Flat Spot On
by Jonathan Ingram
VIVE THE EVOLUTION
The Le Mans rules have been announced for next year and beyond. They remain as complicated as ever. (Please note the French version is the only official one.) But the rules actually look more like an evolution rather than a radical new direction, even though they clearly leave a trail of green footprints.
So much for those who don't trust the French. After last year's fabulous 24-hour duel between Audi and Peugeot, the organizers at the Automobile Club de l'Ouest have decided not to rush into the green revolution. For once, they're confident that they already control some high ground, given the fact Audi and Peugeot are powered by mute, low-emission diesels.
The more conservative approach makes a lot of sense -- and probably there are some dollars involved as well. Budgets can remain stable. There are no immediate changes required in the prototype ranks that comprise the French race's bread and butter. A repeat of last year's Audi-Peugeot donnybrook is in the cards once again for next June, despite the decimation in the lower ranks that will undoubtedly occur because of the economy.
In the U.S., Honda Performance Development can continue apace with its plans to introduce a new Acura LMP1 to the American Le Mans Series next season with an eye toward competing on French soil at the 24-hour in the 2010 or 2011 seasons.
All the hubbub resulting from the concept broached last year of allowing only closed top prototypes that have the appearance of manufacturer's street cars has been shelved. The manufacturers made it clear to the ACO's organizers that they wanted a choice between open and closed tops. And, the manufacturers made clear the relevance of the Le Mans race to their production cars clearly has more to do with engines and fuel mileage than bodywork.
In this regard, the next big step in the green revolution will be a reduction of engine displacements for all categories, including the diesels, in 2011.
Having learned a lesson or two about too much arrogant dithering with the rules in the not too distant past (such as the concept of LMP2 as a privateer class that became a manufacturer category for Porsche and Acura), the organizers at the ACO appear to have been able to maintain some poise in the face of pressure from participating manufacturers and from the marketplace, which includes arch-rival F1.
In fact, it appears this poise includes the security enjoyed today by the ACO of not having any rival participating in the prototype category outside of the Grand American's Rolex Series, which now ventures only to Canada with the dropping of Mexico City from the schedule.
Exotic departures into anything outside the bio-fuel universe have been set aside by the ACO. A toe has been put in the water to allow hybrids to compete next year as unclassified guests -- but only on a fuel mileage basis. The ACO will restrict the electric power to one seamless system that assists propulsion and reduces fuel consumption by recovering energy from braking.
In other words, the ACO is not tempting fate by allowing a manufacturer to figure out how to use an electric version of "push to pass" to essentially by-pass the air restrictors that currently sustain equality among different engine types.
The easy fix, meanwhile, is in. Cars must carry less fuel in 2009 to help rejuvenate the emphasis on fuel mileage.
The other easy fix concerns safety. To reduce cornering speeds, the wings at the front and rear of all the prototypes will be reduced. To cut down on straightaway speeds, the trim tabs on the rear wing will be a mandatory 20 millimeters.
There are complications, still. The mayor of Le Mans represents the French communist party. Perhaps with a bow in his direction, the ACO continues to make room for the little guy. But not necessarily in the name of equality. The LMP2 category for privateers will continue. But the cars will carry 900 kilos of weight, the same as the LMP1 prototypes. So the privateers will be able to race for their own trophy, but not be able to beat the big boys. And the big boys such as Porsche will not be able to use lighter cars to beat the other big boys.
There is another fillip or two of complication. Production engines of up to 7.0 liters will be allowed into the LMP1 prototype category next season. If memory serves me correctly, this will be the first time an engine of such hefty displacement will be eligible in the prototypes since A.J. Foyt and Dan Gurney won for Ford in 1967. (Reduced to a 5.0 liter maximum the following year, the American "big blocks" thus scared the French for 40 years.)
In the GT classes, the manufacturers have embraced GT2 as the place to fight for market share against each other at a reasonable cost (which includes selling cars to privateers). The ACO has simply rebalanced the weight and air restrictor charts. The expensive GT1 will survive one more year at least in the form of Corvette vs. Aston Martin before the Corvette factory team slots into GT2.
How will the American Le Mans Series modify the ACO rules for its races? Don't look for the weight of LMP2 cars to move all the way up to 900 kilos. And, maybe, the push to pass on hybrids will come to pass.
Jonathan Ingram can be reached at email@example.com.