Misfortune and controversy at the 84th running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, F1 Canadian & European Grand Prix
JT – The 84th running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans was a compelling event, notable in terms of history, misfortune and controversy. You were on hand with Scuderia Corsa and Scott Dixon who made his first start at Le Mans with the Chip Ganassi Ford program. Both teams had a fantastic race, winning the GTE and the GTE AM categories handily.
Interestingly, Bell and Sweedler have now won the Daytona 24, Sebring 12 Hours and Le Mans 24 as teammates. Segal has won all three as well. What did you think of the Scuderia Corsa team’s performance in just their second year at Le Mans?
SJ – What a difference a year makes. Although that’s kind of typical for Le Mans. It’s such a daunting track on your first visit. If you’re not prepared and already know what to expect it takes time to get up to speed there – for the drivers and also the teams. When you do it for the first time, you start to get the hang of it halfway through the race, once you have a couple of stints under your belt you start getting into a rhythm and little by little it all comes together and the lap times suddenly start coming down. Practice is generally a disaster your first time there because you get very little seat time with three drivers sharing the car, and the fact that each lap is almost four minutes long. If you’re not qualifying you will go into the race with probably less than 15-20 laps of practice beforehand. If the car is not well balanced and handling close to your liking it makes it very difficult.
This year all three drives came back with a clear frame of mind. I don’t think I’ve ever been involved in a Le Mans where there was so little drama from beginning to the end. The car ran perfectly from the first lap and handled really well. There were no mishaps or incidents either in practice or the race. The drivers did their bit perfectly and everybody was happy with the way the car was handling which makes a huge difference.
During the race everyone just got on with the job. Everybody did exactly what they were supposed to do, all three drivers were very fast and not one mistake from any of the drivers. We didn’t have a single unscheduled pit stop the whole race. That’s how you win endurance races of course, spending all the time on track and not in the pits. The execution was flawless by everyone on the team and most importantly by the guys in the car. It was great to be a part of.
JT – What was the overall atmosphere at the circuit like this year? There seemed to be a great anticipation for the race.
SJ – It was very upbeat overall. Every year the event seems to be getting a little bit bigger and better. There was another huge crowd and a tremendous atmosphere. Everyone was excited and it was everything you expect Le Mans to be. It’s just like the Indy 500, steeped in tradition and procedures that no other race has, or would ever get away with. Starting with the scrutineering on the Sunday or Monday prior to the race, which means you have been there almost a week before the race even starts. It’s a fantastic event and for everyone involved and the build up over the week is a huge part of it. The manufacturers are spending a fortune not just on the racing but also on the activation around the track. I don’t think there’s any sport or event that actually comes close to the set up Audi and Porsche have around the track, it’s incredibly impressive.
JT – One of the biggest stories was the heartbreak for Toyota in LMP1. Their cars had led most of the race and looked fast and very reliable. The No. 2 Porsche 919 was their only competition. The No. 6 Toyota had a setback when Kamui Kobayashi spun into a gravel trap after dawn but otherwise this looked like Toyota’s race to win.
Then on the penultimate lap, the No.5 TS050 Hybrid with Kazuki Nakajima at the wheel ground to a halt on the main straight due to a turbo component failure. With minutes to go the No.2 Porsche took the win. Toyota, having made numerous attempts at Le Mans came up short once again. It was Porsche’s 18th overall victory. Mazda remains the only Japanese manufacturer to have won overall.
What are your thoughts on the late race drama?
SJ – It was shocking in a way and gut wrenching to watch the car stop on the very last lap. Like every single person in the place I just felt so bad for them. It’s just unfathomable that the car would break with three minutes to go. They had done such a great job the whole race and really, I think they took everyone by surprise. Both the drivers and the team had done a phenomenal job. I’m sure will take them a while to get over this.
JT – It could be said that Toyota had an “Audi-esque” performance. On the other hand, Audi didn’t look like the Audi we’ve known at Le Mans. Both of their cars had reliability problems and issues on-track. The only reason they kept their streak of podium finishes alive is because the No. 5 Toyota was not classified.
SJ – It was strange. Qualifying was a bit weird overall anyway because of the weather. It was unrepresentative of a lot of the cars pace so we didn’t know where Audi was really. As it turned out, they never really featured in the race.
Of course, Porsche had a problem too with one its cars. It’s seems to be the nature of the beast now though. The P1 cars are getting so incredibly complicated with all of the systems they have and the technology is relatively new which all contributes to more reliability problems of course. I was given a tour around the Audi garage on Saturday morning. Their setup is just mind-boggling. It makes even Formula One look like club racing in comparison. It’s truly unbelievable how far it has come in recent years.
