Monday, June 19, 2006

Reflections on Le Mans 2006

There's full-blown race-reports in many other places on the web, so it would be silly for me to try to wrap up 24 hours of racing in a humble blog. There are however a few things I must comment on about this weekend's 24 Heures du Mans...

Although I didn't necessarily want to see Audi win (again) the fact that they did will almost certainly have far-reaching consequences. In September the US is scheduled to tighten up diesel regulations, reducing sulphur content and making for cleaner fuel. In anticipation of this, many car manufacturers are readying their most technologically advanced diesel engines for the US retail market. Audi is one such company. The fact that they can advertise that their US-market diesel cars share the same engine technology as this year's Le Mans winner will certainly be a boost both for credibility and sales. And if Audi can kick-start new-generation diesel sales in the US, it will help others. A healthy rebirth of the diesel in the US market is obviously a very positive thing most notably for the air we all breathe, so I'm not underestimating the importance of what happened at Le Sarthe this weekend.

Prior to the race, the ACO announced that starting in 2010, LMP1 cars would be required to have a roof. Their motivation to do this is that coupes are easier for the public to relate to. I'm pleased that roofed prototypes will be returning to the Le Mans. Some of my favourite cars are from that breed: the Porsche 962, Jag XJR9, Porsche GT1 and Toyota GT1 for example. LMP2 will apparently stay open-topped. The good news is that the rule change is far enough away for manufacturers to prepare for it and not be upset about having to change any plans.

As for the race itself, I was surprised at how the LMP1 field completely fell apart. The expected "best non-Audi-or-Pescarolo" battle never really materialized and only the Zytek came even remotely close. The factory Courage effort in particular ended up being very weak, out-paced by the privateer Swiss Spirit Courage.

LMP2 was again a last-man standing-battle, but delivered three of the most spectacular moments of the race, including a Courage blowout at 180mph that destroyed the car in 6 distinct steps that all occurred in the space of about 8 seconds, and left a "Back to the Future"-style trail of fire in the grass. The other two moments involved the WR, firstly as it became airborne at the Ford chicane on Saturday and secondly as it burned to the ground on Sunday morning.

GT1 once again found its leaders challenging for overall podium positions. They are certainly more reliable than the prototype cars, and that counts for a lot over 24 hours. It was a tremendous shame that the Aston relinquished the lead with less than two hours to go. Of note in GT1 is the longevity of the Lamborghini. Many of the people on the 10/10ths forum predicted it would be the first retirement. It ended up being closer to the 20th retirement! A nice job by a really lovely car.

GT2 was a dogfight and served up some typical final hour drama. The Seikel Porsche looked set to take the win, but gearbox woes allowed the LNT Panoz to catch it with 30 minutes remaining.

Le Mans typically unfolds in a similar pattern. Saturday daylight hours are generally frenetic, and every drama seems more important. An extra minute in the pits means a lot more on Saturday than it does on Sunday when gaps are measured in laps not minutes. This makes for an exciting first 6 hours. This year was no different. Then night-time kicks in, and the pattern of survival comes to the fore. The air of mystery makes for compelling watching, as serious problems start to show themselves in this part of the race. By dawn on Sunday, things are settled down, and the 8am-2pm period is the one I find to be the dullest. In the US, this is 11pm to 3am, a time when your body is wanting to go to bed. Then, with two hours to go, urgency kicks in. Teams who are still strong start to calculate whether they can make up the two laps to the next car, whilst teams with issues are trying to get the car to the end. Unfortunately by now, most American viewers have gone to bed, me included. After waking up, we usually watch the video recording of the final hours, which means no Radio Le Mans and no live scoring. In future, we may plan to hit the hay at midnight and get up at 4am, to catch the final hours live. That, or get some Red Bull. We'll have to wait till 2008 to try it out, since next year we will be at the track...

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