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Opinion
Le Mans 24 Hours of Le Mans

Did Le Mans Balance of Performance change create an end that justified the means?

OPINION: A controversial and late Balance of Performance change dominated the build-up to the Le Mans 24 Hours, only to give way to a thrilling and competitive centenary race that saw Ferrari triumph over Toyota. But could the 11th-hour tweak set a dangerous precedent for the future?

#51 Ferrari AF Corse Ferrari 499P of Alessandro Pier Guidi, James Calado, Antonio Giovinazzi

Ferrari wins on its factory prototype comeback. And narrowly so at the end of an intriguing and sometimes thrilling battle with Toyota. All five major car manufacturers involved in Hypercar lead at some point or other. The centenary edition of the Le Mans 24 Hours definitely got a race befitting of such a significant moment in its history. There can be no question of that.

There is, however, another question that needs to be asked. Was it contrived, a result of the Balance of Performance changes made outside of the rules and regulations in the lead-up to the blue riband round of the World Endurance Championship?

The advantage Toyota’s GR010 HYBRID Le Mans Hypercar enjoyed over the opening three rounds of this year’s WEC was mitigated by the BoP revision that came exactly two weeks ago, and just three days before the pre-event Le Mans Test Day. The 37kg increase it received was a massive hit, though in terms of the GR010’s battle for supremacy with the Ferrari 499P LMH it was really 13kg. That’s the difference between the extra 37kg the Toyota was handed and the 24kg the Ferrari received.

It undoubtedly changed the dynamic of the race. Of course it did, because that was what the BoP changes were designed to do. With the eyes of the world focused on Le Mans, race organiser the Automobile Club de l’Ouest couldn’t afford for the race to be another Toyota walkover, a damp squib of an affair in which the result was never truly in doubt.

That’s why, together with the co-organiser of the WEC, the FIA, the ACO overrode the new BoP system introduced for this season. A system that didn’t allow for wholesale changes ahead of Le Mans. Only a tweak in the balance between LMH machinery and the LMDhs from Cadillac and Porsches was permitted from the start of the season right up until after Le Mans, though exactly when that was possible wasn’t entirely clear.

It was a unilateral decision imposed upon the manufacturers from the very top of the ACO. Club president Pierre Fillon, I believe, was the architect of the move, along with his opposite number on the FIA Endurance Commission, Richard Mille.

It was billed by the two organisations as a “correction” because the performance differential between the different LMH cars had been “greater than initially anticipated” at the opening three races. That’s another way of saying that Toyota was too fast on the way to victories of various degrees of dominance.

Did the late BoP change find a happy middle ground or meddle too much?

Did the late BoP change find a happy middle ground or meddle too much?

You might argue that the BoP is there to do exactly as its name implies: to balance the performance of the cars. But it’s much more complex than that. There have to be guidelines, a framework in which the BoP operates. Otherwise it becomes a free-for-all of politicking, sabre-rattling and, of course, sandbagging. The change made ahead of this year’s French enduro came outside of new rules conceived to rid the BoP of all that.

I’m not arguing that the grands fromages at the FIA and the ACO felt pressured by external inputs, though they were definitely there (Porsche was the most vocal manufacturer on BoP after the Spa WEC round). Nor am I saying that the BoP changes — sorry, correction — were conceived in any way to hand Ferrari an advantage and smooth the path to victory for the manufacturer that could give Le Mans the biggest and best headlines.

My belief is that the ultimate arbiters of the WEC, who at the end of the day can pull rank and do more or less what they want, simply decided to ride roughshod over the rules as they stood to ensure that Toyota didn’t have things all its own way. And the technical departments of the ACO and the FIA got it pretty much spot on given how close it was between Ferrari and Toyota.

Who knows what would have happened if Hirakawa hadn’t had his off at Arnage and the winning Ferrari not lost half a minute in the pits with a recurrence of an earlier electronic glitch

Ferrari was in the ascendancy for large portions of the race, of course. But the battle between the Italian car driven by Alessandro Pier Guidi, James Calado and Antonio Giovinazzi, and the Toyota of Sebastien Buemi, Brendon Hartley and Ryo Hirakawa was coming alive in the closing hours.

