Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Fastest Tortoise

It's not been the best couple of weeks for the man in charge of Red Bull's driver development programme, Helmut Marko. First he finds himself at the centre of allegations that the team attempted to nobble Mark Webber and ensure that Sebastian Vettel won the Turkish Grand Prix, and then, two weeks later, the record he held with Dutchman Gijs Van Lennep for driving the fastest ever Le Mans 24 hour race finally fell after 39 years.

The Le Mans 24 hour race was a very different beast in 1971, when Marko and Van Lennep took their Porsche 917 to victory at an average speed of 138.1 mph. Where now there are strict rules about how many mechanics can work on the car when it is in pitlane (4), how long a driver can remain at the wheel over a single stint (no more than 4 hours) and how great a portion of the 24 hours a driver may drive (no more than 14 hours) things were all a lot more informal in the early 1970s, as even a cursory glance at photographs from pitlane, which was thronged not only with mechanics but with journalists and all kinds of hangers-on.

And where the Audi R15 TDIs that finished 1-2-3 last weekend are a model of a very particular kind of measured, teutonic efficiency, their big diesel engines almost silent, breezing effortlessly through the night. By contrast, the Porsche 917, perhaps the platonic ideal of a racing sports prototype, was a fearsome beast which, particularly in its early days, left many of its drivers genuinely terrified. With around 600BHP, it had about as much power as the modern Audi, but that power was delivered through a much more primitive chassis which, just to add to the fear factor, had a magnesium chassis in order to save weight. Not, in short, something you would want to be stuck inside if it were to spear off the road and the go up in flames.

Yet at first glance, it might seem remarkable that Marko and Van Lennep's record lasted as long as it did. The Automobile Club De L'Ouest's ban on the big 5 litre Ferrari and Porsche sportscars played a part (cynics might suggest a transparent attempt to give a helping hand to the French Matra organisation) and there is no doubt that the sportscars of the mid 1970s were not as quick as those of the era which immediately preceded it, in much the same way that the sports prototypes of the mid 1990s couldn't hold a candle to the all-conquering Peugeot 905s and Toyota TS010, but there can be little doubt that the Group C cars of the 1980s were a good deal quicker than the Porsche 917 had ever been. The early Porsche 962s and Jaguar XJR-5s might not have had any more power, but they did have the benefit of another 15 years or so of development and they were considerably faster. How do we know for sure? Well, at least in part because the Kremer brothers ran a modified 917 in the 1981 Le Mans race and, while it certainly wasn't slow, it wasn't quite as quick as the more modern Porsche 936s and would almost certainly have been completely outclassed had the Kremer brothers deigned to run the car against the 956s the following year.

No, the single biggest obstacle standing in the way of anyone aiming at the 1971 record has been that the circuit at La Sarthe has been made steadily slower and slower over the years. It was in 1972 that the end of the lap was slowed down by the introduction of the Ford Chicane, and the bypassing of the fearsomely fast Arnage by the Porsche Curves. Later came the introduction of the Dunlop chicane and just when the 1971 record looked like it was coming under threat at the height of the Group C era, with Jan Lammers, Johnny Dumfries and Andy Wallace coming very close in 1988, the 3 mile long Mulsanne straight was broken up by the introduction of two chicanes and average race speeds dropped considerably as a result.

The increased use of safety cars and the mixed grid of gentleman drivers in underpowered LMP2 prototypes and GT2 Porsches and Ferraris had made it still more difficult to break that fastest race record in recent years. In all truth, the Audi and Peugeot diesels have probably had the speed required to top Van Lennep and Marko's 222kph average for some years, but wet races and long safety car periods (often the result of accidents involving prototypes and much slower GTs) have mitigated against the record actually being broken.

Finally, last weekend, the Audi R15 of Timo Bernhard, Romain Dumas and Mike Rockenfeller broke that 39 year old record, winning the race at an average speed of 140mph and heading up an Audi 1-2-3, with all three cars creeping under the bar set by Porsche nearly 40 years earlier. The irony was that the fastest Le Mans ever wasn't even won by the fastest car in the race that weekend. The gap between Peugeot and Audi has, if anything, got bigger since last year, with the French cars lapping up to four seconds a lap faster than their German rivals. But anyone familiar with Aesop's fables will know that the steady determination of a tortoise can sometimes beat the flighty but unreliable hare. And so it proved. The Peugeots led the first half of the race but then, one by one, all four of their cars hit problems, and eventually not one of them would finish the race. Whether there was something fundamentally wrong with the 2010-iteration of the 908 or whether they simply pushed the engines too hard after getting held up early on by minor niggles isn't clear, but either way the old cliche is true: to finish first, first you must finish. Peugeot hared off into the distance early on, but Audi, it seems, had produced the fastest tortoise in the world.

So another long-standing record has gone. It took 44 years for Fernando Alonso to snatch the late Bruce Mclaren's record as the youngest Grand Prix winner of all time, though that record would belong to the Spaniard for just a few short years before Sebastian Vettel stole it away from him. Likewise, Emerson Fittipaldi's claim to be the youngest world champion ever lasted for 33 years before Alonso took it from him, only to find his arch-rival Lewis Hamilton took the record away from him just 3 years later. Which begs the question, how long will Audi get to keep this record for? No record lasts forever, it seems. Though I would be surprised if the 251mph recorded by Roger Dorchy in Gerard Welter's WM Peugeot down the old Mulsanne straight will ever be bettered...

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