I had doubts over the Automobile Club l’Ouest’s decision to allow NASCAR to enter a Chevrolet Camaro in its ‘Garage 56’ category for this weekend’s Le Mans 24 Hours.
But the scheme has an undeniable appeal. Hendrick Motorsports’ tall Camaro dwarfs its prototype and GT competitors, immediately drawing attention to itself: Surely something of these proportions can’t hack it among the competition?
However on the times sheets its performance is more than respectable. It may leave its drivers wide-eyed in the braking zones, but it ‘hauls ass down the straightaways’. The race promoters revised their decision to make it start behind the LMGTE Am class once it out-qualified the lot of them by over four seconds.
Of course there is no fair basis for comparison between the two as the NASCAR-backed entry is not running to the same rules. But it means there’s no reason it should present more of a hazard to the top-class cars than the GT runners.
The roster of talent Hendrick has enlisted to drive the car further justifies its presence in the field. Not merely all-pro, but all-star: Formula 1 world champion Jenson Button, 2010 Le Mans 24 Hours winner Mike Rockenfeller and seven-times NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson.
That said, the special dispensation for a team to run a machine which does not fit in one of the great endurance race’s three classes is officially termed ‘Car Displaying New Technology’. NASCAR’s heavily-prescribed racing breed may be unfamiliar to this category of racing but calling the steel tube construction racer an example of ‘new technology’ is a stretch.
This is ultimately more of a marketing exercise for NASCAR than an attempt to complete this gruelling endurance event in a truly novel way, as was the case for the unconventional IndyCar concept-based DeltaWing of 2012 or the modified LMP2 entry that enabled racer Frederic Sausset, who is a quadruple paraplegic, to the finish in 2016.
Above all, what the Garage 56 category might best be used to demonstrate is some groundbreaking low- or zero-emissions technology. But while various ambitious projects along these lines have been announced, none have yet come to fruition.
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That being so, what’s the harm in the ACO using the unoccupied ‘Garage 56’ berth to forge links with America’s favourite form of motorsport? A reciprocal arrangement is now in place, with Kamui Kobayashi making his NASCAR Cup debut at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway later this year. Sadly, he won’t be entering the 24th round of this year’s Cup series in a GR010 Hypercar, but a NASCAR-spec Camry…
But having welcomed NASCAR to La Sarthe, would the ACO be willing to do so for another entrant – such as Formula 1?
The possibility of an F1 car being allowed to start the race is likely a non-starter on more than one count: The complications of adding lights plus the fact the La Sarthe circuit isn’t graded for F1 competition. Fernando Alonso demonstrated an Alpine F1 car at the track two years ago and concluded it was “way too fast and way too narrow in some of the sections” for F1.
However an F1-powered car may be a realistic possibility. The days when Le Mans commentators could confidently state the race lasted longer than an entire grand prix season are well behind us, such is the length of F1’s current schedules.
When the 2023 season was originally planned, F1 teams were required to use just three power units over 23 rounds, meaning one would have to cover eight race distances. That’s a total of 2,440 kilometres before practice and qualifying are taken into consideration. While that may be less than half the distance covered at Le Mans last year, it could be possible for a sufficiently detuned engine.
F1 engines have found their way into various exotic machines in the past. Mercedes has even fitted one into a road car, which might provide an obvious starting point for an F1-Le Mans bid, though their history at the event is marred by the disaster of 1955 and near-disaster of 1999.
Still, the potential for an F1-engined car at Le Mans is there. No doubt someone at Liberty Media has already clocked the massive potential NASCAR has tapped through Garage 56 and is wondering how they can stand out from the crowd in the same way.
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