Editorial Highlights Of 2003
Tom Kjos has forwarded his adventures from the year just ended (which we’ll post very soon): Tom’s ALMS (and historical, non racing) perspectives are always a good read, and we hope to find that he’ll have some Le Mans adventures to recount by mid 2004.

The Editor doesn’t escape from this desk as much as he would like, but here’s his view of 2003 – some random memories from the times when he did manage to stop driving a desk, including his personal highlights of a memorable year.

Le Mans: those two little words. Two little words which will crop up more frequently in ’04 than in ’03, thanks to the Le Mans Endurance Series. Was it just me who felt that Europe actually had two LMES previews in the year just passed – Spa in August and Le Mans in November? Those two races both captured the essence of modern endurance racing: suitably large grids, a fascinating variety of machinery, long races, good crowds, and an open and friendly paddock.

No, make that four LMES previews: because Petit Le Mans has been setting the (modern) endurance standard since 1998, while Sebring has been doing it for far longer (but I didn’t make it to that one in ‘03). It’s a little odd, isn’t it, that Sebring and PLM have been showing Europe the way for years (and years), but only now has Europe found a format that is likely to be popular? And now that Europe has found its way, how will the ALMS evolve?

Yet Europe has ‘always’ had the 24 Hours, which always has full grids – and at times would have been able to fill it twice over. This is where Tom Kjos’s Le Mans ’04 perspective will be required reading. What’s he going to make of it? What will he make of an event that actually starts in May (late April this year) and ends in June? An event that has its unique schedule, with Qualifying running until midnight on Wednesday and Thursday? An event which taxes everyone to the limit – such that drivers have to keep themselves to themselves as much as they possibly can once the track opens on Wednesday, so as to conserve all they can for Saturday and Sunday? No wandering around the paddock in mid-June, finding appealing personnel all over the place: it’s grab them when you can, as they head for their hospitality / rest areas.

May’s Le Mans Test Day was dominated by Bentley prospects. A chance to grab Tom Kristensen at lunchtime was welcome, and in a few short minutes, the urgency of the Bentley programme came across loud and clear. This was a team under pressure: it had to win, and the day wasn’t going too well. This wasn’t a turn up and see how it goes adventure: this was ‘carry on throwing every effort imaginable at it’, just as they had been since long before Sebring: just as they would until the end of the 24 Hours.

"I'll only be happy if we're first and second (fastest, at the Test Day). We have to be faster than the opposition, although it doesn't matter so much within the team. We're running different programmes with the #7 and #8 cars, to gather as much data as possible.

"Why will I only be happy to be first and second? Well, we have higher fuel consumption than the other cars, we have higher tyre wear, and our driver changes will take longer. We have to keep focusing on being faster. I would quite like to be the fastest driver, but only as long as it doesn't compromise our #7 team."

This wasn’t the atmosphere of a Goh or Racing for Holland team at Spa or Le Mans (in November). This was a manufacturer that had to win. The cars had to be faster than the (Audi) opposition, and they had to demonstrate immaculate reliability. By the end of that day, Kristensen was nearly four seconds faster than any R8 opponents, but mechanical problems meant that it would be a pressured few weeks until the next gathering in France.

Even as the race was about to start there was drama with the Kristensen / Capello / Smith car – on the grid! But from 4pm onwards, those two Bentleys were simply the most impressive pair of cars ever to race at Le Mans. It was inexorable, the way they hammered on and on, at fantastic pace, all the way to the flag 24 hours later. Great racing it wasn’t – in any of the classes. We’d watched a Bentley exhibition, of what a manufacturer could do if it wanted to win this race badly enough. No different from ’00, ’01 or ’02 in many respects, but even more impressive.

And that was the Bentley saga over with. Sebring, Le Mans, museum. Done. We don’t expect racing for position in the last hour of 24, but sometimes we get it. And Gunnar Jeannette against Jean-Marc Gounon was fantastic entertainment. We felt sorry for the Frenchman, but thrilled for the young American, and for the Panoz team. This was a Panoz performance at Le Mans that had been a long time coming. This was the first personal highlight of the year. Yes, open-mouthed amazement at what Bentley had achieved, but Jeannette and Panoz … this was more personal. This was justice being done. This was wheel to wheel racing. We don’t expect it, but when we get it, we love it.

Well done Gunnar and Don. Well done Bentley. Those were my two Le Mans highlights.
And JML Team Panoz kept it up in the ALMS, with that string of Panoz podium positions – but Tom Kjos has covered all that.

The next Editorial highlight came at Spa, at the end of August. I wasn’t lucky enough to see that Freisinger / Porsche performance in the 24 Hours, so can’t comment first hand, but a month later came the Spa ‘preview’ of the LMES, the Spa 1000 Kms, the mixed event for the FIA SCC cars and the British GTs.

