Over the weekend the world of motor sport focussed on Le Mans for the historical 24 hour race.
Unlike most motor races around the world much of the joy comes from merely finishing this, the greatest endurance race of them all.
I’ve never truly been a fan because I usually only just have the patience to watch nearly two hours of cars going round and round without much in the way of action, so the thought of an entire day, though tempting, would never work.
When I settled in to watch this year’s race I was merely thinking ‘Watch the first hour before they all string out then come back tomorrow to watch those who are left cross the finish line’.
Yet three hours later I was still there watching intently. OK the early rain storms caused a lot of action that maybe you don’t get in the first few hours of a normal endurance race, but I was fascinated by how it was all panning out.
This year there has been a lot more interest in the WEC, the series that incorporates Le Mans into its schedule, because of the arrival of Mark Webber, who joined the relaunched Porsche team from four-time F1 champions Red Bull.
All along Webber reasoned his switch because he had become tired of the new modern-style F1 with DRS, degrading tyres and the like.
The new 2014 rules, which also placed a greater emphasis on fuel economy, seemed to be the final straw, but as a casual onlooker I was perplexed thinking ‘Well surely endurance racing is just about fuel economy as well?’, at least in F1 the cars stay relatively close together and have wheel-to-wheel battles… sometimes.
I was surprised then by just how the race at Le Mans worked, here we had three of the world’s most famous car makers, Audi, Toyota and Porsche with some of the best drivers in the world thrashing 200 miles per hour monsters down the Mulsanne Straight and for the most part not caring a jiffy about the tyres or fuel but simply driving as fast as they could around one of the great motor sport venues for hour after hour.
The sight of these hi-tech machines with their sophisticated diesel and/ or hybrid power units sharing a track with Ferrari’s, Porsche 911′s and Aston Martin’s and having to dart their way through the traffic was also something you don’t see elsewhere.
It left me thinking why I even bother watching F1 sometimes and certainly put Webber’s reasons for leaving very much into context. I’m even surprised drivers like Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button have the patience to put up with disappointing F1 cars in an era far different to the one they joined back in the early 2000′s, when there is an alternative like Le Mans possibly waiting for them.
It makes complete economic sense for car makers too, reliability is the aim of the game and so is hybrid and other fuel saving technology, there was even a Nissan ZEOD entry which may have retired early, but had earlier completed the full 13km track on pure electric power.
Though Ferrari quickly denied they were considering leaving F1, again it really doesn’t surprise me to hear President Luca di Montezemolo saying he wants the Italian team to return to the lead LMP1 division at Le Mans.
At the same time Di Montezemolo has asked for a meeting of key F1 figures to discuss the future after the sport took what he describes as a “wrong turn”.
It’s hard to argue against him when all we hear about is drivers ‘looking after the tyres’ and unable to race flat-out, in reality, at any point during a race.
I still believe F1 is right to have what some perceive as gimmicks like DRS and the move to V6 hybrid power is also essential if there is any hope of attracting major car makers back.
Then this leads onto the biggest difference why Le Mans and endurance racing in general highlights what is wrong in modern F1, the cost.
Now in F1 if you don’t have a budget into the hundreds of millions of dollars you will be nowhere and like Ferrari and McLaren are finding, even then success is not always guaranteed.
Meanwhile the return for the investment into the more open regulations allowed in the WEC, as well as the greater testing and racing, also makes it a much more viable option for the big car makers.
Perhaps the biggest feeling I was left with after finding Le Mans so much more enjoyable than F1 in recent times, is that maybe the pinnacle of motor sport could risk changing hands in the not too distant future if things don’t change.
F1 is meant to be the best drivers, in the best cars racing flat-out at some of the best tracks around the world, instead it almost feels like watching WWE next to the UFC, the same thing but somehow not.
A 2014 F1 car does not seem to be the ultimate racing machine that they been throughout much of history, the technology is there but it is too restricted and perhaps doesn’t go far enough, while aerodynamically a sports car is more ‘road relevant’.
I often mocked claims by some that F1 was facing a crisis believing that surely the world needed its greatest level of motor sport, now I worry if something isn’t done quick just how long it may have left.
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