Thoughts on the Le Mans 1000 Kilometres
Winter of Content
Was the Le Mans 1,000 Kilometre race (or 853 Kilometres, if you want to be fussy)
the turning point in European endurance racing, or a one-off showcase which
might prove to be a cul-de-sac, like the ill-fated European Le Mans Series run by
John MacDonald in 2001?
Some thought that the 42-car entry list, which dwindled to 35 starters, was
disappointing, but what should you expect of an event that was added to the
international calendar in April, when teams' budgets had long since been fixed
(and partially spent)?
Class of 2004
I'd say that any event that attracts top-notch teams from Audi, Pescarolo Sport,
Courage, Racing for Holland Dome, two Care Racing/Veloqx Ferrari 550
Maranellos and Porsches from the Freisinger, Seikel and PK Sport has class.
After all, they have not appeared on one grid since the 24-Hours in June, but will
feature in all four 1,000 Kilometre Le Mans Endurance Series next year in addition
to the 24-Hours of Le Mans. That's progress!
Sadly, there are not enough Le Mans Prototype sports cars to form a viable grid,
even when you add together the potential of the LMP900, SR1, LMP675 and SR2
teams. Don Panoz has come to terms with that, John Mangoletsi ran himself onto
the rocks and Stephane Ratel had a near-miss when it was his turn to run the FIA
Ratel, though, has a flourishing FIA Grand Touring Championship to run, and is
making a mighty good job of it. He can rely on three dozen Grand Tourers turning
up to every event, none of them make excuses and miss the ball, and they would
be mighty displeased if prototypes suddenly turned up on their doorsteps and
started winning the biggest trophies (in comparative terms, the best GT cars in the
top class lap at speeds similar to the SR2 sports cars, and would never score
The Spa 1,000 Kilometres was an interesting event, combining some good
Sports-Prototypes with a round of the British GT Championship. That worked just
fine. We had 35 cars on the grid, and none of the GT teams complained about
being lapped dozens of times by Tom Kristensen and Seiji Ara in their Team Goh
Audi because they felt privileged to share the track with the five-time Le Mans
At last, we have a formula which will be developed jointly by the ACO and the FIA.
Ratel now reveals that he was working on a new concept for the FIA Sportscar
Championship, running rounds in concert with the British GT Championship, the
Italian and French GT Championships at various venues, "but the agreement with
the ACO makes that impossible."
The brief appearance of the American Le Mans Series in 2000, either side of Le
Mans, was enormously popular and resulted in a breathtaking race at Silverstone
in May, and a well supported, if soggy event at the Nurburgring in July.
How we loved to see the Audis, the BMWs, the Panoz, the Cadillacs, the Lolas, the
Chevrolet Corvettes, the Chrysler/Dodge Vipers and the Dick Barbour Porsches all
racing hard in Europe!
Big Mac or Quarter Pounder?
Don Panoz made two events in Europe, at Donington Park and at Jarama, optional
in 2001 and entries were diminished. Audi's Team Joest won both challenged by
the Arena Motorsport Audi raced by Stefan Johansson and Guy Smith, but all the
fizz went out of the champagne when the American teams returned to base after
Le Mans, leaving a shell for MacDonald to fill as best he could.
Races at Estoril, Most and Vallelunga struggled to form grids and attract
spectators, while John Mangoletsi grappled with similar problems as the FIA
Sportscar Championship went on the slide.
Who remembers that Stefan Johansson was the LMP900 champion, Didier de
Radigues won the LMP675 category, Ian McKellar Jnr won the GTS group in Ray
Mallock's Saleen, and Robin Liddell and Mike Youles shared the GT honours in a
PK Sport Porsche? Youles was so chuffed, apparently, that he retired from
The moral to all that was abundantly clear: for the championship to succeed it
must have pedigree (that is, the Le Mans label), it must have the best teams
available - sports and GT combined -- and it must have excellent organisation and
I was going to add that it should have a handsome prize fund, but no-one in
Europe can remember the last time any organisers paid them a cent! Funding is
all one-way these days…outward.
We don't have BMW or Cadillac any more, Panoz will rest his old war-horse LMP-
1s but Kazumichi Goh intends to compete in the full European series, as do Jan
Lammers, Henri Pescarolo, Yves Courage and Ian Dawson, and the rest of the
grids should be pretty much as we witnessed at Le Mans on Sunday November 9.
In fact there will be more cars, because there were some (like Mike Jordan at
Eurotech) who did not have the budget to compete in the Le Mans 1,000 Kms, but
would dearly love to be in the LMES in 2004.
Bury the Hatchet
Peace has settled, for the time being, on the ancient disputes between the ACO
and the FIA, and it may even be that Ratel will tolerate the presence of his former
partner, Patrick Peter, in the organiser's office.
What of the FIA Sportscar Championship? Well, Ratel doubted that he would have
the support of any teams for a series in 2004 and he regards the Le Mans
Endurance Series as the complete alternative ("it is the best thing I could do for
the sports car teams"). So, no conflict.
However the FIA does have a set of regulations for SR1 and SR2 cars which,
effectively, disappear in 2004, although the ACO rules have been expanded to
accommodate them. The FIA is not entirely happy about this, not wishing to
abdicate entirely to the ACO's benefit, and Ratel says that he is working on a very
special event for the FIA sportscars.
What it is, exactly, he will not say right now. He has to put his plan to the FIA first,
and have it approved by the World Council, and I for one can't even guess what
Ratel has in mind.
If only the ACO and the FIA would corral a major sponsor and offer the LMES
teams a substantial prize fund, our joy would be complete. This won't happen, of
course. The FIA wouldn't offer any money on principle and the ACO will take the
view that teams ought to be jolly grateful that it has organised a championship for
their benefit so stop grumbling, lads, and discuss your problems with your
Robin Liddell was holding forth in the Le Mans media centre on Friday about the
lack of money flowing in endurance racing, and the general hard-upness of the
teams, and even if he did sound like a shop steward he was absolutely right.
'You could spend 10 grand on a sequential gearbox and gain a second per lap, or
you could hire a top driver and gain a second that way, and pay him peanuts
because there isn't enough money in the sport to pay him properly, and he just
wants to go racing' was the gist of Liddell's argument.
The American style of topping-up huge prize pots with contributions from tyre and
oil companies, and corporations that simply want to be recognised in motor racing
circles, doesn't happen in Europe. Such money as there is slides effortlessly into
the coffers of the organisers, and doesn't come out again on the supply side.
The moral to this seems to be that motor racing is getting too damned expensive
for the organisers and the teams. Or, to look at the problem from the other side,
there is not enough exposure and not enough public support to get the funds
We are in the trough, the bottom end of the cycle. In 1998 we had no idea which
team might win the 24-Hours of Le Mans: would it be Mercedes, or BMW, or
Porsche, or Nissan, or Toyota, or Panoz, or even the Ferrari 333? Public interest
was huge, and how we loved it.
Any Colour as long as it's …………
Next year the winner will be Audi, or Audi, or Audi, and the winners of the four Le
Mans Endurance Series races in 2004 will be Audi, Audi, Audi and Audi.
Never mind, though, better Audi than no Audi. The addition of Team Goh's Audi to
the grids at Spa on August 31, and the Le Mans 1,000 Kms, gave the events a
greater public appeal.
I predict that the upswing in the fortunes of endurance racing has now begun, and
will continue to surge in 2004. Bring on Audi, the Prodrive Ferraris, the Saleens,
the Lamborghinis and the Maseratis and let's look forward to some real glamour
in the year to come.