” manufacturer like Aston Martin, which has a long tradition in motorsport and sports cars throughout its company identity, its not too much of a stretch to suggest Le Mans is the premier corporate event for them each year. To have an outing where at no point in the entirety of the race week did they have a scent of a chance is simply unacceptable, especially when it happens, at least partially, at the hands of the organizers.
I would echo the sentiments of others who have highlighted the need for transparency. We still have no explanation for why the Aston’s were not given more significant performance break in advance of the race. We can only assume that the organizers either suspected sandbagging, or that they simply don’t view the car as inherently quick enough (how on earth would this be determined?). Either way it would seem all parties are due a more thorough explanation.
Despite the gaps to some of the slower GT teams, we still did have an exciting battle at the head of the field in GTE-PRO, even if it was mostly made of Porsches… But alas even this was taken from us when the safety car broke up the lead group. It still baffles me as to why virtual safety cars (Code 60) are not employed, they were quite literally conceived of to eliminate situations such as this, which quite honestly ruin the racing. I can’t for the life of me concoct a situation in which a virtual safety car could not do the job of an actual one. If the situation is indeed so dire that it is dangerous to have cars circulating then I would argue that red flags are appropriate. While I see the argument that safety car groups provide for the opportunity to conduct maintenance work uninterrupted for extend periods, I’m tempted to say that just racing. Many other racing series operate under more difficult circumstance than Le Mans and do just fine. One would think the prestige of the “worlds most famous motor race” should entitle it to better standards than this. In endurance racing in particular, the safety car completely undermines the integrity of what is supposed to be going on out there. Track position in an endurance race is a sacred thing, it should never be given or taken artificially, it should always be earned.
Track Limits & Driving Standards
Another familiar story of recent Le Mans 24 Hours is that of track limits. The fast and unforgiving nature of La Sarthe has led to the paving of much of the runoff area around the circuit, and most drivers have taken to using, and abusing it on a regular basis. Again for the “world’s most famous motor race” its just, how we say in America, not a good look. It was nice to see some policing of it, but clearly a problem remains as most drivers regularly use these paved areas to gain an advantage, especially in traffic around lower classes as we saw with the Toyota’s after the restarts. I would echo John Hindhaugh of Radio Le Mans in that what we saw out there was truly unsporting, and questionably legal. The regulations state that one cannot exceed the track limits and gain an advantage, and yet the Toyota’s surely did. I would argue that in a multi-class race any pass should be considered gaining an advantage, not just those for class position.
Things weren’t much prettier in GTE either, as later in the race we were treated to a spicy battle for position in GTE PRO between Fred Makowiecki in the Porsche and Sebastien Bourdais in the Ford GT. The battle unfortunately got a little too intense in the eyes of many, including Seb, who described his treatment on track as “completely unacceptable”. Seb, not one to mince words is right here, and begs the question “So when do we say stop? When a car ends up in the trees?”. To me this illustrates how this too is a track limits issue. Many, including, apparently, the race director, did not find Mako’s moves unacceptable. This was apparently because Bourdais still had plenty of paved shoulder to safely work with. Ahhh, but that shoulder is there to be used when the drivers get it wrong ,not right, right? Its technically emergency runoff, it is, as they would say in Dodgeball, OVER THE LINE! If we are going to allow it to be used in legal and deliberate maneuvering (in this case forcefully) than does that not defeat the point of paving it in the first place? Now as things stand the cars are operating much closer to the walls and as Seb aluded, the trees. But hey at least the runoff is paved so some chummy folks at the FIA are happy?
Furthermore, its not a stretch to say that good old Fred might not have been so aggressive had that runoff not been there. We see this a lot in F1 as well where the drivers clearly show each other less respect now that they know anyone can fall back on paved runoff areas. Had he done so in a situation where Seb was run onto the grass (and therefore possibly the wall and or trees) I’m not so sure the stewards would not have view things a bit differently.
Do I need to go into great detail here? Probably not, but this article would be incomplete without taking the torch to the stewards once again for what is a truly unacceptable recent development in the technical regulations. I’m of course referring to maximum stint lengths, refueling times, and even lap times. Much like the EoT conversation you can find a more lengthy overview of this issue on other columns and podcasts. It must be said though that anything mandated by the stewards in terms of on-track results is anti-sport. Maybe its acceptable in other forms of motorsport, although I would say regulations like this disqualify anything from being referred to as pure sport. Are we simply just living in a “blue pill” world now where we pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, so long as we remain entertained? Many sports car enthusiasts are indeed more intelligent than this. At the end of the day we are always going to have lengthy technical regulations, but at a certain point can’t it just be; okay, here are the rules, show up, and run what ya brung.
Coming up next…..
A review of whats to come, the 2020 Le Mans Prototype regulations. Will the world even still exist in 2020? Thanks for reading.
- Top photo by Pete from Cambridge, UK – SA703108, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3916253