Friday, 17 February 2017

Getting the balance right

Motor sport is not alone in utilising systems of handicapping, and it has done so, in various forms, for a long time. I see no particular problem with this – provided that the mechanisms are understood, and that participants understand what is going on. People tend not to think of horse racing or golf as being ‘impure’ compared to football or cricket, just because there is (quite literally I suppose) a level playing field.

But these days, it seems that the particular phrase ‘Balance of Performance’ has crept up on us, and is, to an extent I fear, spoiling some avenues of our sport. It should not be – although occasionally it is – confused with Equivalence of Technology, which is used by the FIA in an endeavour to ensure that different types of fuel and hybrid system can compete together in the World Endurance Championship.

The particular Balance of Performance that is (perhaps) going wrong at the moment, is that which is trying to bring cars with quite widely differing potential performance into a situation in which they will produce similar lap times, by virtue of adding weight, constraining the amount of air that can get into the engine, reducing turbo boost, and a variety of other measures.

Often, this can lead to some extremely close – and hence exciting – racing. Indeed, I take my metaphorical hat off to those technical arbiters that rule on such matters, because often we have had exhilarating races purely because the ‘balance’ has been just right. Not just between two types of car, either, but frequently between half-a-dozen or more.

The trouble is, of course, that because we see the act of balancing being performed so well, we tend to expect it to be done perfectly all the time. If the races are a little unrepresentative of reality as a result – ‘fake’ might be an inappropriate word to use – then nobody really minds, provided they have been entertaining.

In my opinion, there have been two occasions recently where the balance has not been right, and I draw attention to that here not to apportion any blame, but to show how important it is to get right.

The first was Daytona during the Rolex 24 hours, when the nascent Daytona Prototype International (DPi) class cars were competing against cars from the FIA WEC’s LMP2 category. Although LMP2 cars have been competing at Daytona since 2014, this was the first year of the ‘new’ Gibson-engined chassis, and of course the DPi cars were all brand-new and hence also rather unknown quantities. It was thus always going to be a difficult call.

There were twelve cars in the Prototype class, split 7-5 between DPi and LMP2. Among the DPi’s were three Cadillacs, two Mazdas and two Nissans. Representing the LMP2 brigade were three Orecas, a Ligier and a Riley. The Cadillac was powered by a 6.2 litre normally-aspirated V8, the Mazda had a 2-litre turbo from AER, and the Nissans were powered by a 3.8 litre twin-turbo V6. The LMP2 Gibson engine is a 4.2 litre, normally-aspirated V8.

Off-the-record, I was told that IMSA’s objective in balancing this wide range of configurations was to attempt to limit the DPi machinery to the fastest of the LMP2 cars. Previously, of course, we have seen that Daytona is not really typical of the rest of the IMSA calendar. Daytona is an unabashed ‘power’ circuit and no-one really expected anything other than a DPi to be the fastest. What was to my mind surprising, though, was that no attempt appeared to have been made to balance the individual DPi's – with the result that the Cadillacs were embarrassingly fast.

The touchstone statistic for Performance is to take the average of the best 20% of ‘green’ laps, and compare; and that is what is shown in the table below.
Pos No. Car Type Average Lap %age difference
1 10 WTR Cadillac DPi 1m 37.5s 0.00%
2 5 AER Cadillac DPi 1m 37.7s 0.19%
3 90 Visit Florida Riley P2 1m 40.6s 3.17%
4 2 ESM Nissan DPi 1m 40.8s 3.35%
17 22 ESM Nissan DPi 1m 40.5s 3.07%
31 13 Rebellion Oreca P2 1m 38.9s 1.42%
35 52 PR1 Ligier P2 1m 41.2s 3.79%
39 81 DragonSpeed Oreca P2 1m 39.6s 2.08%
40 55 Mazda DPi 1m 41.0s 3.54%

At Bathurst, a week later, the GT3 Performance Balancers were at work. The GTD class at Daytona had been exceedingly well-matched, and this class is equivalent to GT3. Since this was the first round of the Intercontinental GT Challenge (for which the remaining rounds are the Spa 24 hours, the California 8 hours at Laguna Seca and the Sepang 12 hours), this falls to Stéphane Ratel – or at least the organisation that bears his initials.