It looked as though the Japanese manufacturer might have the fastest car for the run to the flag. Who knows what would have happened if Hirakawa hadn’t had his off at Arnage and the winning Ferrari not lost half a minute in the pits with a recurrence of an earlier electronic glitch?

PLUS: How Ferrari scored a historic victory at Le Mans

It’s worth pointing out that Caddy, third in the Hypercar pecking order in the run-up to Le Mans with its V-Series.R LMDh, could have been in the mix last weekend. Unlike its third-placed sister car, the Ganassi-run Cadillac Racing entry shared by Sebastien Bourdais, Renger van der Zande and Scott Dixon had the pace to keep Ferrari and Toyota honest despite an 11kg BoP hit. But for a series of minor delays, it might have been right with them rather than two laps down in fourth at the finish.

Peugeot was the only major manufacturer to avoid a weight increase in the late BoP tweaks, but this did little to improve its overall fortunes

Peugeot was the only major manufacturer to avoid a weight increase in the late BoP tweaks, but this did little to improve its overall fortunes

Photo by: Marc Fleury

Nor should we forget that Peugeot led the race and was ensconced near the top of the leaderboard for a protracted period through the night. No one would have put money on its 9X8 LMH doing that, even after a significant gain for Peugeot under the revised BoP - it was the only big manufacturer car to escape a weight increase.

Porsche’s 963 LMDh was given only three kilogrammes and finally showed some pace in the WEC. The reliability of the thing remained suspect, however, and the German manufacturer failed to get a car home in the top six.

So yes, a monster crowd of 325,000 and millions of people consuming the action on whatever platforms around the world got a fantastic race in which all five of the grandees involved in Hypercar were competitive to a greater or lesser extent. But what happened in the build-up to Le Mans this year sets a dangerous precedent.

Toyota Gazoo Racing Europe technical director Pascal Vasselon has suggested that it could lead to a return of sandbagging. I’ll widen that out to the gamesmanship that has so often been part of BoP categories. I’m talking about the aforementioned political manoeuvring and some route-one screaming and shouting.

The beauty of the new BoP system this year is that it does away with all that, or is at least meant to. It’s based on simulation rather than lap-time analysis and track data from the races and sets the BoP according to the potential of each car. That’s why it could be more or less set in stone from the beginning of the season until after Le Mans.

But the philosophy of this new framework was always going to work in Toyota’s favour. In the GR010 it has the proven car, one that has been racing since 2021 and undergone two off-season upgrades within rules that strictly limit performance developments. Of course it was going to be nearer to its potential than the rest.

Perhaps it was the wrong time to introduce such a system. Maybe it would have been wise to wait until Toyota’s rivals are more advanced in their programmes, or have more mature racing cars if you like. A more reactive system, like the one previously in force, might have served the WEC better in the first year of what we are all describing as a golden age.

Each major Le Mans Hypercar manufacturer led at some stage during the race

Each major Le Mans Hypercar manufacturer led at some stage during the race

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

That said, the new BoP is the right system for the WEC and Hypercar moving forward. But it’s no good if the series organisers drive a bulldozer over the rules every time they don’t like the results they produce, come under pressure by a disgruntled and probably uncompetitive manufacturer or get caught out by someone hiding the performance of their car. My point is that if they can do it once, the organisers can do it again.

I don’t want to put my head on the chopping block by saying that the pre-Le Mans BoP changes should never have been made. Why would I, when I have had the privilege of being able to report on such a fantastic race?

The new BoP is the right system for the WEC and Hypercar moving forward. But it’s no good if the series organisers drive a bulldozer over the rules every time they don’t like the results

But if what happened two weeks ago leads to the kind of political skulduggery and chopping and changing that has so often tainted BoP racing, then I have a problem. The WEC needs to be devoid of all that as more and more manufacturers arrive and it gets stronger and stronger. A stable system of BoP is paramount to the success of the series.

So I guess the question I’m really asking is whether the end justified the means, if going above the rules as written was somehow validated by a thrilling motor race? If a precedent has been set, I know the answer to that one. It’s a resounding no.

Few would dispute the #51 Ferrari winning this year's Le Mans, but the BoP change going into the race could set a worrying precedent

Few would dispute the #51 Ferrari winning this year's Le Mans, but the BoP change going into the race could set a worrying precedent

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

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