The 2018 24 Hours of Le Mans: Closing in on the end of an era 

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. 

A Case for Pascal: Why Wehrlein is the Logical, Strategic Choice to Replace Rosberg at Mercedes F1

When I saw the news this past Thursday that Nico Rosberg had retired in the immediate aftermath of his first drivers’ championship, I was as shocked as anyone else. However, my mind almost immediately shifted from the present to the future. I immediately began to consider who could take Rosberg’s seat this late in the silly season. The Mercedes F1 ride is probably the most coveted in all of motorsports, even with a radically new set of technical regulations coming in 2017. Several very talented drivers who were free agents have already been signed to mid-level teams or worse for next season. The magnitude of the opportunity at Mercedes F1 would appear to command a proven talent. However, in my opinion, this is the right time for Mercedes F1 to try something new. This is the time for Mercedes to find out what they have in Pascal Wehrlein.

Some would argue other drivers have done more prove themselves than young Pascal. Fernando Alonso in the underachieving McLaren, Valtteri Bottas in the declining Williams, or Nico Hulkenburg at a rebuilding Renault F1 would represent logical steps toward assured success. A recently retired Jenson Button may be able to get out of his McLaren connections for one last shot at a second title. Even an Esteban Ocon, who was promoted to the better-performing Force India squad over Wehrlein, could be in the running.

However, to me, none of those choices make as much sense as Wehrlein. While Alonso, and to a lesser degree Bottas and Hulkenburg, represent the best, quasi-available talent in the sport, their respective contract situations would need time to be worked out. There would probably have to be a fair bit of money involved in springing them from their current commitments. Furthermore, in the case of Alonso and Button, their proven talent may not be as valuable to the Silver Arrows as it first appears. Sure, either driver behind the wheel of a Mercedes package would make Mercedes a double threat for victory every grand prix. However, Mercedes has Lewis Hamilton, who is coming off his most unlucky season in recent memory. Without the likes of a Rosberg to challenge him in the other Mercedes seat, Hamilton represents the by far strongest threat for a championship in the paddock. Mercedes F1, therefore, does not need a second driver in order to be a threat in 2017. Moreover, it was the drama with a seasoned Nico Rosberg that seemed to drive the tension that has probably shot Toto Wolff and Patty Lowe’s blood pressure through the garage ceiling on more than one occasion.

As for the young Ocon, his talent became very apparent in 2016. Even though Wehrlein beat Ocon in qualifying on 6 out of 8 occasions (Ocon did not get out for qualifying at the Italian Grand Prix), Ocon outraced Wehrlein 6-3, including the last three races in a row. However, in my opinion, he does not have enough Formula 1 experience be given the reigns to a factory ride just yet. Ocon’s time will inevitably come, but it is a big risk to put a relatively unproven talent in the hot seat of a factory ride. I would have made the same case for Verstappen in 2014. Even the baby-faced assassin got a full season of seat time at a junior team before getting bumped up. Plus, Verstappen’s call up to the senior squad in 2016 was not Red Bull’s strategy going into the season.

To me, Wehrlein is the best choice for several reasons. Chief among those reasons is timing. Not only are we essentially past the silly season, but Wehrlein could not have asked for a better time to move up. With Lewis Hamilton leading Mercedes’ charge next season, Wehrlein can develop in the factory car without having too much pressure on him. Sure, he will be expected to perform, same as Ocon would. But Wehrlein has already won a championship in DTM, which is a pretty elite touring car series. Wehrlein has proven he can handle the pressure in a top-level championship and still come out on top. Moreover, Wehrlien won his DTM championship with consistency, as he was able to bring his car to the checkers every round. The biggest asset a number two drivers can have is consistently finishing races in the points.

Second, with the new technical regulations coming in 2017, having someone who has already gone through a full season working with Formula 1 engineers would be invaluable to Mercedes. Third, If Mercedes bring on someone like Alonso, then in 2-3 years both Alonso and Hamilton may well be gone. Mercedes F1 would then have two drivers who would not have factory-level experience in F1. Now is the time, to use a Steve Matchett phrase, for Mercedes to put Wehrlein in the car and find out what they have in him.

If he doesn’t work out, Mercedes can just send him back to DTM to rack up a few more championships there. If he does do well, Mercedes will not have to put up with Hamilton’s antics unless they really want to. They will have a proven Wehrlein in one car, and Ocon waiting to come up and take Lewis’ place in the other car. If you are going to be like Mercedes, Red Bull and Renault and have young driver development programs, you need to actually use the drivers now and again to justify the program’s cost. Sure, Wehrlein or Ocon could jump ship in the future like Vettal did. But if a team is as good as Mercedes is right now, it needs to take up the opportunity to ensure their foreseeable future now.