Here are the same results for the Liqui-Moly 12 hours:
Pos No. Car Top
Average Lap %age difference
1 88 Ferrari 280.3 km/h 2m 04.1s 0.00%
2 12 Porsche 279.2 km/h 2m 05.2s 0.88%
3 17 Bentley 284.7 km/h 2m 05.7s 1.30%
4 912 Porsche 278.2 km/h 2m 07.7s 2.89%
5 1 McLaren 280.3 km/h 2m 04.6s 0.42%
6 32 Lamborghini 281.4 km/h 2m 05.9s 1.41%
7 3 Audi 278.2 km/h 2m 06.6s 2.01%
8 24 Nissan 282.5 km/h 2m 05.2s 0.90%
9 9 Audi 276.1 km/h 2m 07.0s 2.35%
10 29 Lamborghini 275.0 km/h 2m 07.2s 2.46%
13 22 Mercedes 276.0 km/h 2m 05.0s 0.74%

Normally, I would say that anything over 1% is a significant margin. That means about a second a lap at Daytona, or 1.25s at Bathurst. In either case that means that over 100 laps you will be lapped – purely on the basis of pace. At Daytona, there were over 500 green laps, at Bathurst almost 250. Surely a reasonable BoP would attempt to get everyone on the same lap at the end? If the figures from the GT classes in Daytona are anything to go by, this is certainly an achievable aim.

But at Bathurst, only the McLaren was in the same ballpark as Maranello Motorsport’s Ferrari, and even the boys from Woking were looking at a half-second per lap disadvantage. Audi and Lamborghini were hobbled completely out of contention. In defence of the SRO, it is never easy when there is only a singleton entry – as in the case of the Ferrari – since you never quite know to what extent the advantage is due to BoP and how much is due to the team doing a good job.

The danger is, that once the balance is swung too far in one direction, there’s a tendency to over-compensate next time out, particularly when championship points are at stake. Despite this, both Daytona and Bathurst were good, exciting races – what is most important, however, is that the decisions of the technical bodies are respected and that honour and respect is maintained.

Otherwise, it just won’t be cricket, will it?

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Fun with Creventic in the desert

Of the 92 cars that took the start of the 2017 Hankook Dubai 24 hours, 16 were in the A6-Pro class: full-house GT3 cars unconstrained by limitations on lap time and driven by a mix of drivers classified as Pro, Semi-Pro and Am. Creventic’s regulations require each car to have a maximum of two Pro drivers and a minimum of one Am driver, with the Pro drivers not being allowed to drive for more than a total of twelve hours, and the Am driver(s) having to complete a minimum of two hours. The classification of drivers is specific to Creventic, but is broadly based on the FIA’s Platinum, Gold, Silver and Bronze, with Platinum and Gold drivers being defined as Pro, Silver as Semi-Pro and everyone else as Am.

The A6-Am class requires teams to lap outside the “minimum reference lap time” of 2m 03s (or 2m 05s if in the so-called AM-BOP advantage sub-class). Often this has proved a recipe for success in overall terms – Hofor Racing having come home fourth overall last year, and Dragon Racing’s Am-class Ferrari having finished on the overall podium in 2015. This year’s race was different in that respect, though. The first six cars in the overall classification were all in the A6-Pro class.

The top six consisted of three Porsches, two Audis and a Mercedes, the only other contenders for the win, Lamborghini, having fallen by the wayside with various problems. In the end, it was not a nail-biting finish, the main point of interest in the closing stages being the fight for second place between the Manthey Porsche and the second-string (no. 3) Black Falcon Mercedes. That’s not to say it was a race without interest; with strategy, tactics and incidents aplenty throughout the race to hold the attention.

Famously, the Herberth Porsche 991 GT3-R had Brendon Hartley on its driving strength, and once again the plain white Porsche was a picture of perfection – not only running faultlessly for the entire 24 hours, but also running fast enough to match the lap times of all but the Black Falcon Mercedes AMG GT3s. Its victory was well-deserved.

It was no real surprise to see Hartley slotting in smoothly, without disrupting the low-key approach of the team. The World Endurance star neither hid from nor hogged the limelight, and seemed to revel in the whole experience. Arguably, the race fell to Herberth as a result of two incidents on the track, which significantly delayed its two chief rivals. The more significant occurred just before dawn, when Khaled Al Qubaisi took the wheel, for the first time, of the no. 2 Black Falcon Mercedes that had been right at the front of the field up until that point. Contact on the 11th lap of Khaled’s stint inflicted sufficient damage to the AMG to render it hors de combat for the remaining seven hours of the race.

