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Le Mans 1000 Km – Reflections In The Murk

Earl Goddard neatly summed it up (and we’ll look at the fortunes of his father’s team and two or three other British squads at the 1000 Km as soon as we can): “If you offer Le Mans, people will come out and do it. It’s more straightforward to find racers to join you for four 1000 kilometre races and Le Mans (than for the previous alternative).”

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Only time will tell how significant November 9 will turn out to be as a turning point for this type of endurance racing in Europe, but overall, we’re very optimistic. Why? Let’s see if you agree with these reflections on what turned out to be quite a race.

Or Was It?
Some observers have suggested it was actually quite a poor race, particularly at the front of the field. Fair comment, but what did you expect? Did you really think anyone was going to keep up with the Audi? But there was a lot more on offer than just the race for the overall lead.

The Performance Of The GTs
Watching the likes of Robin Liddell and Johnny Mowlem in the opening hour was actually very inspiring. It certainly inspired us to go and find this reasoning from Robin Liddell, at the end of his opening 100 minute stint. Why are the GTs doing so well on the slippery track? “The Porsche has excellent traction, the narrower (than GTS) tyres help us cut through the water, the GT cars are more softly set up anyway, and the prototypes are going slower in the wet so they can’t generate the downforce they usually do in the dry).”

The result of all that was the sight of Ortelli and then Liddell leading the class, and up into the top ten on merit when conditions were at their worst. Unexpected, and quite a thrill to see it happen.

A Relaxed Atmosphere
It was more enjoyable than the 24 Hours, in our opinion. Less security conscious, a more ‘open’ paddock, a GT race that saw a more level playing field in terms of equipment – and basically drivers staying in the garages, rather than hiding away in their motorhomes (for a well deserved rest, admittedly).

A smaller (much smaller) crowd than in June made for less hassle, while Friday afternoon in pit lane was bloody cold (rather than bloody hot), but bloody funny – listening to Wallace tales. Did you read the reference to Italian Gay Bar understeer?

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No Radio Le Mans
And boy did we miss it (see PS). Thanks to abundant dsc staffers, we were able to catch up with most of the teams when they had a significant incident (as opposed to June when we’d typically miss the driver concerned, because we’re not hanging around in pit lane all the time like Graham Tyler!). We did hear mention of some incidents out on the track, but suspect that many were overlooked – because there were so many incidents happening.

No Hindhaugh, Tyler and co., and the ACO alternative at the weekend lacked a little, er, vigour and enthusiasm. Hindhaugh, Addison and friends are irreplaceable, aren’t they? Pre Radio Le Mans, the 24 Hours failed to release many of its secrets. If we ever had a 24 hours without them, we suspect that the British crowd would rebel… The ALMS has the boys on the radio, the public address, the position lights, the iCard system….and Europe has, er, well, not much. Fans deserve better. The lead comes from North America.

Trust Fund Racing
We won’t remind you who came up with this expression, but there were a good number of gentleman drivers in the field. So? Tom Kristensen was gracious enough to recognise that drivers with less experience need ‘looking after’, that is just give them a bit more room. That’s probably easy for him to say, with an in-built performance advantage: he can afford to lose a couple of seconds on any given lap. But if the entry was a little short on numbers, how short would it have been without the ‘trust fund racers’? We welcome them all. If the ACO had received 60 applications, natural selection would have reduced that to a strong 50. It didn’t.

Was it good fortune or good driving that ensured no major accidents? Probably a bit of both. Well done everyone out on the track: we admire you all.

Reliability
dailysportscar.comFour retirements? Staggering, isn’t it? The Taurus Lola made it home, despite a driveshaft failure right at the end. The reliability meant plenty of on-track action throughout. We like on-track action. It may not have been an event catering for the fans (too cold/damp/wet for all but the hardiest fan), but those that saw it, loved it. It’s the Le Mans 24 Hours / ALMS format, and outside of June and Spa this year for the 1000 Km, European fans have had little on offer. Roll on 2004.

Gravel
This safety issue has rumbled on long enough, hasn’t it? The Morgan had its screen smashed by a rock on Saturday, then the Dome received a warm-up puncture on Sunday thanks to another one, while Earl Goddard went into the gravel and came out with a six inch long ‘stone’ in his footwell. The ‘white line at the Test Day’ issue was surely an acknowledgement that the gravel isn’t right. It’s time it was made right, before next June’s 210 mph speeds at the 24 Hours.

Punctures – two in the last stint – cost one team the class win. Is that fair?

Bringing out the safety car to clean up the gravel was the right move.

