John Hindhaugh sheds light on a clash of cultures as he looks ahead to this weekend’s Lone Star Le Mans at the Circuit of the Americas.
This weekend, the Circuit of the Americas (COTA) will play host to one of the most intriguing events of the sportscar season. Just outside Austin, Texas, the USA’s first purpose-built F1 circuit welcomes both the FIA World Endurance Championship and the IMSA United Sportscar Series for the ‘Lone Star Le Mans’ – a mash-up of two series which in part share the same cars, but have diametrically differing philosophies.
Two series that, literally, have a wall between them.
They aren’t on the track at the same time, of course. But, for us fans, it allows the most direct comparison between the major versions of sportscar racing. That the high-tech, ultra-high-budget WEC LMP1 ‘works’-developed factory entries from Audi, Porsche and Toyota will hold sway is not in question.
At the head of the WEC field, the 1,000kg hybrid-assisted thoroughbreds boast a minimum of 1,000BHP. Given the right conditions, and not the wet weather of last year, they should be lapping the 3.4mile (5.5km) track in just over 100 seconds. For another comparison, that’s the same sort of times the F1 cars achieved in their race there last year.
Of course, the LMP2 prototypes are basically the same cars in both series although there’s been as much as 3-4 seconds between the WEC LMP2 cars and the P Class of IMSA in the past. The WEC GTE/IMSA GTLM classes are identical however; so the stopwatches will be most closely scrutinised when those cars are out on the circuit.
The World Championship GT cars have been run close by the IMSA versions. For once, though, lap times aren’t the whole story as tyre regulations and the dreaded ‘Balance of Performance’ provides points of difference between the European mindset of the FIA World Championship and the American IMSA Series.
Nevertheless, this week, the many bars around Austin will be ringing to conversations centred on which series has it right or wrong; which has the better regulations and, crucially, which has the better racing.
Perhaps the more interesting question to pose would be that of: Why are there any differences at all?
I’m not going to offer an opinion here, not least because adding up the duration of both races would still not give me enough time to even scratch the surface on that one.
But it does bring us back to the wall between the series. It’s a real wall, in the pit lane, all week long.
COTA is a European-style, Hermann Tilke-designed circuit, with garages incorporated into the pit lane. These garages, occupied by the FIA World Championship teams, offer direct access into an exceptionally wide pit lane. If any work needs doing, the car can be rolled back into the garage.
This isn’t the American way at all, so the wall is there to provide a barrier and to move the area where the cars are serviced into plain view, further out into the pit lane. The IMSA teams set up their pit equipment on the ‘inside’ wall, so that they can be right on top of the pitstops. Whereas the FIA teams have their ‘pit perches’ and pit-signalling equipment on the wall closest to the track – the outside wall.
This is a clear illustration of the differences in racing culture and history between the two continents. On super-fast ovals, no-one hangs out pit boards on the start straight – sorry, ‘straightaway’. There’d be no point. The driver couldn’t see it.
During the week, right through practice and qualifying, there are gaps left in the concrete so that the FIA teams can push their cars behind the inside wall and into their pit garages. Now, while this may seem a perfect compromise to allow the two paddocks to co-exist, it would make pitstops and, more importantly, trips to the garage quite unusual and difficult within the WEC 6 hour race.
And so it is that the wall comes down between races. Yes, it is literally and physically taken away.
In previous years, the two races have been held on separate days, thereby leaving the removal of the wall a bit of a chore but by no means impossible.
This year, however, there are 2 hours and 45 minutes between the chequered flag for IMSA and lights out for WEC. That’s an absolute maximum of 165 minutes to: dismantle all of the IMSA teams’ pit equipment, safely breakdown refuelling rigs, remove over 100 concrete wall elements (watching fork-lift trucks at work is one of my absolute favourite things), sweep the pit lane, roll out the WEC cars, and so on.
And whilst all of this is going on, the WEC are having their autograph session… on the main straight, no less!
Right now, no-one is sure it can actually be completed in time. This is not something you do ‘just for fun’ or, indeed, something for which you set aside practice time. But this is motorsport. And in motorsport, deadlines are hard and fast. And so, it simply has to be finished in order for the FIA World Championship to go ahead on time.
It strikes me that the Lone Star Le Mans weekend, and the meeting of fundamentally contrasting European and American racing philosophies, might just sum up how endurance racing is developing at the moment. The sport has to balance the interests of major car companies who want to showcase their technology – in a relevant and exciting arena of the sport where reliability, efficiency, speed and endurance are key – with the purity of racing from smaller, less well-funded private teams and non-professional drivers who ‘just want to race’.
It has to allow the World Championship – including the famous Le Mans 24hrs – to thrive as a global entity, whilst also encouraging regional and national series to allow for the development of drivers, teams, sponsors and fans that will aspire to one day take part in the ‘big show’.
Just as long as there can be gaps in the wall, or even that the wall can be removed where necessary, these lofty goals of inclusivity remain alive and well.
Coverage of both the IMSA United Sportscar Championship and the FIA WEC will be streamed live in sound and vision from Austin, Texas from Thursday 17th September at www.radiolemans.com.