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Le Mans: More relevant than F1?

2011-06-24 06:21

BETTER THAN F1?: Minimal politics. Maximum crowd participation and an entire day’s worth of quality racing. Is Le Mans the real petrolhead’s race?

Lance Branquinho

Motor racing, in a world of rampant environmentalism, is finding itself to be about as acceptable as ethnic cleansing. 

Whereas brands once highlighted the performance figures and racing prowess of their cars to gain marketing traction, nowadays public relations staff and engineers would prefer you to be blindsided by frugal fuel-economy statistics and middling levels of CO2 emission.

The old "win on Sunday, sell on Monday" mantra has become about as relevant as genderised voting rights.

Motor racing, then, would appear to be a dying pursuit. It’s wholly irrelevant to any marketing or sales momentum (Nissan’s absolute dominance of South African Touring Car racing did little to help sell the brand’s four-door family cars) and pretty much unjustifiable environmentally.

In recent years the sport’s signature series, F1, has stumbled from one scandal to another at the tempo of a badly scripted high-school made-for-television drama.

Even hardcore petrolheads, when pressed to provide a reason justifying the auto racing pursuit, are often reduced to mumbling a badly enunciated defence containing the phrase "technology transfer".

Unfortunately, considering the trick aerodynamics and lack of inflatable crash safety protection in modern motorsport (especially F1), the idea of motorsport technology actually benefiting the average new car buyer is negligible, at best. Or is it? Perhaps there remains a motorsport event that encapsulate the admirable pursuit of speed and skill, manages to entice fans (and thrill purists) whilst challenging engineers in such a manner as to benefit the road-going cars people actually buy.

THE GREATEST RACE

You probably think I am dabbling is some fallacious (fantasy) reasoning or about to unpack (and colour-in) the trivialities of a university mechanical engineering competition as some form of alternative motorsport for the 21st century? Well, no. Not really. To justify the future of motorsport all one has to do is simply go back to its roots, which is what I had the privilege to do recently, by attending the 2011 Le Mans 24 Hour.

One of the world’s oldest races (first run back in 1923), Le Mans has always been considered the ultimate test of man and machine. Cars run for 24 hours, with three drivers dividing time at the helm, making for an incredibly testing period of on-the-limit driving; it’s a true feat of human endurance and mechanical durability.

As a kid I always liked the idea of Le Mans. The cars looked elegant (those Group C prototypes of my early petrolhead consciousness I still consider some of the most striking competition cars of all time), had amazing acoustic signatures and trumped all other racing formulas (even F1) with regards to top speed. As an eight-year old petrolhead Le Mans was beyond compare.

Curiously Le Mans has never quite been regarded with deserved reverence by most automotive enthusiasts. It’s seen as an eccentric exercise, befuddled by way too many pit stops and largely dictated by team strategy instead of individual race-craft and car control.

Despite my love of auto racing, I’ll admit many of these preconceived notions clouded my judgement (and sense of anticipation) as I made my way west from Paris, through the amazingly flat French countryside, to the settlement of Le Mans for this most enigmatic of races.

The actual town of Le Mans is a typically quiet French hamlet and around it runs the Circuit de la Sarthe, a mix of purpose built-racing tarmac and public roads. Of course, the current circuit configuration is not quite as suicidal as it once was, where the near 5km Mulsanne straight (now tamed by chicanes) had drivers basically cleared for take-off approaching speeds near 400km/h. What it must have felt like to (literally) fly along the Mulsanne at 2am, at the twitchy helm of a  Porsche 917 on worn tyres in 1971, at nearly 400km/h,  trying to avoid slower cars, is simply unimaginable.

