Le Mans 1999

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After the most talked-about race for years, Andrew Frankel laments that a flying circus distracted attention away from BMW’s win, and predicts new players in this ever-enthralling arena.

I can’t remember ever before feeling sorry for the team that won Le Mans, but as I left the track this year, my heart went out to Gerhard Berger, Charly Lamm, the drivers, engineers and mechanics of BMW’s works Le Mans effort. They had won the race the way it is almost always won: by being slickest, not quickest. It was BMW’s first win in the event and it came in the face of outstanding competition. And yet in the days since the flag fell, not one person, reader, colleague or friend has rung or written to discuss what was a richly deserved win. This despite the fact I cannot remember when the 24-hour race last provoked so much debate.

This was an unusually gruelling race, and the first of the recent era where fatalities were avoided more through good fortune than anything else. The event woke you up to the dangers of racing, and racing here in particular; by the end Thierry Boutsen, JJ Lehto and Peter Dumbreck, a representative from each of the top marques, all had cause to be thankful their races ended only in a trip to hospital.

Perversely, the BMW that won did so precisely by avoiding the headlines. Save one harmless spilt, the BMW V12 LMR crewed by Jo Winkelhock, Pierluigi Martini and Yannick Dalmas circulated unobtrusively, rarely gaining a mention in the live coverage and yet never, ever putting a foot wrong. Ahead of it the considerably quicker sister car of Lehto, Kristensen and Muller fought it out with the Toyota of Boutsen, Kelleners and McNish for hour after hour, but when first one and then the other crashed, it was there to pick up the pieces.

It was as much flawless strategy and the best pit crew that gave the two-car BMW squad its victory against three-car entries from Toyota and Mercedes. That and the luck without which no car survives here.The drivers were pushed hardly at all; there were dozens of others there who could have done as much. And that was precisely the right strategy.

We know what happened to Mercedes strategy on June 12, just as we know how very easy it is to condemn with hindsight. This time, however, it was different. After Mark Webber’s two pre-race crashes, those I spoke to were unanimous: Mercedes should not race. The evident danger to drivers and possibly spectators was a given; most thought it was an unacceptable gamble. No one needed reminding that the worst racing accident in history resulted from a Mercedes becoming airborne at Le Mans. Unlike in 1999, Mercedes could not have had less to do with its car taking to the air in 1955, but the memory remains. Add the wounds caused to the marque’s reputation when a couple of early A-classes turned over in extreme circumstances and it seemed Mercedes stood to gain little from taking the start of what was, after all, just another motor race.

That the Mercedes board, and indeed its drivers, thought otherwise is a matter of record, though it is hard to reconcile this with 1988 when Mercedes withdrew and sacrificed an arguably better chance of victory when one of its Saubers suffered an unexplained tyre deflation during practice.

Le Mans now is entering one of those twilight zones that have periodically punctuated its history. Usually such times come with predictions of the race’s fall from grace and eventual demise but since, to date, every one of them has proved wrong, I am not about to don the sandwich board.

Even so, the works manufacturers from this year have all gone decidedly quiet. BMW is muttering about having to concentrate on its F1 programme so don’t expect a works entry from Munich; Toyota awaits the outcome of its foray into F1, Mercedes has kept its mouth shut while Audi, though continuing to develop both its GT and prototype cars, is still by no means committed to Le Mans 2000.

My guess is that few if any of the above will be back with full works teams next year, making the race a more tempting proposition than ever for the only manufacturer already committed to a full works programme in the top category: Cadillac. Porsche, however, never stays away for long, and there are at least two other phenomenally exciting works propositions eyeing the event: Bentley and Aston Martin.

Both these marques want to return to the Sarthe and with, respectively, Volkswagen and Ford behind them it is now only a matter of time before they do. Both marques perceive the event as core to their brand values and neither has missed the fact that Jaguar is still dining out on its Le Mans wins despite the last being almost a decade old. Now it seems that Jaguar will become the Formula One arm of Ford, while Ford takes on the rally world, it is natural that Aston should fill its traditional sportscar arena.

The agenda for Bentley is different and sterns from the fact that its ultimate boss, VW supremo Ferdinand Piech, designed the Porsche 917 which won marque’s first Le Mans in 1970. And what better marque to recapture the glory of old than Bentley, whose works record of five wins from seven attempts remains unrivalled to this day?

Nor would I be surprised to see a marque like Maserati return to Le Mans. Though not famed for its results in the 24 hours, few companies ever made sportscars more evocative and now Fiat has declared its intention to establish it between Alfa-Romeo and Ferrari in its hierarchy it would be hard to think of more effective way of returning this marque to its place as one of the greatest names in motor-racing.

All this, however, is for the future. What is true today is that for all its troubles, Le Mans 1999 was an enthralling race. Those who say that 24-hour races must be tedious should go next year and see for themselves. From where I was standing there was more to thrill and amaze, more intrigue, heartbreak and pure excitement in just 24 hours than you’ll find in an entire season of Formula One.

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