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They say the times are changing but I just don't know…………

Mister Grumpy
Being told by Johnny Mowlem that I had been grumpy all weekend irked a bit, the blow made only slightly softer by him putting his hand into his pocket and paying for dinner. I must have been bad. The worrying thing was that I had just had two fantastic days at Sebring, watching the Peugeot 908 on US soil for the first time, taking on Audi, which had confirmed a two-car Le Mans Series programme. Johnny’s new Ferrari team was there to take on Risi Competizione, Marino Franchitti had his first drive in the Porsche RS Spyder for Dyson. I had just had lunch at Vanessa’s with the ACO before driving to the airport with Fiona Miller and Pierre Kaffer. Happy days.

 The only problem was what happened in the days preceding this maelstrom of fun and mischief making; namely the Daytona 24 hours. Kaffer had asked me if I had enjoyed Daytona and I struggled to explain why I had not. The racing was as close as ever, Dario Franchitti was a (news) worthy first-time winner, and I had managed not to get kicked out of the Ganassi pit, or anyone else’s for that matter.

It wasn’t until I got home and had a think about it that I reached my conclusion; nothing new had happened. The cars were essentially the same, as were the engines. The prize was the same, the format the same, the teams the same, the winners the same. This all sounds like Le Mans, but Le Mans has that bit extra. After my father, Michael, came back on line after his birthday celebrations in South Africa, I found that he had reached precisely the same conclusion three years ago. At Daytona, you know that there are 20 cars on the lead lap at mid-distance. You know that one of them will win. You just don’t care who it is.

Champion Sparks
The PR stunt of having champion drivers from other series had worn thin and the press room was curiously flat. Those who had turned out to watch a stellar line-up of NASCAR drivers in previous years had left, along with many of their subjects. The champions’ photograph was still quite impressive, though the likes of Oliver Gavin, a multiple Le Mans class winner and ALMS champion, and Darren Turner, reigning Le Mans champion, were mere bystanders, brought to the party by the switched-on PR lady Barbara Burns rather than by official invitation.

Porsche snubbed the prototypes by putting many of its key drivers in the GT cars. Emmanuel Collard, Romain Dumas, Richard Westbrook, Sascha Maassen, Jorg Bergmeister and Richard Lietz were all there to name a few, alongside Tim Sugden, star of the 2007 race Ryan Dalziel, and Pierre Kaffer. Not that the Porsche prototype teams were short staffed with Patrick Long joining the Alex Job Racing team, but it was clear that the German manufacturer was making a statement to Grand Am. Those manufacturers that race in NASCAR wield a lot more clout than endurance racing specialists Porsche, which feels left on the outside and I wonder what their long-term commitment is going to be. Particularly as they were beaten by a Mazda.

 Always Stuck in Second Gear
In short, Daytona lacked any kind of forward motion. It has shown its hand, played its trump cards and has nothing left, though I do have to acknowledge one point. Rolex invited a group of journalists from the UK, many of which had never been to Daytona before and, through a fresh set of eyes, it was fantastic. Close racing, great drivers, it is not bad for a jaunt to Florida mid- winter in Europe, they said. Not that many spectators from the UK would make the trip to Florida and make the Daytona 24 hours a key event in their social calendar. Grand-Am made no bones; the big event was the Daytona 500 two weeks hence and all the advertising centred on that.

Why this lack of motion? Brooks had a valid point in his story for this site. Unlike Europe, the US is not reliant on the Middle East for its oil. The main supplier of oil to the US is Canada. The US has enough oil on its shores to be self sufficient for many years so doesn’t need to worry too much about the price of ‘gas’. Even if global prices rocket, the US will build its first refineries for 30 years and will be fine, thanks. Their prices almost certainly will not reach the $12/gallon we currently pay before our politicians whack even more tax on our fuel later this year. Tax high-polluting vehicles at $500 per year and expand the congestion zone around London with typical impact on the wallets of the motorists and shopkeepers in the affected areas. So, is Grand- Am reflective of American thinking; it ain’t gonna hit us so what do we care? And is the ALMS reflective of European thinking; it is going to hit us, it is going to hurt, and how do we avoid it?

The man gave me the news……….
After Daytona we looked forward to the Sebring winter test, where the diesels of Audi and Peugeot went head-to-head in the US for the first time. Acura announced a lighter, more powerful and economic engine for its lightweight chassis. Corvette announced that it would run on E85 Ethanol fuel and the ACO admitted that it would have a hell of a job in the next few years balancing the performance.

We celebrated Audi’s commitment to the Le Mans Series as much as wondered what was going to happen to the ALMS programme. Probably one car, Lucas Luhr, Marco Werner and Emanuele Pirro all out of a drive for the time being until the ALMS programme is confirmed. Gil de Ferran was announced to run a fourth Acura, we discussed BMW’s GT2 announcement, due to be made at the NAIAS in January but then delayed until the Chicago Show at the beginning of February. We confirmed that the ACO do plan closed prototypes in the long term, but probably won’t introduce them as compulsory in 2010 to give the R10 and 908s a longer life.

The ALMS made key references to their new-look ‘green’ credentials, loud and proud. For a series to make such bold statements, and receive government endorsements of its ‘green’ credentials, is one thing. To implement those plans must mean that it is working with its manufacturer partners to achieve its targets, and that is another matter entirely.

That points to a long-term future, a clear direction, and that is what was sadly lacking at the Rolex 24.

Andrew Cotton, February 2008