The man who clocked a 917 at 396km/h on the Mulsanne in 1971, legendary British endurance racer Derek Bell, still considers it the finest memory of his racing career – which included a stint in F1 for Ferrari…

TURBODIESELS ARE NOT DRAB

As I made my way to an elevated vantage point opposite the braking zone of the Ford chicane (a Le Mans lap's last cornering challenge) I tried to banish any thoughts of Le Mans having become simply a glorified high-speed economy run, the most pronounced criticism levelled against it by F1 fans. Admittedly, turbodiesel technology rules the premier LMP1 class at Le Mans nowadays, with Audi and Peugeot duelling it out for victory in compression ignition V6 and V8 cars; something unimaginable a decade or two ago.

Does this makes it any less a spectacle?

This was the (slightly) negative notion counterbalancing my eagerness before the race started. How could Audi’s 3.7-litre V6 turbodiesel, or Peugeot’s similar capacity oil-burning V8, possible capture the imagination in a manner befitting the great cars that had won Le Mans before them? Mazda’s banshee wailing 987 rotary, those phenomenal flat-12-powered Porsches and V12 Ferraris.

My answer was approaching in the distance.

The 2011 Le Mans field (56 entries strong) was approaching swiftly, the turbodiesel LMP1 cars out ahead. Although obviously closing at rapid speed (the pole position Audi R18 TDi burdened its Michelin slicks at just over 900kg of mass and had 1000Nm to roll it along, not statistics given to slow progress), there was no manic cacophony of mechanical sound pronouncing the grid’s imminent arrival as it streamed towards us.

MORE PRESENCE THAN AN F1 CAR?: The cars looks fantastic and this image illustrates just what a team effort Le Mans is, especially with most averaging around 30 pit-stops…

Disappointment was starting to germinate within me.

Then, the first six LMP1 cars (an equal split of three Audis and Peugeots) drew level and blitzed by.

Their exquisitely crafted, low-slung silhouettes were accompanied by the most bizarre (and beguiling) noise I had ever heard standing trackside: a baritone V6 diesel bellow, punctuated by rushed turbocharger plumbing and underscored by the sound-shear of those impeccable aerodynamics manipulating the airflow at speed.

Certain sounds have an innate ability to immediately transport you back to a certain moment in your past and for me, that first lap the of 2011 Le Mans 24 Hour, made me feel five years old again, when I watched my first Star Wars movie, and Harrison Ford throttled the Millennium Falcon into hyperspace. Seeing as the ‘Falcon’s signature spacecraft sound came from George Lucas overlaying the turbine whine of a McDonnell Douglas DC-9 with a cooling fan, I thought it an apt soundmatch.

Although these turbodiesel-led LMP1 cars don’t possess the eardrum-splitting (and migraine inducing) mechanical shriek of a contemporary F1 car, their lower-octave engine sounds enabled me to appreciate the speeds being attained as they cleaved the air. Beyond the outright pace of the Audi R18 and Peugeot 908, there were a gaggle of slower GTE cars providing an outstanding support role, most notably Ferrari’s 458 Italia and Chevrolet’s ZR1 Corvette, each with a classic V8 soundtracks.

WHEEL-TO-WHEEL FOR 24 HOURS?

There are a great many misconceptions concerning Le Mans. The most fundamental of which is that the leading teams sandbag and pace themselves, never really racing as much as they try to out-think each other.

An hour into the 2011 race Allan McNish proved just how close the competition was between Audi and Peugeot when he gambled on a tremendously hazardous overtaking manoeuvre through the Dunlop esses which saw his R18 clip a slower Ferrari 458, career backwards across the gravel trap, and obliterate itself against the tyre wall in a spectacular fashion. That McNish was able to walk away from the accident was a remarkable credit to the safety cell integrity of modern Le Mans racers.

Audi and Peugeot chased each other mercilessly as the sky above Le Mans turned to a palette of pastel summer hues with the onset of dusk; it’s a rare privilege to see high-speed racing cars lap in perfectly soft golden light, with their headlights tracing an ideal line into and through corners. Le Mans late afternoon and early morning is like going to automotive praise and worship. At night, though, one has to choose: either fall into the madness that is Le Mans’s nocturnal socializing or busy yourself with following the racing.

