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Five Things To Worry About From The 2016 Le Mans 24 Hours

Questions for Teams and Organisers

Audi Need a Rethink 

There’s little doubt that the 2016 Audi R18 is a very, very quick race car. Sadly though there’s equally little doubt that it has been sent into battle too early in the development process against opposition of the quality of the current Porsche and Toyota efforts.

That lack of readiness though seems most obvious when issues arise, not only are they happening more often than they should, they’re taking longer to fix than they should too, and that, as Audi more than anyone else on the Le Mans grid knows, is the polar opposite of how to win Le Mans.

Post race there was much chatter of the potential difficulty of the post-race debriefs to come back at Neuberg.  I’ve little doubt there will be tough questions asked and answered, and that things will change.  Sportscar racing needs Audi back at their very best.

Winning At All Costs?

Ford, in their return to Le Mans on the 50th anniversary of arguably the Blue Oval’s biggest ever sporting triumph understandably, wanted to win this race.

Perhaps too much?

The race panned out, once the AF Corse Ferraris had fallen by the wayside, and the #67 Ford GT hit trouble, to a contest between the three remaining competitively running Fords, and a solo Ferrari, the #82 Risi Competizione 488 GTE with the Ferrari leading until hunted down and passed by the #68 Ford.

It had been a typically committed GTE Pro encounter before the Ford breezed past the Ferrari with Toni Vilander trying hard to hang on in there but spinning in pursuit of the now charging Ford, losing immediate contact with the new leader but within reach if the Ford had stumbled in the closing hours of the race.

So far, so standard GTE Pro fare, but then Ford apparently sought to provide themselves with a level of insurance, and the manner of their defence against a potential challenge crossed the line of sorting acceptability

What happened?

In the closing stages of the race a senior member of the Ford team entered the Risi Competizione garage with a piece of paper, revealed as an official protest over a non-operational leader light on the side of the #82 Ferrari (below), then running second, behind the leading #68 Ford, and ahead of the #69 and #66 Fords.

82-RISI-1-Light-Le-Mans

Ford’s justification for the protest revolved around the penalty doled out to their #66 car overnight for a non-operational illuminated number panel, both items falling into the same area of regulations, and Ford feeling that the race officials were not dealing with the two issues in an even-handed fashion.

That certainly would have explained a protest, but it does not explain why the Ford representative presented the Risi team with what amounts to an ultimatum.

That was expressed in clear terms and went along the lines of. If you promise not to race us for the win then this protest goes away,  If you fight us then we’ll file it immediately.

Anyone who has even the slightest understanding of, or familiarity with, Guiseppe Risi would be able to guess the reaction. The protest was duly filed!

It was at that point that the messages started to flash up on the timing screens, Black and Orange flag for the non-operational leader light, followed by a Stop and Hold for non-observance of the flag. That was ignored by the Risi team too, opting instead to argue their case from a position of relative strength, after the checkered flag.

Risi then filed a counter protest against the race winning #68 Ford for a slow zone infringement earlier in the race before common sense started to intervene.

The race stewards, to their eternal credit, imposed time penalties on both cars that retained the racing status quo.

Both parties received a further sanction, the Risi team fined for non-observance of instructions, the winning Ford a further time penalty for a faulty wheel speed sensor (worth noting that this too could have been enforced as a ‘stop and fix’ under precisely the same regulation as the Risi leader light and could have cost Ford the race!).

In the meantime the two race teams had determined that this was a road they didn’t want to go down. The formal protests were withdrawn, the penalties remained in place.

The major question that remains though is about the conduct of the initial protest from Ford. Were they really looking to protest their way to a more assured win, or even better?

Had they succeeded in protesting the Risi Competizione team off the podium it would have gone down as one of the most shameful episodes of world motorsport, a million miles away from the blue collar values held so dear by millions of ‘Ford Guys’

One would hope that those involved in that decision making process have learned from the experience.  This is the Le Mans 24 Hours, not a club meeting with protests determined by the loudest and richest. The competition takes place on the track, not in a contest of who has more corporate clout. Ford have some thinking to do on that front.

GTE Pro BoP, Time For a Formal Review of a Broken System

First things first, the Ford GT is a magnificent car, a relevant technology led game changer, and a standard bearer for taking the production-based racers in the Le Mans rule book forward more than a single step.

68-Ford-LM24-2016

BUT the conduct of the Balance of Performance aspects of this programme places several very difficult questions on the desks of those responsible for ensuring that there is a relatively level playing field in the class.

There was no shortage of opinion being expressed in the Le Mans paddock on this subject, in particular post qualifying where the Fords dominated proceedings to a simply ludicrous degree, and with a simply huge step forward from the pace seen in earlier WEC rounds and at the Test Day.

Some balancing comments were offered on the relative pace of the only other clean sheet car in the class, the Ferrari 488 GTE.  Fair enough, but the Ferraris were up to 2 seconds per lap faster than the WEC pack at Spa, with WEC BoP applied, whilst the Fords were mid pack on pace there.

“They’re all at it,” said others in the Le Mans paddock, and so they were, but the pace of the cars in qualifying and the race showed very clearly that Ford were actively concealing a very substantial chunk of available performance up to that point.