Much earlier in the race – in fact after just three hours had elapsed – Otto Klohs, in the Manthey Porsche, was on his first ‘out’ lap when he had a coming-together, resulting in a delay returning to the pit and an unscheduled pit stop while repairs were affected (and no doubt the driver’s confidence was restored).

Psychological factors aside, the incident on the track and Klohs’ lap back to the pits cost it around 40s, and the repairs cost a further 1m 20s. Taking account of the Code-60 under which the stop took place, the total time lost (compared to the Herberth Porsche, which was at that point behind the Manthey car) was around 2m 30s. Herberth’s winning margin was two laps, or 4m 46s, so to say that the incident cost them the race is probably over-egging the pudding somewhat, but at least they might have been able to challenge, and exert some pressure on the (unflappable) Herberth crew.

Whatever the ‘what ifs’ and ‘maybes’ were, the true strength on Herberth Motorsport’s side is their consistency. The balance of the driving line-up is far better than most of their competitors. For Herberth, unlike Black Falcon, the drive time regulations seem to have no impact at all on the strategy.

It is always interesting to compare the driving times of the individual drivers in each crew, and this is shown below. Hopefully the colour-coding helps.

Finally, a look at lap times. For the purposes of the tables below, I show both the best lap achieved by each driver in each of the top six cars, and also their “best stint” time. This is derived by taking the average lap time for the stint by ignoring the ‘in’ lap, the ‘out’ lap and any laps affected by Code-60. I have also, for this purpose, ignored the opening stint for each car, since the three or four laps of traffic-free running skews the average significantly. Inevitably, however, this leads to some averages being from a much smaller sample than others, and of course the track conditions change over the course of the race, so I am aware that some of the figures may be misleading. Nevertheless, the comparisons are interesting.

911 Herberth Porsche Best Lap Best Stint Ave
Daniel Alleman 2m 01.310s 2m 03.6s
Ralf Bohn 2m 01.808s 2m 04.2s
Robert Renauer 1m 59.516s 2m 02.4s
Alfred Renauer 2m 01.506s 2m 03.1s
Brendon Hartley 2m 00.514s 2m 02.1s
12 Manthey Porsche Best Lap Best Stint Ave
Otto Klohs 2m 05.092s 2m 06.3s
Jochen Krumbach 2m 01.534s 2m 03.8s
Matteo Cairoli 2m 00.077s 2m 02.1s
Sven Müller 2m 00.321s 2m 02.3s
3 Black Falcon Mercedes Best Lap Best Stint Ave
Abdulaziz Al Faisal 2m 00.942s 2m 03.5s
Hubert Haupt 2m 00.979s 2m 02.1s
Yelmer Buurman 1m 59.198s 2m 02.4s
Maro Engel 2m 00.194s 2m 02.5s
Michal Broniszewski 2m 03.108s 2m 04.9s

As always, I am happy to hear your comments, so do let me know if you have any!

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Looking back on the 2016 WEC season - LMP1

The 2016 World Endurance Championship was closely contested between three manufacturer teams: Porsche, Audi and Toyota. In 2015, Toyota had a pretty rotten season, it being clear early on that the car simply wasn’t quick enough, and attention turned to the development of a car that would be better able to contend against the two siblings from Germany. Whether or not Toyota succeeded is not necessarily as easy a question to answer as it might seem, as a look at the championship positions is really too simplistic.

Similarly, one might argue that Audi came into 2016 with a significantly upgraded version of its R18 e-tron quattro; a car that was fast, but fragile, and one that failed to do itself justice over the course of the season.

I have had many such discussions with people since the season ended in Bahrain last year, and – as is my wont – I have spent some time trying to work out how best to answer these questions objectively, using the data that I have managed to collect over the season.

I would like to think that, if you are reading this, you might also have read my piece about Aston Martin’s season in the GTE-Pro class, and how it was affected by the Endurance Committee’s decisions in their attempts to Balance Performance. It is here if you haven’t.

