Sunday, June 23, 2013

Watching LeMans Online

Just in time for LeMans, Comcast cable shifted Speed TV to a premium HD package.  Well... OK... I was pretty disgusted with "the NASCAR Channel" anyway...  So I went online and discovered (French language) and (same webcaster, in English).

The video quality was only acceptable (380) and the network had direct access only to in-car cameras. But they had delayed access to the ACO's "world feed" and real-time access to timing and scoring. Which was fine.  I toggled back and forth and was able to stay informed.  There were two unexpected benefits: 1) the English-language color commentators were excellent, and I learned more useful technical information than I've learned in years of Speed TV broadcasts; 2) there was one 30-second Rolex commercial every hour.  Heavenly.

The expected benefit was learning a bit of French, including accents.  I love the musicality of French, including pronunciation: chicann, Fehrareh,  Potshuh, Tooyoutahh.  My favorite British contribution was "a slightly dodgy line" (describing a massive curb-jumping).  In the post-race interviews, Dr. Wolfgang Ulrich's answers, in French, sounded impeccable to me.  But then I nearly needed a translator for Alan McNish's Scottish accent.  Dr. Ulrich's French may have been nearly incomprehensible to native speakers.

The 90th anniversary running of LeMans lived up to the race's epic reputation.  Allan Simonson was killed on the third lap when (it appeared to me) his Aston Martin suffered a suspension failure that sent it straight into a barrier with such force that it bounced back into the middle of the course at the exit of Tetre Rouge, shedding components.  Fatalities in sports car racing are extremely rare these days.  The accident set the tone for one of those struggles against weather, mechanical failures, and brain-fade that characterized LeMans in earlier years but have been more rare recently.  The weather was wet/dry/wet/dry/wet for 23 hours, including downpours.  There were several long full-course yellows for to repair Armco barriers.  In post-race interviews, several veteran drivers said it was the toughest LeMans they've done.

And it was suspenseful to the end.  Toyota was able to finish second to Audi, one lap down, with gritty determination.  The Toyotas were 4 seconds per lap slower than the Audis on a clear track, but could go 1-2 laps further on a tankful.  With fewer and shorter full-course yellows, Toyota's superior range on a tankful and equal pace in the wet might have won out.  Porsche entered two factory GT-3 RSR's, but Aston Martin gave them all they could handle in terms of outright pace.  Porsche finished 1-2, but the single remaining Aston was on the same lap.  The Ferrari 458 Italias and Corvettes were off the pace, but moved up during the night through attrition.  Close to the podium, but no cigar: a classic LeMans outcome.

From the mid-1970's to the advent of Group C cars, I lost interest in LeMans.  And I lost interest again in the fastest classes after Group C went away.  But the GT class has been great fun to watch recently, and has gotten more so since the FIA and the ACO insisted that these cars more closely resemble their production counterparts.  The contingency and suspense of endurance racing fascinate me, and I realized this year that LeMans has again become "appointment viewing," like the Monaco and Belgian Grands Prix.  It's even better on-line.

Above and below: The latest Porsche GT-3 RSR is a fine-looking race car with driving lights replacing those dumb
corner water radiators.  Who needs to watch a Porsche prototype entry in 2014 when Stuttgart fields cars like this?
In WEC races in Europe, unlike Stateside, Aston Martin is giving Porsche and the 458 Italias all they can handle
in outright pace.  But on both sides of the pond there are factory-supported, cutting-edge, teams that can win on
any given weekend.  These are "the good old days" of GT racing, just as compelling as the early 1960's.

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