JT – Moving on to the GTE class, controversy still surrounds Ford’s historic win with the new GT. There were three Fords in the top four finishing positions with the Ganassi Team USA cars as the chief rivals - finishing first and third - for Ferrari’s entries from Risi Competizione and AF Corse. The American-fielded Risi 488 GTE finished second in class.
Both the winning No. 68 Ford GT and the No. 82 Risi Ferrari received post-race penalties with Ganassi and Risi protesting each other. A further investigation is pending on whether the Ford GTs were outside the ACO’s “7 Percent Rule” which is enforced to establish a minimum buffer in performance between classes.
Balance of Performance adjustments made after the Le Mans test day and then again just before the race affected the Fords and Ferrari’s least. Many of the other teams opined that the ACO was favoring Ford and Ferrari. Fords accounted for eight of the top ten fastest laps during the race and took four of the top five spots in qualifying, besting the top normally-aspirated car by nearly four seconds.
Their pace during the race was impressive. Much of this can be attributed to the driver line-ups and professionalism of Ganassi Racing. But observers both in the paddock and outside it have questioned the politics behind the BoP for the race and the outright pace of the Ford GTs. What’s your take?
SJ – Well first of all, the 488 has been winning races all year leading up to Le Mans. It’s a fantastic car, and so is the Ford.
It’s not just a question of weight, horsepower, aerodynamics, etc. There are so many other factors. Obviously a production Ferrari is far more inclined to be a great race car than a Corvette or an Aston Martin – just by the way the car is built. Then take the Ford GT, it’s half the height of any of the other cars so it will obviously cut through the air a lot better. It’s a different type of car and in my opinion it sets a precedent for how manufacturers are going to have to look at GT racing in the future.
As I’ve said many times, I don’t like the BoP. I can’t give an answer as to what should be done other than to un-restrict the cars but lots of people disagree with me. The bottom line with the BoP is that there’s always going to be only one team happy with it – the team on top of the podium. The rest will always think they’re being shafted.
Let’s face it, everybody is playing the game to a degree, it’s a sensitive subject obviously and frankly I don’t think you can ever find a happy medium that will suit everybody on every track. Clearly every manufacturers goal is to win Le Mans first of all, and I think some cars are more suitable to this kind of track than others. I think all you have to do is look at the design and shape of each car to figure out which one looks more suitable to achieve this goal compared to some of the others.
Don’t forget as well that the driver combinations that the Ganassi US operation had were beyond what any other team had in my opinion. All of this adds up. And the GT was built to be quick at Le Mans specifically. I think you also have to give a considerable amount of credit to Chip Ganassi’s team for figuring out what needed to be done. They’ve never been to Le Mans before and they show up and basically clean up. From my point of view I would have loved to see Scott win of course but it didn’t pan out that way unfortunately, his car got separated from the leading bunch on one of the early safety cars and the gap basically remained the same throughout the race, everyone was running so close to each other on pace among the top three cars that it was impossible to make up enough time. He did get fastest lap and a new lap record for the GT category, which was impressive for his first visit to the track.
JT – That’s a good segue to another question that may arise for manufacturers in the GTE/GTLM class in the future. Ford has made it clear that they designed the new GT as a race car first and a production car second. GTE and GTLM are “production-based” classes. Yes, their adherence to the actual road-going versions of the cars raced is far from complete but it looks as if Ford has moved even further from the production-based formula. What might that mean going forward?
SJ – Again, I think there a number of factors, not just horsepower, weight, aero and the rest. It’s how you look at a car like this philosophically – how you take into consideration weight distribution, center of gravity, suspension design. But the more competitive anything gets, the further the goal post will be moved and it’s fair to assume we may see some different looking cars from some of the manufacturers in the future, if they are serious about winning at Le Mans.
JT – The increasing pace of the GTE class, particularly as demonstrated by Ford, brings us back to the points you’ve made previously about the potential lap times GTE cars could achieve if restrictions upon them were removed. The Ford GTs are already closing in on LMP2 lap times.
SJ – Yes, when you see the money that’s being spent on the P1 factory teams it makes your eyes water – it’s insane. It’s the same level as the top teams in Formula One now. The road car versions of the race cars in GTE/GTLM have almost 250 more horsepower than the race cars with all of the restrictions in place on them.
If you gave them back that power for a start that would make their lap times probably six seconds per lap quicker, I reckon. There’s no question they could be in 3 minute 40s very quickly. That’s kind of where the ACO feels the fastest cars in the field should be. So rather than restricting them why not simply let them loose and see what times they will be able to get down to. It would make the racing spectacular in my opinion.
