Friday, June 17, 2016

The madness of egalitarianism infects auto racing. Is this why racing is losing viewership?

Sixty years after Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon drove the Ford GT40 to victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Ford is poised for a historic return to the Circuit de la Sarthe. The new Ford GT took the top two qualifying positions in the LMGTE Pro class, and four of the top five. Ferrari's 488 filled in the rest of the spots in the top seven, the first two from AF Corse. In other words, we're primed for a reboot of the classic Ford-Ferrari feud at this year's race.

Or not, as the ACO, which organizes the 24 Hours of Le Mans, announced sweeping pre-race Balance of Performance (BOP) adjustments this morning that make this year's GT class anybody's race.

In LMP1, last year's overall winner Porsche locked up the top two spots with the 919 Hybrid and will lead the entire field at race start. Toyota's two-car factory effort followed with qualifying times 1.004 and 2.170 seconds behind the pole lap. Audi rounds out the manufacturer-backed LMP1 class in fifth and sixth. Full qualifying results can be found here.

The storyline for the GT cars is perfect - some say too perfect. Ford's class-leading times came after BOP adjustment to the Corvette Racing C7.R before qualifying. BOP is intended to level the playing field in the class by adjusting power, ballast, and fuel capacity. (Check out this explainer video for more, or even just if you love French accents.) But the process is riddled with unknowns and ripe for accusations of sandbagging. That is, if the Ford cars were intentionally slow in practice they could hope for BOP adjustment to improve their race chances. On the Corvette side, last year's GTE Pro winner went from the top of the field to the bottom, barely improving from practice to qualifying.

If you think Le Mans is as rigged at the NBA Playoffs, well, it's not that simple. Because if Ford and Ferrari held back until qualifying - the eighth-place Porsche 911 RSR is three-and-a-half seconds off the class pole time - it was a pretty dumb strategy. This morning, the ACO tried to put things back in order by limiting the boost in the Ford GT's twin-turbo V6 and adding 11 pounds of ballast. Ferrari was also given extra weight but allowed more fuel capacity. The Corvette and Aston Martin teams were both given breaks on their air restrictors, which will allow their engines to make more power. Both Ford and Porsche also received extra fuel capacity.

BOP is an imperfect solution to the eternal problem of parity in motorsports, and the seemingly arbitrary nature of the adjustments lends itself to all kinds of conspiracy theories. What BOP doesn't change is the length of the 24-hour race, where luck and fate can play just as heavy of a role as the ACO. And, if you like the storybook plotline, it makes a Ford victory look slightly more deserving than it would have been after qualifying.

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