Podium of Thoughts on 2018 24 Hours of Le Mans
1. Toyota Finally Got Their Win ... But At What Cost?: After perhaps the most devastating loss in motorsports history in 2016, Toyota went from sympathetic underdogs to hallowed winners in just two years. At least that was the perception of many fans.
Of course, a lot of this isn't Toyota's fault. When Audi after 2016 and Porsche after 2017 withdrew from the World Endurance Championship, it left Toyota as the only hybrid team in the top class. If Toyota didn't return, it would have essentially sunk the class.
Toyota stayed. And, they were magnanimous enough to allow the FIA and ACO to tweak the rules to bring the non-hybrid LMP1 cars closer to Toyota's performance and increase the field. But not too close.
After all, Toyota was spending around $120 million on their annual budget while the privateers a fraction of that amount. Had a regular LMP1 car defeated Toyota on sheer speed alone, it would have been quite embarrassing.
And therein lies the rub for most fans. They saw this as simply a coronation of Toyota and not a competition. But what was Toyota to do? Walk out like the others? Why no anger towards the manufacturers who actually quit the sport?
Then, Fernando Alonso signed with Toyota for the entire 2018-19 super season. That alone wasn't an issue. However, when the FIA made a last minute change to the Fuji date, to accommodate Toyota's home race so Alonso could compete in it, it meant the WEC date conflicted with IMSA's Petite Le Mans.
This caused many drivers to have to choose between the dates and lose a weekend paycheck. Most of these drivers depend on these paychecks as they don't have ~$30 million F1 contracts to fall back on like Alonso.
More anger was aimed at Toyota. Fans were saying the FIA now stood for Federation Internationale de l'Alonso. The rules kept changing to seemingly give Toyota one advantage after another. Fans were openly rooting for Toyota to fall flat on their faces again at La Sarthe.
Toyota did not. Their reliability was impeccable which they worked hard at achieving. Then again, even though they had to maintain top speed in order for the hybrid components to work correctly, they still could drive it "safely." Without any pressure from other manufacturers, they did not have to push the cars -- hopping curbs, braking hard, sliding through turns, or taking chances passing traffic (which, interestingly, Alonso did once almost throwing away the race when he dropped two wheels into the dirt on the Mulsanne Straight trying to pass a gaggle of slower cars).
However, they dominated more comprehensively than anyone could have imagined. Even taking into consideration the problems the other LMP1 cars ran into, Le Mans was over before it started.
André Lotterer (more on him later), the starting driver for the Rebellion Racing team, said on the grid before the pace lap about Toyota, "On paper, they have won the race. They can only lose it now."
Perhaps the key question is, does Toyota care? They can now advertise they won Le Mans. To the common consumer, what manufacturers do in racing probably plays a minimal role these days in deciding what car to buy. But there are certain iconic events that everyone has heard about and can get an emotional reaction from a consumer. Indy. Daytona. Le Mans. Advertise winning those, and people pay attention.
Sure, the racing fan may think it was a hallow victory against no competition with rules stacked in their favor from an organization seemingly favoring the darling driver. But for Toyota, they won Le Mans. It doesn't matter to them how they did it. And they worked their asses off over two decades to get to this point.
Toyota was in a typical damn if you do, damn if you don't situation. It's complicated. So, we'll repeat it again, and leave it as an exercise for the reader.
Toyota finally got their win ... but at what cost?
2. Overshadowing The Racing: Balance of Performance is a necessary evil. What many fans forget is the manufacturers want it. In fact, for the 24 Hours Nürburgring, the manufacturers want it so badly, they all chip in to fund the BoP committee.
Manufacturers participation in racing has always been a fickle thing. BoP allows more of a willingness from manufacturers to spend the money to fund a racing program. And it keeps manufacturers in racing longer.
But when people can't stop talking about BoP, when does it reach the point that it completely overshadows the racing? Seemingly, we are at that point.
Couple BoP with the most restrictive rules package Le Mans has ever seen -- strict limits on laps per stint, strict limits on fuel flow, strict limits on pit stop times, strict limits on fuel capacity -- and fans wonder what happened to strategy, innovation, and competition as Le Mans starts to resemble NASCAR.
The GT classes, especially GTE Pro, despite being the most interesting class this year, was still overshadowed by BoP and the restrictive rules.
The old racing adage says, when the green flag drops, the bullshit stops. What happens if the bullshit never stops after the green flag drops?
3. Le Mans Is Still Le Mans: Despite all these problems -- a completely uncompetitive LMP1 with just one manufacturer, nonstop BoP discussions, and over regulation -- it's still Le Mans.
And despite all that as well as a French train strike, over a quarter million fans showed up once again, essentially the same amount as last year.
As one poster put it on a message board, "There will always be a LeMans no matter what circus ring leader is running the show."
And for that reason, fans will always show up and it's still on our bucket list.
Lobotomy of the Race Award: This goes to the Rebellion Racing team, specifically the #1 entry.
Granted, as long as Toyota did not have any problems, nobody else was going to win this race. However, when your only chance for an upset is to not make a single mistake whatsoever, not even hit a bug, what does the #1 Rebellion Racing car do?
At the first corner, the very first corner of a 24-freaking-hour race, they essentially take themselves out. André Lotterer, possibly tapped from behind by his own teammate, runs into a Toyota and then has apparently a not properly secured nose taken off on the rebound into the #10 DragonSpeed BR Engineering car.
The whole team was lobotomized on that one.
Special Mention: Patrick Dempsey. Like Paul Newman and Steve McQueen before him, Dempsey truly loves racing. Like the others, he has played many roles, some of which are behind the scenes volunteering his time for the sport. Though he has stepped away from driving, he still remains active.
To see his unabashed joy celebrating the team he co-owns win GTE Am was wonderful. He deserves it.
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