In any case, the method that I use there, and that I am going to use in this analysis, is to base an assumption that a car’s outright performance can be judged by looking not at its single fastest lap in the race, but in the average of the best 20% of green laps in the race. Taking the best car in each race by this measure, and then comparing the competition as a percentage against this, reveals how much slower each car was, relative to the best.

Over the whole season, this data looks like this:

(I know, this is far too small to read... click on the image, to make it bigger!)

Also, in preparing these numbers, I have taken only the better-performing car from each manufacturer. At Silverstone, the figures for the no. 1 Porsche, the no. 5 Toyota and the no. 8 Audi are based only on the first green period before the FCY.

A common assertion these days is that endurance racing is a sprint, from start to finish. There is no room for taking things easy, for looking after the machinery. In the pits, there is not a lot to separate the teams. It is all down to the quickest driver and the quickest car. Well, yes it is; but that doesn’t tell the whole story either. If it did, then the results of each race would reflect the graph shown above.

To make this easy to compare, I show below the finishing positions of the best car from each of Porsche, Toyota and Audi in each race.

The obvious conclusion from this is that only Le Mans and Bahrain provided race results that were true representations of the performance of the cars in each race. And anyone who was at Le Mans will know that the result of that race was hardly what had been expected either.

This view is too simplistic though, since the finishing position does not show the relative distance between cars at the end of the race. Instead, we should look at this, which shows the average speed over the whole race, as a percentage of the winner.

This shows much better how close the races were, particularly in the latter part of the season. In the first two races of the season, Audi was able to convert its performance advantage into victories. At Le Mans though, the “car with the four rings” was simply not fast enough. Their podium at the Circuit de la Sarthe only came at Toyota’s misery. It is interesting though, that Toyota had a car that was not as quick as the Porsche. Although Toyota had a clear performance disadvantage at Mexico, the margin by which they lost the race was very small.

After Le Mans, the performance of Audi (in particular, the number 8 car) was outstanding: in terms of speed, the car was only beatable at Mexico and Shanghai. The fact that this was not translated into victories is evidence that there is still – thank heavens – more to winning a race that just being fast. The points table could have looked rather different if Audi had capitalised on these performance advantages.

The fact that the performance graphs are so different from the finishing position and race speed graphs underlines the fact that there is more to the WEC than speed alone. Drivers are correct when they give credit to the team for success. And having fast drivers and a fast car is not enough to win titles, as Audi has proved in 2016.

Creating a winning squad is an art – the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It will be interesting to see who has put the pieces together most effectively in 2017.

Friday, 23 December 2016

Looking back on the 2016 WEC season - GTE-Pro

Over the course of the 2016 WEC season, I became increasingly dissatisfied as ever more adjustments were made to the GTE-Pro class Balance of Performance parameters. I have a great deal of respect for the technical wizards that work out how these parameters should be set in order to ensure good, competitive racing, but the fact that nearly every race was presaged by a missive from the Endurance Committee announcing further adjustments, smacked to me less of balancing and more of a handicap system based on previous performances.

The extent to which these were the result of lobbying by various manufacturers cannot fully be known. However, the fuss before the Le Mans 24-hour race this year, which resulted in the very awkward precedent being set of a new list of parameters being issued after qualifying, left little doubt that there was much to-ing and fro-ing going on between the representatives of the teams and the ACO.

Now that the curtain has come down on the season, the trophies have been awarded, and the dust has settled, it might be an appropriate moment to reflect on the season. The World Endurance Cup for GT Manufacturers was won by Ferrari ahead of Aston Martin, with just 7 points separating them. The Cup for GT Drivers wasn’t quite so close, but put the balance back to the British firm, with Aston Martin drivers Marco Sørensen and Nicki Thiim taking the champions’ trophy ahead of Ferrari drivers Davide Rigon / Sam Bird and Gianmaria Bruni / James Calado.

In a sense, then, honours were roughly even. But how much was that down to the teams and the drivers, and how much due to the Endurance Committee bulletins?

Throughout the WEC season, I measure the performance of each of the GTE-Pro cars by comparing the average of the best 20% of green flag laps in each race. Taking the best in each race as 100%, I then see where the other cars lie as a percentage of the best. To minimise the impact of different drivers, I merely take the better car in each race from each manufacturer. For Aston Martin, the picture looks like this:

At first sight, the fact that the Astons were victorious on three occasions, (at Mexico, COTA and Bahrain) matches fairly well with those races when their cars were the fastest. At the Nürburgring, the best that Thiim and Sørensen could salvage was third place behind the two Ferraris, despite having the fastest car.

