Post Le Mans
Raising A Glass To Those Who Have Raised The Bar
by Janos Wimpffen
Regular readers will know that Janos Wimpffen underwent a very serious operation in December, and he's still fighting back to full fitness. We missed him at Le Mans, but in some ways it was almost as if he was there with us. 5000 miles between Seattle and Le Mans certainly didn't stop him from following the event in his usual in-depth style, as he proves below. The Editor would only disagree on one point, the form of the Cadillacs. Over to you Janos.....and thank you for the comments at the end.

The three occupants of the podium at the 2001 Le Mans will long be remembered; Audi, Bentley, and Rain.

Le Mans is rarely a “race” in the sense it was falsely portrayed in the otherwise enjoyable Steve McQueen classic. Rather, it is an epic adventure consisting of multiple acts. The first begins when rumors emerge about the intentions of manufacturers. Then the always devilish ACO steps in and feints at all manner of rule changes. This all begins to coalesce in the approaching months as rumors give way to presentations and a bevy of privateers scramble to piece together a team. Act III opens with the Wizards of the Sarthe releasing their anointed finalists and then the debutants appearance before the public at the test weekend. The lessons learned from this mid-term examination are then quickly applied in anticipation of Act IV, the pre-race week with the ceremonial paysage and the very telling qualification. The race is the climatic Act V, and perhaps the biggest thrill is seeing whether your predictions will be played out in whole, or whether this edition will be a bag of surprises. It is rarely one extreme or the other.

This year’s Act V was predictable in its Audi dominance, and unpredictable in nearly every other manner. Let’s take it class by class and by marques or by teams:

ATMOSPHERIC CLASS: The sudden severity, constant changes, and above all, the locational specificity of the storms caused more chaos then has ever been seen. The Carnage at Arnage indelibly hurt the GTS contest more than the others. The odd pattern of events meant that no matter what your tire and setup choices were, they were wrong for at least part of the hour, if not part of each lap.

Henri Pescarolo put it best by pointing out that we had been lulled into a false sense of security with several consecutive dry years. It rains frequently in this corner of northern Europe. Thus, it was surprising how many teams were caught off guard, but not Audi. Although they too suffered a momentary glitch, giving us the oddity of a brief Bentley-Panoz 1-2, Joest’s minions shrugged it off without concern. I think that over the next 12 months we’ll see Bentley and others place garden hoses inside their wind tunnels in order to see just which components are effected by the 200 mph spray.

LMP 900 & LMP GTP:

Joest Audi: It’s certainly all been said. They make their own luck. German efficiency at its best. Seemingly effortless, not even looking fast.

John Gardner of Speedvision.com accurately compared Audi’s performance to the Can-Am years. They are wistfully remembered as a time of great cars, yet we forget there was never any real competition. One marque or another always dominated. So it will be with Audi in the future. They will be remembered favorably and the stupefying nature in which they achieved results will be forgotten. This was also the case in endurance racing history. The Porsche 917 and 956 are head-turning beauties today but in their prime one always longed for someone to catch them from behind.

Audi’s choreographed rear end changes were a sight to behold. In addition to the drivers, I think a trophy should go to the fellow on the extra-short creeper who installed the diffuser, only to then be yanked out on cue milliseconds before the car was lowered. The megabucks operation has perfectly married technology and strategy with sport. It is not their fault that no one can match them.

It is frightening to think that the Joest team was even better this year than last. In 2000 they faced very little opposition while 2001 saw the stirrings of other factories as well as some customer cars. Audi raised many standards this time around, mostly their own. They will surely be even better in 2002. But the better news is that the relative success of Chrysler, Bentley, and even MG will propel them to invest more and hopefully narrow the gap. But no matter how the dice are rolled, they come up A-U-D-I. Like some great Greek or medieval saga, one can only understand Le Mans by looking at the long reach of history.

Privateer Audis: Not sure if it was a disappointment or a relief to see them fall by the wayside. Perhaps Audi had planted a virus inside of them, thus showing the world that the cars are fallible, while still preserving the factory dominance. More accurately, their departure only shows that much more why Joest is on a par with greats like Neubauer, Wyer, Forghieri, Hanstein, and Walkinshaw.

Bentley. I still say that they are Audis in disguise, although the visceral appeal is what matters. After all, the general public does not refer to the Oreca entries as Dallaras or the Cadillacs as Riley and Scotts. If Bentley decides to take the show on the road to ALMS / ELMS rounds, they could be the vanguard of resurgent interest in sports car racing. I have always held closed top sports-racers have better public identity than any of the open cars of the WSC era. Kudos are also warranted to the ACO for a good equivalency formula between the GTP and 900 classes.

Chrysler. I can’t remember which of the TMS crazies called it so, but this car gets the most improved and biggest pleasant surprise award. M. de Chaunac and Dieudonne are less heralded than the managers noted above but are every bit as deserving. They’ve toiled either in support classes or in the shadows, as with Mazda. Their move to the forefront will be that much more important in 2002 when they will challenge again for overall honors.

Courage. Like all the other Judd runners, the Gache team made unexpectedly little headway. That’s not saying that the V-10 was the cause of problems for all, but its longevity over 24 hours does deserve review. As to Pecarolo, yet another wizard has emerged. Unfortunately, now that there is more than one factory team at the fore his fortunes have slipped, but certainly the local equipe’s plucky attitude deserves great favor.

