The Le Mans 24 Hours used to have its own equivalent of the Indianapolis 500's 'Bump Day' in the late 1990s. But does pre-qualifying have a place in the modern era? Jamie Klein investigates.
This year’s Indy 500 is likely to be remembered in years to come less for Simon Pagenaud’s stunning victory than for who failed to make the race at all – namely Fernando Alonso.
Kyle Kaiser, driving for underdog outfit Juncos Racing, bumping Alonso and the mighty McLaren out of the Indy field perfectly typified the excitement and unpredictability of ‘Bump Day’, as it proved again that no team or driver can take the privilege of making the field at Indy for granted.
But, dear reader, imagine a scenario whereby the powers that be simply decided, of the 36 entries received for this year’s 500, which 33 would make the start. That wouldn’t be much fun, would it?
That’s essentially what happens in the Le Mans 24 Hours, a race that is regularly oversubscribed, meaning that the Automobile Club de l’Ouest has the final say on who makes the cut and who is left on the sidelines. Of the 75 entry requests for this year’s race, 10 initially had to be content with a slot on the reserve list, with five missing out altogether, before two more cars were later admitted.
But it wasn’t always like that. In fact, during the mid-to-late 1990s, Le Mans had something close to its own equivalent of Indy’s ‘Bump Day’ in the form of a pre-qualifying test.
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This was first used in 1995, when the ACO received a whopping 99 entry requests for that year’s contest. Of these, 19 were given direct entry into qualifying, while another 50 (plus six reserves) were invited to take part in a special test day on April 30, a full seven weeks before the race.
With only 48 spots being available on the grid in those days, that left just 29 places (divided up proportionally between the various classes) available for the 50 cars present to fight for in pre-qualifying – a brutal culling by anybody’s standards.
By the time pre-qualifying was used for the final time in 1999, things had got a little easier for the minnows. Again, 48 cars would make the race, but this time only five were given automatic byes, and the same number would be removed from the equation ahead of race week.
Those cars would be the last ones to fail to pre-qualify for Le Mans. In 2000, at the behest of the FIA, the ACO went back to the old method of simply choosing who would make the grid and who wouldn’t.
Pre-qualifying went back to being a plain old test day, and although it attracted 52 entries, it was the organiser, and not the stopwatch, that ultimately decided on the final make-up of the 48-car grid.
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And that’s how it’s stayed ever since. Most years, the selection process has been uncontroversial, but this year United Autosports was left upset at not being awarded a second entry to go with its auto-invite before the ACO’s last-minute to decision to build two extra temporary pit garages.
Similarly, IMSA and IndyCar team owner Michael Shank was reported to be “befuddled” to find his fully-funded, professionally-crewed LMP2 effort listed all the way down in ninth place on the reserve list, with next to no chance of being promoted to the entry list proper.
Given this situation, would a pre-qualifying session not be a much fairer way of determining, to borrow a phrase from Indy parlance, who makes the show?
A modern-day pre-qualifying would almost certainly not be as straightforward as those of the 1990s, however. For starters, the viability of the WEC partially depends on being able to award guaranteed Le Mans entries, so for this year that’s 34 of the available 62 grid slots spoken for already.
The other main difference today is that back in 1999 there was no European Le Mans Series or Asian Le Mans Series, both of which have four auto-invites to hand out. Throw in the two ‘at-large’ IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship invites, as well as one for winning the Michelin Le Mans Cup, and that’s another 11 entries pre-determined, leaving just 17 places to fight for.
If those were divided proportionally among the classes, counting the non-automatic entries and those consigned to the reserve list, there would be 11 LMP2s gunning for eight slots on the grid, seven GTE Pro cars competing for five slots and five GTE Ams scrapping over three slots. All in all, six entries would not make the grade – including, interestingly, at least one full factory Pro car.
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On the face of it, this seems like a perfectly fair way to decide how to ration the scarce resource of Le Mans grid slots. Plus, what has reverted to being a low-key test day would become a lot more exciting for fans, whetting their appetite perfectly for race week.
And yet, the chances of this ever happening are probably somewhere between slim and non-existent.
The main reason is harsh economic reality: the cost of assembling a programme even in GTE Am is much higher than it was 20 years ago, and a prospective team or driver being uncertain of whether they would be on the grid at Le Mans until test day would be off-putting for all but the very richest.
Moving the test/pre-qualifying day earlier in the calendar would alleviate that issue to a degree, allowing drives to be sold more easily once the car is qualified, but make the gap between it and race week too large and you lose the dividend of fan interest. Bump Day wouldn’t have the same impact at Indy if it was held in April, rather than the week before the race.
Plus, the cost to a team of lodging an entry and just being told ‘no’ at the start of the year is a lot lower than that of turning up at test day and then failing to qualify, even if the current method results in the occasional questionable call. And if too many prospective entrants were put off by the risk of not making the race, it could become a self-defeating exercise.
If the number of total entry requests were to dip below 63 in future, then simply there would be enough grid slots for everyone – and nobody would be ‘bumped’.
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It’s worth noting that pre-qualifying was a part of the Le Mans landscape at a peculiar time in the race’s history. Group C had collapsed at the end of 1993, prompting the ACO to open its doors to genuine road-going GT cars and causing the number of entry requests to swell rapidly.
In 1995 there was no WEC to speak of; only the BPR GT Series (which later became FIA GT) provided a stable home for would-be Le Mans entrants in Europe. Most of the cars entered for Le Mans were therefore genuine one-offs, and the costs associated with such efforts are inevitably lower than the full-season ELMS and ALMS entries that mostly fill out the grid today.
That brings us on to the main reason that pre-qualifying isn’t really needed these days. The ELMS and ALMS (and to some extent IMSA) themselves act as filters, guiding the ACO in the selection process. Loyalty to, and success in, these series is usually rewarded with Le Mans grid slots.
Contrast that with the explosion of GT entries from unproven teams and cars in 1995, when a pre-qualifying session to help sort the wheat from the chaff made a lot more sense.
Perhaps if the FIA hadn’t intervened in 2000, pre-qualifying at Le Mans would have blossomed into a tradition as loved as Indy’s ‘Bump Day’. And perhaps in a future age where a much smaller proportion of the grid is guaranteed an entry, there would be some logic in reintroducing it.
But in the current landscape of sportscar racing, it’s simply too impractical – and arguably unnecessary.
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