But this ignores those Balance of Performance adjustments. To take everything into account here would be far too complicated – and probably beyond my capability – so I am going to simplify matters. For Aston Martin, there are two principal parameters that are used to affect their performance: the weight and the diameter of the orifice allowing air into the engine. Obviously, the greater the weight, the slower the car will be, and the larger the orifice, the faster the car will go. So I have combined these two figures for each race throughout the season into a single “performance factor”, taking the inverse of the weight and multiplying by the air restrictor size.

Looking only at the performance factors for Aston Martin, here’s what it looks like for each race:

Remarkably similar to the results graph, isn’t it? To my mind, this merely demonstrates that for most of the season, Aston Martin’s results were due as much to BoP adjustments as they were to any efforts of the team or drivers and I don’t mean any offence to any of them by that. The only anomalies are in the final two races of the season, where in Shanghai, the team seems to have under-performed, and in Bahrain, where they did surprisingly well.

As I already mentioned, partly the problem is that I have over-simplified matters. In Shanghai, the Ford GTs had the upper hand, as the Ferraris were handicapped with boost pressure restrictions. Similar limits were then applied to Ford for the final round at Bahrain, along with 20kg more weight. As a result, in the season finale, the no. 97 Aston Martin (in the hands of Darren Turner and Jonny Adam) was measurably quicker than the champions elect in the no. 95, and it is this car that shows the big boost in the final round. I suspect that Thiim/Sørensen were by this stage unconsciously driving with restraint, knowing that the drivers’ championship was in the bag.

Apart from the fact that there is an implication here that the FIA/ACO was merely chasing to catch up with the progress being made at Ferrari, Ford and Aston Martin, what seems wrong is that the organisation seemed to control the destiny of the trophies. I mentioned already that the adjustments between qualifying and race at Le Mans might be taken to set a precedent. What was particularly galling was that the ACO admitted that Ford had been hiding the true potential of their car from the scrutineers; an offence that went unpunished in all the re-adjustments to the performance parameters.

At the Spa 24 hours, Mercedes was accused of similar offences, and paid the penalty of a five-minute stop/go penalty to be served in the first hour of the race. Some red faces in board rooms no doubt ensued.

The problem with graphs like the ones on this page is that they do not really help racing teams in their pursuit of perfection. It may help encourage other manufacturers to take the plunge and enter the championship, but I am not sure whether it is then for the right reasons. I rather hope that 2016 has not set a precedent, and that “Decisions of the Endurance Committee” are somewhat fewer and further between in 2017.

For those who want them, here are the numbers behind the graphs above.
Venue Result Speed (%age) Weight (kg) Restrictor (mm)
Silverstone 3rd 98.77 1233 29.8
Spa 3rd 99.14 1213 29.8
Le Mans 5th 99.35 1183 29.4
Nürburgring 3rd 100 1183 29.8
Mexico 1st 100 1183 29.8
Austin 1st 99.88 1183 29.4
Fuji 5th 99.56 1183 29.0
Shanghai 4th 99.39 1183 29.2
Bahrain 1st 99.96 1183 29.2

Oh, and before I forget, Merry Christmas one and all!

Monday, 19 December 2016

‘That Horrid Motor Track’

Lack of time prevented me from writing about a splendid day out spent earlier this year at Brooklands, in the company of Charles Dressing and Paul Tarsey. We were hosted by the ever-enthusiastic and knowledgeable Allan Winn, the CEO of the Brooklands Trust, which looks after the Museum and the site.

The phrase ‘looks after’ hardly does justice to what Allan does – Brooklands is in the process of a grand plan for re-engineering, which will include a restoration of the Finishing Straight. If you are at all interested, I suggest you visit the website and then arrange a visit for yourself. You surely won’t be disappointed.

However, while digging through my memorabilia shortly afterwards, I came across the following, which was sent to me (I forget by whom) more than forty years ago. It is from a diary written in 1907, and apart from its content, I just love the period feel of the prose.

