On 15 June 1969, Jacky Ickx crossed the finish line in the 37th Le Mans 24 Hours a matter of 120 yards ahead of Hans Herrmann, to win the coveted trophy for the first time. He was driving a 5-litre V8 powered Ford GT40, a car first raced back in 1964, but significantly updated in the intervening years. Right on his tail came Hans Herrmann in the 3-litre Porsche 908 LH. This is the closest finish between adversaries in the history of this great race, although cars from the same manufacturer have frequently crossed the finish line together in a staged formation to maximise the PR or marketing value of photographs that circulate in the press afterwards.
What the results column does not tell you, though, is that Ickx and Herrmann swapped the lead several times each lap during the last hour, making this one of the most nail-biting finishes in the race’s history. The Porsche was powered by an engine a little more than half the size of the Ford’s and with much less grunt, but thanks to superior aerodynamics, the Porsche was more than a match for the Ford. In the final analysis, it was a contest between the 5-litre 460 bhp V8 Ford and the 3-litre 360 bhp flat-8 Porsche, and although the Ford was victorious, there was precious little in it, as the two cars were just seconds apart after 24 hours of hard racing!
It may interest our younger readers at PORSCHE ROAD & RACE to know the reason for our emphasis on the racing stories of yesteryear, when the modern race cars today are so much faster and more reliable. Well, in 1971, the final year of the 5-litre Group 5 cars, the overall winner at Le Mans that year could have come from any one of six Porsche 917s, eight Ferrari 512s, a Matra MS660 or a host of Porsche 908s. In 1974, the Porsche 911 Carrera RSR Turbo of Herbert Müller/Gijs van Lennep finished second behind a prototype Matra MS670B, and ahead of the sister Matra, effectively splitting the two factory prototypes.
In 1980, the top ten finishes at Le Mans included: Porsche 935 K3, Porsche 934, Rondeau-Ford-Cosworth and a lone BMW M1. Five years later, it was the time of the Porsche 956, but the top contenders also included Lancia, Aston Martin, Toyota 85C and Jaguar. From an increased variety point of view, 1989 was probably one of the best years in Group C with the Sauber-Mercedes, Porsche 962 C, Jaguar XJR-9LM, Mazda 767B and Aston Martin headlining the event. In later years, you could add Peugeot, Toyota and Nissan to this list.
The point being made here is that during these earlier years, manufacturers and teams were allowed a certain amount of latitude and innovation, and the sport benefitted massively from this. The cars looked different, sounded different and performed differently, and if you could make your car go faster within the rules and your car held together for 24 hours, then there was a good chance that you might just win.
In recent years we have unfortunately seen the cars regulated and controlled to such an extent that all cars in a certain class must all demonstrate similar performance figures in order that, in theory, they could all cross the finish line abreast of each other. In the top class, LMP1, the cars must conform to Equivalence of Technology (EoT) measures to ensure a similar level of performance. In LMP2, all the cars run with the same engines, their chassis are sourced from four different manufacturers, bodywork is all standard across the class and their development and testing budgets are capped. Moving into the LM GTE Pro class, all cars must conform to a set of Balance of Performance (BoP) criteria. If one car is found to exhibit slightly better performance than another, it might be reined in by way of a smaller air restrictor, additional ballast weight, a slightly smaller fuel capacity, reduced fuel flow rate or a reduced aero configuration. The LM GTE Am cars are all one-year old cars, so the Am teams will run a car in any year that the Pro teams ran the previous year, but they will also be subjected to the above mentioned BoP criteria if they prove to be slightly faster than others in their class.
The very essence of motorsport is competition between teams, manufacturers and drivers. The team that does their homework and puts in the most practice to ensure the best performance on race day, may find themselves in pole position. But they might also be slapped with an EoT or BoP penalty for the race itself because they demonstrated greater performance in qualifying. Motorsport thrives on pushing the boundaries of possibility within the rules, and if one manufacturer or team has found a way of outdoing their rivals in a class, why penalise them, because that just discourages innovation. Why also should a substantial part of the field consist of race cars that are by regulation, a year out of date? At its heart, motor racing is about competition and pushing the envelope within the rules, unencumbered by endless penalties. What this situation encourages is ‘sandbagging’ where a team skilfully turns in slightly slower times in qualifying so as not to be on pole, but then opens the taps in the race to win the race. It is very difficult to prove, but this is an age old trick.
So, what can we take from the successes in previous decades or periods of the sport? Many racing enthusiasts around the world will look to the decade of the 1960s as one of the most exciting and memorable, while others might cite the 1950s or the 1970s as their favourite racing decade. Still others will say that for them the 1980s was the stand-out decade for them with the unforgettable Group C race cars. The 1990s saw the growth of the GT classes which has always been popular, but whichever decade it is for you, most racing enthusiasts will agree that these times all offered raw motorsport and action-packed racing that was relatively free of unending interference by the rule-makers.
Overall victories at Le Mans 1960 to 1998:
|Ferrari||1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965|
|Ford||1966, 1967, 1968, 1969|
|Porsche||1970, 1971, 1976, 1977, 1979|
|Porsche||1981, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1986, 1987|
|Porsche||1994, 1996, 1997, 1998|
Ferrari’s win in 1960 was in the 250 TR59/60 and in 1961 it was with an uprated version of the 250. In 1962 it was the 330 LM that took the win while in 1963 it was the 250 P and the 275 P the following year. For their 1965 victory it was the 275 LM that claimed the honours. In ’66 Ford sent an armada of eight 7-litre Ford GTs to do battle at Le Mans, and not only did they win but they occupied all three steps on the podium. In ’67 Ford won the race again and they were hounded home by two Ferraris, but in ’68 Ford shared the podium with two Porsches – we have seen how Ford only just beat the Porsche in ’69 in our opening paragraph.
