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Letter To The Editor, DSC’s Founding Ed on Le Mans 2018, LMP2/ DPi & More

Cracknell analyses the state of play as he looks back at Le Mans - and forward to 2020

In the third of an occasional series, former editor Malcolm Cracknell keeps the current editor up to date on what he’s thinking about current endurance racing – and other things.

Dear Graham

I’ve waited a while since Le Mans, just to give myself time to think about what happened. Rather different from your perpetual, pressing need to ‘bash out’ material. I am lucky. Let’s just go back to the 2017 edition of the great race, for a moment. Unlike perhaps some (many?) of your readers, I thoroughly enjoyed that event. It was unpredictable. It had the possibility of a good little ‘un beating the big ‘uns. It had unreliability among the factory cars at the front of the field. It had a brilliant GTE Pro race, which went all the way to the penultimate lap. And it had a classic ‘catch up’ by the winning car, all the way from the back to the front.

If fans didn’t like that race, what on earth did they think of this year’s, which had none of this?

Just a thought though: do modern race fans expect too much? I used to go along to Le Mans (any race, in fact) hoping to see a great competition, but often it wasn’t close competition, and I could quote many examples of a race leader running away with it. When I’d seen a brilliant event, it stuck in my mind as something special.

Le Mans 2018 was nothing special, was it, in any of the classes? It would have been a thrill if just one class had seen a race to the end, but even with the much discussed BoP, that didn’t happen in GTE, despite the ACO’s efforts to even out the performance of the cars.

How even were they? I heard Sam Bird being interviewed, and although he tried to avoid BoP as a topic, the interviewer (I think it was Sam Hancock, on Eurosport), drew him into saying that the Ferraris were short on power. Yet apart from the Aston Martins, the rest of the class all, I think, set a best lap in the 3:50 bracket. But is it the case that some cars (marques) found it possible to set such laps more consistently than others?

At one point I saw some brilliant racing between James Calado in a 488 and one of the Fords: it was outstanding stuff, door handle to door handle at very high speed, just centimetres apart.

But the Fords and Porsches, over a fuel stint or a tyre stint, seemed to have an advantage over the rest, so we had that epic battle for second between ‘Mako’ in the ‘Rothmans’ Porshe and Bourdais in the Ford. That was a bit tasty, wasn’t it? Did Fred Mako go too far in defending his place? I would say so. Should he have been penalised in some way? Hasn’t a dangerous precedent been set here?

Anyway, on the plus side, there was some great racing this year, at least in GTE Pro. Discussing the early stages of the race in that class, with someone who should know, it was pointed out to me that the two ‘heritage’ Porsches completed shorter opening stints than their rivals, so spent less time in the pits, so were at the head of the field when a Safety Car period split the cars into three groups, so the ‘Pink Pig’ gained a chunk of track time over everything else. And with BoP, as long as that Porsche didn’t meet a delay, no one could catch it. Race over.

Trying to prevent this happening in the future would involve protracted ‘wave-bys’, and we don’t want to go there do we?

I loved those liveries: what a brilliant idea from Porsche. The winning drivers have all come up through the ranks since I stopped going to race meetings, but never having met him, I’m sure Michael Christensen is a very nice bloke, if only because of what he did on his slowing down lap.

Did you see him ease towards the barrier at Tertre Rouge, to acknowledge what happened to his compatriot there in 2013? What a lovely thing to do. What a lovely thing to remember to do, at a time when he must have been ecstatic at what he’d just achieved, but was still thinking clearly, still remembering Allan Simonsen. Class.

Fernando Alonso has got it too, hasn’t he? My friend Bob, who has been following racing since the ‘50s, has an extraordinary autograph collection. The earliest Le Mans winner is Sammy Davis, dating back to 1927. Bob is hoping to secure Alonso’s squiggle next month, at Silverstone, on the same page as Davis’s. Two winners, 91 years apart.

I’ve read what you’ve written about the Spaniard, and how impressed you were with him the whole week. He clearly had the #8 Toyota flying during the night, but what about that re-start, after the Saturday evening Safety Car? I’ve never seen anything like it. It looked like half the field had been behind one SC and on the re-start, I was fearful of the most almighty pile-up.

But there wasn’t any contact, mercifully. Isn’t this one aspect that makes Le Mans so special? By that I mean the very high speeds, plus the different classes and their speed differentials. That re-start made me draw in breath, but the fact that Le Mans is so potentially dangerous does add to its appeal, for drivers and fans, doesn’t it? Run-offs and gravel traps are being extended, but there are still plenty of places to have a very big accident.

The Toyotas managed to avoid any of those dramas this time, or any of the mechanical dramas that have hit them in the past, but it was very dull, at the front, wasn’t it? I noticed in his Autosport race report that Gary Watkins devoted about three-fifths of his copy to how one Toyota beat another. That did at least leave him two-fifths to write about the LMP1 non- hybrids – which with the exception of the Rebellions, were disappointingly unreliable. I think you discovered that one of them broke its gearbox on the last lap? Good timing!

