Changing The Rules of Engagement

One advantage of being present at Donington Park on August 25, the day before the Le Mans Series meeting got underway, was finding an opportunity to discover what’s really going on in the paddock. Conversations which started on Friday tended to run on into Saturday (and then into the following week), and some (hopefully) interesting thoughts evolved.

And then something reminded me of something else: the fact that the ACO made it clear that cars finishing at Petit Le Mans, in positions that would qualify for a place in the Le Mans 24 Hours, would only be granted that guaranteed place if they were running in full ACO specification.

Suddenly it all became clear: the current system of awarding guaranteed places for Le Mans, of granting some entries in January, some in February and the rest in March could be improved upon – very simply. By doing so, a great deal of uncertainty could be removed from this branch of racing ‘at a stroke’, and simultaneously, ACO rules racing could be given a huge boost for 2007.

So this is more or less how an alternative system could work.

1. There were 41 entries at Donington Park. The vast majority of the teams present have supported the Le Mans Series throughout the season. Some of these teams have been pushing for two entries for the Le Mans 24 Hours in recent years, but because of the current qualification system, they haven’t had the incentive to push ahead with plans for a second car, until they were sure of a second entry: that always seems to come too late.

With a little ‘filtering’ where necessary, at least 35 cars (including nine two-car teams – some of which were single entries at Donington) could be selected for Le Mans now.

Besides removing uncertainty for the teams, this would inevitably increase the number of new prototypes available to race at Le Mans in 2007. With the ‘hybrid era’ about to end, prototype numbers, especially in LMP1, are looking a little shaky next year, as things stand.

“If we had two entries confirmed now, we would have two new cars ready to go for next year, and nine months to raise the support to do it,” seemed to be the prevailing view at Donington Park.

2. There were 11 American entries at Le Mans last year, but two of the teams are no longer racing. Sticking to 11 for now, even though others are likely to want to race at Le Mans in 2007, offer ALMS entrants 11 places at Le Mans in 2007.

Instantly, 11 US teams can be assured of a place at Le Mans next year. If more than 11 apply, some ‘natural selection’ would simply reduce it to 11. Those teams which have been consistently competitive in the ALMS, and with Le Mans experience, would logically take priority.

3. Suggest to the European teams (with the 35 cars) that have been invited to Le Mans that they might like to consider racing at Sebring next year. It would be expecting an awful lot for all of them to want to go to Florida next March, and those building new cars may not be ready (and Sebring couldn’t cope with this number), but a less than subtle hint that if 20 European entries made it to Sebring, then they would be looked upon very favourably in future years. Basically, they’ve just earned lots of brownie points.

Suddenly, the ALMS season gets off to a terrific start, with a huge grid at the opening race of the season.

Sportscar racing – the four-class system, on both sides of the Atlantic – starts 2007 awash with momentum, rather than uncertainty.

4. Lets build on that, and make the Le Mans 24 Hours part of the Le Mans Series. Why not? If a scoring system was devised that didn’t give the 24 hour race too much sway, and because the top European teams will be there anyway, why shouldn’t Le Mans be both an individual event and part of the Le Mans Series?

The Le Mans Series has now received a huge shot in the arm. Teams can now approach sponsors with a ‘double whammy’ of Le Mans and the Le Mans Series.

5. So we’ve ‘arrived’ at about 46 potential entries for Le Mans next June. Remember that the grid size will be 55 next year. The ACO now has nine places to allocate to whoever is left. We mustn’t forget Peugeot of course, any teams such as Racing for Holland, which didn’t complete the 2006 season – perhaps a Japanese entry or two? Have we missed anyone significant out? An FIA team or two? The reserve system will logically always need to be there, ‘just in case’.

Wouldn’t it be possible to put such a system, outlined above, into place almost immediately – perhaps with teams obliged to confirm their entries by, say, October 31? By December 31, teams planning on crossing the Atlantic, for Sebring, would need to confirm their presence there.

The bottom line is that companies working on their budgets for next year need to do so now – not in January, February or March. With a system like this in place, we would neatly avoid any of those last minute dramas over entries that pull out. Any team that did pull out at the last minute would need to understand that, with so much advance notice this time, they really would be ruling themselves out of Le Mans for many years to come.
Malcolm Cracknell


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