The 24 Hours of Le Mans is a ticking time bomb. For a team, like Toyota, the bomb can explode with a lap to go, destroying (at least for another year) your dreams of winning the most demanding race in the world.
For a driver, any driver, that bomb is a potential minefield where a mental misstep, or the unfortunate circumstance of being caught up in another driver’s incident, or a breakdown of the car, or the politics of a sanctioning body can end your dreams of participating in the most famous race in the world.
For a car company, like Ford, that bomb is represented in the fireworks launched in celebration of achieving a goal set at the highest levels of the corporation.
For two power brokers, the ACO and the FIA, that bomb is a huge stockpile of explosives, doused with gasoline, and with a lit fuse that needs to be stomped out immediately.
With less than five minutes remaining in this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans, the No. 5 Toyota Gazoo Racing LMP1 car was leading the second place No. 2 Porsche 919 Hybrid by 69 seconds. But suddenly the car had no power, with turbo failure appearing to be the cause. It crossed the start/finish line on what would have been its last lap, and stopped on the track near the pit wall. Driver Kazuki Nakajima was at the wheel. On his right were the Toyota garages filled with Toyota corporate executives, team engineers and mechanics, and his co-drivers. Seconds earlier, they had all been smiling, ready to revel in a joyful victory at Le Mans. On his left were the front-straight grandstands, packed with the most knowledgeable and appreciative fans in all of motorsports, who just seconds before had been loudly cheering as cars passed each lap.
Now those stands were silent, the fans in shock of what was unfolding. And then passing in front of Nakajima was the Porsche driven by Neel Jani, beginning the last lap of his final stint, giving Porsche it’s 18th overall win at Le Mans. Say hello to an explosion of emotions and defeat for Toyota, and an explosion of emotions and victory for Porsche.
This, my 20th Le Mans, was easily the best. There was great racing in all four classes, highlighted by the Toyota/Porsche battle in the LMP1 division and the Ford/Ferrari fight in the GTE-Pro class. And the espirit de corps by all members of the LMP1 family that makes this form of racing so special. The respect shown to the Toyota camp and the class shown by the Toyota camp following the 24th hour was impressive. Toyota’s post-race press release materials even included a photograph of their stopped car with the Porsche passing it in the background. What a breath of fresh air from the world of car corporate giants.
Not the best—quite bad, actually—were a series of decisions and actions by the ACO and others that came to light this week. These things have the potential of blowing up in a very big way and causing severe damage to sports-car racing.
First, the ACO made a post-race decision to deem the stricken No. 5 Toyota “unclassified” in the final results—because it “completed the final lap too slowly”? This decision is an insult to Toyota. It is an insult to drivers Nakajima, Sebastien Buemi, and Anthony Davidson who drove like champions. And it is also an insult to the racing fans at Le Mans and watching on television around the world, who saw anything but an unclassified car. The drivers of the No. 8 Audi were told to stand on the third step of the podium, despite having completed 11 less laps than the Toyota. The drivers’ body language told the crowd they did not want to be there and I suspect the trophies they were given will be sent to Toyota where they rightly belong.
The ACO’s decision regarding the overall finishing order brings its rulebook into question, not to mention the decision making process and the individuals who make those decisions.
Another example of the credibility minefield facing the ACO and the FIA was the decision made on race morning that denied Gunnar Jeannette a chance to race. Jeannette was the reserve driver for the WeatherTech GTE-Am team. He was called into service on Saturday morning after Cooper MacNeil became sick on Friday night and was too ill to drive. Jeannette has raced at Le Mans eight times before. He participated in the Le Mans pre-test two weekends before this year’s event, when he completed 20 laps. But there was the ACO on Saturday morning, decreeing Jeannette ineligible to race because he did not drive the mandatory 10 laps during the Wednesday or Thursday practice sessions. So the ACO basically said its pre-test counts for nothing. And more importantly, the FIA decided safety was irrelevant for Marc Miller and Leh Keen—the two WeatherTech drivers forced to drive the entire 24 hours themselves. Common sense tells you a two-driver team will face more challenges than a three-driver team. The FIA loves to promote its “Road Safety” program. Well, that message just went out the window; now we should view it as nothing but a meaningless public-relations campaign.
Further examination of the Jeannette decision suggests all may not be well with the relationship between the ACO and the International Motor Sports Association. Remember, WeatherTech is the title sponsor of the U.S.-based IMSA series. IMSA’s premiere class is LMP2, and IMSA is moving rapidly to attract more car companies to participate in this class of racing. For Le Mans and the FIA World Endurance Championship series, LMP2 is for privateers. Right now, LMP1 is the only prototype class for the car companies. The ACO and the FIA want to keep it that way, forcing manufacturers to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on prototype programs. The IMSA LMP2 class allows manufacturers to race by simply developing an engine program, and being able to market their efforts for a fraction of the cost of the more sophisticated LMP1 class. The WeatherTech move could well have been a warning shot by the ACO to the IMSA execs who were attending the race in France.
