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Le Mans: Talking Balance of Performance With The GT Field

Porsche, Corvette and Ferrari weigh in on Ford's dominance

GTE BoP: Six letters that are raising a lot of hackles at the Le Mans 24 Hours this year. Following two adjustments in its favour (one after the Spa WEC round and one after Test Day) Ford almost swept the board in Wednesday night’s qualifying, taking four out of the top five positions and setting a best time of 3:51.185 – three tenths faster than the fastest Ferrari and full 3.7 seconds up on the next-fastest marque again, Porsche.

The fastest Aston Martin was over four seconds off Ford’s pace, while the Corvettes ended the session second-last and last in the category – although the American cars suffered a couple of issues that limited their running in ideal conditions. Both Corvette and Porsche were pegged back ahead of Le Mans race week and accusations of both sandbagging on the part of Ford and a failure to properly balance performance on the part of the ACO have been aired.

ACO sporting director Vincent Beaumesnil, the man ultimately in charge of administering the BoP process, told DSC on Thursday morning: “I haven’t had time to discuss Wednesday’s qualifying with the teams yet, but we are for sure making an analysis. You know how things are in GTE, you never know how it really is. The idea of Balance of Performance is to give the same performance to everyone, but you need to know that what you’re seeing on track is everyone at the top of their performance.

“Sometimes you see it during the race, so we have to analyse all these things before making a decision. We need to know if what we see is the real performance. Telemetry can tell us this, but it’s not a five-minute job to look at it. We can still change the BoP on Friday night if we want – of course it’s something we will look at.”

Ollie-Gavin-Le-Mans

Last year’s winner Corvette was looking distinctly out of place at the bottom of the GTE Pro timesheets on Wednesday night, but driver of the #64 Oliver Gavin (above) reckons that even without the issues that hit the team in free practice and Q1, the most the Chevys can hope for is to match Porsche.

“We had a differential change and a GPS issue, and conditions were changing, so it wasn’t a very clean run for us,” he told us on Thursday. “Where could we be? Certainly closer to the Porsche. I think that’s our pace, as that’s where we were at the test day. Porsche and us were very close, we both had an adjustment, so that means our pace is still close to theirs, I think that’s where we’ll end up, but I don’t think there’s anything more we can do.”

“We know that we drove hard and strong at the test day, we maximised our package for that day and we’ve come back with an adjustment, which is frustrating,” Gavin continued, “but we’ve been dealt these sorts of cards in the past and we know we can bounce back, like last year. We had a strong, efficient run then and we have to look to do the same this year. It’s hard to look at the timesheets, but we know there’s so much involved in Le Mans, so much more to it, so we have to balance that out, look at it in a clear way and work on what we can work on.”

Doug-Fehan-Le-Mans

Introducing a Corvette media briefing, the team’s programme manager Doug Fehan (above) made a point of emphasising that in its 17 years at Le Mans, the American brand had always competed “with integrity, honor respect and sportsmanship”. Speaking to DSC shortly afterward, he said: “I think the timing sheets pretty much speak for themselves. BoP is a process that’s always in continuous flux. Depending on what the weather is like, when you look at where we were in practice and where we were Wednesday night in qualifying [3:55s], there wasn’t a whole lot of difference. I don’t suspect there’s a whole lot more there.”

Although Corvette is clearly unimpressed with the state of play right now, Fehan acknowledges that BoP is probably a requirement for making modern GT racing sustainable. “When we first started coming here, we ran off a simple table: weight, displacement, restrictor and then run what you brung. That was an interesting form of racing, but looking at the level of sophistication of today’s vehicles, the different configurations, front, rear and mid-engined, flat sixes, V6s, turbos, V8s – if we went flat-out, head-to-head, we’d just bring a Corvette Z06 and there wouldn’t be a series. We experienced that in the US in GT1: Aston, Porsche, Saleen: everybody came to run against us and we ultimately beat them all – we ended GT1 in the US. So trying to balance the different platforms is probably a pretty good idea.”