We went down to the Barnes’s at Fox Holm near Weybridge. Mr and Mrs Locke King came to dinner. They have been building this awful motor track and are so hated by their neighbours, many of whose houses they have simply ruined, that hardly anyone will speak to them. I was rather uncertain whether I had better go and see this horrid motor track, but as they offered to take me in the Fox Warren motor I thought it would be stupid of me not to go. I was well rewarded for going by having a nice talk with Mrs Wilfred Ward, the clever Roman Catholic (formerly Miss Hope Scott) who has written novels (One Small Scruple, Out of Due Time, and others). I made her acquaintance, first at Mrs Cave’s, at Ditcham, long ago.

The motor track is a perfect nightmare. It has cost more than £150,000 to construct; a great oval of cement 60-100 yards wide and more than 2½ miles round. It is for motor races. Within it stands a ruined farm and cut down trees, mere desolation. A more unenjoyable place to come to on a hot Sunday afternoon I cannot imagine. The beautiful Surrey landscape looks down into this purgatory of motor stables and everything that motors require, seats for thousands of spectators cut in the side of the hill. There were some twenty of these snorting beasts, and Mr and Mrs Locke King were there looking most depressed. But as she offered to drive me round in her motor I got boldly in and sat by her on the ‘box’. She put it to 43 miles an hour – I felt my eyes pressed in by the air at that terrific speed, and I could hardly breathe. I went round again in the Fox Warren motor, much slower. I find I don’t care to ‘go round’ – what I like are the lanes and roads and views, and the getting to one’s destination so quickly and easily. The enormous size of the arena, almost like a great Roman work, and the controlled strength of the motors, prevents this great horrid place from being vulgar. I might have felt differently last week when 20,000 spectators arrived, and 1,200 motors. No wonder the neighbours thirst for Locke King’s blood.
From A Victorian Diarist: later extracts from the journals of Mary, Lady Monkswell, edited by the Hon. E C F Collier, 1946

Which goes to show that you cannot please all the people all the time. Sadly, Lady Monkswell died in 1930, but I wonder whether she was ever won over to the sport? I fear probably not. Now if they would have visited Le Mans, it might have been a different story...

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Reflecting on the state we’re in

It had to happen, I suppose. It was inevitable that a major manufacturer would withdraw from the World Endurance Championship at some point. But in my view, the bombshell that Audi dropped when it announced its intention to withdraw from the championship at the end of the current season, is not as severe as the one that Peugeot dropped when it pulled out at the beginning of 2012. At that time, remember, the FIA had only recently launched their World Endurance Championship, and the title that Peugeot and Audi had been fighting over was the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup, the final round of which the French manufacturer had won, with a dominant 1-2 victory by a lap over the nearest opposition.

In January 2012, the latest 908 HDI was already at Sebring, ready for testing, when the plug was pulled on the racing programme, leaving a large number of racing folk with uncertain futures, to say nothing of a gaping hole in the championship. By June 2012, two Toyotas had been hastily prepared to lend some respectability to the grid for Le Mans and in 2014, Porsche arrived with the immediately-competitive 919 Hybrid. And ever since, we’ve been treated to some of the best racing ever seen at such a high level of the sport.

But to put this into context, let us not forget that in 2003, 2004 and 2005 Joest Racing was not present at Le Mans (although obviously various team personnel were involved in the race). On the other hand, readers may remember 1996 and 1997, when the team cobbled together an entry for Le Mans – and ended up winning – with the WSC95 Porsche.

Joest Racing certainly has access to several R18s in their workshop, including a non-hybrid ultra that ran in 2012. Although it would be five years old next year, it would probably still be able to carry off the Privateers’ trophy. If Joest is going to continue to be involved in the World Endurance Championship, it is going to have to find some funding from somewhere. It wouldn’t be the first time. Think back to various Porsches 956s and 962s entered by Joest in the eighties – they had some substantial sponsorship packages. Don’t forget that Reinhold was a successful driver in the past. He didn’t get there by paying all his own bills. There may also be those in the Audi AG boardroom who would welcome the opportunity to see some “four rings” branding at Le Mans in 2017.

Racing goes in cycles. It always has. Periods of strength are followed by periods of weakness. And the period of weakness for which we are now headed is only relative. So I am not about to turn away from sportscar racing - I think there will be some great races next year. Nevertheless, I thought I would add my few thoughts here to those of everyone else who has written or spoken on the subject.

