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French Accent

Few, I think, could argue that Peugeot fully deserved to win at Le Mans in 2009. The French cars again had a speed advantage over rivals Audi and Aston Martin. They had brought in wise endurance racing heads to replace the big, slow names. In perfect weather conditions, the team got one car through the 24 hours, without suffering a single mechanical problem.

As a race it wasn’t much to look at. The winning car of David Brabham, Alexander Wurz and Marc Gene took the lead in the sixth hour, and stayed there to the end. Those on hourly blog duty were bored to tears, spoilt by last year’s epic and spectacularly disappointed that there was no repeat. The 2008 edition was the race of a decade, in the same way that the 1999 edition and 1988 editions were the races of their generation. To ask for another race, better than before, was to ask a little too much.

Already, eyes are turning towards the future of endurance motor sport. The Automobile Club de l’Ouest has a huge problem on its hands. Audi and Peugeot have not yet announced their plans for 2010, and the ACO has not yet announced its rule changes which will peg back their performance and lure in petrol manufacturers who we understand are waiting in the wings.

Peugeot now has to work out whether or not it can make its three year old car competitive for a fourth season. There is no point building a new car just for 2010, with a new design, possibly a radically new design, due in 2011. Can the ACO produce the new rules fast enough for Peugeot to build its 2011 challenger? It is possible, and Peugeot is now more likely than in the first six months of 2009 to push the green button. Olivier Quesnel, Sporting Director of Peugeot, says that he can plan to race in the Petit Le Mans and at Laguna Seca.

Return to America? But he told me at Sebring that was not going to happen because Peugeot doesn’t sell cars in the US. “Yes, but now everything has changed,” he said at Le Mans. “We know how the market is with Peugeot, it doesn’t collapse, and I think the best way to see Audi again will be in America.” That sounds like a continuation plan, but more importantly, it suggests that Peugeot believes the worst of the financial crisis is over.

Will Peugeot race in Asia? “Only for marketing reasons,” was Quesnel’s reply. Would you complete the Le Mans Series, perhaps Nurburgring and Silverstone? “No. I went to Spa, and honestly the Le Mans Series is not made for LMP1. It is not for us. There is no marketing, it is for gentlemen drivers.”

The ACO has a bigger problem with the delay of a year of the new regulations. It is waiting for the study into the flying cars of 2008 to be complete before it can finalise its aerodynamic rules for 2011. It will rely on existing machinery to make up the grid in 2010, and the only new manufacturer around to join Aston Martin, Peugeot and Audi is Acura. The Japanese manufacturer has a plan to launch in Europe, and compete at Le Mans when it does. But, with the economic climate around the world, particularly in Japan, that plan was shelved. If Peugeot believes the worst is over, could Acura’s plan be rekindled?

To make Le Mans attractive to the Japanese, the ACO will have to show that it can control manufacturers which bring new technology. That must be done in 2010 if Toyota and Mazda are going to look at a Le Mans programme seriously, but it must keep its existing manufacturers happy enough to commit next year. A vibrant Asian Le Mans Series would help, as would a Le Mans Series which delivered to manufacturers what was needed, and they had better hope that the ALMS still exists next year too, or they really are up a gum tree.

Aside from Daniel Poissenot, the former General Manager of the ACO, taking an active role in the development of the Asian series, the ACO can take some control and publish its rules early, giving manufacturers plenty of time to work towards an announcement for 2010 and a race programme in 2011. Whatever happens, the cars must not fly. They will be slower in 2010, and so in the short term all will be well. However by their nature racing cars get faster, closer to that critical limit and the ACO must have proper plans in place to accommodate this to prevent the year-by-year complaints that have dogged it recently. No more sudden changes to the rear wing, louvers over the front wheels, extra weight, smaller fuel tanks. No, a proper set of rules, fixed for three or five years, which work from the moment they are introduced.

For the engines, the ACO will in 2011 mandate 65 litre fuel tanks, and manufacturers will need super efficient engines, or hybrid systems, to stay out of the pits. Hybrid next year must be used only for the purpose of improving fuel economy, not power, and the cars must be eligible to score points.

One other draw for manufacturers would be the ACO’s plan for an intercontinental challenge. Certainly, this has the support of Peugeot. Sebring, Le Mans, the Petit Le Mans, and a 12 hour race in Shanghai, fleshed out with one or two LMS races, and a trophy at the end of the season would suit the French manufacturer down to the ground. Would Audi, Acura and Toyota be similarly attracted? It would make sense – to take part in the biggest endurance races in their biggest markets, promoting economy, technical innovation, and the chance to race their Le Mans competitors maybe six times a year?

The ACO must be careful of one more thing, and that is the future of the GT1 class. At Le Mans it accepted the category rules, but not necessarily the cars that Stephane Ratel has lined up for his World Championship next year. The ACO wants manufacturers, Ratel wants private teams. The ACO wants reliability over 24 hours, while Ratel’s cars will be built for one hour races, save for the Spa 24 hours which will be an even bigger glitch on the calendar than this year. The ACO wants choice, and Ratel will supply that if his World Championship idea flies with 24 cars, but for the ACO they must be the right cars.

The ACO will accept the Corvette C6s and Aston Martins converted to Ratel’s new rules. They will of course accept the Nissan GT-R, but the Matech Ford GT or the Reiter Lamborghini? They are not so sure, despite the beauty of the Ford and the professionalism of Reiter. The ACO’s plan is to ask various manufacturers their opinion of GT1, and told me that it plans to contact over the summer Ferrari, Aston Martin, General Motors and Porsche! Luckily, the ACO states that it would be happy with a single GT class.

That puts a spanner in the works of Ratel’s World Championship plans. His privateers need markets, and without national GT championships, without Le Mans and its subsidiary race series, and with only four cars allowed in the GT1 World Championship, sales would be hard to make.

Ratel, of course, is ebullient. There will be no problem, he says, and, as ever, it is hard to doubt him. The tidal wave heading for Ratel Beach is getting bigger and bigger, but the man himself is still happily on the sun lounger on the sand, soaking the rays, looking cool in his shades, phone in one hand, lap top in the other, making the deals which will avert disaster.

Andrew Cotton, June 2009