Thursday, January 11, 2007

Grand Slams and Quadruple Crowns - Villeneuve Goes to Le Mans

So Jacques Villeneuve is going to Peugeot to race at Le Mans. After all the talk of his going to NASCAR, he has decided that his year will instead focus on June in La Sarthe. This is good news, I think, for the race itself. In recent years, topline rally drivers, Colin McRae and Sebastien Loeb, have turned their hand to the event and generated plenty of publicity for a race which, thanks to Volkswagen Audi Group's domination since the turn of the century, has not been at its most exciting. A formula one world champion though? Its been a while since a top line F1 driver has had a go at Le Mans. Plenty of drivers try Le Mans as junior drivers - Michael Schumacher raced for Mercedes there in 1990, Mark Webber did the same ten years later. Eddie Irvine came close to winning the event for Toyota in 1993 and 1994, and Johnny Herbert actually did win for Mazda in 1991. But bona fide F1 stars, guys with world championships to their name? To my memory, the last to appear on the entry list was Mario Andretti, back in 2000. By that time, he was 60 years old, and driving a Panoz, so there wasn't much chance of him achieving a great deal, but Le Mans was an itch he had tried to scratch several times before, never quite succeeding.

He first came to the race in 1983, paired with his young son Michael Andretti and equally precocious Frenchman Alliot. In a Porsche 956, they finished 3rd at their first attempt. Andretti would be back a few years later with his son Michael joined by brother John, attempting to win the race as a family. That time, they could only manage 6th overall. It would be late on in his career, once he had retired from the Champ Car World Series, that he would come closest to winning at Le Mans. In 1995, against a motley grid of hamstrung prototypes and GT cars, Andretti partnered Bob Wollek and Eric Helary to second place in a Courage C34 Porsche. Even allowing for the rain, which played into the hands of the Mclaren GT runners, the race ought to have been his for the taking, but an incident between Andretti and a rent-a-driver in a GT car lost them time and handed Mclaren its only Le Mans victory.

What is interesting is why Mario Andretti kept going back to Le Mans well into his 6th decade, and long after he had stopped racing in any other category. The answer: unfinished business. Andretti had the F1 world championship, and the Indy 500 to his name, and he very much wanted to add victory at Le Mans to his list of achievements - the motor racing equivalent of the Grand Slam. He never did achieve it, but it is this record which Jacques Villeneuve, Indy Car Champion and Indy 500 winner of 1995 and Formula 1 World Champion of 1997, is now chasing.

Only one driver has ever claimed all three: Graham Hill took the F1 world championship twice, in 1962 and 1968, was victorious in the Indy 500 in 1966 and paired up with French Le Mans expert Henri Pescarolo to win the 24hr race in 1972 in a Matra. Others have claimed victory in two of these events - Texan AJ Foyt won at Le Mans in 1967 and won the Indy 500 no less than four times, but never had any interest in Formula 1. Jim Clark won at Indy and had 2 F1 titles to his name, but never won Le Mans. Emerson Fittipaldi also claimed both the Indy 500 and the F1 title. Going further back, to a time when sportscar racing perhaps held more significance, Jochen Rindt and Mike Hawthorn were F1 champions who at Le Mans and American Phil Hill won the F1 title and took no less than 3 victories at Le Mans but, despite being born on the far side of the pond, to my knowledge never so much as started the Indy 500.

Comparisons with a Grand Slam of the major tennis or golf tournaments, though, are not entirely warranted. For a start, its absolutely clear that, in tennis, the four major championships are Wimbledon, Roland Garros, Flushing Meadows and the Australian Open. In Golf, there is perhaps ever so slightly more room for debate, but those who care about the sport (I do not) would list The Masters, the US Open, The British Open and the PGA Championship as the big four.

In motor racing, its all a bit more confusing. Its pretty clear that Le Mans is the biggest sports car race, but is winning Le Mans more important than a sportscar world title? Perhaps, given that the quality of the field at Le Mans has, throughout most of the last fifty years, been higher than that to be found in the sportscar championship as a whole. A driver can fit Le Mans around an F1 or Champ Car campaign, but couldn't do the whole Sportscar championship (and that's not forgetting that in some years there hasn't even been such a thing). More to the point, is winning the Indy 500 more of an achievement than winning the Indy Car Series? The race might mean more to the man on the street, but is one race really more important than a whole championship? How to rank Nigel Mansell's achievement - winning the F1 championship and the CART championship in consecutive years, but never (quite) winning at Indianapolis? Perhaps its better to forget the additional complications caused by the IRL/Champ Car split...

If Jacques Villeneuve wins Le Mans, his achievement will in fact be unique. He will become the first driver ever to claim the F1 championship, the Indy 500, the CART Championship and victory in Le Mans, a quadruple crown, if you like. Exactly what kind of achievement is this though? Every top tennis player might dream of winning the Grand Slam (or at least compete in all the Grand Slam events) but there have been great racing drivers who never showed much interest in any category outside their chosen specialism. Michael Schumacher never much liked Le Mans, and never showed the slightest interest in attempting the Indy 500. AJ Foyt was famously indifferent to Formula 1. Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost never tried their hand at either Le Mans or the Indy 500, feeling that F1 was the pinnacle of the sport and everything else a mere distraction (though Prost has had a successful second career as an ice-racer, of all things). The truth is, the great majority of drivers aren't much interested in chasing Graham Hill's triple crown, or any similar such achievement. And even if they were, increasing specialisation and the nature of driver contracts makes doing so very difficult.

In the end, the motor-racing grand slam is a more esoteric task - the kind of personal goal which some great drivers feel they must set themselves, but not the gold standard measure of success that it is in some other sports. After all, did not Mario Andretti have his own quadruple crown of sorts? He may never have won Le Mans, but he did have the Indy 500, the Indycar and F1 championships and the Daytona 500, the world's premier stock car race, to his name. And if its big races, rather than world championships, that count, maybe Juan Pablo Montoya might like to try to add that to his Monaco Grand Prix and Indy 500 victories. After all, neither Andretti nor Villeneuve ever won round the streets of Monte Carlo.

I've always liked the concept of the all-rounder, and I wish Villeneuve the best of luck in his efforts at Le Mans. He might need another year to pull it off, given that Peugeot are going up against the dominant Audi team, who have won 6 of the last 7 24 hour races. But maybe we're thinking too narrowly. Villeneuve won the F1 championship in a Renault powered Williams. Perhaps, if and when he's done with Le Mans and Peugeot, he'd like to have a word about a Monte Carlo rally campaign with Citroen?

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Blogger Nicebloke said...

I don't think we need worry about JV making the grand-slam this year. But as you say, if he's back in 2008, it'll be a different matter. I'm looking forward to actually being there this year to watch him try!

11:38 AM  

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