Fehan says that for now, the team is focusing on its experience and running its own race: “We’ve learned a long time ago that it’s not necessarily the fastest car that wins here,” he said. “We’ve been on the pole here two or three times out of the eight times we’ve won. Having a car that’s well balanced and reliable, following my three tenets of ‘don’t hit anything, don’t break anything and keep it on the racetrack’ at the end of the day that’s all we can do.”

92-Porsche-Le-Mans-Test-AM

DSC also caught up Porsche GT programme manager Marco Ujhasi on the issue. The two works 911s were clearly pushing hard on Wednesday night, as evidenced by a spin for Fred Makowiecki at one point. “We are operating at our limit, and even if this sounds a bit strange, we’re happy with the car, the drivers are happy, we’ve had a good team performance and preparation and we’re at our optimum,” said Ujhazi. “That’s all that’s in our hands. For other things, unfortunately we’re just a passenger. Our strategy is not to think about it and keep pushing what we can influence ourselves and go racing for ourselves.

“Everybody was very happy to welcome Ford – the more competitors the better the sport. It’s nice to have them here, but the question is how to have good racing. It’s one of the biggest GT fields, with five manufacturers involved, so the potential for a big fight is there. As we saw on Wednesday, it’s separated into two groups and that’s not the kind of racing anyone wants to see.

“Every team wants to operate at their limit, as is normal for this class, your homologation base is different and that’s why BoP is important. Once everyone is operating at their optimum it’s the task for the officials to make good racing. We’re definitely doing it and I guess the others are too.”

le-mans-test-2016-finish-order-82-Risi-Ferrari-488

While Corvette, Porsche and Aston Martin are clearly unhappy, Ferrari (and its US customer Risi Competizione) is looking in altogether better shape. Both the Risi and AF Corse 488s were frequently trading fastest times with the Fords during Wednesday’s qualifying, and the fastest of them ended up three tenths off the Blue Oval’s benchmark.

Risi chief engineer Rick Mayer (below) was perhaps slightly understating things when he told us “we’re not too unhappy”, however he added: “we’ve run our sessions to suit the conditions and that our performance is genuine. We know we have to save tyres and that there’ll be safety cars and other variables, not least changes in the weather, all of which affects overall strategy – it will certainly be interesting!

Rick-Mayer-Le Mans-2016

Mayer continued: “Balance of Performance has almost become what we race against. It’s a constant consideration in everything we do with the car. The difficulty with BoP is in the interpretation of the data – which has to be made available – by the people looking at it. They can easily presume there’s a reason for a car going particularly quickly and apply their own conclusions. Depending on who you are and your situation, that can bring about a counteractive approach, particularly at an event like this.

“You can work in the grey area, where things are less easy to understand and attract penalties. There are obvious things like the fuel – they can look at the rig and see what you’ve used – and straight-line speed, sector times… that’s all easily available. The reality will always be that we know our car better than they ever will and understand why things work the way they do.

Mayer reckons the manner in which Ford has gone about its sessions so far is “impressive” and shows they were “sandbagging hugely” at Silverstone and Spa. In addition to the ability to change the BoP ahead of the race, the ACO can also introduce a five-minute penalty at any point of the race if it decides that a car’s pace in practice and qualifying is not indicative of its true speed.

“The grey area is hugely significant,” Mayer explained. “A driver can brake earlier, take a different line, all kinds of things and these reflect in your lap times. And a clever team can manage that performance to create a less incriminating picture. Ford tested a lot in the States before they raced with Multimatic, and tested at all the circuits either before or after the events.

“Ferrari knows that Ford is a threat and I’m constantly getting phone calls asking what I know about their performance – they’re concerned. But then they were really surprised at their lack of pace at Silverstone and Spa… they’ve been very clever in how they’ve approached this race.”