Veteran motorsports journalist Jeremy Shaw, a regular contributor to RACER magazine, was on assignment at the 24 Hours of Le Mans for both Eurosport TV and Radio Le Mans.
I had been asked to write a few notes “from the Radio Le Mans booth” during the Le Mans 24 Hours but I'm afraid I simply ran out of time. Plus, in fact, I was rarely in the booth. The assignment from my regular ESPN3/American Le Mans Series co-commentator and RLM principal John Hindhaugh called for me to be patrolling the pit lane with a radio microphone, so I spent much of my time talking to people and wandering around the pit garages (wearing a very comfortable Sparco firesuit, I might add) with no regular access to my computer. Most enjoyable.
In addition, I had a prior agreement with Eurosport to be a part of a commentary team which also provided complete, uninterrupted television coverage of the 80th running of the French endurance classic. For Eurosport, I was situated in a booth overlooking the Ford Chicane.
As you might imagine, I was a bit busy. So I thought I would tap out some reflections on the race after the dust had settled and the champagne had finished flowing. Hey, I was in France, and hardly likely to turn down an offer yesterday evening from another Radio Le Mans partner – Nissan Europe's Darren Cox – to join some of the Nissan teams in a post-race party at a suite overlooking the Dunlop Curves. Yes, thank you, I had a great time!
The party provided a wonderful opportunity to unwind and compare notes with a variety of interesting people. Several drivers were present, including my old friend Martin Brundle, who finished eighth in the hotly contested LMP2 class with his 21-year-old son Alex and GT Academy winner Lucas Ordonez, from Spain. Nissan DeltaWing designer Ben Bowlby was there too, along with Justin Gurney, whose All American Racers company, based in Santa Ana, Calif., built the unique vehicle that competed as an invitational entry, and his father Dan's long-serving executive assistant, Kathy Weida.
The DeltaWing was clearly a fan favorite. It was therefore especially disappointing to see the bizarre-looking machine sidelined by an incident when Satoshi Motoyama was inadvertently punted off the road – ironically by fellow Japanese driver Kazuki Nakajima aboard one of the massively impressive and similarly innovative Toyota TS030 Hybrids. These two cars were comfortably the most interesting among the 56-car field, in terms of their technology, and both created quite an impression. It was unfortunate that Marino Franchitti – who had done most of the DeltaWing's testing – never got to drive the car in the race because the team didn't opt to start with single stints.
I will admit to having reservations about the relevance of the DeltaWing at such a prestigious event, since it was present merely on an invitational basis and didn't conform to the regulations of any of the World Endurance Championship's regular categories. Nevertheless, I do appreciate Bowlby's concept of promoting efficiency by attempting to compete against traditional equipment with a car boasting half the weight, horsepower and drag of a conventional sports prototype.
I applaud, too, the magnificent effort put forth by AAR, RML (which supplied the Nissan-badged, 1.6-liter turbocharged engine and oversaw the car during its brief development and race debut) and Michelin along with project partners Duncan Dayton (Highcroft Racing), Don Panoz and Chip Ganassi.
Personally, I was disappointed that the car didn't fully display its full potential. I happened to be watching at the Ford Chicane when Michael Krumm set out on a “qualifying run” on Wednesday evening (ABOVE), and couldn't help but notice the pure pace it carried through the fast, third-gear series of corners and the alacrity with which it applied its 350hp to the road. It visibly leaped off the corner. Sadly, Krumm never completed the next lap. The car ground to a halt at Tertre Rouge after the German hit a curb with a little too much gusto, causing the fire extinguisher to deploy and the electrical system to shut down. I know the team needed to ensure that all three drivers completed their mandatory night laps the following evening, but I still find it strange that no effort was made to go for a time…especially since the team had claimed the data from Krumm's lap the previous night had suggested a sub-3m40s lap was possible.
From my perspective, clearly not even the most optimistic of team insiders expected the relatively underdeveloped DeltaWing to run trouble-free for 24 hours. So why not lay down a marker? After all, the latter stages of Thursday's final qualifying session provided a wonderful opportunity to show the world how fast the car could go.
When I posed that question over the weekend, I was told that the team did not want to qualify strongly – perhaps even ahead of the LMP2 cars – then be seen to slip backward during the race, since it had already been determined to keep to a strict pace to ensure the car would last as long as possible. Huh? If that was the case, since the car was ineligible for any awards, why not try to set a fast time, then elect to start from the back of the field, in which case the car would surely garner some valuable air-time as it climbed through the field?
“Hmm, not a bad idea,” I was told. “Maybe we'll include you in our strategy meetings next time.” The comment was made in jest, or so I assumed, although I said I might be available in the future if required!
One more note about the Nissan DeltaWing: I was delighted to learn later that Nakajima and some senior members of the Toyota camp made a point of visiting the Highcroft Racing garage on Sunday morning and apologizing profusely. Classy.
It seems to me, sadly, that such sportsmanship is a rarity in today's society, although judging by my overall impression of the Toyota entourage at Le Mans, I wasn't surprised. The program comprises an eclectic mixture of cultures and expertise from Germany (chassis design and build), Japan (engine development) and France (race management through Hugues de Chaunac's ORECA team), and the overall result is thoroughly professional and refreshingly open.
I happened across technical director Pascal Vasselon on Wednesday morning (while awaiting a chat with de Chaunac, whom I have known since the late '70s in Formula 3), and even though he didn't know me from Adam, he spent several minutes explaining to me some of the background to the Hybrid system, how it works and why certain decisions were made. It was a fascinating conversation, especially since I would never profess to be any kind of technical expert. Later, during the race, I approached Vasselon while he was ensconced in his engineering “hut” on the pit wall. He gladly emerged to provide what I felt was an insightful interview for our Radio Le Mans listeners (although I must confess, the ambient noise might have made it a little difficult to hear him!).
The drivers, too, were mostly approachable and communicative. Nicolas Lapierre, whom I knew from previous races, regularly made himself available to chat, and sports car debutant Nakajima, whom I had never met, impressed me enormously with his enthusiasm and willingness to share information.
I was always freely permitted to watch in the Toyota garage area, where team director Rob Leupen and marketing and communications manager Alastair Moffitt were especially helpful. Such conviviality and openness, I believe, will pay dividends in the long run. Thank you, gentlemen, and congratulations on a truly stunning performance in the race.
Sure, neither car made the finish – and the unfortunate Anthony Davidson faces several weeks of rehabilitation after breaking two vertebrae in his back – but there are surely a large number of positives to be taken from the weekend, including assurances that the chassis is immensely strong (thus preventing Davidson from further injury in what was a truly horrifying accident) and, just as importantly, the car is fast. Audi has been warned!