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Postcards from the edge



Bill Oursler on Real Time Class Warfare

There are ironies in life to consider. Clearly one of them came at this year’s Sebring 12-Hour where the Audi team was forced to settle for third place in the overall standings behind two Porsche RS Spyders with another of the Porsche LMP2 category prototypes fourth and LMP2 Acura ARX-01b fifth. Given Porsche’s controlling stake in Volkswagen AG, Audi’s parent company, that means that the first four places belonged to the Porsche family – not a bad half day’s work.

Yet, the war between the Audi R10 turbo diesels and the gasoline-powered RS Spyders was anything but a friendly family game, unless one describes it in terms of feuding brothers who are forced by their parents to play together, when their only desire is to beat each other to a pulp. Make no mistake, Dr. Wolfgang Ulrich would like nothing better than to see the factory team cars and their privateer Porsche counterparts go away and hide some place other than in front of his own thoroughly expensive R10 entries.

Black Horses of the post war era

It is that desire on the part of Dr. Ulrich and Audi, and, perhaps more importantly, the money invested in winning that brings use to the crux of the basic problem that has long affected the future of sports car racing: namely the costs of winning. If one accepts the fact that Ferrari and Porsche have been the mainstays of the sport since it resumed following the end of the Second World War, then one has acknowledged the vital role that major manufacturers play in ensuring that future.

Without the resources of such manufacturers, the engineering necessary to produce the reliability and speed upon which the road racing industry is so dependent, would not exist. An example of this can be found in an examination of Rob Dyson’s efforts to be competitive during the last several years with his Lola AERs in the LMP1 division of the American Le Mans Series against the might of Audi.

Whether it was against the R8, or more recently the R10, Dyson, Lola and AER simply didn’t have the means to design, develop and race successfully on any consistent basic against the Audi folks whose yearly budgets are measured in the tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars. Indeed, one can make a relatively strong argument that the decline and near death of professional sports car racing in North America was due to the lack of a successor to Porsche’s venerable 962 if it had been legislated out of the top rungs of IMSA’s Camel GT series in favor of its factory Toyota and Nissan opposition.

All along the watchtower…

What can be learned from the effort by those in charge of IMSA at the time to curb the domination of the Porsche 962 design is that without you better have something to replace it with that privateers can rely on, or else suffer the consequences, since no private team has the ability to engineer their own race vehicles in the highly technologically advanced environment in which motorsport finds itself today. The Grand American Road Racing Association’s approach to solving this issue is not only to bar manufacturers from actually competing in its Rolex Sports Car tour, but to place such truly severe technological restrictions on the design of its prototypes that in terms of capital investment, they become affordable to a relatively large number of potential entrants.

From that viewpoint, the Grand Am has succeeded. Its fields are large, and its racing close. However, as has been noted many times in the past, it has not yet attracted much of an audience beyond its participants. Traditional fans of road racing want the dream of technology, and so far, the Grand Am’s efforts to expand that base, while keeping the traditionalists happy has not been nearly as successful as it had hoped. Perhaps some day the Rolex will find itself with a larger audience that numbers among its ranks NASCAR the multitude of NASCAR oriented folks it has been trying to entice to its cause. Perhaps, but so far, not.

The Pig Out Inn

All this brings us back to the role of the manufacturers, Sebring, the ALMS, and the ties between the Panoz-owned championship and the L’Automobile Club du L’Ouest, from whom the ALMS leases its technical regulations. In the European community that is the homeland of the ACO, technology rules over entertainment. This fact has long dictated, or at least been the basis for the ACO’s approach to its rules. Currently, diesels are the rage with European car makers, and those manufacturers each want to impress potential European car buyers with the superior technology. For them, the best way to do this is to race. Thus, this year not only will Le Mans itself see a renewal of the Audi-Peugeot contest of 2007, but an expansion of that battle to its Euro-centric Le Mans as well. Moreover, the ACO is looking to further manufacturer entries in the future.

All of this, though, depends on the manufacturers not being embarrassed by losing to a smaller, less potent LMP2 entry – any LMP2 entry, including the Porsche RS Spyders. Thus, the ACO has crippled the LMP2 set in terms of contending for outright victories by adding 50 kilograms, or about 108 pounds of extra weight for 2008 and beyond, while at the same time eliminating any potential fuel advantage by reducing the class’ tank capacity. Given the rational the ACO has good reason to do what it did. Here, however, things are different, as was demonstrated at Sebring where the third placed LMP1 Lola of Jon and Clint Field as barely within the top ten.

For the ALMS the Audis represent the only factory involvement in the pointy end of the grid. If the competitiveness of the LMP2 Porsches and Acuras is reduced to ensure that the Audis will always have clear sailing on their way to outright victory, how long will even the traditional road racing fans pay attention? So far, ALMS officials have added 25 kilograms to the
LMP2 weight scriptures, and have left the fuel tank capacity regs alone. Yet, the ALMS is under tremendous pressure to follow exactly the ACO’s lead, even if it does hurt its attractiveness with its audience.

Should they stay or should they go ?

And, that ladies and gents leads to the ultimate question: is it time for the ALMS to try a different approach, and exert its own independence? One can make the argument that when Don Panoz stepped into road racing at the end of the 1990’s, aligning himself with the ACO was a good, possibly even necessary idea. Now, things are different. The LMP2 category is booming, and interest in it is booming as well. So why worry about LMP1? There is no need for the ALMS to have to separate prototype categories that look virtually identical, especially since official manufacturer participation here has been a rarity in a class designed and intended for exactly that.

Family feuds can be fun. However, if July 4th has taught us anything it is that independence is something that brings more far lasting and satisfying rewards than simply winning a fight even if one does it as an underdog.

Bill Oursler, March 2008

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