If you wish to party there is a live stage with bands, numerous alcohol refueling points and of course the signature Ferris wheel (for those inclined to indulgence in some pseudo-teenage romance and get a unique view of the pit-straight from on high). Cheap entertainment is on hand too, courtesy of numerous intoxicated Brits stumbling along the Circuit de la Sarthe’s 13.8km length, hurling abuse at anybody not supporting the Gulf-liveried LMP1 Aston Martins, before inevitably passing out in some French shrubbery for the bulk of the race.

NERVES OF STEEL: Your mechanics are fatigued and asleep. You’ve not rested properly in 12 hours. Less than a minute separates you from your rivals. You need to reach 350km/h on the straights to keep ahead. Feeling relaxed?…

THE DARK SIDE

I decided to pass on the (considerable) nighttime entertainment and instead follow the race.

With darkness only enveloping Le Mans at 10pm, I spent the first two hours of high-beam racing through to midnight between the Dunlop-themed corners (the curve and esses), challenging drivers as they clear the pit straight.

Just after midnight I moved a short distance further to Tertre Rouge, the fast right-hand sweep that guides the field into the infamous Mulsanne straight.

After eight hours of racing the field was well spread out. The consequence of which is that Le Mans becomes a stream of perpetual racing sound and motion, and despite a single lap taking the quickest LMP1 cars 3 min 30 sec to complete, there’s no respite for either your sense of hearing or field of vision with cars always on the brow or powering away into the distance – as a racing enthusiast, it’s bliss.

As temperatures started to plummet around midnight, I made my way back to the main pit building to follow the racing from a slightly more sheltered environment. Audi had its remaining two R18 cars in first and second position and appeared in control of the race. Rounding the pits straight grand-stand, a chorus of cheers (and jeers) from the patriotic French crowd signaled that something had gone awry for the Audi, tilting the race in Peugeot’s favour.

I hurried impatiently to Audi’s hospitality suite only to see everyone having abandoned their drinks and pastries, huddled around the high-angled flatscreen televisions, staring at a charred car, hardly distinguishable as an Audi R18 racer. A winner in 2010, Mike Rockenfeller, in second place overall, was barreling down the Mulsanne at over 300km/h when a slower Ferrari 458, driven by Robert Kauffman, drifted over and brushed the Audi as Rockenfellar sped past. The R18 pivoted around its front axle and was flung into the barrier resulting in a massive impact.

Miraculously, Rockenfellar managed to extricate himself from the R18 before it burst into flames and survived with only superficial injuries, much the same miracle which had befell McNish after his crash seven hours earlier. It was high drama, but at Le Mans the race must go on, despite the perilous crashes that so often punctuate its 24 hour automotive narrative.

Audi’s fate, as the digital timing devices counted down to 1am, was now down to one car and its strategy, crucially, in the hands of a rather clever lady. With Peugeot’s three 908 cars able to box-in the sole remaining R18, Audi’s chances of victory seemed rather improbable.

From 1 to 3am I was fully engrossed. Seated next to an elderly Scotsman, who was attending his umpteenth Le Mans, we discussed strategy and followed the time-sheets diligently as the trio of drivers piloting the #2 R18 tried their best to race, and hold at bay, three Peugeot 908s for the next 12 hours. The routine for #2 R18 had to be faultless if Audi was going to win. The drivers – Marcel Fassler, Benoit Treluyer and Andre Lotterer – would have to commit to a refuelling and racing strategy directed by Leena Gade to try to secure Audi its 10th Le Mans win.

By 3am I was terrifyingly tired. Having spent the last 10 hours walking the circuit, watching the racing and indulging (embarrassingly) in a fantastic variety of snacks I had not, admittedly, done anything too taxing, despite this all I wanted to do was sleep - anywhere. What the drivers and their pit crews must have felt like was beyond comprehension.

