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Power to the People!!!!!!

House of the Rising Sun
The new Formula One pits at Spa-Francorchamps comfortably housed the 50 or so cars competing in the Le Mans Series event, to the satisfaction of the teams. Modern sports cars have outgrown the old downhill pit garages, all skewiff on the gradient, with rain gutters ready to damage splitters, although on the downside we pit-dwellers no longer had a birds-eye view of the magnificent Eau Rouge and Raidillon complex.

This year it was quite a hike from the top of the hill to Eau Rouge to see which drivers could take Eau Rouge ‘flat’ (Hayanari Shimoda, in the Zytek, shifting into sixth, or however many he’s got, on the entry, and Ollie Gavin, happy as Larry in his old-ish Corvette C6.R) and those who thought they were flat, or said they were, but were doing confidence lifts.

Beginning of the End…or End of the Beginning?
The race start, though, was another matter, off the Formula One grid midway between the pit entry chicane, which is still called the Bus Stop but has shifted uphill and changed shape, and the hairpin at La Source. That is a bit of a disaster, to be honest. We can rely on the Grand Prix drivers to collide with each other at Le Source, and ruin a perfectly good race within five seconds of the start – it will happen again on September 16, take my word – but it was a crying shame that it should happen at the start of a six-hour Le Mans Series race, effectively taking out the fastest gasoline powered car, the Charouz Lola, the one car that might have kept pace with the Peugeots for a few laps.

Further back, Sebastien Dumez took a hit on his Corvette’s rear wheel, which led to retirement a couple of hours later. The start of the Renault World Series race, too, featured a mighty collision and a flying car, which could have been nasty.
According to race promoter Patrick Peter “the drivers are stupeed”, and clearly Jonathan Cochet had been none too clever in locking-up the front wheels of his Courage and hitting the rear of Stefan Mücke’s Lola with such force that its rear wheels were lifted high off the ground.

It has always been clear to me, though, that the laws of physics just don’t allow a pack of cars to accelerate from a grid, covering approximately 200 metres before the drivers need to stand on the brakes to tackle a hairpin bend. While the leading drivers are anchoring up hard, the middle of the pack is still accelerating and dangerous bunching is inevitable. Isn’t that stupeed?

The traditional downhill start at Spa is, or was, one of the sport’s classic sights. I won’t go on about Pedro and Seppi banging doors in the middle of Eau Rouge, though I saw them do it, but the sheer power and majesty of 50 high-powered cars thundering down to the eye of the needle, as it appears to be, is unforgettable. Curiously there were very few accidents, because there was just enough time and space to get into a file, a quick lift if need be, to negotiate this awesome complex in relative safety.

It will be said that all the timing equipment has been moved to the new pit complex, so the Belgians couldn’t arrange a downhill start even if they wanted to. Well, that’s not the end of the world. How about starting the clock when the leaders cross the F1 timing line, but keeping the safety car on course until it has rounded La Source? If the lights don’t work, then wave a green flag, or a Belgian tricolor, at the downhill startline and unleash the pack.

Smoke & Mirrors
There is a lot of discontent about the sheer speed of the Peugeot 908 diesel cars, four seconds a lap faster at Spa, which made the rest of the grid look a bit 20th century. Henri Pescarolo is making increasingly strong complaints about the speed of the oil-burners, and is demanding that the ACO should do something to rein them in. He is not getting any change out of sporting director Daniel Poissenot, who responds: “The Peugeots have done six days of testing since the Nürburgring and completed 5,000 kilometres. How much has Pescarolo done? Zero! He has to work harder and make his cars faster!”
We all know, because the good Henri keeps telling us, that he can’t afford to go testing and testing to find more speed. “Then he should be in LMP2” says M. Poissenot. You see, this discussion could go on and on like a long rally in a tennis match, and get us nowhere.

Supposing the ACO did rein-in the Peugeots, with lower boost pressure or extra weight being Pescarolo’s proposition. How would that suit Audi, with their backs to the wall in the American Le Mans Series? Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich would go ballistic, wouldn’t he?

Surely the gasoline powered LMP1 cars are too much restricted. In an age when 2.4 litre, V8 Formula One cars develop 750 horsepower – that is, over 300 bhp per litre, an astonishing figure – does it not seem puny that a 5.5 litre Judd GV5.5 V10 engine can produce only 650 bhp with two 32.4 millimetre inlet air restrictors inserted in the passages? That is, 118 bhp per litre which is, frankly, pathetic by today’s standards.
The Judd GV5.5 is quite capable of yielding 800 horsepower-plus without air restrictors, and it would appear that there is a lot of middle ground. Why not, for instance, increase the size of the gasoline LMP1 engines’ restrictors by 8 per cent, to a nice round 35.0 mm?

Power would rise proportionally by 8 per cent to a nice round 700 horsepower, and this would serve three purposes: it would greatly reduce the gap between the diesel and gasoline engines, it would make M. Pescarolo happy, and it would put some clear blue water between the LMP1 and LMP2 competitors, since the little- uns are getting too close for comfort nowadays. It is the declared intention of the ACO that LMP1 is for manufacturers, and that LMP2 is for private teams whose performance must be inferior.

Well, that’s as maybe. Next year at least one Porsche RS Spyder will compete in LMP2, a car that out-prices any LMP1 (gasoline, Judd or AER) on the grid. It will carry an extra 50 kg already announced by the ACO, taking it to 825 kg, but the extra weight will not, I suspect, damage its lap times by any great extent. RML’s MG Lola weighed-in at 804 kg at Le Mans in June, midway between this year’s minimum and next year’s, and at that weight, or something close, it has performed mightily all season.

I rest my case. My feeling is that the ACO will do nothing to peg back the performance of the diesel engines in 2008, and neither do they have any sympathy for the LMP1 teams that feel unable to compete. Both Audi and Peugeot declare that a good, manufacturer prepared gasoline engine will beat their diesels, not least because it will be 100 kg lighter at the back-end of the car, but to do so it will need to be capable of developing 700 bhp with the current inlet air restrictors. They could do it, they say. The ACO has heard all this, and noted it well.

Michael Cotton
August 2007

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