Per my annual tradition, I stayed up and watched all 24 hours of the 86th running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans June 16-17. The historic race was first run on public roads in and around Le Mans, France in 1923. Within the context of more recent Le Mans history, the on-track action on Saturday and Sunday was rather dull.
Toyota, who was the only returning factory-backed LMP1 team, was never challenged for the lead of the race. The GTE Pro class gave viewers some great battles between popular brands like Ford, Ferrari, Porsche, and Corvette. However, Toyota’s long-sought victory by a margin of 12 laps over the nearest non-Toyota prototype highlighted the absence of the major factories and rivalries that has pulled me into the sport.
The world feed commentators did their best to play up Toyota’s important role in endurance racing. Nothing the announcers said was untrue, and Toyota does deserve commendation for their role in preserving the rivalry that had sustained the event’s energy and popularity until now.
Despite the lack of the charisma and charm that had come to characterize the event in recent years, I found myself enjoying it on a deeper level. I started watching Le Mans and sports car racing in general in the late 2000s. At that time Peugeot had just entered the sport to challenge perennial contenders Audi. Over the next several years I watched Audi and Peugeot battle at Le Mans and in the United States at the 12 Hours of Sebring and the Petit Le Mans. When Peugeot bowed out Toyota and later Porsche kept the intense and intellectual rivalry alive.
The impending shift in Europe away from petrol- or diesel-fueled cars, a major diesel emissions scandal at Audi parent company Volkswagen and the high cost of running a Le Mans prototype program have caused Audi and Porsche to leave Le Mans competition. For 2018 another manufacturer did not step up to take their place. This left Toyota as the sole LMP1 Hybrid entry.
Even with the lack of competition at the front, the new prototype rules being rolled out for the 2020 to 2024 24 Hours of Le Mans means cars like Toyota’s TS050 are in their twilight years. To rectify the problems with high operating costs and attract more manufacturers back to Le Mans, the new formula calls for more production-based prototypes.
So, while the racing fan in me was disappointed with the lack of competition for the overall win, the historian in me soaked up the experience of watching this type of car compete at Le Mans for the penultimate time. I applaud the move to a more cost-conscious and road car-oriented formula. That move, however, also means that 2018 and 2019 are the last years we will see cars at the current level of performance. Lap times has started to fall to pre-1990 levels, before the chicanes were added along the Mulsanne Straight.
I realized this was a time to soak up what was left of the Le Mans I had known since I became a fan. So, I made the most of it and in the end found myself enjoying Toyota’s bid to become the first Japanese manufacturer to win at Le Mans since Mazda did so in 1991. It was simply too bad that Toyota has to claim the win without any real competition.
In the end, I am not all that sad to see the LMP category go by the wayside. Le Mans has made itself about high return on investment for manufacturers. In the face of apprehension from manufacturers to commit large sums of money to running an LMP program, the technological “distance” between an LMP car and a production road car, and changing technology, Le Mans must adapt to survive and to continue serving its high-ROI mission. In order to remain relevant, Le Mans must evolve.
One of the most underpromoted parts of 2018 event was the Dempsey-Proton team’s win in the GTE Am Class. Well-known actor and team owner Patrick Dempsey was prominently featured in the TV broadcast. However, that was preaching to the choir.
In order to grow interest in sports car racing, especially in the United States, there needed to be better access to the visual feed outside of the Velocity Channel broadcast. Even if it is was just video clips on social media. I did not see anything coming across the major news outlets about Dempsey’s team’s strong performance at the event. Releasing a press release post-event is too late.
The ACO needed to do more to draw fans of Dempsey in during the event easily and quickly. It doesn’t matter if those Dempsey fans are just tuning in to see Dempsey’s team. What matters is that they would want to tune in and would have a reason to learn about the sport and get into the sport.
There were two changes for the 2018 24 Hours of Le Mans that I was not a big fan of. One was the removal of the yellow headlight covers for the GT cars. The covers had made it a lot easier as a television viewer to distinguish between prototype and GT cars. Hopefully the ACO brings them back next season.
I was also not a fan of the new rule that allowed teams to change tires and refuel the car at the same time. Even if modern refueling technology has made the rule redundant, it was one of the things that made Le Mans different from other forms of auto racing. I’d rather see the ACO allow two tire changers and reinstate the refueling rule. Because of how long refueling takes, there did not seem to be the urgency with tire changing that there used to be.
The new rule for 2018 that forced the GTE Pro cars to come in after a set number of laps was just plain dumb. This is endurance racing. May the best strategy win. The ACO effectively removed the element of strategy and forced the race to be about each car’s pace. Along with the balance of performance changes made before the race, the GTE Pro class racing was close but felt artificial. Cars like the Ferrari 488 that could have potentially used strategy to make up for lack of outright pace were relegated, and the Porsche vs. Ford GT battle showed there is something very unbalanced about the current BOP rules.