If you’re one of those who believes that Formula One is about politics, rather than racing, you’ve had a good month. In Montreal, a war of words erupted between Minardi’s chief minnow Paul Stoddard and F1 grandees Ron Dennis and Sir Frank Williams, with Stoddard threatening to protest any team retaining traction control from the British Grand Prix onwards. Next day came the rare sight of Bernie Ecclestone putting his hand in his pocket, to make a £3 million “investment” in Stoddard’s struggling team.
At the Nürburgring there was outrage in the Ferrari pit when Montoya’s overtaking move sent Schumacher M. into the gravel. But Michael took a more philosophical view, and the stewards were happy to dismiss it as a racing incident. Thank goodness for that: there are few enough overtaking manoeuvres (as the procession at the end of the Canadian GP showed) without threatening to punish the drivers when they do have a go.
And at Magny-Cours, we had the undignified sight of BAR’s cars and equipment being impounded by the French police, due to court action by a sponsorship agent who claimed he was owed money from several years ago. The seizure was rapidly overturned in a local court, but it didn’t help show F1 in a healthy light.
Meanwhile, the Stoddard argument rumbled on. You’ll remember that over the winter the brave Max Mosley decided to push through a ban on traction control and other driver aids in the interests of better, and cheaper, racing. This was to take effect at this month’s British GP; but, in the face of pressure from the teams, Mosley’s resolve seemed to desert him and the ban was quietly set aside.
Stoddard, incensed that other off-season initiatives to support the poorer teams — like a “fighting fund” to help him and Eddie Jordan pay for their engines — also seemed to have been forgotten, announced he was withdrawing his support for the retention of traction control, which requires unanimity among the teams. So he will run his cars at Silverstone without it, and he will protest any team he thinks is using it. (Some paddock paranoids believe that Ecclestone’s new part-ownership of Minardi indicates his approval of Stoddard’s views, and they may be right: Bernie doesn’t shell out £3 million just to be helpful).
What of the actual racing? Well, that’s quickly told: the Michelin tyre is currently rather better than the Bridgestone. As a result, Williams has almost overnight become top dog, while Ferrari, for the first time in several seasons, is playing catch-up. In Canada, Michael Schumacher won, but only because his brother and Montoya couldn’t find a way to overtake. In Germany, and again in France, the Williams pair finished one-two.
I wasn’t in Canada to witness the famous Friday press conference that brought the battle of Stoddard vs The Rest out into the open, because that weekend I was at another, some would say more significant, motor race. I have frequently voiced my regret that the man in the street, and on the Sunday sofa, now thinks there is only one type of motor racing, and it’s called Formula One. Of all other sectors of the sport he remains more or less in ignorance. In these years of Our Bernie, F1 has been so brilliantly sold to the TV companies — and, increasingly, so comprehensively televised — that it has gradually sucked the attention, the audience and the money from everything else. This vicious circle continues to tighten: less public awareness means fewer spectators, less publicity means fewer sponsors, less money means fewer entrants.
Somehow, Le Mans has bucked this trend. What can still fairly be called the world’s most famous motor race continues to exercise its magic over a dedicated phalanx of followers, even though that magic is now pretty much lost on the general media. The sports pages of the broadsheets, which today cover F1 in minute detail, take little notice. There is no terrestrial TV coverage in this country, and BBC Radio’s hourly bulletins throughout the day and night seem a thing of the past. Yet vastly more British spectators go to Le Mans than any race in Britain, apart from our own grand prix. The days when there was a world sportscar championship, with races like the Nürburgring 1000Km and the Targa Florio, are long gone: yet every year, when I go to Le Mans, I feel some of the same excitement that those great endurance races always generated.
Of course, as the investment required to mount a serious 24-hour race programme has climbed, Le Mans has suffered some of the same privations as other areas of motor racing. One by one, the major works teams have disappeared, leaving the stage increasingly clear for Audi in recent years. This year Bentley was the only true works team challenging for outright victory. Fifty years ago Jaguar’s C-types had to beat eight other works teams to win. When they did so, their victory echoed right around the world, and had a hugely beneficial effect on the international sales of Mk VIIs and XK120s: the old adage “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday” has never been more true. And in the 1960s, Ford chose Le Mans to help change its image from cheap and dull to fast and affordable.
So when VW bought Bentley, and wanted to persuade the world that the marque under its care would remain faithful to the heritage of WO Bentley, it decided on a three-year attack on Le Mans. It’s too easy to say that the cars that finished first and second at La Sarthe in June are not Bentleys at all, but green Volkswagens. But they were built and developed by a British operation and, apart from the engine, they shared nothing with the Audis. Most great marques have changed ownership at different times down the years, and what matters is the integrity of the product. The new Continental road car may have a VW-developed engine driving through an Audi transmission, but it’s a 190mph luxury fastback which is totally worthy of the name that, 50 years ago, was on the fastest four-seater you could buy.
That, of course, was made by Rolls-Royce. But I don’t think it’s being sentimental to trace the line back further, to WO Bentley’s 8-litre — always intended to be a high-speed luxury touring car, ideally with closed bodywork. Sadly, WO did not have the resources to stay in business, which is why Rolls-Royce swallowed his firm in 1931 — and went on to produce excellent fast luxury sporting cars. The reasons, and the advantages, behind the VW takeover almost 70 years later weren’t that different
After Le Mans, many reports naturally juxtaposed shots of the winning No 7 Bentley with pictures of the last victorious Bentley, the Speed Six of Woolf Bamato/Glen Kidston, 73 years earlier. But as Guy Smith crossed the line at 4pm on Sunday, greeted with noisy ecstasy by the huge crowd of British supporters who’d kept vigil on the terraces opposite the Bentley pits, the picture in my mind’s eye was of a more recent, Rolls-Royce-built Bentley that raced three times at Le Mans. The so-called Embiricos Bentley coupé, a factory experimental car with lightweight French body, was already 10 years old when its owner H F S Hay drove it to Le Mans in 1949, finished sixth in the 24-hour race, and drove it home again. He repeated the exploit in ’50-51, finishing the race each time.
The days when a Le Mans winner, or any Le Mans entry, could be driven to the race and back are long gone (the works Jaguars always were, because the trip from Coventry was a useful shakedown). Le Mans was originally conceived as a race for strictly production cars, and it hasn’t been that for very many years. But today’s battles in the GT and GTS classes are still fought out by production-based cars: Ferrari Modenas and Maranellos, Chevrolet Corvettes, Chrysler Vipers, TVRs and the inevitable Porsche 911s that all look at least superficially like their road counterpart. This year there was even a Pagani Zonda.
Le Mans could hardly be more different from Formula One. But it is still a magnificent motorsporting contest, of drivers, of cars, of preparation and of team management, and it has all the atmosphere of a great event. F1, for all its faults, remains the top rung of the motorsport ladder: but for it to be so there have to be other levels of motorsport too, and they must be taken seriously.
Next year, you probably still won’t be able to see, hear or read much about Le Mans at home. So you should go and see it for yourself. If you’ve never been, that’s a serious gap in your education. If you have been, I’m probably preaching to the converted.