The amount of grip the LMP1s have in the corners is simply unbelievable. Even in the rain when it’s coming down significantly their turn-in is just as fast as in the dry. The cars literally do not move. You rarely see a P1 car get out of shape. They’re stuck like Scalextric slot cars.
If you increased the tire widths on the GTE cars along with the added power - the aero could almost stay the same – they might go eight to ten seconds quicker over a lap within a couple years.
You’d have every manufacturer who wants to compete on a serious level be able to build a car that would fit the purpose. People might say that the costs will go through the roof but they won’t get anything near as expensive as building and developing a P1 car. And at least you’d be able to sell the same car to a customer racing team, to offset some of the development costs.
It could be like it was back in 1980s with the factory Porsches and then customer teams with the same cars but maybe slightly different than the factory machines. You had the three factory Rothmans cars (Porsche 956s) and about 25 privateers running the cars as well in the 80s. The factory cars will always be a bit faster than the privateers in most cases, but it would still be a lot better than the gap we have now between the P1 factory cars and the 2 privateer teams.
JT – The ACO has reversed its stated plan to allow teams with IMSA-specific engines to compete in the LMP2 class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Next year only LMP2 cars with the new global-spec Gibson engine, as well as grandfathered prototypes, will be allowed to compete at Le Mans.
Obviously that splits the global sports car racing scene once more. It has certainly happened many times in the past but fans hoped the two P2 formulas could race together.
SJ – Yes, well like a lot of people I get tired of even listening to the debate. I just find it sad that the two sides can’t figure out a way to do this together so that everyone could run the same cars. It’s already hard to come by sponsorship for sports car racing and it would make a lot more sense if they could agree to one set of rules.
JT – You were on hand for the Canadian Grand Prix. Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes took the win after Ferrari pursued a questionable pit strategy. What did you think of the race?
SJ – Mercedes obviously made the right call in Montreal or maybe it was Ferrari who made the wrong call and Mercedes had to cover by doing the opposite which in this case worked out perfect for them. It seems like every other team is up and down in terms of their performance or tactics from one weekend to the other. Nobody has the consistency Mercedes has in every single race.
If you look at Ferrari, we have yet to see them properly execute a race weekend in its entirety where everything runs smoothly from Friday to Sunday. So it’s hard to get a reading on what their real pace actually is.
When you have momentum as Mercedes does, it’s a lot easier but even they screwed up at Monaco last year so it can happen to anyone. There’s no doubt that the other teams are getting closer, but week in, week out, the Mercedes is still the fastest car and the strongest team.
JT – In the most recent round, the European Grand Prix, Mercedes won again – this time with Nico Rosberg dominating the race. Lewis Hamilton had electronics issues during the grand prix but his weekend was compromised in qualifying.
SJ – Obviously, Rosberg had everything together. Lewis’ weekend kind of fell apart from qualifying forward and everyone else seemed to have a fraught day. Obviously his electronics and subsequent radio issues didn’t help him any.
The tires seems to play a bigger part in every teams performance where some teams manage to get it right and others are completely out to lunch, then the next weekend it’s someone completely different who either gets it right or not. Which comes back to my earlier argument that they should allow for more than one tire company to compete. The tires are such a huge part of a race cars performance, and if there’s one area which is completely neglected as far as innovation goes it’s the tires. Now we have one manufacturer who’s basically been mandated to build a crap tire in order to spice up the show. Yet there’s probably more to learn in that area than anything we will ever learn about aerodynamics. And, it will cost the teams a lot less in development costs, they would have to bring back more track testing which everyone seems to want, rather than the endless simulator testing that everyone is now forced to do since the ban of in season testing. There are three major components that dictate a cars performance, Chassis, Engine and Tires. Both the Chassis and Engine are open for anyone who wants to compete, so why not also the tires?
JT- Finally, we had the Indycar series return to Road America last weekend. It seemed like the race had a great turn out with fans from all over the country coming back to this classic venue. The race gave us plenty of action although it didn’t turn out great for Scott this time.
SJ- Yes, it’s great to see there is a genuine resurgence for Indycar right now. I think the series is doing a really good job at bringing back some of these classic venues but what’s even better is the fact that the fans are responding. There is no doubt that Indycar has finally got some real momentum and more and more fans are now becoming aware that the series is producing what may be the best racing in the world. Elkhart Lake proved to be no different, it was a great race packed with action from start to finish. Unfortunately for Scott it ended early with an engine failure. If you add Detroit where he also dropped out with an engine failure while leading it makes it two races where he could have potentially scored big. This is obviously not helping the Championship but at least he’s still in the hunt although it’s becoming more difficult to close the gap with each race that goes by.