Phil Bennett – On Diesels & Le Mans
I’ve been reading about the recent debate about ACO/Le Mans and the diesel advantage – begins Phil Bennett – and really think we are missing a point, which is the stability of the event, which is surely a bigger point than the welfare of individual teams?

The Le Mans 24 Hour race is to many the biggest single motorsport event in the world and probably always will be. However nothing kills any sporting event faster than one horse races and you could say that recent years have been an Audi benefit - with the only lasting competition coming from rival Audi teams. Before 2006 that had nothing to do with the potential diesel advantage and everything to do with the lack of anyone else giving as much commitment to the event as Audi has.

Since 2000 I think the only races that could have been won by someone other than Audi were 2001 when perhaps the LMP675 MG could have been a surprise had it been reliable. 2004 could have seen the Rollcentre car win had it had a stronger driver line up and in 2005 Pescarolo should have won but shunted their way out of it.

To argue the diesel thing now is like the 675/900 argument of previous years - and it is clear that the vision from the ACO (which is their right) is that they want cars in the top category to be able to win and that they would like manufacturer involvement in order to maintain the level of public credibility for the event. Which secures the future.

The debate over the full potential of the diesel engine could be countered by asking the question about the full development of petrol engines in recent years. Are we seriously saying that the Judd, Zytek or Mugen developments are as far as a petrol engine could be taken? I’m sure that had someone come to the party with manufacturer levels of funding then petrol engine development would have been pushed further than we currently see. The point is, no one did.

The other point that has been overlooked is the biggest single contribution to any cars lap time anywhere - the tyre. I cannot believe anyone is going to be so naïve as to believe that there is ever going to be a significant number of private teams with access to the best tyres. I think it is largely accepted that currently Michelin is the benchmark and within that brand (like any other) there are a range of developments.

The diesel route is absolutely the best route to maintaining and building upon manufacturer involvement because it is a technology which is plays a significant importance in road car sales - and the Le Mans events are currently the only ones that allow the demonstration of this technology via motorsport, with associated marketing opportunities. Far from limiting the diesel advantage the ACO should be re-enforcing it. Why?

I believe it is important because allowing small private teams (with petrol motors) the ability to compete with manufacturer teams (with diesel motors) does not build the events. It creates a doubt in the manufacturers that might otherwise commit due to a fear of being beaten and who are these private teams we are helping anyway?

Take the 2006 event - Pescarolo did a great job with reasonably funded cars driven by professional drivers. Then we had one Courage and one Dome driven by what you might call “the best available drivers”. Beyond that you are into teams running varying degrees of gentlemen drivers. Nothing against them but the legend of the Le Mans 24 Hours has not been built upon such foundations.

The other huge risk with smaller teams is the doubt over their ability to last. Look at the LMP2 class and can you imagine if that was the class fighting for the overall win? It’s verging upon amateur hour.

By encouraging factory teams, from a driver’s point of view at least there will be some paid work into the future and no doubt (with regulation stability) the factory cars of today become the customer cars of tomorrow. Perhaps that way Le Mans can get back to the days of an all prototype field?

Personally I think people’s energy should be focused upon working with the ACO not fighting them. Probably the most important thing for private teams is more to do with funding rather than the diesel issue. In that regard perhaps the Le Mans Series could include the 24 hour event - then the question of competition goes beyond the Le Mans circuit. Then, as Porsche can show in the States, diesel wins aren’t so much of a sure thing.
Phil Bennett

 

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