Va Va Voom: A Beginner’s Guide to Sports Car Racing

Alright, I confess. Prior to this interview, I knew quite literally not one thing about sports car racing. Apart from, perhaps, that sports cars are similar to normal cars, except they are constructed a bit differently to allow for optimal racing prowess. So, in a sense, speaking to Simon Clark was an exercise in education, as well as gleaning some opinions on a subject I know little about. So, armed with my precursory research, I entered the classroom of all thing sports car, and I have to say, Simon did a sterling job filling me in on what this world is all about; and with excellent timing too, given the 12 Hours of Sebring, a race in Sebring, Florida, has just finished.

‘I first got interested in sports cars when I got Gran Turismo 3 for the Playstation 2,’ Simon said, ‘Then, in 2004, I actually got to visit the Le Mans museum while on holiday in France, and when I saw all the historical winners, that was it – I was a fan, there and then.’ Simon was struck immediately not by the Formula One cars, but by the sports cars, which he describes as ‘unique’ and ‘impressive’. ‘My favourite sports car is the Corvette C6.R. There’s something about the aggressive styling, the yellow-and-black paint that sticks out from the rest of the field, the incredible sound that makes the ground shake and the massive professionalism that the team has shown since they began.’ This is something I’ve heard from a couple of sports car fans – that the sound is one of the things that they love; the all-encompassing roar as they watch on. There are few sports where the sport itself creates so much sound; maybe it is this, the double-whammy sensory stimulation, that enraptures so many people?

2011 6 Hours of Silverstone

On a similar theme, I decided to find out about what it is about the races themselves that is so exciting. Of the five racing events Simon has been to, comprised of four years in a row of Six Hours of Silverstone and a Renault race day, his first trip to Silverstone in 2008 is the one that stands out. ‘It was my first time ever at a race track, not to mention the first time ever hearing what sports cars both new and old sounded like.’ Again, the sound appears to be a significant part of the whole experience – the contrast between playing on a Playstation and seeing the cars in front of you must be immense. It’s all very well being ‘behind the wheel’ on a little screen, but how could that possibly compare to the real cars tearing past at 180mph? Seemingly, though, some races are gripping enough to watch from afar: Le Mans being an example. The 24 Hours of Le Mans, described by Simon as a ‘spectacle of automotive expression’, takes place in the town of the same name in France. Starting on the Monday, practise and qualifying events take place all week, as well as the driver’s parade, where all the drivers are paraded through the town. On the Saturday, the race begins, and continues until the same time on the Sunday (hence, the 24 Hours of Le Mans.) Cars race on both closed-off public roads, allowing the cars to reach speeds of up to 200mph, and a dedicated racetrack, requiring attention to the tighter twists. ‘It’s not just a race – it’s an experience’, says Simon.

Given the recent 12 Hours of Sebring race, I wondered how it compared to last year’s offering. Simon told me that this year was the 12 Hours of Sebring’s 60th anniversary, giving it a ‘certain significance’. Also, there were fewer incidents this year, which certainly can’t be a bad thing, and a greater amount of cars were involved overall. Although Simon said that 2012’s race was ‘just as close as usual’, he was slightly disappointed that Audi had managed to secure the win uncontested, owing to the absence of Peugeot, with whom Audi had battled it out for the winning position in recent years.

2012 has also seen the introduction of the FIA (Federation Internationale del’Automobiles) World Endurance Championship, whereby multiple classes of car compete in a series of endurance races, from sports prototypes to Simon’s preferred cars, the Grand Tourers (more aerodynamic versions of road-going sports cars, such as Corvettes and BMWs), in the first world championship of its type since 1992’s cessation of the World Sportscar Championship. In Simon’s opinion, there has been ‘no real downside’ to the introduction of the competition, excluding some early schedule clashes between some of the major races. He also appreciates that, despite the FIA’s lack of popularity  among racing fans as a result of their management of Formula One in recent years, they have managed to do a similar job to the ILMC (Intercontinental Le Mans Cup) last year, but on a broader scale. This, of course, is good news for racing fans, as this encourages more teams into more events, and it has meant that many European teams have had the chance to enter into more races around the world.

Cars battling it out at Silverstone 2010

The Michelin Green X Challenge was introduced to reward the efforts of the greenest, cleanest teams. Teams have started using fuels such as ‘E85 Ethanol’, with only 15% racing fuels, and the rest made up of ethanol (a biofuel). The prize is guaranteed entry into the following year’s Le Mans, making it a ‘sought after award’, and certainly worth the effort. ‘Le Mans has often been a place where innovation in race cars has transferred into road cars, and this increase in environmental consciousness is no exception.’ Ideally, then, this move towards more environmentally friendly fuels will translate from the racetrack to the public roads. Green innovation inspired by sports car racing would be a fantastic consequence, and the more attention this particular aspect of racing receives, the better. As Simon points out, it’s all about ‘going further on less fuel’, and once fans of gas-guzzling road giants realise that this is possible, and in fact, preferable in the racing world, it might start to infiltrate through to the manufacturers of normal road-going cars. Imagine that! Your car could run on the same fuel as a professional race car… surely there’s something to be said for that?

So, as a complete racing beginner, who should I be watching out for? ‘Tom Kristensen is always one to watch – he has won Le Mans 8 times, more than anyone else ever.’ Or, for a slightly more unusual entrant, Grey’s Anatomy’s Patrick Dempsey is popping up this year in the LMP2 (Le Mans Prototype 2) category – an ‘interesting competitor’ indeed.

What have we learnt about sports car racing then? Well, I now know 100% more than I knew before talking to Simon, that’s for sure. Maybe, just maybe, after this crash course, some of the ‘automobilically challenged’ among us will be able to blag our way through the sports section of a pub quiz. I can now proudly announce that I feel wheel-y clued up on the matter now…

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