Tuesday, June 19

Circuit De La Sarthe

The 24-Hours of Le Mans couldn't have been more anti-climactic than for it to end under rain conditions. I'd watched a collective 14 hours of the historic race before I finally succumbed to sleep at around midnight but with a sort of vigorous anticipation for the finale. If i didn't have to play basketball the next day, i might have toughed it out on the couch overnight with a pot of fresh coffee to fuel my motor. My alarm blared like a siren at 4 am local time (about 10 am in Le Mans, France) and i jumped out of bed full of excitement, only to find the Prototypes and Sports Cars parading behind the Safety Car in the rain (it was raining so much it was deemed unsafe to race).

Prototypes and Sports Cars... I think thats where the beauty of the Le Mans Endurance Racing series really lies. The draw are the Racing Cars themselves unlike Nascar. By contrast, the Nascar drivers are much much larger characters than the race cars themselves (Alright alright in F1, Michael Schumacher you could argue was bigger than Ferrari. But do you think the hordes of Ferrari fans would have remained Schumi fans had he moved to Mclaren midway through his 5 Championships with Ferrari? Enough said!!). While that is not necessarily bad, i think its a bit of a turn off for the purist. The Race Cars retain nothing from its original manufactured versions, not even the engine block is spared. Who likes that? Nascar has become such a far cry from what it was originally billed as, "stock car" racing... In Sports Car racing, the cars are revered as much as the drivers themselves and i think that is the true spirit of Motor Racing. Let me put it this way, does anyone remember what kind of Car Richard Petty drove in his record seven Nascar Championships? You may remember the make but i doubt you could name the model. Richard Petty "The King" was just too big a personality. Now, i am willing to bet my LCD-HDTV (lets throw in my HD DVD player and HD DVD collection in there too for good measure...) that most, at least the true racing fans, will remember what kind of car AJ Foyt drove when he won the 24 Hours of Le Mans, 40 years ago... Moreover, sports cars are upgraded mostly for Safety Reasons and retain most of it's underpinnings (and some Performance). It is a more, shall i say 'realistic' form of racing. People tend to relate to this type of racing better because even though they can not afford to own Corvettes, at least they see it on their local roads. It's like that Porn thing, you always wish it was that hottie next-door-neighbor instead of Jenna Jameson on the screen. Uhmm, right. Sorry for the digression... I think its a great compliment too that Prototype Racing is running alongside the Sports Cars concurrently, even though the chasm between car performance is so vast. Yes, concurrently! Extremely unsafe you might imagine? It is, but these are professional race car drivers so everything looks sort of synchronized. When a Porsche GT3 is approaching a corner at 175 MPH and a 1200 Horse-Power Prototype like the intimidating Audi R10 TDI sling-shots around the Porsche into that same corner, your eyes bulge while you hold your breath as you expect a catastrophe to happen... But it never unfolds!

The drama was in full swing by Hour # 16 (this was at 10 pm PST, Saturday). One of the perennial winners in the LMP1 (Le mans Protocol 1), the Audi R10 TDI (formerly the R8, winner of five out of the last 6 24 Hours of Le Mans), lost its left rear, sending it careening into the tire barriers at 175 MPH (15 hours before this they also lost another one of the R10's). This left Audi with only one car in the Race and at risk of losing the Race for the first time since joining the series in 2000 (they finished 2nd in 2003 to Team Bentley, a car propelled by a Audi Motor). Surprisingly, i felt commiseration for Audi. I'm still not sure why. I suppose i hate to see dynasties get toppled? Eventually though, at 6 am on that Sunday Morning (around noon in France), the only remaining R10 hydroplaned itself to a rain-soaked win, covering a distance of over 3150 miles. The Aston Martin DBR9 finally vanquished the mighty Corvette C6R in the GT1 class, and its been a long time coming for this promising British Team. Man that must have felt really good for the Brits too because that good old American push-rod V8 has been kickin' their butts for quite some time now. In the the GT2 class on the other hand, well, another win yet for the Porsche Team...

Still, i have to say, this Audi domination over the last 7 years, impressive as it is, is without a real notable win. Seriously, who have they defeated? Team Pescarolo of France hardly qualifies as formidable (although becoming promising). They have never won the 24 Race and the sad irony of it all is that they are situated in the same City in which the Race is named after (Le Mans, France). Is Cadillacs foray to the 24 Race in 2002 even worth mentioning? And oh, not many Racing fans know this rather important bit of information about Audi's incredible success; that in 1998, after the Porsche 911 GT1 Dominated the field in the 24 hour Race, beating out the likes of these former and future Le Mans winners, Ferrari 333SP, Panoz GTR1, McLaren F1 GTR (based on the fasted production car ever built) BMW S70 V12 and V12 LMR, Mercedez CLK-LM, Toyota GT1 etc, Porsche went into a Sabatical to allow their Partner Audi to develop their own sports car without competition from within the alliance. Bah!

Oh, did you get dizzy with that list of all-star Race Cars the Porsche GT1 had to beat out? I did, and if you didn't, well, it just means you can not call yourself a Motor Racing enthusiast. It's no big surprise though that Porsche won because they lead the pack with 16 overall wins at Le Mans... The following year, on the debut Season of the much-anticipated Audi R8, it finished a distant five laps behind the BMW V12 LMR, the same car that finished 2nd to the Porsche GT1 in 1998, and four laps behind the Toyota GT1 (finished 9th in 1998). However in the year 2000, as we know it, the inception of Audi's domination would begin. It was kind of an interesting year too because many teams would follow suit to Porsche's sabbatical. In fact only the Panoz remains from that storied 1998 class... Porsche's departure was sort of a takeover by a new similarly ambitious dictatorial regime. Who wants to stick around for that?

Who would eventually Vanquish the seemingly infallible R10 still remains to be seen. In this year's 24 hour race, despite two DNF's (did not finish) the remaining beautiful Bi-Turbo Diesel V12 looked as strong as ever. A 1-2-3 finish was all but guaranteed if not for what Dr. Ulrich (Audi's race director) likes to call "expected racing mishaps" (and it happens!!). That's how fast they are... So my guess is this regime will endure for a very long time to come...

The Ford GT40, Winner of Le Mans 1966-1969


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