Matters of Moment, August 2012

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Cars in support races are not often faster than those at the top of the bill, but that was the case at Le Mans this year. As they took a breather after the Saturday morning Group C opening act for the 24 Hours, Bob Berridge and Gareth Evans mentioned the top speeds they’d both clocked in their respective Sauber Mercedes C11 and C9 mounts during dry practice. On the approach to the Mulsanne chicane and the run up to Indianapolis, the old Silver Arrows had hit an incredible 218mph.

Contrast that to the current prototypes, and the consequences of pegging back aero and power over the years are plain. In qualifying for the main event, Anthony Davidson topped the high-speed charts, maxing out at a mere 208mph in the new Toyota TS030 Hybrid. Historic racing: you just can’t take it seriously, eh?

Admittedly, it’s a very different story over the course of a full lap. Gareth’s benchmark quallie time was over 20 seconds slower than the Audi R18 e-tron quattro that took pole position for the 24 Hours. So that would have been mid-grid for the C9 at 3pm on Saturday, leaving it just behind period Group C hero Martin Brundle in his Zytek-Nissan, a car that isn’t even in the top class of modern prototypes. The rate of progress in braking distances and cornering speeds over the past 20 years could not be more stark.

Safety has come on a fair way too, and the thought occurred later on that evening, at just about 8pm. Davidson will be glad he is of this generation as he relects on the violent accident that in past eras might have claimed his life.

The two broken vertebrae sustained when the car slammed back to earth after its terrifying flip are the price racing drivers pay for essentially sitting on the loor, but a HANS device protected his neck as he slammed into the barrier and the carbon-composite tub he was sitting in means he’ll still have two working ankles when he leaves hospital. Modern racing cars never cease to amaze in this respect.

His account of the accident, which was caused by an amateur’s lack of awareness in a Ferrari GT car, is revealing and shocking in equal measure. “I was almost completely past the car after the apex of the kink [at Mulsanne Corner],” Davidson said from his hospital bed. “I passed a Corvette and a Ferrari with the pro driver sticker on. They were fighting each other and I just assumed the Ferrari ahead was part of their group and therefore another pro. The car was all the way to the left as you would expect a pro driver to do.

It was only when I got right up to the back that I realised it was one of the amateur-stickered cars. But I still wasn’t alarmed, and thought he would stay left, which it looked like he was doing. I made the apex of the corner, started to brake and I was almost out of the corner when I felt the contact on the left rear.”

There have always been amateurs at Le Mans and they have always been a concern for the pros. The speed differential between top prototypes and the slowest GTs are a big part of the Le Mans challenge, but now modern power restrictions for LMP1s have caused a new problem. With less advantage in a straight line over the GTs, prototype aces have to be more assertive than ever in traffic. Three huge accidents of the same type in two years, following Mike Rockenfeller’s similar nighttime shunt on the Mulsanne last year and Allan McNish’s earlier that day, is alarming. Banning the amateurs and losing a key ingredient of Le Mans, not to mention more than a few entries, is not a good option.

Perhaps the pro/am stickers Davidson was trying to spot at 180mph should be made a little bigger, but more significantly, should the big cars have greater power as they did in the Group C days? Speeds would clearly go up, but an accident at 218mph isn’t going to be much worse than at 208. If it helped the fastest drivers lap the slowest, more speed at Le Mans might actually be safer.

Davidson’s description of the accident goes further: “The car pivoted round to the left, then took off and turned upside down. At that point I felt I was in an aeroplane out of control. I knew how close the barriers were, and travelling at that speed I was going to be there in no time. That part of the crash was pretty petrifying. It crashed back down to the ground, I felt an almighty punch up my spine when the car hit back down on four wheels. I still had my eyes closed and my hands off the wheel, in the brace position. Half a second after that I had the forward impact into the barrier.”

The first TV pictures showed Anthony trying to clamber from his car and waving to the marshals, but then there was a period of uncertainty when paramedics could be seen attending to him. His explanation perhaps highlights why the ACO has regulated that prototypes will have higher cockpits next year.

“I opened my eyes and realised I was still here, albeit in a bit of pain. I had feeling and could move my feet; everything was working. I know I should have stayed in the car, especially with back pain, but initially I felt full of panic and claustrophobia, I just had to get out of the car. It was really odd. I banged the door open and clambered out. I had to stretch out and the closest point was the side of the car, then the medics came over.”

Le Mans is safer now than it has ever been, but it remains one of the most dangerous – and inspiring – race tracks in the world. All the best for a speedy recovery, Anthony.

Seeing Mike Rockenfeller on the Le Mans podium a year on from his dreadful crash was heartening, especially as he was joined by talented young Brit Oliver Jarvis. It was another Audi 1-2-3 on June 17, and you have to admire the way this formidable team goes racing. Still, with the greatest respect to Audi and its cast of accomplished drivers, I couldn’t help feeling a pang of disappointment that they’d once again completed a podium lock-out.

That was because of the car which finished fourth. The Rebellion team of Neel Jani, Nick Heidfeld and Nicolas Prost put in one of those unobtrusive under-the-radar performances that ends in a brilliant result. Fourth was like a victory for a private team against the might of the Audi machine. But if one of the R18s had failed, a Lola prototype would have made the podium and that would have been so emotional for all concerned at the troubled racing car constructor.

As you can read on p14, The Huntingdon-based company has gone into administration, with around 70 of the 170 workforce having already lost their jobs. We mark National Motorsport Week in this issue, which celebrates the strength of the British racing industry, but at the same time take note that the sport will endure a terrible body-blow if Lola goes under. March, Reynard, Ralt – the great British constructors of the recent past are already history. Is Lola about to join them?

Martin Birrane saved Lola in 1997 when founder Eric Broadley needed him. He has spent much of his own fortune upholding a company with which he has great personal affinity from his own racing days. Birrane deserves great credit for keeping Lola aloat for the past 15 years and he will be heartbroken at how his vision is slipping away. He has done all he can. But in the ravages of the euro crisis and a crippling recession, will a saviour be found? We fear the worst and hope for the best.

Damien Smith

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