Why an 'artificial' Le Mans finish is more likely in 2023

OPINION: A change to regulations for the Le Mans 24 Hours makes a super-close winning margin much more likely in its centenary year. That's great for entertainment, but may be out of step with the event's well-established traditions

Safety car on track

What a story it would be if the Le Mans 24 Hours produced a grandstand finish — perhaps the closest ever in its history — in this the centenary year for the French enduro. I reckon there’s a decent chance of its happening as the clock strikes four on 11 June, and I’m not making that prediction because the sell-out crowd is going to be watching one of the best fields in the top class in years with Toyota, Ferrari, Porsche et al. I’m saying it because there has been a rule change for 2023 that makes it all the more likely.

A close finish would be great for the spectators massed in the old stands and on the terracing opposite the pits, and equally great for TV and the profile of the race as the World Endurance Championship kicks on into what is sure to be a halcyon age. But what if it is totally artificial? Is that what we really want to be talking and writing about on Sunday evening of the second weekend of June?

The reason the odds have shortened on the record for the narrowest winning margin in the history of the great race being surpassed is a change to the sporting regulations. And it’s one that offends a purist like me.

New safety-car regulations will do away with the old procedure involving three course vehicles out on the 8.47-mile length of the Circuit de la Sarthe. Or at least there won’t be three safety cars out on track at the magic moment the field is released. Instead there will be just one, and the field will be lined up according to class — Hypercar at the front, of course — when the lights go out.

I’m not saying that the old system was perfect. Of course, it wasn’t and never could be. Any caution period has the potential to have a negative impact on the race. There have been times when it has, in particular, broken up the battle down in the classes. Think back to 2018, and the ‘Pink Pig’ Porsche in GTE Pro gaining a two-minute lead under the safety car early in the race and never losing it.

There has been no explanation of the change, so far, but it the suspicion has to be that it has been made in the name of entertainment, to spice up the show if you like. Le Mans organiser and WEC promoter the Automobile Club de l’Ouest knows it has a great product now with seven marques — and all the right ones with the return of Ferrari and Porsche to the top of the sportscar tree. It has the quantity and the quality, and it understandably wants to promote that to a wider audience.

Being split off from the rest of the pack under the former safety car rules in 2018 allowed the #92 Porsche of Christensen, Estre and Vanthoor to dominate the GTE Pro class

Being split off from the rest of the pack under the former safety car rules in 2018 allowed the #92 Porsche of Christensen, Estre and Vanthoor to dominate the GTE Pro class

Photo by: Ashleigh Hartwell / Motorsport Images

But would an artificial short, sharp race to the flag courtesy of a late safety car be in the traditions of Le Mans? I ask that question as someone who has never hid his frustration at the surfeit of cautions over on the other side of the Pond at the Daytona 24 Hours.

One year at Florida enduro in the pre-merger days of Grand-Am, an era when race control was far more trigger happy when it came to yellows than it is today, I made an outlandish proclamation as I watched the final stages of the race unfold. Or rather waited for them to unfold as the cars drone around behind that de rigueur final-hour safety car.

My comment went something like this: “Next year, I’m not pitching up at the track for the race ’til a couple of hours to go.” I postulated that the best place to keep an eye on proceedings would be the branch of a well-known — and not particularly politically-correct — bar chain right across the International Speedway Boulevard from the track. Only as the race drew to a close would it be time, I reckoned, to mosey on over to take my place in front of the timing screens and monitors.

Sport needs to be about fairness, which is why there has been a drive to mitigate the effects of caution periods on motor races

Americans will also tell you that motor racing is first and foremost entertainment. Call me old fashioned, but I beg to differ. It’s a sport that people happen to find entertaining.

Sport needs to be about fairness, which is why there has been a drive to mitigate the effects of caution periods on motor races. The trend in recent years in the European realm of racing has been to try to avoid them in the name of sporting equity. That’s one of the reasons we now have virtual safety cars in Formula 1 and Full Course Yellows (the same thing under a different name) in sportscar racing. Then there are the Slow Zones at Le Mans, which are in effect local FCYs.

A single safety car on a circuit measuring three and a bit miles is one thing, just the one on a track more than eight miles in length is quite another. A car crew might have a lead of say three minutes after something approaching 20 hours, and then have it wiped out by a safety car.

A three-minute advantage at say Monza would be a couple of laps, which is why the old safety car rules for the 24 Hours made sense. To a greater or less extent maintained the gaps in the field, which for someone who believes he is watching a sport has to be good.

Use of safety cars has a significant impact even on smaller circuits used by the WEC, such as Sebring

Use of safety cars has a significant impact even on smaller circuits used by the WEC, such as Sebring

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

And as much as endurance racing might be out of step with the modern age and the need for instant gratification, Le Mans still has an enduring appeal. You only have to look the fact that the race days at Le Mans have long since been sold out to understand that. Or the number of hits that the race garners on autosport.com. It doesn’t need gimmicks, doesn’t requiring jazzing up, and shouldn’t be messed with.

No one can predict what effect the new procedure will have on Le Mans this June, nor if it will be required to be invoked late in the race. And God forbid if there is safety car when there doesn’t really need to be, perhaps when a Slow Zone would do.

If the 13.854s that stood between Andre Lotterer’s Audi and Simon Pagenaud’s Peugeot in 2011 — the closest timed finish at Le Mans — is beaten this year after a late safety car, it’ll grab the headlines around the world. But I suspect I’ll be writing about it with a heavy heart.

If the 2011 record for the closest finish of the modern era is broken due to a late safety car bunching up the pack, purists are likely to be discontented

If the 2011 record for the closest finish of the modern era is broken due to a late safety car bunching up the pack, purists are likely to be discontented

Photo by: Jeff Bloxham / Motorsport Images

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