Dome and Ascari. Both marques suffered from the old adage about Le Mans that the object is not to go fast, but to stay out of the pits. However, they all proved a point and have every reason to be hopeful for next year. Some ELMS or FIA SCC tune-ups remain in their future.

Panoz and Cadillac. They were embarrassments among the many American attempts that have been made at Le Mans. At least for the former it can be said that the handwriting was on the wall well before the event. The LMP07 is a flawed design all-around and the team deserves credit for persevering with an increasingly hopeless endeavor. But what are Cadillac’s excuses? Don’t they realize that success at this formidable event takes commitment? Either make the move or move out.

LMP 675:
The reality of the ROC team’s win is that they were just a shade above walking wounded. This shouldn’t take away from their effort, it just points to the inherent weakness of the class for the second year running. MG demonstrated that the cars need not be slow, but none of the teams can find reliability. The VW or Lehman or whatever it is seems like a solid motor, but there are questions about the small Judd and the MG, Nissan, AER, or whatever that thing is. The Pilbeam was merely an unfortunate victim of circumstances, but it probably should remain in the FIA SCC.

The Viper challenge was particularly hurt by the early rain, but it gave us one of the highlights of the race in Terrien’s fight to haul the FFSA car back around. It seems that either 12 hours is the limit of the Saleen’s endurance or its Sebring performance was a bit of a fluke. In any case, the car and especially the engine needs more work.

Corvette turned out to be another embarrassment. They were handed the class win on a platter and put a black mark on it with a less than sporting gesture of garaging the cars. Hey guys, this is endurance racing. Tell the drivers to ease up and stay out of trouble. They’re all quite capable of doing that.

For the second year running the best contest was in the lowliest class. This is both very good and somewhat unfortunate. The attention of the world is always at the front of the field and there they would become rapidly bored. But once you turned to this end of the grid, excitement could be found. The only disappointment here was the Larbre car that is usually in the fracas until the end. The new teams of Alphand and PK can be proud of a good debut. The Taisan group ended up about where expected, showing that their 2000 victory was somewhat lucky. Perspective also ended up about where they could reasonably be expected to be. The two top finishers both demonstrated some excellent driving. The all-Italian driven Seikel Porsche featured a very seasoned bunch, who learned well at their Daytona win in 2000. For the Freisinger group, the very young Gunnar Jeannette grew up fast as he found himself a worthy mentor to two others less experienced in sports cars than he.

Covering the Race

It was a strange disembodied experience to be sitting at home and following every nuance of the race. Like the true sports car anorak that I am, I had the tv and computer on simultaneously for the duration. Since Seattle is nine hours earlier than Europe, the race ran from 0700 to 0700, meaning that the parade-like early afternoon hours were in the dead of night here. I finally lost it about 2 a.m. with Speedvision and Radio Le Mans blaring away in front of the sofa. Salvador Dali could not have conceived of my dreams. I was in the press room, being ordered by my colleagues to interview Reinhold Joest, because they all just wanted to leave.

As to all the media, you all did a fine job. In a completely constructive manner, here are some comments:

It was the same with Le Mans as with Daytona. This was less flag-to-flag coverage and more like ad-to-ad coverage. We all understand commercial necessity, but isn’t there a better way to package it and how about being a little less repetitious?

One could definitely sense that the team became better as the day progressed, learning from some early mistakes. During the opening hours when the racing was particularly close, they would too often revert to pre-recorded features, missing important on track action. On the other hand, they covered the rain-associated debacles quite well. Speedvision’s night time focus on pit activity was excellent. The biggest revelation was just how good a commentator is Allan McNish. Actually, all the Speedvision regulars are good as well.

My biggest criticism of Speedvision is their focus on the front of the field or on Americans further down the grid. I know that this is a jingoistic pattern seen elsewhere, but much could be gained from a more open mind. For example, if the camera happened to catch one of the Vipers or Porsches, the announcer would state, “Oh there’s one of the Vipers” and then move on. It would be informative to at least state that this or that Viper had hoped to be among the leaders, but . . . Similarly; there was no hint about the closeness of the GT race until the very end. When they began to follow it, there was little context to build upon.

Radio Le Mans.
Exemplary as always. The amount of detail they provided was always insightful and often painted a better picture than did the television images. My criticisms there are that some pre-recorded features would have been useful during the lulls, rather than have the staff go off into babbling or try to create humor out of nothing.

It’s hard to be objective, but it was interesting to use “my” site as the principal written media. The speed with which news was posted was remarkable. On more than one occasion I learned about developments in text before the “live” forms announced them. The same is true of the photos. The reports also had a cadence that made them thrilling and a joy to read. I wholly concur with the editor’s decision to de-emphasize tabular information. That, but little else, is available on the bog-slow official ACO site.

My only complaint about TMS is that the inevitable fatigue factor became readily visible as the reports became more sparse as the evening wore on. Perhaps a system of relief reporting needs to be enforced — yes, I know, I needed to be there to do that. But damn, TMS’ coverage knocked the socks off of any other cyber-media.

Official website of the Le Mans 24 Hours
Official website of the Le Mans 24 Hours

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