The first thing to say is that no-one in my circle of contacts has really expressed surprise at Audi’s decision to withdraw. Rumours that it was to happen at the end of 2017 were increasing and no-one denies that what Audi has been this year is nothing like the force that it was even as recently as two or three years ago.

Secondly, I do not believe that it is necessarily a good thing if endurance races are without fail close, exciting races with side-by-side racing and close finishes. Such is not the nature of the beast, and if those in control have such an aim, then we are headed in the wrong direction.

Thirdly, getting more manufacturers involved in LMP1 is not worth doing if it is not done properly. Whether it is BMW, Peugeot or Ford (all of which I could easily show up with a prototype in the next five years) we must avoid another fiasco like that of Nissan’s LMP1 foray in 2015. Although the episode demonstrated admirably that it is quite hard to do what Porsche and Toyota have done, the Nismo effort failed to deliver much else. The sport needs to get on with what it does and allow nature – or whatever it is that governs these things – to take its course.

Enough of the philosophy though: on a pragmatic level, what’s going to happen in 2017? Well, there are still things to be decided, for sure. The most crucial of those decisions is for Toyota. Take two cars to Le Mans, or three? The arguments given in previous years for only entering two cars are surely still valid? If not, and if the view taken in the Japanese boardroom is that extreme steps must be taken to avert the disappointments of Le Mans 2016, then the incremental cost of a third car is not as much as the potential benefit of having a 50% better chance of getting the car to the finish. Then, although Porsche has been tight-lipped on the subject, surely Weissach will respond with a third Porsche 919 as well? In turn, this would be good news for the ACO – needing to fill 60 garages at Le Mans – as well as for Messrs Jarvis, Tréluyer, Lotterer, Fässler et al.

Otherwise, it is difficult to see where the former Audi drivers might end up. One assumes that Lucas di Grassi and Loïc Duval will occupy themselves with Formula E, but what of the others? Well, I would suggest that they go and have a chat with Nicolas Lapierre. I grant you that LMP2 will look different next year, but I reckon that the Frenchman, who was unceremoniously dumped by Toyota at the end of 2014, might have some interesting thoughts on the competitiveness of the class and how much fun there is to be derived from the racing – if not the financial reward.

It was interesting that the Audi announcement specifically mentioned Formula E as being one of its focus points for the immediate future. While I agree with Gary Watkins in Autosport that the remarks might have been disingenuous, I wonder also whether it means that Daniel Abt’s team might be getting even more resource from Audi next year. Is a Formula E arms race about to start?

Back to endurance racing though. Even if the World Endurance Championship may have suffered a blow with Audi’s withdrawal, there is no sign of any reduction in interest in LMP2, LMP3 or GT racing. Talk of convergence of GTE and GT3 racing has been replaced by arguments about who can provide the best LMP3 racing. GT4 is flourishing on the national level. All in all, things could be a lot worse.

Stéphane Ratel’s Blancpain GT Series has announced a ten round series for 2017 – five for the endurance series, two of which depart from the normal three hours duration - the 1000km race into the night at Paul Ricard, and the showpiece Spa 24 hours, surely one of the highlights of the season.

The Creventic organisation – addressing a somewhat different marketplace from Ratel – is expanding in 2017, with a six-round GT series, featuring three 24-hour races, rounded off by a non-championship 24-hour race at the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas.

Now Creventic doesn’t really target the sort of teams that contend the World Endurance Championship, but nevertheless, if you include the ADAC’s Nürburgring 24 hours, you have six 24-hour races to participate in, if you are so minded, without counting Le Mans or Daytona. With several high-profile 12-hour races as well, is it all too much?

It depends. At the Brno Epilog 24-hour race last month, I had the sense that the culture of a 24-hour race has changed, certainly in the Creventic series. There was a time when nothing would be spared to get the car to the finish, when taking the flag was everything. At Le Mans, that culture still exists. But in some of the ‘lesser’ 24-hour races that we have these days, there is an element of “let’s just pack up and get some sleep”, which was new to me this year. At least in part, I think, that is because we simply have too much of a good thing. It is still special to race through the night, to pit yourself against fatigue and push through to the end, but like many things these days, “it isn’t like it used to be”!