I read somewhere that Toyota personnel were surprised that the non-hybrids weren’t quicker, over a lap or a stint. I wasn’t. It seemed perfectly logical for the Rebellions to consolidate in third and fourth places, especially as the cars are so new, and they didn’t have the hybrids’ ability to blast through traffic.

Perhaps the most bizarre aspect of the whole hybrid / non-hybrid thing was to realise before the race that Toyota’s advantage had already been set in stone by the organisers. It wasn’t a race, as we know it, at all…. Having now won Le Mans, at last, with what was an almost perfect performance, will Toyota return next year? What have they got to gain?

LMP2? How did the ‘winning’ team think it was going to get away with ‘adjusting’ the fuel flow? 2017 was a fantastic LMP2 race, but G-Drive managed to make it a non-event this year, which was a shame. At least the Ligiers, and to some extent the Dallaras, were more competitive with most of the Orecas.

Which brings me to your trip to Watkins Glen. The images you posted, by Martin Spetz and Regis, were I thought, outstanding – helped in part because of the liveries of the cars. It’s as if every entrant has created a distinctive ‘look’ – and I loved the appearance of the whole field.

Somewhere recently I’ve missed the fact that the ‘DPis have been ‘strangled’. How is it fair that they’re not able to compete at the very front now?

Had the DPis and P2s been perfectly matched, I would have said that IMSA has created the ideal formula for Le Mans. I’ve changed my mind you see (since writing to you after Spa), after watching the non-hybrid P1s at Le Mans – rather like the way Rebellion has seemingly switched from P1 to P2 and back again in recent years. So instead of proposing what I wrote about recently (trying to get manufacturers to badge Oreca, Dallara and Ligier P1s as factory entries, like P1 DPis), I’m suggesting now, do it the ‘IMSA way’. It works. The cars are quick enough. 3:25 is fast enough at Le Mans. The public can’t really tell the difference between a P1 and P2 Oreca anyway, can they? Or between a 3:20 and a 3:25 lap.

Clearly the ACO will go its own way though, and may well prove to have regulations that will attract the big boys back in proper numbers (not just two or three of them). But Marshall Pruett’s RACER story about Hyundai potentially creating a DPi (in time for Sebring next year?) has convinced me that this is a cost-effective class for the future in Europe too.

Where did I read that Scott Atherton thinks that 25 to 30 million dollars per year to follow the ACO’s route is too much (for his IMSA entrants)?

However, European manufacturers do have the capacity to spend huge sums (in the way that US importers don’t), so I’ve got an idea that will allow them to spend big sums, and should enliven the GTE Pro class. If hybrids really are ‘the thing’, why not introduce them to GTE Pro? Is there a technical / mechanical reason why a spec hybrid system couldn’t be developed for the different layouts of GT cars? If it could be done, why not aim for, say, 3:32 lap times at Le Mans, AND provide more emphasis on the GT cars and their race. Plus, by juggling fuel tanks and pit stop times, it might even be possible to create a real race to the flag between P2s (and DPis) and GTs.

So rather then hark back to the cars of 1999, aim for something like 1995: different lap times and pit stop times / frequency, but prototypes and GTs all going for the overall win. GT Am could remain as it is.

Is this just a pipe dream on my part? I suppose so.

As a Hyundai owner, I’ll certainly follow that project, in ways that the ACO’s ‘hypercars’ don’t really appeal (to me). One wag suggested that this hypercars idea was a return to the 1999 GT1 cars: “fliptastic” was his conclusion.

Returning to this year’s Le Mans for a final point, I believe there was some discontent among at least some fans regarding the costs of food and drink this year –and of course the appeal of a race in which it appeared that the winner had already been decided.

Some of your readers appeared to appreciate Alan Lis’s piece (posted on the Friday of Le Mans week) about the record-breaking WM of 1988. I was thrilled when Alan sent that to me and asked if I thought DSC would be interested in running it. I’m glad you did. What a mad project that was, fuelled mainly by enthusiasm.

I still remember when Roger Dorchy led the race, in ’84 I think, in an earlier WM, and was battling with none other than Jan Lammers. I enjoyed reading about Jan’s last escapade at Le Mans this year: what a fantastic fellow, what a great racer. What an extraordinary win in ’88. How feeble, in comparison, were some aspects of this year’s race.

Alan Lis and I both spend time on woodwork now, Alan professionally, me more as a hobby. I’ll tell you more about my latest project next time. It’s a bit weird!

Finally, for now, after four years of worrying away at it, my first book is very nearly finished. ‘Pottsie’ and ‘Brooksie’ are helping me with images and publishing respectively, and I very much hope it will be on sale in time for Christmas. It’s a novel, but with a degree of fact involved, so we’d better call it ‘faction’. It’s based on a Le Mans race, of course. It includes some of the funny stories we were never able to write about at the time, and those who have proof-read it seem to have enjoyed it. I’m obviously hoping that your readers won’t be able to resist buying it! The working title is “Taking the World by Storm”.

Crackers out.