LeMans: What Are They Thinking?

The 2011 24 Hours of Le Mans. Long considered the premier long distance race, The 24 Hours of Le Mans, run by the Automobile Club du Ouest (ACO) can also be the most frustrating race in which to participate. Over the years, the rules set out by the ACO have often been subject to different interpretation and caprious application by its officials. The stories of past manufacturer battles with the organizers are legend.

To the French, Le Mans represents an opportunity for French cars and or/drivers to win for the "Glory of France". The French Peugeot team is a legitimate contender and historically the ACO have not been above "setting" or "interpreting" rules to help the home teams.

lemans crash

This year, the German Audi won their tenth overall victory in an exciting race that saw French Peugeot finish 13 seconds behind after 24 hours of racing. Yet despite the closeness of the racing in the LMP (Le Mans Prototype) classes, because LMP cars are so physically similar, many feel they lack the appeal of the familiar GT class. The two GT classes for "production" cars featured familiar names such as Corvette, Porsche, Ferrari, Lotus, Aston Martin and others.

This year Corvette won in both the GTE Pro and the GTE Am classes. A wonderful achievement against stiff competition.

Originally, LeMans was all about factories bringing their modified street cars to LeMans in order to win and thereby sell more cars. When specially built LeMans cars began winning against the street production cars, a second class was developed for low production, purported "prototypes", of cars to come. Once beautiful expressions of the pure racing cars, the science of aerodynamics has determined the similar missile shapes which all prototypes now share, and which some find less than attractive.

Obliged to chose, racing fans would probably prefer the familiar GT cars over the Prototypes. None-the-less, the Protypes are exciting to watch and do have a fan following so they race on in a world-wide series of endurance events for their type of car. It should be noted that the French don't have a competitive GT car.

The 8.5 mile Le Mans circuit is occupied by four different driver/car classes. 56 cars begin the race. The largest group of which, GTE -Am (Amateur) for Production based GT cars (18) is the slowest. The second largest class (17) is LMP-1 or Le Mans Prototype driven by the best long distance drivers in the world. This is the fastest class. LMP-1 cars qualified at 3 minutes, 25.7 seconds per lap. The final qualifier, in a GT car was 46.8 seconds slower. This is a massive difference.

For years it has been argued that the reason for many of the crashes at Le Mans is the speed differential between the "prototype" and the "production" cars. Only 27 cars were listed as finishers and the GTE-Am car was lapped 53 times by the winning LMP-1 car. Yet the winning car's real rival was never lapped and was only 13 seconds behind it.

85% of a LeMans lap is taken at full throttle  and in each of the accidents that spectacularly destroyed the Audi LMP-1 cars, a GTE was involved. GTE cars are not slow, but the closing speed differential on the straights can easily be as much as 80 MPH!

Into this consistent maelstrom, the ACO, has created a new class; The GTE-Am class for "amateurs".

While amateurs, those racing in this class were certainly "qualified" and experienced drivers. An American Team driving a Ford GT III actually finished third (a podium placement) in the GTE-Am class. Driven by well known amateur David Murray and by the husband and wife team of Andrea and David Robertson, they are to be commended.

However, despite their prior experience, the physics remain and they were driving in a dangerous situation for which they could never have prepared to the same extent that professionals prepare. The two GTE's that crashed with Audis were driven by professionals and in at least one case, were not responsible for the accident.

Racing was not ever meant to be a totally safe endeavor. Those participating know that. However, the responsibility of the governing bodies and race organizers is to provide a set a rules and an environment where competition can take place in as fair and safe a manner as possible. In not addressing these issues today, the ACO do a great disservice to the sport. What do they need to have happen before they act? In the wrong political atmosphere, a catastrophic crash involving spectators could result in either dramatic changes to the track, and therefore the essence of the race, or its complete cancellation. Either of which would be a huge loss to motorsports.

At LeMans, in 2011, Audi driver Alan McNish made a mistake. He, the other competitors involved and the photographers nearby were exceptionally fortunate. Continued good luck to all.