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The Price of Progress

Out to dinner in the Outback Steakhouse in Sebring, Florida, Daniel Perdrix and Daniel Poissenot had good reason to be pleased. The ACO’s general manager and technical delegate were celebrating the fact that the petrol- powered Acura was on pole position, qualified by Scott Dixon ahead of the diesel-powered Audis and Peugeots which were making a guest appearance at the opening race of the American Le Mans Series, the Sebring 12 hours.

Then the race started. The leading diesel cars put 14 seconds between them and the leading Acura in the first four laps, and by lap 24, they were 56 seconds ahead. The Acura is a new car, and the teams were on a steep learning curve, but that was still some feat. “For sure, in two to three months they will be stronger,” said Dindo Capello after the race, and the Acura drivers agreed. Yet there is still an issue for the ACO, which will have to look at relative performance at Le Mans.

At Sebring, Peugeot’s Sebastian Bourdais clocked a new lap record in his pursuit of Allan McNish’s Audi. The winning car set a new distance record at Sebring, at 383 laps despite three caution periods. These cars are supposed to be slower than last year! And that was around a 3.7 mile airfield course. What happens when they go to Le Mans? On a circuit which is more than 75% full throttle, will the increased drag really make a difference to top speed and therefore overall lap time? How much of the Sebring lap time was due to mechanical grip mid-course, rather than straightline speed on the two straights?

Of course, there was the usual discussion regarding the cars – Peugeot complained that, having been told to slow down after last year, Audi went out and built a faster car. This puts the French into a bit of a ‘situation’.

The French team will need to build a new car to compete against the Audi R15, but what will it build? A car to new regulations which have not yet been published, a car to existing regulations which will be valid only for one year, or try to get another year out of the 908? Or, will it take a year off, and come back stronger in 2011 with an all-new hybrid car? None of the above looks that attractive. A new car is out of the question in the short term. If Peugeot takes a year off, in this economic climate it is unlikely that they would return for another shot at Le Mans. Continue with the 908, campaigning against the R15? It is their only chance, which puts the ACO into a ‘situation’, caught in the middle of another Peugeot/Audi battle involving rules, speed, and balance of performance if Aston Martin gets involved.

French engineers at Peugeot are working hard to deliver new hybrid technology in 2011, ready in case they are given the green light by the bean counters. Whether or not their efforts will hit the tracks has yet to be confirmed. They have committed to more LMS races this year, probably in the Algarve and one more in the LMS, though the marketing value of competing in this series might put the brakes on that plan. Instead, they may choose to race in the Asia Pacific Le Mans Series races. These seem to be more attractive, but one thing is certain – they won’t return to the ALMS, held in a country where they don’t sell cars.

So, what will become of the ALMS? Scott Atherton, like Stephane Ratel before him, is working to get eligible cars out of the garage and onto the track to boost grid numbers. Ratel struggled to do so, and as Atherton is targeting cars such as Dyson’s Porsche RS Spyder, he might meet with similar success. These things are expensive to run, but for the ALMS, is it critical to get them out? There is no contractual minimum number of cars promised by the ALMS to the television companies, but IMSA has set itself a target of no fewer than 18 cars, split between LMP and GT classes.

The crowd at Sebring were hardened race fans and according to those who ventured out into the jungle mid-track, the party atmosphere was decidedly muted. That trend will probably continue in the short term, but in the last ten years the ALMS has built up a strong following. In 1974, the race was cancelled due to the fuel shortage, yet more than 2,000 spectators turned up anyway, and that loyalty has been cultivated by IMSA. What has yet to be determined is the reaction to the Le Mans Series where the mantra of "build it and they will come" seems king. I am not sure they will.

In Europe, more attention has been paid to filling the grids, leading to a 46- car entry for the first race in Barcelona. IMSA asks for a contribution to the advertising budget from each of the competing manufacturers in the ALMS, and then delivers television slots while the manufacturers back that with advertising in national media. The Le Mans Series also claims to do the same, but clearly on a different level as the privateers make up the majority of the grid.

The Le Mans Series needs to find a different model to raise money needed to race on these high-profile circuits, increase television and media exposure, and increase the return for teams to help them find sponsorship, or sell endurance racing to their boards of management. Clearly the argument under current strategies cut no ice with Audi, which stopped its LMS programme after one year, and Peugeot is struggling to make sense of a European programme without manufacturer competition or marketing return.

Sebring was a stunning race, and Le Mans will be no different. It is the races in between that need nurturing. The cars, manufacturers and teams are there. It is up to the organisers to make it worth their while.