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Slippery
Chris Goodwin was champing at the bit at the prospect of racing the RML MG-Lola on the slippery mid-afternoon track. The tougher it is, the more of a challenge it is. Undoubtedly the surface needed a good winter’s ‘cleaning’ to get rid of the after-effects of the truck race, but the 1000 Km took place a few short weeks after 24 hours of truck / rubber / diesel deposits had been laid down. Excursions were many, severe damage non-existent.

It may not be the greatest track in Europe, but the Bugatti threw up enough drama, didn’t it? And it made a welcome change to have the race track so easily accessible, on foot, rather than a car journey away (to Mulsanne, Indianapolis etc.).

11 a.m. Start?
With the race starting at midday, what time would it finish? Even midway through the race, journalists were claiming they’d seen written evidence that the race would extend to 19.00, although logic said it had to be 18.00. Fitting in 1000 Km in six hours looked unlikely in the dry, so we ended up with the 870 Km of Le Mans – and some confusion over time duration.

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Why not start at 11.00? An extended warm-up (30 to 45 minutes) made absolute sense, but why was a schedule issued on Friday (with five 30 minutes sessions), then a revised 5 x 45 minutes sessions issued on Saturday morning?

Highlights
So let’s finish with a few of the highlights. The ACO text suggested no surprises in second qualifying, but we’d disagree. Laurence Pearce wouldn’t: it was no surprise to him to see a 1:29.056 by JC-W in the Lister Storm LMP. “We’ve done a 1:29.4 in testing here.” Probably in better / warmer conditions too. But that was a very impressive time, and apart from a tripod joint fracture on the right hand driveshaft, the Lister raced hard throughout, with a podium possibly in prospect but for one failure.

The RML MG-Lola showed good form first time out in the team’s hands, and a little more experience with it would probably have seen this car complete the event at impressive speed. The engine was faultless.

Both Courages impressed, although the 675 car scored well through reliability rather than pace: a sort of Reynard – Lehmann performance, rather than a screaming Courage performance.

Intersport had a ‘mare’ with one car, a thriller with the other. Will Jon Field pop back to race at Monza and Spa next year, just because they are there?

Field, Michael Caine and Andy Wallace were three to complete monster triple stints: heroes all. The Dome had a very stiff throttle, but otherwise, another rock solid performance at Le Mans from the Dutch team.

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Henri Pescarolo deserved his second place, but the future is a concern. Why doesn’t French industry get behind him….anyone in Endurance racing in France? Has F1 (and rallying) snatched all the media attention? Get behind your own, please.

Those Ferrari 550s are rocket ships, aren’t they? Kox and Bouchut were going at it hammer and tongs in the first hour, but as it dried, Ferrari performance came to the fore, of course. They are very exciting cars to watch.

Cirtek, Scuderia Ecosse and Spyker were three to race brand new cars on November 9, and all three finished. Rob Schirle has had some miserable times at Le Mans, but Sunday made up for that. Had it been dry throughout, his Baron-Engelhorn 360 might have had a comfortable win (it was the one GT car to have a technical advantage over the rest), but PK’s second puncture ensured that the first guaranteed entry would belong in Leicestershire – or the USA, according to Cirtek’s entry licence.

PK Sport: we’ve almost said it all, but a Le Mans place is assured, to the considerable delight of many at the track. Liddell and Belloc performed at the highest level, and received the most miserable last stint misfortunes.

Scuderia Ecosse, Morgan and TVR all played significant (British) roles in the race, the first-named making an extraordinary debut.

The Panoz GTP was a handful, and suffered technical mishaps, but what an entertaining beast. Why does the Belgian press attack its sporting heroes?

Conclusion
It was a good start to the LMES. European ACO rules racing has some catching up to do, and delays over the regulations for the prototypes is a worry, but ‘SR2’ cars look as though they will be able to run at 675 kg for a year or two – although we await confirmation of this. There is considerable interest in prototypes from invigorated drivers, but the market is struggling to know what their needs will be. If 2004 can just see the foundations in place – for growth in 2005.

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Well done the mechanics: remember grovelling in the rain to fix your road car in freezing temperatures? - Le Mans was a bit like that, for them. Perhaps we prefer June after all.
MC

PS This is Iain MacBeth, Corvette mechanic / gofer at the 24 Hours, who made the trip to the 1000 Km: "I hope they do it again - appeared to be quite a good crowd, and certainly as good as any I've seen for a sportscar event in the UK since the ALMS evening race at Silverstone. Only downside was we had absolutely no idea what was going on in terms of position - couldn't find any monitors or screens, and the PA was inaudible most of the time, especially given the reliability of the cars! Bouchut was fantastic in the Viper for the first hour..."

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