The greatest show on earth

Le Mans

The countdown is on. As I write, there are just 45 days to go until the 83rd Le Mans 24 Hours rolls into action at the fabled Circuit de la Sarthe in north-western France. The ‘Greatest Show on Earth’ we proclaim on the cover of the June issue, in a special edition that previews the race and celebrates facets of its incredible history.

Hyperbole? Yes, OK, I admit it. But in ‘our’ world, what is bigger than Le Mans? Then with three of the world’s most powerful car manufacturers vying for victory in a battle that is too close to call, and another coming straight at the race out of left field, the 24 Hours has rarely been more competitive. The sprint around the clock, as it is in these days of high technology, has the potential to offer a Le Mans we’ll never forget.

So you’ll have to forgive us if we’re a little over-excited.

Each of the ‘big three’ feature at length in the June issue. Reigning World Endurance Champions Anthony Davidson and Sébastien Buemi meet up with fellow racer (and on this evidence future journalist) Johnny Mowlemfor a revealing interview that investigates the unnatural resets that must take place for selfish Formula 1 drivers to become successful team-mates in the long-distance code.

Over at Audi, we join the team that has won 13 of the past 15 Le Mans at a pre-season test at Sebring, documenting just how it plans to retain its crown with an apparent technological disadvantage. And after catching up with Porsche ahead of its sophomore attack since its heralded comeback for overall honours, we meet the architect behind its record number of 16 wins. Norbert Singer had a twinkle in the eye, just as he always did in the days of the 917, 936 and 956, when he met Simon Taylor for lunch in Münchingen.

Porsche plans to protect, and indeed extend, its win record as Audi charges fast up on the rails, but it’ll likely never need worry about Le Mans’ third most successful marque. It’s a full 50 years since Ferrari scored its ninth, and what appears to be final, win at La Sarthe. Paul Fearnley revisits the importance of the race in Ferrari lore – before reaching the inevitable conclusion that ‘the most famous manufacturer of sports cars does not need the most famous race for sports cars’. Strange when you put it like that.

Ferrari, of course, remains in thrall to F1, but the same cannot be said of everyone with a vested interest in Grand Prix racing at the moment. As has been widely reported this week, Silverstone’s new chief executive Patrick Allen has spoken out about F1’s current failings and his frustrations as a race promoter.

If you are a regular visitor to our website, you might recall I met Allen for the first time in early March when he explained his philosophy on the tricky business of keeping a Grand Prix circuit in buoyant health. His focus, unlike that of F1, is on the fans who pay to enter Silverstone’s gates.

“F1 could do us all some favours,” he said on Tuesday to assorted journalists. “We need help from Formula One Management and the FIA to make it a bit more exciting – like the World Endurance Championship.”

More on his view of sports cars later on, but first Allen continued sticking the boot in to the so-called pinnacle.

The barbs followed thick and fast: “I think the drivers would admit that we need the noise back”…”I sometimes wonder if the technical directors should be on the podium instead of the drivers”…”When you see Verstappen at 17 come through from F3 straight to F1, how hard are they to drive? They need to look at the rules and make the cars more challenging”…”I wonder if the product is right for the fans. They come to see racing, not engineers looking at a data screen…”

By this stage, he’d also pointed out that British GP ticket sales and revenues are up year on year. The BBC also reports its viewing figures have increased in 2015, as they are in territories such as Germany and Italy. Is the product really that bad, some gently suggested?

“It’s only my opinion,” Allen smiled back. “It doesn’t happen overnight, but I’m concerned for the long-term interest.”

In the wake of the German Grand Prix demise and increasing fears for Monza, he also had a view on ‘grandee’ European races and their place on the F1 calendar. “The Concorde Agreement is toothless,” he stated. “It claims to protect ‘heritage’ races, but only as long as the promoter can afford the fee. That doesn’t even make sense.

“I’d like to see a bit more bite from the FIA.”

His candour was refreshing. Yes, this executive with a background in retail has only worked directly in motor sport for four months and he admits his heart lies with motorcycles, if push comes to shove. But the most pleasing aspect about his approach to the job of running Silverstone is that he’s promising the fans come first. For various reasons, mostly beginning with a ‘B’ and ending in ‘ernie’, that hasn’t always been the case.

And what of his views on the World Endurance Championship, which graced Silverstone so successfully a few weeks back? As a show, the race was an undoubted triumph, but I confess to disappointment that the crowd wasn’t stronger, even if its size had improved on 2014. Allen agreed.

“I don’t understand why we only got 45,000 for the WEC weekend and yet so many more go to Le Mans. It’s only 45 per cent of what we want it to be. We should be getting 80,000 for this race, maybe even 100,000.”

Such numbers for WEC, MotoGP and other promoted events at Silverstone are not only wanted, but required. Such is the escalating expense of its F1 contract, Allen needs the other events through the season to help justify and pay for the British GP. The big weekend is profitable for now, but as the fee increases year on year that might well change.

This is the deal Allen’s inherited and, to his credit, he’s not complaining about it. But the reality of promoting a Grand Prix these days, without government funding, requires nerve and a steady hand.

As far as Allen is concerned, the least F1 can do is show up with a decent product – and he reckons it’s failing to deliver its part of the bargain.

Then again, do his customers agree? Ticket sales suggest not.

In contrast, the six-hour WEC round offered great sport – and only a relatively modest draw at the box office. Thank goodness, then, for Le Mans. At least once a year, the sports cars perform for the audience they deserve.

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