RaceRip: F1 Australian GP 2016

This past weekend’s Australian Grand Prix delivered just about everything it could be expected to. Surprises, talk of safety, great midfield battles, a failed qualifying “innovation,” and the debut of an American team were all on tap. Indeed, the Australian GP has carried on the pre-season tones that will likely define the 2016 world championship.

One cannot begin this discussion without first touching on Fernando Alonso’s massive shunt on Lap 18. When I first saw the “wreckage” (if it even amounted to that), I did not think that could possibly be the car. My first thought was with Fernando, and hoping he was okay. Once we all saw him emerge from the car, my next thought was, “Oh lord, here comes all the discussion about the closed cockpit.” I am grateful for Jenson Button’s post-race comments about the use of the “halo.” While I favor a truly closed cockpit, it is important that we not let the “success” of F1’s safety technology in this crash overshadow the need to prevent future tragedies. Given the angle that the McLaren took after the collision with Gutierrez’s car, Fernando could very easily have hit his head on a catch fence post (a la Dan Wheldon). While it is welcome that he did not, we need to not allow miracles to be an excuse for sidestepping safety in the name of tradition.

The crash was a strange one to watch develop. Gutierrez had been reporting problems with his Ferrari power unit, so that would explain why Alonso caught up with him so quickly or unexpectedly. It would be hard for me to believe a driver of Fernando Alonso’s caliber could make that kind of mistake. The other unfortunate part of the shunt is that it happened to teams that really need time on track. The McLaren-Honda looks much improved this year. Even though Button finished down a lap in the other McLaren, Honda have obviously improved their power unit quite a bit over the off-season. Still, Honda and the rookie Haas team could really just use more on-track data at this point.

Aside from the Alonso/Gutierrez shunt, the race was memorable for both its start and its conclusion. The qualifying session was a borderline joke with the “new” format. While fans may agree with Bernie Eccelstone’s desire to not see Mercedes dominate the championship again this season, it is disturbing to see the lengths Eccelstone and other in F1’s “strategy” group are willing to go to prevent that, as well as how fundamentally flawed their approaches have been so far. Whoever thought that the “timing” portion of qualifying was somehow going to catch Mercedes out was clearly not thinking clearly. Instead, Haas  and several drivers were severely penalized for doing nothing wrong, while Mercedes still ended up on the front row.

To me, this whole thing started with freezing engine development after the 2005 season. Someone took a look at team budgets and realized the majority of team resources were going to engine development. So engine development was frozen to cut costs. Something was fatally missed here: Telling teams that have $400m budgets they cannot spend money on something does nothing to prevent them from spending it on something else. This kind of thinking, which will be covered in a later essay, has grown to a toxic level in F1. Consequently, the part of this weekend’s race that I enjoyed most was the start. Despite everything the Eccelstone cartel has done to “improve” the on-track product (the magnesium boxes that make the sparks, DRS, etc.) Vettal zoomed past both Mercedes and into a commanding lead. Some may argue the newly mandated “single clutch” made that possible. However, in the following laps, the Silver Arrow cars did not blitz Vettal, who showed he had the pace in the Ferrari to stay in the lead.

However, the Scuderia’s day went downhill quickly after the Alonso incident. Ferrari sent their cars out on the supersoft tires whereas everyone else had changed to the harder mediums. But for that poor strategy call and a problem with Vettal’s left front tire when he pitted on Lap 36, Vettal could easily have ended up second or first in the GP. It appears Hamilton wasn’t kidding when he said he thought Ferrari had something serious to offer this season. Vettal’s teammate Raikkonen also had a bad day at the office. He came into the pits on Lap 22 and had fire billowing out of his air intake. Not a great finish for Ferrari, but the pace was definitely there.

Lastly, a kind note about Haas. Despite the problems with Gutierrez’s car, Grosjean brought the other Haas home in P6. For those who remember when the three “new” teams came into F1 in 2010, the new cars were more like rolling chicanes. Haas’ nearly unbelievable performance in Australia demonstrates the important of having a strong technical knowledge base when entering the F1 arena. The funding from Gene Haas and the close technical partnership with Scuderia Ferrari likely have a lot to do with the team’s early success. Having said that, the Haas approach of waiting a year, securing the services of a team principal like Gunther Steiner who has years of experience on an F1 pit wall, and the general racing knowledge the Haas organization has gleaned from its time competing in NASCAR may prove to be an example for future F1 teams to follow.