What makes this all the more worthy of comment is that the vast majority of those involved in the class, and many others beyond, predicted precisely the scenario that presented itself at Le Mans, specifically that the Fords would be much, much faster than at any point prior to arriving in race week.

“But it’s a car specifically designed for Le Mans” say some. That may be, but shouldn’t be so in a production based category, and it still does not explain the huge gulf between qualifying and race pace and the Test Day.

In the race the cars seemed able to pull out a spectacular lap time at will, and had straight line speed to spare when passing other GTE cars on track.

Put bluntly the current FIA/ACO GTE BoP process has been exposed as being fatally flawed.  There are only two possible explanations for the massive gulf in performance we saw.

Manipulation of the process by the teams, and in particular by Ford, and/ or poor decision making by the rule makers.

The first is perfectly understandable, they are indeed ‘all at it’ but not, it seems, with nearly as much in reserve as Ford.  That scale of available improvement has led to further serious questions, in part prompted by the car’s ability to pull out a near qualifying pace lap at will, as to whether we have even yet seen its real ultimate pace?

One possible reason we may not have done was that it was getting perilously close to one of three FIA/ACO BoP ‘lines in the sand’, Pure lap time, fuel fill time and length of fuel stint. As well as the division of performance envelopes between GTE Pro and LMP2.

The second would surely be a starting gun to a potentially hugely destructive escalation of protest, counter protest and recrimination.

With the level of apparent on-demand dominance available to Ford there is a real danger that other manufacturers currently within GTE Pro, and others still who are looking at the potential to enter in future seasons, will see the ‘return against investment’ equation simply not adding up.

There needs to be a clear discussion, and conclusion, “finding” five seconds per lap is simply extracting the urine out of a system that is designed to retain parity, and assure a grid of depth and variety.  The apparent inability to adequately police this, exposes the current process very badly indeed.

ACO and IMSA at a Crossroads

It wasn’t necessarily a shock to hear that the ACO were not going to welcome the 2017 DPIs into the Le Mans field.  A combination of the issues inherent with attempting to balance the US cars with the ‘Spec’ Gibson V8 engined WEC/ ELMS cars, in particular because of the different electronics packages involved, and the ACO’s discomfort with effectively factory-backed LMP2s, have prove a pair of bridges too far.

What was rather more shocking was the fact that the ACO apparently thought it appropriate to inform the world’s media of their decision at the same time as their much vaunted North American ‘partners’.

IF this is a correct reflection of the way in which the information on such a vital building block of both sanctioning body’s racing products was communicated then all involved should take a good hard look at themselves, their motives, and their expectations over what happens next.

The last time a diplomatic ‘hospital pass’ on this scale occurred was back in 2010 where, at the Le Mans press conference that year, the ACO announced that GT1 would not return in 2011. That decision and announcement was made without informing Stephane Ratel, at the time trying hard to establish the FIA GT1 World Championship, effectively undermining the economic case for the tams and manufacturers involved in the GT1 marketplace.  The diplomatic and business ripples from that decision are still of tsunami scale to this date, the two organisations at odds on more or less every front.

89-Weathertech-Porsche-Le-Mans-2016

With further questions still very much alive about the manner in which the raceday illness of Cooper MacNeil (in the car backed by the IMSA Championship title sponsor) was dealt with, and the ongoing status of Corvette Racing’s place at Le Mans are being handled by the ACO there is again a serious debate to be had.

Is this about partnership? Or is it about power?

Investment Required On The Campsites and Car Parks

The weather throughout race week was simply dreadful.  Repeated storms and torrential rain made it a pretty miserable time for many.

Le-Mans-2016-Umbrellas

It exposed too the fact that many of the public campsites and other areas now urgently require significant investment in improved drainage and renewed public facilities.

Whilst the privately operated sites seemed relatively untroubled, for an event held through the hours of darkness the level of support for those in difficulties in the car parks and public campsites left a lot to be desired.

As an example, and its far from the only one, the DSC fun bus, post qualifying on Thursday night was parked three car widths away from the track surface of the Bugatti circuit, but that was barriered off. Instead we had to make our way across sodden ground to the next nearest road out. We finally made that 40 metre journey some 3 hours later after hitting deep and impassable mud.  No lighting, no available assistance, nothing.  The following morning the car park steward attempted to direct us back into the same space, and through the same mud bath, where a 4 wheel drive car was struggling for traction, eventually clipping another car as it tried to get in!

That same tale came back to us from a number of those camping at the race. Shower and washroom facilities that were “archaic” coupled with either poor, or simply overwhelmed, drainage.

It is NOT an easy issue to deal with in times of extreme weather but lighting, assistance, and perhaps an industrial quantity of straw would all be a help!

It’s high time too that the campsites were better served with 21st century facilities including better mobile phone repeater signal and accessible wifi.

The Le Mans 24 Hours is one of the biggest public events in the world, still a massive bargain when measured against its international motorsport ‘competition’ but now it’s time to think about an upgrade or two beyond the circuit, paddock and grandstands.  2016’s weather left the remainder of the estate badly exposed.