I am put in mind of the athletes that one reads about these days that complete multiple marathons – often on consecutive days. I have nothing but respect for such people, but it is inevitable that by their actions, they devalue the single event. In effect, more is less. Those who have read Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘David and Goliath’ will know the effect of the inverted ‘U’ curve. Oftentimes, more is less.

As always, your comments are welcome!

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Epilog Brno

A relatively disappointing 30 cars are on the provisional entry list for the first ever 24-hour race to be held in the Czech Republic this weekend – the Creventic-organised “Epilog” Brno 24 hours. Originally scheduled to be a 12-hour race, and hence with points being awarded at the half-way point, one briefly wonders what the point is of staying up all night, if there is nothing to play for but the honour?

That said, Creventic has always been about the participation. Their emphasis has been on providing the opportunity to enable enthusiasts to race, rather than on setting up a stage for prima donnas to preen their egos or mercenary ‘win at all costs’ pot-hunters. For sure the championship positions are important, but – I hope – the joy of racing will ensure that a good race to the end takes place.

Last year’s 12-hour Epilog attracted 50 starters, and the lowest number of starters for any of Crevetic’s International Endurance Racing Series races this year has been 43 at Zandvoort. With the cancellation of the Touring Car Endurance Series (TCES) race at Meppen in Germany, Brno has now been nominated as the final points-scoring round of the TCES, but this seems not to have bolstered the entry that much.

The A6 class – for the big GT3 cars – is down to a measly five cars, meaning that the distinction between A6-Pro and A6-Am will this weekend be blurred. In effect, there will be only one class; however, different balances of performance (BOP) will be applied as normal to provide entrants the opportunity to run as “Pro-BOP”, “Am-BOP-advantage” or “Am-BOP-neutral”. The evidence from previous races is that the only way that an “Am-BOP” car can win overall is if all – or should that be both? – the “Pro-BOP” cars strike problems.

That said, I’m hoping that the five cars that we do have will provide some good racing – they certainly provide variety enough with one each of Mercedes, Ferrari, Audi, Porsche and Lamborghini. Favourite in my book has to be the Precote Herberth Motorsport Porsche that has won the last three rounds of the Series in the hands of Alfred and Robert Renauer, Daniel Alleman and Ralf Bohn. The car has been perfectly prepared and the team’s races perfectly executed, so beating them is going to have to be done on pace.

Scuderia Praha has entered its Ferrari 488 GT3 – which, if it races, will be the first time this season that the latest Maranello product has competed in a Creventic-run race. I say if, because it looks to me as though Creventic’s Balance of Performance favours the normally-aspirated 458 GT3 over the turbo-charged 488. Certainly the 458 can match the pace of the 911, but will the 488 be able to repeat the team’s 2015 (12-hour) win this weekend?

If Scuderia Praha doesn’t, then who will? The Grasser Racing Team Lamborghini Huracán is probably the only candidate. The addition of Super GT hotshot Andrea Caldarelli won’t do the team’s chances any harm, but GRT will have to ensure reliability at least as good as the Barwell example managed at Barcelona in September.

Twenty-four hour races are always enthralling though. The challenge of getting to the finish is fascinating to watch, and if – make that when – races break out in the lower classes, for position, or even championship points, it is impossible not to get sucked into the story.

There are five 991 Cup Porsches to fight over class honours and there are three KTM X-Bows (one entered as an SP2 car and the other two in SP3) entered. Only two pukka entries are in each of the A2 and A3 classes, with the two BMW M235 cup cars being absorbed into class A3. but again, variety abounds with Ferrari, Audi, MARC Cars, BMW, Seat, Honda and Peugeot all being represented.

Perhaps the other talking point, as Creventic closes its books on what has been its most successful season so far, is the expansion planned for 2017. The team – or should I say ‘family’, for Creventic is without question the easiest group of people to work with in motor sport – has big plans for 2017, with a seven-round International Endurance Series headlined by GT3 cars, five rounds of the Touring Car Endurance Series as well as a yet-to-be-announced schedule of prototype races, commencing with three three-hour races in Dubai in January.

The world is, unfortunately, littered with examples of successful small enterprises that have grown too quickly, or too much, and have been unable to sustain their success. I sincerely hope that Creventic is not one of them, but the shift from what they currently do very well to what they think they can do sits uncomfortably with me.

And I hope that the relatively small size of the entry at Brno does not become regarded in the future as a symptom that failed to be recognised.