Bill Oursler: Once Upon A Time In L’Ouest
The Good, The Bad, and perhaps not so Ugly
Clearly, the past Le Mans 24 hours was one of the best in the long history of
the event which stretches back to 1923, a time now remembered only by a
few. Just as clearly, the race demonstrated the problems of fitting square
pegs into round holes; or in this case the problems associated with trying to
use the same basic regulations for different motorsport settings. What we’re
looking at is the fact that Le Mans and its Eurocentric Le Mans Series races
in far different circumstances than its Don Panoz-owned American Le Mans
Series counterpart. So the question becomes whether or not hit is a good
idea for both to live under the same regulatory roof, or if they can even live
beneath that covering on a long term basis in the first place.
Today, it seems that we all want perfection, and want it immediately, without
interruption, and perhaps most important of all, we want all this on our terms.
Of course, what we forget is that we are the one’s who have created our world
civilization, and we are not perfect. In America’s Declaration of Independence
from Great Britain there is a line that say we were doing so “to form a more
perfect union,” not perfect one, but one America’s founders hoped would get
closer to perfection. And, it is in that imperfect sense that one has to
examine the alliance between the ALMS and the ACO.
For Le Mans the contest, or clash between two of the most important diesel
car manufacturers in Europe, Volkswagen, represented by Audi, and Peugeot
was a championship event at its best, much in the same arena as a
heavyweight boxing title showdown used to be. The equality between the Audi
R10s and the Peugeot 908s created a drama that sustained itself up until the
final minutes of the event, and brought honor to both camps It was
entertainment far beyond that offered by the Byzantine world that is Formula
One theses days, where superiority is all too often settled off the track than
Truthfully, it would have been a shame to dilute the Peugeot-Audi battle by
introducing the two Porsche LMP2 RS Spyders that dominated their category
into it. By structuring its rules the way it has, the ACO has insured that can’t
happen, seeing LMP2 as a place where the rich can play without interfering
with the “big boy” manufacturers to whom Le Mans appears to have tied its
fortunes. In 2008 that turned out to be the right decision for the ACO. But,
what about the future? The problem is that the manufacturers and sponsors
aren’t in the sport because they love it; they in it because of what it can do for
them in terms of increasing sales and profitability.
It is just that simple.
No where does loyalty fit into the equation. When those movers and shakers
decide that they can better accomplish their goals elsewhere; elsewhere is
the place to which they will go. At the moment, the ACO has yet to release
its new regulations for 2010, a closed mouth situation brought on in large
measure by the scrap between the manufacturers and the FIA over that
body’s GT scriptures likewise slated to come into effect in 2010. The FIA in
its usual wisdom won’t budge from its position in regards to its more
restrictive technical stance, or its two class format for its series. The
carmakers in turn, have said we aren’t playing in your sandbox under those
circumstances. It really doesn’t matter who is right and who is wrong here.
What does matter is that in a real sense the manufacturers are, to a large
degree, holding the sport hostage. And, in so doing this has brought to the
foreground the consequences of building a racing venue primarily beholden to
It would be easy to suggest that a return to the era when sports car racing
was rooted in the privateer teams would be the answer. Yet, that is a tricky
solution. In the United States, the Grand American Rolex Sports Car Series
has adopted exactly that posture. Carmakers are welcome as a supply
source, but they aren’t allowed to race themselves. From the viewpoint of
stability, grid size, the closeness of the competition and even the well known
names taking part, the Rolex has been a success. The only disappointment
is that no one seems to care, except the participants themselves.
If one talks with the Rolex folks they will put their “best face” spin on the
statistics. Yet, for the most part the championship’s crowds and television
ratings are not what anyone might have hoped they would be some five years
after the Grand Am adopted the idea of dividing the tour in two classes: one
for its unique Daytona Prototypes, the other for its production car set. The
failure of the Rolex series in terms of its public acceptance is a
demonstration of the fine line, or tightrope that every sanctioning body has to
struggle with between making the privateers and the manufacturers happy at
the same time.
The ALMS has to a degree tried to accomplish this by keeping its LMP2
prototypes competitive with the Audi R10 set in order to provide a degree of
entertainment value to its fans. And, while the leading Acura and Porsche
LMP2 entries can hardly be called “privateers,” the cars are affordable enough
to be purchased and run by non factory teams such as Dyson Racing whose
Porsche RS Spyders are edging ever closer to beating their factory rivals.
The independence shown by the ALMS in achieving its aim to make its series
attractive to U.S. based enthusiasts has led it down a path which differs from
that of the ACO in its technical aims. The ALMS has fought hard to garner
that independence, and has to wonder about its future relationship with the
ACO in light of the two sides’ seemingly different aims, the Americans
looking for ticket sales and television ratings, while the ACO carries on with
its concept of promoting manufacturer inspired technology. The scenarios
that are possible are many.
In the end, the solutions could well change the face of the sport around the
world, for it seems there is a recognition that the old days and old ways of
doing business will have to change. Dictatorial inspiration will be out, and
compromise will be in. And, that’s not a bad thing at all, for everyone can live
with compromise, even if it is not perfect.
Bill Oursler, July 2008