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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 on.

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 commercial interests.

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

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