For Porsche, the decade of the 1960s saw a steady climb up the ladder of international motorsport as the Stuttgart manufacturer steadily introduced bigger and better race cars. They became more of a threat to the other big players even though at first they were content to accumulate class wins, until they took their first Le Mans victory in 1970 with the indomitable 917. If their progress through the 1960s was an encouragement to the Stuttgart manufacturer, then they were certainly emboldened through the 1970s as they showed the world what they could do with turbo power. The Porsche 935 became a world-class winner on both sides of the Atlantic, and if you were serious about winning, then you needed to be in a 935. The 935/78 ‘Moby Dick’ is a stand out model here and an example of the genius of Porsche engineer Norbert Singer.
The decade of the ‘80s belonged almost solely to Porsche as their 956s and 962s were unstoppable. Once again, Porsche, through Norbert Singer, made the most of the rule book, producing a prototype race car that went on to become the most successful race car in the history of the sport. Without such innovation and the engineering advances that were permitted within the rules, we would not have been able to enjoy these fantastically entertaining and memorable years.
As we all know, all good things must come to an end, and who knows where we would be today if the Group C era had been allowed to evolve into the next great series? But sports car racing almost disappeared completely in the early ‘90s, and if it hadn’t been for the BPR series (Barth-Peter-Ratel), GT racing might not have saved top level racing as it did. Once again, Porsche pulled the rabbit out of the hat and in ’94 they won Le Mans with the Dauer Porsche 962 GT LM, and later in that decade the 911 GT1 would give them another 24-hour victory in France.
So, with this background, what is the solution and how do we bring back the sparkle to the sport we all love so much? Perhaps a return to rules and regulations that are set at the start of the season whereby manufacturers and teams enjoy greater freedom to innovate and create ways of making their race cars go faster, without the uncertainty of being penalised just before the race. Looking back through the fantastic and colourful history of this great sport, you can find many examples of when the sport was appealing, and growing in popularity.
Unfortunately though today, the sport is seen as ‘entertainment’ by some promoters. Motorsport will always be entertaining, but the sport of motor racing must be the main thrust. If I want entertainment, I could go the the theatre, the circus or sit at home and watch a movie on the TV. Motor racing is not that, it is a gripping, enthralling spectacle where you debate the pros and cons of one team against another with your friends, and you will pay to sit in the stands when the sport of racing offers that once again. The thrill of genuine competition is what will bring the people through the gates as this is the drawcard that has always attracted the spectators, ever since the first motor race was held.
There is a good test for what the best period was in motorsport, and that is to start a conversation around the BBQ fire or at the local pub about motor racing. There might be some talk about current racing, but inevitably the conversation will turn to the 1960s, the turbo era or Group C, or the greatest drivers who can best be described as gladiators. And then you just need to ask why that was the case?
What the future holds
This year, 2021, we saw the start of a new class of race car in the World Endurance Championship (WEC), namely the Hypercar which is the new top-tier category, based around road-going vehicles. This new class will feature two types of car: LMD (Le Mans Hypercar, from 2021); and LMDh (Le Mans Daytona h, from 2022). The ultimate aim is for these two types of car to compete in both the FIA WEC and in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and, therefore, to race in both the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Rolex 24 at Daytona. According to the WEC, these regulations leave scope for a wide variety of architectures and allow a front-axle hybrid system to be fitted. Consequently, the hierarchy in relation to the LMP2 class needed to be redefined.
For 2022, in LMDh, the backbone of the car – i.e the whole car minus the internal combustion engine, the body and the hybrid system – will be supplied by one of four chassis manufacturers: Dallara, Multimatic, Ligier or Oreca. This chassis structure will also be that of the next generation LMP2s and the common rear-axle hybrid system is mandatory. The LMDh will have a total combined output (engine + hybrid system) or 680 PS/500 kW and a minimum weight of 1030 kg.
With a maximum output of 680 PS/500 kW, Michelin as the single tyre manufacturer and a tightly controlled BoP, this will, according to the WEC, guarantee a level playing field in the class. Controlled costs will ensure that budgets are reduced by 80% compared with the outgoing LMP1 class.
For example, the Toyota GR010 Hybrid has already been out on track this season. The GR010 Hybrid incorporates a powerful four-wheel drive racing hybrid powertrain, with a 3.5-litre V6 twin turbo engine, providing 680 PS/500 kW to the rear wheels in combination with a 272 PS motor generator unit on the front axle. As part of a cost-cutting initiative incorporated in the regulations, the new GR010 Hybrid is 162 kg heavier and with 32% less power than its TS050 Hybrid predecessor, with Le Mans lap times expected to be around 10 seconds slower. It also has bigger dimensions; it is 250 mm longer, 100 mm wider and 100 mm higher.
Do you feel that the new Hypercar class can do the trick and pull motor racing out of the quagmire that the loyal enthusiasts think it is sinking into? Or do you feel that motor racing needs to inject back into the sport a healthy dose of diversity, innovation and passion? It will be interesting to hear what our readers from around the world think about this new set up.
Written by: Glen Smale
Images by: Glen Smale, Porsche Werkfoto & Toyota Gazoo Racing