Moving on to happier topics, Ford winning the GTE-Pro class is a massive achievement. Several years ago, Ford’s leadership decided to return to Le Mans in 2016. It speaks volumes of the company’s ability to set a long-term plan, put all of the components in place, and execute to near perfection. It is a blueprint for other car companies on how to race at Le Mans. Likewise, congratulations must also be given to the entire Chip Ganassi race team and Multimatic for building this program from the ground up, dealing with enormous corporate expectations, and delivering the goods.
This was, of course, a rematch of the 1966 Ford/Ferrari battle. And both marques came to Le Mans with mid-engine race cars that were the best-handling and the most-slippery of all of the GT cars. The Houston based Risi Ferrari team was prepared for this battle, and it fell just short of the win. But a lot of bad blood was spilled during the closing stages of this race, which strangely reflects of rivalry between the Ford and Ferrari of 50 years ago.
The Americans protested the Italian car for it not having its leader light system (a series of small lights that displays a car’s race position) working correctly. The Ferrari squad protested the Ford for speeding through yellow-flag zones during the race.
This was incredibly poor form by the race teams and the race’s stewards. First, everyone knew the Ferrari was in second place. The decision to throw a black-and-orange flag at it, demanding the Ferrari to stop and fix the lighting system in the race’s closing stages, is nothing short of stupid. Especially when the Ferrari was fighting for the class win. Ferrari correctly ignored the demand and told its drivers to keep racing. The Ferrari protest was two-fold. The first was to balance out the Ford protest. The second was to send a message from the entire GTE field regarding how Ford handled the entire Balance of Performance (BoP) regulations.
The buzz in the media center following the race was very negative toward Ford and its protest. Most felt Ford was being greedy and hoping for a 1-2-3 sweep of the podium—and that this was another example of how Ford misplayed its hand with the ACO and the FIA for the past several weeks.
Balance of Performance is a high stakes game of poker with every manufacturer having a seat at the table. Every team bluffs, sandbagging during the off-season testing, not showing their cars full potential at the early races of the year. And they try to hide or manipulate data for the various sanctioning bodies. Ford did this better than anyone else leading up to Le Mans. BoP adjustments were made and Ford had a massive advantage compared to the field. And then Le Mans qualifying came. Ford, instead of going just fast enough, say 1.5 seconds faster than it ran during the Le Mans test weekend, went a blistering 4 seconds quicker. It essentially sent a message of “we played all of you.” What it also did was embarrass the WEC technical staff. So that staff adjusted the BoP again the day before the race. But it did so not nearly enough for most of the grid, as the Ford ran a race pace several seconds quicker than Corvette, Porsche, and Aston Martin.
Additionally, Ford built a race car specifically for Le Mans, and will soon sell a production car based on the race car. This was part of the company’s overall plan, and this philosophy might set the standard for GT cars moving forward. However, this would be unfortunate. If teams like Corvette, Aston Martin, and Porsche must build cars based on race machinery and not on production cars, the costs will soar and eventually the class will suffer.
Additionally, the FIA wants teams to race in every round of the WEC championship. Corvette presently only races in one of those events, Le Mans. And Corvette has won a lot in France. General Motors doesn’t need to race around the globe to sell Corvettes, though. Still, Corvette has raced at Le Mans for 15 years, and it went to Le Mans when the race was going through a very difficult period. In other words, Chevrolet is committed to this race. The Ford GT effort, however, is a two-year program. Perhaps Ford will continue afterward, perhaps not.
What is clear, regardless, is the FIA will not be pleased with the cards Ford laid on the table at Le Mans. Expect further BoP adjustments for the remainder of the season. Still, Ford finished first and third its first time back at Le Mans in 50 years. This will likely more than numb the pain of having blown off a few fingers from the political firecracker it lit.
ACO boss Pierre Fillon and FIA president Jean Todt have a lot in common. Both are French. Both lead organizations. Both are very short in stature and very long in power. The ACO and the FIA have history. Some of it good, some of it not so good. Both men need to recognize the World Endurance Championship, in one form or another, has come and gone several times in their lifetimes. Le Mans does not need the FIA, but having the two groups work together is mutually beneficial—until petty politics, egos, and money get in the way of good decision making.
Put it this way: The on-track action at Le Mans this past weekend was excellent. The off-track issues, if not addressed in the immediate future, could explode and destroy all that has been built in sports-car racing over the past 20 years. These two French men are sitting on a powder keg.
Call it Napoleon Dynamite.
About the author: Rick Dole is an award winning sports photographer, and part time blogger, who specializes in motorsports. For the past three decades he has photographed virtually every form of auto racing including Formula 1, IndyCar, NASCAR, NHRA, Pike Peak, and IMSA and World Endurance Championship sports-car racing the United States and Europe. In addition, he has photographed major sporting events around the globe including the Olympic Games, the French and U.S Open tennis tournaments, the PGA Tour, NFL football, and a variety of NCAA sports. His 30 years of experience on the ground at such events gives his writing a unique perspective. This is his 20th time covering the 24 Hours of Le Mans.