The DSC Editor caught up with ACO President Pierre Fillon at Paul Ricard last month during the opening ELMS weekend of the delayed season.
There was time for a wide-ranging discussion, and for a couple of hints of things to come!
It is great to be back at the track, isn’t it?
“Yes, it’s great to be back on track and I’m very happy to hear the engine noises once again!”
We’ve seen a variety of messages coming out from the ACO as you work with local and state authorities on the health side to come up with a plan for Le Mans this year, it must have been quite a challenge?
“Yes, it was a challenge. For sure Le Mans will be different. First, it will be in September not in June. And you know that the duration of the night is more important in September.
“The second thing, it’s we completely changed the timing of the week.
“As you know, we will concentrate to reduce the cost to help the spectators and for the fans to have a great event. Concentrate all the time in five days.
“So you will have technical scrutineering on Wednesday, we have practice on Thursday and Friday. On Friday we will have the new Hyperpole.
“And we will have the race on Saturday and the start will be at 2:30 pm to help people to get home on Sunday evening because in September everybody would work on Monday and it would be easier too for the television because you have the finish of the Tour de France on the same date, it finishes at 5 pm so no clash between our two events.
“With Coronavirus. We didn’t know what was possible – Normally you cannot organise an event for more than 5000 people before the first of September, but we don’t know what will happen after the 15th of August when we will have an announcement from the (French) Government.
“Maybe it will be the end of the limitation of 5000, maybe it will be the other way, but the virus will decide what will happen.”
It’s a huge event. It’s huge numbers of people normally, and it’s a large physical size, and that gives you the opportunity to come up with the idea of the zonal approach. So effectively, there are multiple 5000 people events.
You’ve also made it clear, it may be a message that has been missed by some, but the final decision is actually not yet here?
“Yes, correct, we don’t yet know exactly what we will be permitted to do. But you know, our main concern is safety. Safety for the competitors. Safety for our partners for our staff and, of course, for the spectators.
“We have discussed with local authorities that we have a big surface (area) at Le Mans and that is the reason why we have proposed to have several ‘villages’ each limited to five thousand people because if the government think at this time that five thousand is a good volume for safety, and we would prefer to keep this arrangement with each village having parking, camping, entertainment, restaurant etc.”
And everybody gets a view of the track?
“Yes, we hope that we can have four or five of these ‘Villages’, maybe more, but we will find out after the 15 August. We believe it is the best solution.
“The most important thing is that we can organise the event. After that we hope that we can have some spectators, it will be limited but of course Safety First.
“But in parallel, we will organise something special on the digital front for the people that are not able to come, so that those people will have the best experience possible.
“We will advance those plans in the coming weeks but we are working on something special.”
Let’s talk about the future. We are in a world of ‘we don’t know yet’. We’ve got some significant anniversaries coming up for the great race, particularly in 2023 of course. This must have made an impact in terms of your ability to make decisions now, on a work programme to prepare for that.
“In fact at this time, we cannot decide.
“The Centenary will be a big, big year for sure and we are working on that with a lot of ideas
“In 2023 you will have both the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and Le Mans Classic.
“We are working on a big surprise for the centenary.
“As you know, we have the project to rebuild the grandstand but with the ongoing crisis, we have to wait to make the decision to begin the works. We’ll make a decision in November.”
I was there in the audience in January at Daytona for the most extraordinary announcement in my time reporting endurance racing, convergence for top class sportscars globally, the LMDH class and convergence with Le Mans Hypercar.
Can you give us an impression of how things are going in the background? Is work still under way, is the interest still there? How patient are we going to have to be?
“One thing is important. We have never stopped the work on convergence and now that work will be more than we expected between LMDH and LMH with the same weight, same power and same aero.
“Since January, despite the crisis, we have been working hard, together with IMSA, along with all of the prospective manufacturers, and the chassis manufacturers, with two or three meetings every week throughout the lockdown and, at the end of that process we arrived at a perfect convergence between LMH and LMDh
“We have very good feedback from the manufacturers and at this time the process is going on.
“We will announce the final regulations at Le Mans. I’m very confident but we have to be patient because nobody will know exactly what will happen in 2021.
“The ACO and IMSA have done their part of the work and now it’s in the hands of the industry. But we have a very very good solution to allow you to run in the WEC, at Le Mans and in IMSA with the same car.
You can choose an LMDH or LMH and the cost is very low. I can’t speak about the exact price today but to be able to win Le Mans, to win a World Championship, to win in IMSA at this level of cost!
“I think we have every chance to succeed.”
I guess the final question on that front is this. It’s been a really difficult time for motorsport. It’s been a really difficult time for the automotive industry in general. In terms of discussions, have you seen any drop off in terms of interest from those manufacturers at this point?
“What I can say today is that there has been no drop-off. We continue to discuss with exactly the same people, the same manufacturers as before, so the interest is still at the same level as before the crisis.
“Of course, we don’t know what will happen. But we are speaking about ’22 and ’23 so we wait and see what response we get from the market.”
So we wait and see, the market will come to you and tell you what they require. And what we’ve heard already from your team is that there is flexibility about making that happen.
In the meantime, on to 2021 and Le Mans Hypercar, are you looking forward to seeing those new cars for the first time?
“I think we will have some presentation for new cars at Le Mans. Toyota is working hard and so too is Jim Glickenhaus, and Kolles too.
“I think we will have a good grid in 2021, and we have some good prospects too in 2022. Peugeot we know will come back and I think we will have some announcement on that before the end of the year.”
This is a new world we’re living in and the watchword for everybody is cost-cutting.
What can we do? What can everybody do at this moment to help the core of these grids the professional race teams?
“So, the good side of this crisis is that we can think in all directions and nothing is off the table. I think today everything is possible.
“So, what we have to do, so, we worked on the regulations to reduce the cost, but now we have to meet everybody in the teams and discuss what and how we can change, about the format of the race, about work on the car.
“We have to have everything on the table, to make something new and nothing is off the agenda.
“Look at the new format from NASCAR, everything on the same day, Why not?
“What is important is to continue to have a good spectacle for the fans, reduce the cost to the maximum and continue to think about the new technology because I think we have to accelerate about decarbonisation of our world in motorsports.
“This is a philosophy for Le Mans and it’s the reason why we continue to work on the hydrogen, but not with crazy projects. So what is most important now is to put everything on the table to make all of this sustainable.”
We saw a radical step from the ACO with the solution that was brought forward very early with the Asian Le Mans Series, to condense the calendar, to clear other slots for other Series.
That’s attracted attention from the public and from the teams. The principle of it is to bring down cost and to accommodate what teams need, which is to use their assets and to find space for them to run maybe a second programme.
That was smart. How quickly did you come to that conclusion with the Asian Le Mans team?
“We had this idea with Cyrille (Taesch Wahlen) when, after our first calendar that was announced, with Suzuka and China, but then, with a lockdown, we knew that it would be difficult to go to Japan and in China in 2020.
“At the same time, we understand that we need to reduce costs for the teams to be sure that they will be able to come to Asia and this solution of four races in two weeks in two countries was the best thing to offer. We discussed the idea with the teams and they seem very happy with it.”