Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Class War

Cricket and sportscar racing are perhaps not two sports most people would immediately associate with each other. At a superficial glance, about the only thing they appear to have in common is a worrying degree of infiltration by organised crime elements. Having watched the coverage of the recent Sebring 12 hour race though, it strikes me that the other thing that they share is that they both work very well on the radio.

In the usual run of things, long distance sportscar races are not close fought affairs, with drivers fighting over tenths of a second. Like test cricket, the races tend to evolve slowly over time rather than being decided by a single bold passing manouevre or a brief flurry of fast laps. And rather than watching the on-screen action, I found myself working on other things and listening to the excellent commentary provided by Chris Parsons and John Hindhaugh. Much like listening to the cricket on Radio 4. As it turned out, the battle in the GT2 class really did end up going down to the wire, and after 12 hours ther was just 0.2s separating the Ferrari of Melo, Salo and Mowlem from the chasing Flying Lizard Porsche of Bergmeister, Lieb and Van Overbeek. In the other classes, though, the result was never in quite so much dispute. There was no doubting that, providing one of them finished, an Audi R10 would win in LMP1, and while the Acura team went into the event as underdogs in LMP2, by the half distance point, it was clear that the Porsche challenge had self-destructed and that the Andretti-Green car merely had to keep going in order to win its class. GT1 was a private battle between the 2 works Corvettes, as the only other car in the field, a private Aston Martin had neither the same level of preparation nor the same strength in depth in its driver line-up.

The main interest in the race, aside from the GT2 battle, lay in whether the Acura tortoise might beat the Audi hare in the battle for overall honours. Going into the final hour and a half, the Andretti-Green machine was still in with a shout of victory because, while it had never been on the pace of the Audi all day, it had run absolutely reliably. The Audi, on the other hand, had been beset by punctures and penalties, as well as simply ending up plain unlucky with the timing of caution periods from time to time. In the end, the battle's climax never quite came, 90 minutes from the end, the Acura developed various electrical maladies, and dropped six laps off the pace of the lead Audi.

What this battle highlighted, however, is the confusion over classes in top level sports car racing right now. In theory, the American ALMS and European LMES series each run with the same four classes, and the FIA GT series runs classes equivalent to their GT1 and GT2 classes. In practice, however, there are peculiar idiosyncracies which are stopping the sport from being as successful as it might be and preventing cars from being effectively developed to race on both sides of the Atlantic. To my mind, the most fundamental of these is that of having LMP1 and LMP2 categories in the first place. In theory, the LMP2 category is aimed at smaller, private teams, while the LMP1 category is for those gunning for outright victories. The problem is that, in practice, two big manufacturers, Porsche and Honda, have built serious LMP2 machines, while in America, only Audi are racing a serious LMP1 contender. As has been pointed out over at Fastest Lap, a situation has been allowed to develop where different motor manufacturers have decided to avoid facing each other directly, and compete to different rules.

However, with only Audi competing in the top category, now that Dyson have traded in their LMP1 Lolas (which started out life as LMP2 MGs) for LMP2 Porsches, the racing is liable to be even more predictable than in the days when Audi used to face off against those weird front engined Panoz prototypes. Perhaps as a direct result, the ALMS organisers have amended the rules to allow the LMP2 cars to run larger air restrictors - enough to bring the LMP2 cars within striking distance of the Audis, at least at circuits like St Petersburg, where the lighter weight of the LMP2 cars helps to offset their power disadvantage.

This has resulted in a distinct break with the LMES and Le Mans, which runs to the ACO's rulebook. With Audi, Peugeot, Pescarolo and Rollcentre all running good serious LMP1 efforts, the organisers have felt no need to tilt the rules in favour of the baby prototype class. The downside of this has been that the Porsche Spyder, surely the most well-made customer prototype since, oh, well, probably the Porsche 962 actually, is not a serious option for European-based sportscar teams.

In Europe, the greater controversy is over the rules setting out the equivalency between diesel and petrol engines. Pescarolo, especially, have been vocal in arguing that the top-line diesel engines aren't available to privateers, and that the equivalency formula does not create true equality between the two fuels at all. In other words, the deck has been deliberately stacked against the privateers, who are already at enough of a disadvantage in terms of budget and resources.

Similar problems pertain in the GT classes, particularly in GT1, as the superiority of the Porsches in GT2, and their ready availability to any private team with the money to buy one has meant there has been less scope for argument. The problem here is not in the restrictions placed on particular classes, or fuel types, or in turbo/normally aspirated engine equivalency rules, but rather in the restrictions placed on particular cars. In the FIA GT series, the Maserati MC12 has been the car to have for the past couple of seasons (despite the best efforts of Pedro Lamy in the Larbre Ferrari 550 back in 2005). At Le Mans, and in ALMS, on the other hand, different wing and restrictor rules have been applied to the Maserati, such that the works have concluded there's nothing to be gained from racing the cars there. Similar arguments have been had in the past about the Saleen S7R, and in the background, the suspicion is that the rules are being subtly tilted in favour of GM's Pratt & Miller Corvettes.

The long and short of it is that the rules in sportscar racing are an overcomplicated mess that are impeding any serious revival of what as recently as 20 years ago was the second most significant racing category in the world, certainly when seen from Europe. None of the major series are in as much of a mess as Champ Car at the moment, but its hard to ignore the fact that the most open sportscar series in the world right now is the one those stubby little Daytona Prototypes compete in. I enjoyed their recent race at Homestead, it was close fought and there were plenty of potential winners, but surely there's more to sportscar racing than thinly disguised spec-car racing round makeshift rovals?

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3 Comments:

Anonymous Clive said...

A very clear and concise summary of the mess that is sportscar racing these days. Ever thought of applying for Max Mosley's job, Patrick? I'd vote for you. :)

3:29 AM  
Blogger Nicebloke said...

I'm not sure I'd characterize it as a "mess" - as Patrick correctly notes, ChampCar is a good example of a "mess"! Confusion certainly exists, but if you look at the history of sportscar racing, its health is generally indicated by number of entries, and the ALMS, LMS and FIA GT series all look okay in that regard. Back in 1993, when there were only 32 entries at Le Mans, THAT was a mess...

1:51 PM  
Blogger Gromit said...

Nice summary Patrick! Thanks!

9:27 AM  

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