This race had no right to be anything special – except for the participants of course. It wasn’t even clear quite why these two series had come together – force of circumstance, one supposes. The organisers were plainly hugely disappointed at the prototype turn out, but the event still had enough of the necessary ingredients. The outcome at the head of the field was as predictable as the Le Mans 1000 Km, although Andy Wallace gave TK something to chase while it was really wet. Watching those two, up through Eau Rouge, and dancing between the GTs – the Golf and the Clio included – was great entertainment. It was a thoroughly enjoyable meeting, and another highlight of my year – even before the amazing last hour.

Mosler against Mosler, Barbosa against Erdos. What a thriller this was! The Brazilian was in fuel trouble, and was desperately trying to eke it out to the flag, but the race was one lap too many. This battle of the Moslers was quite simply the best ‘one on one’ racing of the year.

The previous British GT event had been held at Thruxton, and with only 16 cars starting, how on earth could someone claim that this was a highlight of his season? Yet I would argue that it was. Rockingham (the previous round) had had a huge crowd, and a disappointing race – almost completely devoid of close racing. Thruxton was different – and to me was proof that the 2003 British GT format was really starting to work. A DeWalt TVR and a Veloqx Ferrari added immeasurably to the quality of the field, and the only negative in the race was the unfortunate clash that took out one Championship contender, the Rollcentre Mosler. Other than that we had Safety Cars, wrong decisions on pit strategy, hard charging back through the field, worries over fuel lasting, success for the Balfe Mosler over the Veloqx FIA car, Morgan pace against the Porsches in the Cup Class – and the superb variety of machinery that the British series was demonstrating at every round.

With such brilliant reliability at the next round at Spa, these two meetings confirmed to me that the British series had a great future. Others would disagree, citing the lack of GT Class cars, the lack of professional drives, the standing of some of the teams etc. We really don’t know what British GTs have in store for us in ’04 – except that the changes put in place recently have been dramatic ones. It will all come down to numbers: how many drivers and teams want to compete in the 2004 format? How many would have competed had the ‘two class’ endurance format continued?

Petit Le Mans: all this race lacked was a Weaver / Wallace / Leitzinger MG-Lola performance to remember. The early retirement of this entry was a major disappointment, but the event, the circuit, the crowd, the atmosphere, the dramas – they were all there in abundance. I didn’t need convincing, because after all Tom Kjos had been telling me / us how good the events had been all summer long – but the format, the mixed classes, the car developments, the tracks …it has it all, this ALMS.

Just one (relatively insignificant) moment said it all for me. It was Friday morning, and the first session of Qualifying day. The two Dyson cars had had fresh (that is brand new blocks and heads) engines fitted on Thursday night, and James Weaver and Chris Dyson were rushing round in convoy in numbers 16 and 20 – and boy did they look impressive. Through the last corner, the cars looked to be handling immaculately, and they’d been proving their speed in every session so far. This wasn’t twitchy, edgy on the limit stuff: this was two cars running at front running speed and looking like winners. This was the culmination (for now) of a year or more of development: this was proof that development and testing, by a top notch team, really do work. This was two cars tuned to almost perfection. It was a joy to watch – a highlight of my year, lasting just five seconds each time they passed.

Jon Field was at the other end of the development trail, but his story was no less enjoyable to follow: the rascal had dropped a Judd into his Lola B160 – and he ended up winning the class. What a result for Intersport – what a result for Champion too. Herbert and Lehto kissing on the podium. What fun. Whatever next?

For some (sadly not very many, most of those entered were already in Europe) it was a trip to France, for the 1000 Km. The Goh Audi was always going to win this one (barring some kind of racing incident), but the lack of a battle at the front didn’t diminish the event at all – because a PLM-sized field was making the most of getting through a difficult, weather affected race. And the GT race was a classic! For once, a Ferrari seemed to have the advantage, certainly when the track was dry, but the gang of Porsches took the fight to them, and until the last hour or so it was looking like a maiden PK Sport international win. That became a maiden Cirtek international win after not one but two PK punctures. That was cruel, but racing is, isn’t it?

The Safety Car was called out mid race to clear up some of the gravel, which seemed to litter large parts of the Bugatti Circuit. That Le Mans gravel is a constant worry, one that really shouldn’t be a worry at all. That’s an issue that needs addressing, but the ACO has at last initiated the creation of four top class races in Europe – and all four ’04 events should be highlights of the New Year. The preview event was definitely a highlight of ’03.

And that was almost it in terms of Cracknell’s 2003 race highlights - apart from Bathurst. What a circuit, what a lovely town, what a welcome, what hospitable people. The reality was that Cracknell was greeted with the same warmth in Australia as he’d received in Atlanta. Andy Hall and Chris Nixon are two very special PR guys, each with a special group of people around them.

And finally, a personal note of thanks – to all those dsc guys (and gals). Arriving at a race meeting and teaming up with Gary, Tom, Jeannie, Janos, Joost, Graham, David, David, Mark, Steve, Russell, Regis, James, Johannes, Andy, Lyndon, Claude, Paul, Marcus, Brian and Ken was a highlight of the year. These people love endurance racing – and love meeting and reporting on their heroes. Gabriele and Sergio – we’ll have to meet soon!
HAPPY NEW YEAR everyone.
Malcolm Cracknell

 

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