Le Mans – What It’s All About

A quick departure from this blog’s normal discussion of open wheel racing takes us to France for one of the best races of the year.  Yes, that’s right.  Le Mans.  The endurance race to end all endurance races.

And what a race it was.

Like is so often the case, the 2017 race was a war of attrition.  Well, this year’s race saw a little bit more attrition than most years.  A lot more, really.

All LMP1 cars, save the race winning #2 Porsche and a lonely Toyota who finished way down the order were knocked out of the race by internal problems (and in the case of one Toyota, a far too over zealous LMP2 car).  Now, I will be the first to admit, I have a very limited knowledge of just how these cars work.  The level of technical wizardry that goes in to each and every one of them blow my mind.  But from what I understand the majority of the problems were electric issues caused by the extreme heat plaguing the circuit.

Now, before you zone out, worried that this is going to be a simple recap of the race, stop worrying.  It won’t be.

No, what I want to talk about are the remarks made by the commentary team each and every time one of the cars failed.  They all seemed to be baffled at the failures and each and every time said something along the lines of, “Why would teams invest X millions of dollars only to have their cars break down.  How can this race think of luring other manufacturers into the fold of they see all these cars breaking down?”

I understand the sentiment, don’t get me wrong.  It’s heartbreaking for these teams to see their dreams go up in smoke halfway through a race.  And it has to be equally disheartening for the accountants back in Germany and Japan (for Porsche and Toyota at least) to see their massive investments go up in proverbial smoke.

But is money the real reason why we race?  Is money the reason why teams have been coming to Le Mans for over 80 years?  Is that why men and woman are willing to put their lives on the line every time they step into a car?  Does any manufacturer actually enter into motorsports thinking, “Hey!  This is a great investment?”

Yes, motorsports is expensive.  It has been since the earliest days of the sport when Europe’s wealthy elite jumped into their cars and tried to see who could go fastest.

Yes, nowadays with sponsors and all the rest, money is a massive part of racing.  You have to have a large pocket book to enter a team into any elite form of the sport, especially the WEC.  The insanely complex hybrid systems run by Toyota and Porsche are not only state of the art but costly.  The budget required to make them run makes the budget of any IndyCar or NASCAR team look like a popcorn fart.  And no matter how many sponsorship opportunities a team may get or however large the purse is, there always will be an expectation that a team will lose money.

So why do it?  Why do these teams spend everything knowing that they could lose it all in the blink of an eye?

Well, there’s the obvious answer of prestige and bragging rights.  Saying that you won the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the Indianapolis 500, the Monaco Grand Prix, etc is a big freaking deal.  Go to any auto show in the next year.  I guarantee you that Porsche will have a big sign plastered over their booth that says, “Winners of the 2017 24 Hours of Le Mans.”

And yes, with that comes auto sales.  To the nutjobs like you and me, those people who would actually read a blog like this, those kind of results matter.  I know, for myself, I judge road cars, in a small way, based off of how their respective racing team does.  Does that mean I’m going to go out and buy a Porsche tomorrow?  No, but it does mean that when Porsche puts out a new hybrid supercar, I’m going to sit up and pay attention because I know they have  a proven record on the track.

Along those same lines is the technological crossover that comes from racing.  While a lot of innovations have come from a lot of different areas of motorsports, Le Mans always seems to be at the forefront of coming up with what’s next for a road car.  Look at what’s happening today with hypercars.  Ferrari, Porsche, and McLaren all have cars out that are built on the basic principals pioneered at Le Mans (and in F1 if we’re honest).  They built cars that simultaneously use hybrid power and an internal combustion engine.  They’re hypercars, so they’re expensive as hell.  But as it was with disc brakes and aerodynamics, it’s only a matter of time before the car makers of the world figure out how to make fast hybrid systems available for all cars.  And oh man, won’t that be a great day.

And finally, there’s the cliche answer.  The McQueen-esque answer, somewhere along the lines of, “because it’s there.”

To a large degree, however cliche, it’s true.  There will always be a inane desire within certain men and women to push the limits of what is possible.  The record for the race is over 300 laps?  Great.  Let’s see if we can do it in 400.  You have a car that can go 215 MPH down the Mulsanne?  Screw you, let’s see if we can’t get a car that goes 220.  You have a car that can…….  You get the point.

Why do people do this?  Why do teams do this?  Why do owners of multi-billion dollar car companies throw their names on the line to win a stupid race?  Because.  It’s.  There.

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