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IMSA drivers defend ‘Americanised’ Le Mans safety car changes

Drivers from the IMSA SportsCar Championship have spoken in defence of the new safety car rules at the Le Mans 24 Hours following heavy criticism from Toyota.

Safety car

Toyota Gazoo Racing Europe technical director Pascal Vasselon caused a stir following the official Test Day when he described the new rules, which will see the entire 62-car field packed up behind a single safety car following full-course cautions for the first time, as a “big step towards the Americanisation of Le Mans”.

The changes will allow cars that have fallen a lap behind their class leaders to gain a lap back via a wave-by procedure, which is already used in IMSA, while another procedure called the drop back will keep the LMP2s and GTE Ams separated from the Hypercars on restarts.

Alexander Sims, who is part of the Action Express Racing Cadillac squad in IMSA and is racing for the same team at Le Mans this weekend, told Autosport he could understand Vasselon’s point of view but said the new rules will help to keep the race for the overall win closer until the end.

He also pointed to his experience of racing with the old Le Mans safety car system in the GTE Pro class for BMW that instances like 2018, where an early safety car period helped Porsche to a dominant victory, also hit the fight for victory.

“In the WEC it’s always been about neutralising the race and allowing an advantage that has been built up to carry on after the safety car or the race neutralisation,” said Sims. 

“But we had it one year when one of the Porsches, the ‘pink pig’ [#92 entry that ran in a classic throwback livery], gained a lap early in the race because of a safety car, just because they went a lap longer before their pitstop. It killed the race. 

“I can sympathise with Pascal’s comments in terms of the spirit of Le Mans, the way the race has always been run, that the fastest car continues to pull away and you see how the race evolves on pace through the night and into the morning. 

Safety Car

Safety Car

Photo by: Paul Foster

“But I’ve done so many races in IMSA where your advantage or your deficit has been eradicated and the race is back on, and it’s so much more exciting. It can work for you or against you, but at the end of the day you accept it and it creates exciting racing.”

Nick Tandy, who races for Porsche in IMSA and is present in the third Porsche Penske Motorsport-entered 963 LMDh this weekend at Le Mans, told Autosport he feels the fact that LMP2 and GTE races are less likely to be ruined means the new system is preferable to what came before.

As well as the 2018 GTE Pro contest, he cited the following year’s race, which featured a four-car breakaway as a result of a safety car, as well as last year’s LMP2 race, in which the winning JOTA car was split from its rivals.

“It’s not often that the cars in the top class get split by the safety car, because the safety car picks up the first car in class,” pointed out Tandy. “For the other classes, the safety car doesn’t come out for the leaders, so the chances of them getting split up are much higher.

“If you’re looking at it from a Hypercar point of view, it has the potential to influence a race. But from the other classes’ point of view, the new rule is designed so that it doesn’t influence the race. 

“I think the chance of the Hypercar race being influenced by the new rule is much less than the chances of GTE or LMP2 being influenced under the old system. On balance, I think it’s a good thing.”

Tandy disputed Vasselon’s suggestion that teams will opt to take it easy and focus only on staying on the lead lap in the hopes of a caution to reset the field.

He said: “Are we going to spend most of the race cruising around, waiting for a yellow? Not a chance. There was only one last year. It’s not like we’re going to have a lot of safety cars; it’s quite rare we get a safety car here.”

#47 Cool Racing Oreca 07 - Gibson of Reshad De Gerus, Vladislav Lomko, Simon Pagenaud

#47 Cool Racing Oreca 07 - Gibson of Reshad De Gerus, Vladislav Lomko, Simon Pagenaud

Photo by: Alexander Trienitz

COOL Racing LMP2 driver Simon Pagenaud, who combines his main programme in IndyCar with an endurance-only role in the Meyer Shank Racing Acura in IMSA, said he found the old system “more shocking” than the new rules that have been put in place this year.

“I would ask the fans what they want to see,” Pagenaud told Autosport. “At the end of the day, is it – are we racing for the pure performance over 24 hours, with no stoppage of the race, or are we racing to entertain the fans? 

“That’s a difference between Europe and the US in terms of racing. Clearly in the US, we’re racing for the fans.”

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