Podium of Thoughts on 2021 24 Hours of Le Mans
1. We'll Have To Wait Another Year ... Or Two: Though this was the inaugural year of the new Le Mans Hypercar rules for the top class at Le Mans, it should probably be considered more of a transitional year.
Only five cars entered the new class, and one of them, the Alpine A480 - Gibson was actually an old LMP1 chassis, allowed in under the temporary grandfather clause. So, this left just two factory entries with a pair each -- monolith Toyota and boutique Glickenhaus. Talk about David vs. Goliath.
Before the teams even got to Le Mans, everyone knew this was Toyota's race to lose. Yet again. The BoP. The hybrid advantages. The budget. The experience. All led to that conclusion.
Only reliability could thwart the Japanese manufacturer from their fourth consecutive victory. That did almost happen, as the cars suffered a fuel pressure issue. The team knew if they tried to fix it, they would lose the race. So, they took the chance it would last, which it did.
Despite the predictability, it was great to see Kamui Kobayashi take his first win, after so many heartbreaking losses. Kobayashi is the Japanese face to the whole Toyota effort, and arguably the fastest, most aggressive, and exciting driver in their lineup over the years. Thus, it was wonderful to finally see his work and skill rewarded.
His win was very popular in the WEC paddock, as many competitors joyously congratulated him while bypassing his teammates. Even though Mike Conway and Jose Maria Lopez (first Argentinian winner in 67 years) were waiting just as long for this elusive victory.
However, let's look at the glass is half full side of the equation. Many were predicting this could be the year a lower class, in this case LMP2, could take overall honors. With some questions about Toyota's reliability, the Alpine speed, and all the issues Glickenhaus ran into during testing and their only WEC race before Le Mans, it was a conceivable outcome.
Yet, not only did an LMP2 not even get on the overall podium, the five Hypercars took the top five spots. This class may not be so wet behind the ears after all.
The field may have been thin, but more cars are coming. The Peugeot 9X8 and ByKolles PMC Project LMH will be showing up next year. Ferrari is planning to appear in 2023. And perhaps a real LMH car for Alpine. Then, there is the whole IMSA LMDh class, which will be allowed to enter the WEC (and vice versa) thanks to an agreed upon global Balance of Performance.
This will open up entries from Audi, Porsche, Acura, BMW, and Cadillac. All in 2023. With the possibility of even more manufacturers jumping in (like Lamborghini and Ford) even if that's not till 2024.
So, this year's Le Mans may have been more of the same as the past few years -- little competition begetting little excitement in the top prototype ranks -- but it's looking to reach a wonderful crescendo just in time for 2023, the 100th anniversary of the world's greatest race.
FordChevrolet vs. Ferrari: Since Ford left the WEC and IMSA, the manufacturer taking the mantle of the American growling sports car is Corvette. The Italian sexy sports car opponent is still owned by Ferrari.
This time Ferrari came out on top in GTE Pro (as well as GTE Am, in fact by the same team, AF Corse, who is making a great statement they should be the ones to run Ferrari's LMH effort). Corvette made a valiant attempt trying to run down the Ferraris all race, even when Corvette was reduced to one competitive car after clutch problems struck the other one.
However, perhaps the real (political) battle is (the behind the scenes) Chevrolet vs. FIA/ACO fight. The FIA and ACO is following IMSA's lead and will be switching from GTE machinery to GT3 rules. However, unlike IMSA, the ACO wants to eliminate factory GT teams, which means no all pro lineups in GT3.
Chevrolet has no desire to run their Corvettes with customer teams. They want an all pro factory effort under their control. It is this battle that might be behind the reason for GM's constant cancellation of their expected LMDh Cadillac announcement.
It would be a shame ... and a sham ... if Corvette gets "pushed out" of Le Mans over this stalement.
3. A Love/Hate Relationship: Many sports car fans follow the manufacturers and the cars more so than the drivers. So, spec classes in top flight sports car racing usually brings yawns. And when any possible variety in a spec class is lost because one manufacturer gets it right from the get go, interest wanes even more.
That's the case with the LMP2 class, designed as a (relatively) low cost way of gentlemen drivers to get involved in prototype racing who want something more than GT cars. Yet, out of 24 entries, 21 were Oreca 07 chassis. There were two Aurus 01 and one Ligier JSP217. All were powered by Gibson engines, per the rules.
However, the flip side is, there were 24 cars in the class. Without them, there would have been very few prototype cars to enjoy on the track. They were evenly matched. And in many cases, they produced some of the best racing with great battles throughout. Everyone had to push the entire 24 hours because it was so competitive. And the number of crashes and mechanical failures amongst LMP2 were the result.
It also produced the most heart wrenching finish this year as the leading Team WRT #41 entry broke on the very last lap, handing victory to their sister car, the #31 entry. It reminded everyone of the Toyota last lap heartbreak in 2016.
For a fan just watching cars go by battling on the track, they produced a fine show -- the love. For a fan who wants to get emotionally involved in the class by rooting for a manufacturer that means something to them personally, they offered none of that except bland sameness -- the hate.
It's up to the eye of the beholder whether they love or hate LMP2.
Lobotomy of the Race Award: In today's day and age of safety and risk reduction, especially in auto racing, it always seemed ludicrious to continue the tradition of waving the checkered flag standing on the track.
This year, we nearly saw a horrifying repeat of the 1977 South African Grand Prix. Imagine how that would have played out in today's social media culture? Luckily, this stayed the lobotomy of the race instead of becoming the splatter of the race. Let's keep it that way and nix this "tradition" once and for all.
We also have to do an honorable lobotomy. The crew of the #20 (Not So) High Class Racing LMP2 left their car on the jacks on the grid ... and simply walked away. Wait. What?! Yeah, when Ricky Taylor went to leave the grid to start the pace lap, he merely spun his rear wheels because they were in the air, thanks to the aforementioned jack left under the car.
Didn't the crew member responsible for bringing the jack back to the pits notice there was nothing in his hands? Didn't anyone do the customary walk around the car to make sure everything was ready to go?
Lobotomies all around for that team.
Special Mention: To the Glickenhaus Racing team. Sure, they finished fourth and fifth out of the five LMH cars. But, let's look at the overall picture here.
Here is a small manufacturer out of Sleepy Hollow, N.Y. (yes, that Sleepy Hollow) who built a prototype of the top class in about a year, ran into loads of teething problems during testing including a huge crash, had to skip the first WEC race of the season, and came into Le Mans with a ton of questions.
However, they did admirable. Not only did both cars finish, but the 708 car finished two-and-a-half minutes off the podium after 24 hours. This team is taking this program very seriously (a lot more than we can say about that ridiculous Nissan "effort" a few years ago). Their extremely impressive driver lineup alone should tell you all you need to know about James Glickenhaus' aspirations.
Sadly, because they are such a small manufacturer, they cannot compete in IMSA (we understand that rule and sort of agree with it, but it's still sad). Therefore, we'll have to watch and root from afar as "the little engine that could" Glickenhaus waves the stars and stripes (and perhaps the spirit of Ichabod Crane) in the WEC.
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Past IMSA Thoughts