Sorry not to have written a post-Canadian Grand Prix article, but immediately after that race, I was concentrating on Le Mans. The last time I missed a Grand Prix was when I chose Le Mans rather than the Canadian Grand Prix back in 1985. I first went to the French classic in 1972 and after quite a few years of continuous attendance, I began to miss a few. In fact prior to last year, I hadn’t been to Le Mans for several years, and there have been quite a few absences.
So I flew straight from Canada to Paris Charles de Gaulle and took a train directly to Le Mans where I was commentating for the international TV feed. CdG is really an awful airport; if you want to get from one terminal to another, there is a train service but it doesn’t actually go to terminals and you still have to walk. But anyway, I arrived in Le Mans shattered but ready to talk about four hours of practice, six hours of qualifying and 12 hours of racing!
I’ll come back to Le Mans in a minute, but first the odd word about Canada. It was pretty much business as usual for Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes, wasn’t it. I was going to be intrigued as to how Lewis was going to recover from Monaco and he pretty much wrote off the controversy and disappointment. Easy to say, but was it really nagging away? Sending both cars out on intermediates in a downpour in one session resulted in Lewis going into the barrier, and I wondered if that would also have lasting effects.
I needn’t have worried. In the race he absolutely nailed it and did his usual annihilation job on Nico Rosberg, winner of the two previous races. And they were so far ahead of the opposition that it was a two horse race. All the Italian journalists were getting very excited about Ferrari’s engine upgrade – they had used three of their tokens, probably in the combustion area where the most gain is to be found – but it didn’t seem to have made a lot of difference, and Williams edged ahead again in the shape of Valtteri Bottas if not Felipe Massa, although the Brazilian was picking them off one after another in the early stages as he fought through from the nether regions of the grid. But really, the gap to the rest is so massive it’s scarcely worth talking about them.
Bernie Ecclestone has had some kind words to say about Lewis Hamilton’s style as champion, in that he apparently attracts the younger generation which Bernie previously said didn’t have the money to buy Rolex watches and fly Emirates etc. I gather that Lewis did a TV show in the UK with Chris Evans – soon to be the face of Top Gear – on which he scarcely sparkled, according to my sources. I wonder what Bernie’s view is now.
And so to Le Mans. I was there last year to commentate on ACO’s international feed and since then I’ve done commentary on Bahrain’s WEC round. I’ve always been much more than an F1 fan, taking an interest in all forms of racing so I knew a certain amount about the championship and ELMS and know where to find out more.
I was expecting to see some of my colleagues from the UK daily papers and so I’ve been intrigued by their outspoken reaction in comparing the atmosphere in F1 to that of the World Endurance Championship. Karun Chandhok has had a big go at people comparing the two; I agree that you can’t compare the racing but you can certainly compare the atmospheres.
This is a big race, 263,000 spectators, the roads are gridlocked at peak times. Manufacturer interest is massive: Porsche, Audi, Nissan, Toyota, Aston Martin, Chevrolet, Ferrari and Ford next year. They’re there to sell road cars, you don’t see much sponsorship on the works cars and the effort is considerable. There are huge hospitality units and there’s a real positive feel – not like a recent BBC story about F1 which includes a quote ‘the drivers aren’t happy, the fans aren’t happy, the teams aren’t happy.’
(Having said that, I heard a BBC news story on Sunday night which declared that F1 driver Nico Hulkenberg had won Le Mans in a Porsche with Britain’s Nick Tandy – no mention of Earl Bamber. Mark Webber had finished second – clever chap, no co-drivers mentioned. And Audi were third – was that a driver or the car? Work it out for yourself! But at least the Le Mans result was on the BBC after a considerable absence, I suspect. )
I didn’t want to compare F1 and Le Mans, they’re two very different animals with different followings, but you could and can see the differences and the different atmospheres. Formula One has been very good to me and I don’t want to kick it when it’s down but I am aware that there needs to be a major revision. That can only start at the top.
It’s all very well to sing the praises of Le Mans but it is part of a championship, not a one-off. The World Endurance Championship started at Silverstone before moving to Spa and then Le Mans where competitors in the championship score double points. There’s now a big gap to Nurburgring at the end of August before the series moves to Circuit of the Americas, then Japan and China before ending in Bahrain – no Brazil this year. You can imagine that there will be good crowds at some of those venues, but by no means all. Having said that, those manufacturers wanting to sell cars will probably make a great deal more of their participation at those races than those involved in F1 are able to do. That is major part of the attraction.
I have to say that I enjoyed it hugely as well. There are four classes of car with a sub-class in the top class for non-hybrid privateers, so you find Porsche, Toyota, Audi and Nissan in the top class; then comes the LMP2 with privateer largely Nissan-powered sports prototypes; followed by GTEPro which is semi-works production-based cars drivers by pro-drivers such as Giancarlo Fisichella; finally similar GTEAm cars with a mix of amateurs and professionals. Competition is tight throughout and there are some intriguing battles.
Will we see the same next weekend in Austria? Remember that last year it was the only race where a Mercedes wasn’t on pole position; that honour went to the Williams of Felipe Massa. The Red Bull Ring – a very popular venue on its return, incidentally – suited the Williams team’s cars very well and both drivers featured strongly and they may well have further updates for this race but it will be tough to bridge that 30s gap to Mercedes that had appeared in Canada.
Again, maybe Ferrari’s engine modifications will be more effective in Austria than Canada and teams have now had time post-Barcelona to come up with more upgrades. There is a two-day test at the circuit after the Austrian Grand Prix, although it seems very soon after the last test in Barcelona. This is the final test of the year, too.
As I mentioned, this is a track which has enough private backing to look after fans who are present and put on a good show. It will be a busy, fun weekend in a reasonably warm climate. The media will be in a positive mood, not only because of Le Mans but also the facilities at this event. It could be the ideal anti-dote to that negativity which pervades F1 at the moment – although don’t expect it to last! Motor sport is on a high at the moment, let’s see if we can keep it there for a while.
By Bob Constanduros