At night Le Mans becomes deadly. Speeds hardly slow and how drivers manage to absorb the shock effect of bouncing over the kerbs through chicanes in narrow composite bucket seats, remember their braking and turn-in points and don’t fall asleep at 300km/h careering down the Mulsanne (avoiding each other) is beyond me. Sure, an F1 sprint race is more intense, but the duration of Le Mans exponentially increases wear on components and driver fatigue. A single error of judgment vanquishes any chance of victory and in a severe case, makes you a posthumous Le Mans veteran.

For the drivers of Audi’s #2 R18, they required around 230 perfectly judged laps for a win; nearly four times the lap count of an average F1 race, with individual Circuit de la Sarthe laps measuring close to threefold the distance of a modern F1 circuit. Easy? Well, yes - if climbing Everest is your idea of a Sunday afternoon hike.

As morning dawned the skies over western France were grey with rain predicted. Those racing fans who’d over-indulged were punished as the V8 powered Corvettes thundered by, compounding their hangover headaches. Audi’s lone R18 had closed in on the leading and second-placed Peugeot 908 cars, and although the lead Peugeot 908 pitted only 28 times (compared to the #2 R18’s 31 pit visits), the Audi proved faster.

LAST LIGHT: Forget about romantic sunsets, at Le Mans the night becomes a deadly game of chase-the-leader…

CLOSER TO THE EDGE (TO THE VERY END)

As rain started filtering down three hours before the end, both cars pitted for tyres and, with characteristic German efficiency, the Audi got out first. From there on, it was the most amazingly close race you could imagine.

In a world where conventional wisdom dictates an endurance race to be won by laps instead of seconds, Audi’s Lotterer was only a scant 6.7 sec ahead of the second-place Peugeot of Simon Pagenaud with half an hour’s racing to go.

A fatigued Andre Lotterer (who set the race’s fastest lap during hour 19) managed to keep the 908 at bay in the rainy conditions and take victory by a slim 13.854 sec – after 24 hours of racing. It was, in a word, thrilling.

Beyond the sheer majesty of its racing at the sharp end, Le Mans is incomparably more spectator-friendly than any F1 event.

Throngs of families converge on the race, something you’ll hardly see at a contemporary F1 Grand Prix, due to the prohibitive cost and pedantic access issues. You see young children with soundproof ear muffs being dragged behind dads keen to remortgage the family home to purchase something in the various shopping alleys connecting different parts of circuit. Brits camp next to their supercars in pop-up dome tents; and despite the mass of people (and traffic) moving about, there is no undue rudeness as impeccably attired French officers of the Gendarmerie (French rural police) keep good order.

The only debit at Le Mans is having some Frenchman ash his Gauloises on your shoes as you observe the race from one of the myriad spectator points, but it’s France after all and  the food makes up for it.

MOTORSPORT THAT MAKES SENSE...

Before I went to Le Mans, I though Audi’s motorsport boss, Wolfgang Ullrich, was rather brazen by stating the brand has no interest in F1, and plainly found the FIA’s premier formula irrelevant.

"At Le Mans, our cars cover 520km more than an F1 car will in an entire season, our average speed - including pit stops - will be 30km higher than an F1 car and we will use 42% less fuel."

"You can't argue with those figures," Ullrich said before the race and he is right. Towards the end of the race I could not believe the unrelenting pace the Audi and Peugeot cars sustained throughout all 24 hours of racing. The strain on components and lubricating fluids were obscene and when you think that Audi’s winning R18 raced for nearly 5000km, well, is there any better durability testing available?

From high-beam halogen headlights to sophisticated wiper-blade technology, Le Mans has always managed to produce real-world benefits for road car users. Its championing of diesel technology has enabled Audi and Peugeot to create a collection of outstanding compression ignition engines for their road cars lines, and with talk of hybrid power for the future, Le Mans continues to evolve in a manner consistent with tangible real-world motoring realities, something F1 most certainly does not.

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