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Le Mans Lessons: Big Changes Are Here

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Friday, June 22 2018

Without competition, Toyota hybrids dominated last weekend’s running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor

RacinToday.com

Change is, has been, will always be an integral part of auto racing. It’s baked into the racing cake. But during the 20th Century, changes in racing seemed more tweak-ish than quake-like.

But this is the 21st Century and changes have become revolutionary as opposed to evolutionary. And they have been forced not by such traditional reasons as safety, fuel consumption and/or competition.

The new changes are coming courtesy of core-shaking causes – economics and culture – and the taste of the cake is becoming unrecognizable.

Such changes have smacked NASCAR fans in the teeth over the last 15 years. In recent months, fans of Eurocentric series like Formula 1 and the WEC are having their tastes buds challenged by economic and cultural exigencies.

The phrase “not sustainable” keeps elbowing its way into racing’s economic vernacular. It is increasingly being applied to, even, the big boys of racing – NASCAR and Formula 1. It has been applied everywhere from business publications to mainstream media outlets like the Washington Post.

Its meaning is ominous when its applied to cars going around in loops – weather those loops have four corners or 14. It means racing could be headed in a vastly different direction.

Former NASCAR official, current president of Tuckahoe Strategies and old friend and astute observer Ramsey Poston applied the phrase to NASCAR and its potential sale in an email a couple days ago:  “It’s tough to see the sport in the shape it’s in. A sale could be a very positive thing for NASCAR as it’s current path is just not sustainable.”

Toto Wolff, executive director of world champion Mercedes, said of Formula 1’s Bernie Ecclestone-developed economic model, “I am not sure it is sustainable.”

The sustainability of the current format of World Endurance Championship and IMSA came into focus this month in Le Mans, France, site of one of the world’s three great automobile races.

As per usual last Saturday morning, the 24 Hours of Le Mans lit up the flat screen just as morning sun was lighting up the sky in the Central time zone in America. It did so this year with less excitement and anticipation as in any time in recent memory.

The reason was a lack of competition in the fastest, most technically advance class of sports car racing – the LMP1 class. Toyota remains the only manufacturer to back an LMP1 hybrid program in the sport.

In the weeks leading up to this year’s 24, everybody who follows the sport knew that the only thing that would keep the two really fast and exciting Toyota Gazoo Racing TS050s from finishing 1-2 and by double-digit laps ahead of the third-place car would be mechanical problems or shunts.

Compounding the frustration for fans – large numbers of whom stage marathon watching vigils (at home and at the Circuit de la Sarthe) – was the apparent (and probably understandable) decision by Toyota not to let its two entries get aggressive with each other.

Absent the marque vs. marque excitement. Absent was the knowledge that one was watching two, three, four of the world’s top performance-car makers putting the fastest, most exotic fendered cars the world has ever seen on the same track.

The only hook in the prototype portion of the race was whether the highly popular Fernando Alonso would complete add the second jewel of racing’s triple crown (the Indianapolis 500 and the Formula 1 Grand Prix of Monaco, which he’s won twice) to his list of accomplishments.

Alonso, who races full time in F1 these days with the less-than-competitive McLaren team, did exactly that, but as Sunday afternoon grew longer and the laps wound down at the 8.4-mile French circuit, the feeling grew that the win would have and asterisk-y feel to it.

Down field, as always, the GTE Pro portion of the race was well worth watching as terrific semi-production cars like the Ford GTs, Corvette C7-Rs, Porsche 911 RSRs, Ferraris and Aston Martins competed in close proximity.

And, as always, it was extremely satisfying watching the most talented drivers in the world – many who were taking time off from their day jobs in IndyCar, DTM, Formula 1 and Formula E – take on Le Mans.

Crowd numbers didn’t seem effected, either.

However…

The top prototype fields have been expanding and contracting on a fairly regular basis in sports car racing since forever as teams from Audi, Porsche, Nissan, BMW, Mercedes Benz and even Cadillac enter and leave the paddocks. Along with those comings and goings have been concerns about the future of prototype racing.

But this time around, things feel a bit different.

The media is full of stories about the future of big time sports car racing. In the name of economics, many in the sport have called for less technology, big changes to hybrid systems and increased participation by non-factory-affliliated privateer teams. Some want to see the top class of cars look more like the cars that the manufacturers sell on Mondays (Sound familiar, America?)

Among those calling for big changes is Toyota.

Last week at Le Mans, the FIA and ACO sanctioning bodies announced that they are working on rules and specs for the 2020 sports car racing season and beyond. Gone, apparently, will be the LMP1 class.

Officials said “hypercars, supercars, luxury GTs or concept cars” which will make the machines immediately identifiable to a marque will be the heart of the sport.

Hybrid systems with kinetic energy recovery for the top tier of WEC – and, presumably, IMSA – will still be use but in what relationship to the internal combusion part of the system is unknown.

And it will likely be mandated that those systems developed by factory efforts will be made available to privateer teams.

IMSA here in America endorsed the changes.

Why such big changes? Economics.

FIA boss Jean Todt, who was an eye witness to the costs of runaway technological costs when he was with Ferrari in F1 back the 1990s, said of the new rules, “This will provide endurance racing with a long-term, stable platform while continuing to offer a cost-effective stage to showcase future technologies.”

Toyota racing boss Pascal Vassalon told Motorsports.com back in February that he and his company does not want to see LMP1 become a “spec” series.

But, he said, Toyota realizes that the current level of technology in LMP1 is, yep, “not sustainable”.

Cultural dictates are also having an effect on racing. Most notably in Europe where people seem much more tuned into the fact that good old fossil-fuel sucking internal combustion engines may be old but are not that good.

Europeans are rapidly embracing green technology – in their everyday lives and in their racing culture. European car companies are responding; on the related platforms of public roads and racing circuits.

Formula E, a series which features open-wheel chassis powered by all-electric motors, is proving a big hit with fans and competitors alike. Most major European auto manufacturers have gotten, or are getting involved – like traditional racing-oriented companies Audi, Jaguar, Renault, Nissan and Porsche.

Porsche AG announced this week that it has invested in the technology and electric sports car company Rimac Automobili by taking a minority shareholding of 10 percent.

In a press release, Porsche, which bade farewell to the WEC and Le Mans after winning the overall championship last year in order to compete in Formula E, said , the Rimac company, “develops and produces electric vehicle components and manufactures electric super sports cars. As part of its electrification efforts, Porsche is seeking a development partnership with the young company.

In 2009, founder Mate Rimac began working from his garage on his vision of producing electric sports cars that could both be fast and offer excitement. Rimac recently presented the latest version of its electric hypercar, the “C Two”, at the Geneva Motor Show in March 2018. The two-seater produces around 2,000 hp and reaches a top speed of 412 kilometres per hour. It has a range of 650 kilometres (NEDC Cycle), and achieves an 80 percent battery charge in 30 minutes through a 250 kW fast charging system.

“By developing the purely electric two-seaters super sports cars, like the ‘Concept One’ or ‘C Two’, as well as core vehicle systems, Rimac has impressively demonstrated its credentials in the field of electromobility.”

Change can be scary. In racing, it can lead to what we saw at Le Mans last weekend, what we are seeing in NASCAR now and what we will see in F1 really soon.

Change is often needed and it can result in improvements when given a chance.

What change can’t be is stopped.

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Friday, June 22 2018
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