Le Mans? Who's that?

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Overheard a journalist at Le Mans talking about the reaction he got when he phoned a prominent British national newspaper to ask them what they needed from this year’s 24

Hours. The answer? “Sorry. There’s a World Cup on, you know.”

I’ve long been resigned to how the national media either ignore or patronise the world’s biggest motor races. They understand Formula 1 is of mainstream interest, but beyond that… almost nothing. Fl is the beginning, middle and end of motor sport to newspaper editors.

The Indianapolis 500 made the papers this year, but only because of Mike Conway’s spectacular ‘horror shunt’, from which we are all thankful he escaped. The morning after, I was asked to do a radio interview on Conway’s accident. I casually mentioned to the researcher beforehand that a Scot had actually won the race, too — for the second time in four years, no less. He had no idea. As for explaining who Dario Franchitti was, and that yes, he has an Italian name but is actually one of Britain’s finest racing drivers outside Formula 1… I soon gave up.

Le Mans generally gets a few more lines than Indy, but it’s noticeable that even an event which attracts 40,000-odd Brits every June needs some sensation to really gain widespread attention. A certain formerly moustachioed Brummie provided that this year (see page 28) — but then he always did, and he is still very popular. I couldn’t help but notice the high number of ‘Red 5’ caps and car stickers at this, his first Le Mans.

British media apathy is clearly of little concern to car manufacturers, as they continue to be drawn to Le Mans. Audi, Peugeot, Aston Martin, Chevrolet, BMW and Jaguar all had factory representation this year (although the last named don’t deserve to be taken seriously on this showing), while Ferrari, Ford, Lamborghini, Spyker and of course Porsche featured via private teams with varying levels of manufacturer support. And the stakes are high, as Peugeot’s directors understand only too well — I’d have loved to be a fly on the wall in the boardroom following three engine blow-ups and a suspension failure.

It is not difficult to understand the attraction to Le Mans for the car giants. The link between technological excellence feeding back into road cars from motor racing is more obvious here than it is in Fl, and the demands of bullet-proof reliability mated to fuel efficiency and speed are more marketable over 24 hours than 90 minutes. Add to this a pledge to offer a “wide scope” for hybrid and energy recovery systems in the new rules for 2011, and the relevance of Le Mans becomes even greater.

In Fl, the teams are committed to marrying road car developments with Grand Prix racing too, as the re-introduction of Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems for next year attests. Patrick Head, Peter Wright and Paddy Lowe made it clear that such a union should be central to new rules planned for 2013 when we spoke to them for our June issue. It caused a flurry of letters. Road car trends should never be the central ethos of Fl, you say, and we’re inclined to agree. Yes, manufacturers should be drawn back to Fl because of its relevance to their core business of selling cars, but never at the cost of the spectacle and the quality of the racing.

In sports cars, technical relevance is a higher priority. Le Mans thrives in years of mass manufacturer interest, and technical diversity is key to this, as is equivalency. On this point the Automobile Club de l’Ouest still have much work to do. As Aston Martin would attest, petrol-powered contenders still do not perform to the levels of the Audi and Peugeot diesels. Give them a bigger break, ACO.

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