Tuesday
Mar202012

The smell of politics wafts over Sebring.

SEE THE FULL GALLERYThe closing lap of this year’s 60th running of the Sebring 12 Hours was a showcase for some of the most exciting wheel to wheel racing ever seen on our shores. Sure, Audi’s legendary trio of Allan McNish, Tom Kristensen, and Dindo Capello had already wrapped up the overall and LMP1 win with time to spare and little competition outside of their Joest Racing teammates, but the battle in GT was once again the knock-down street brawl we’ve come to expect from the production-based class.

So, who won?

The answer to that would seem to depend on where you’re counting from, how you score it, and possibly where you watched the race. The No. 16 Dyson Racing Lola B12/66-Mazda, which finished outside the top 3 overall, still took the ALMS P1 win. The American Le Mans Series GT win went to Joey Hand, piloting the No. 155 BMW Team RLL E92 M3, with the No. 03 Corvette Racing C6-ZR1 some six seconds back, followed by Olivier Beretta’s No. 71 AF Corse Ferrari F458 Italia in third. At least, that’s what we saw on our web browsers or internet-connected TVs, right?

While the BMW team got the trophy for the ALMS GT win, top honors for the FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC) went to Beretta, in a guest drive with the AF Corse team in LMGTE Pro class. So, third place overall can still be considered a win. If you’re feeling a bit lost in the esses, you’re not alone.

Following last year’s successful run of the ACO’s Intercontinental Le Mans Cup, this year the ILMC was taken over by the FIA and turned into the WEC, ostensibly because the powers that be in motorsports prefer three letter series over those with four, and because the FIA is the be-all/end-all of motorsport sanctioning – at least, they think so. This involves, among other things, removing Petit Le Mans and Imola from the schedule and adding races at Sao Paulo, Mt. Fuji and Bahrain. The biggest downside of all in this is the loss of Petit Le Mans from the great big international series, a move I predicted in these pages last Fall to be unconscionably foolish but seemingly inevitable.

Peugeot was among the manufacturers that had lobbied heavily for the formation of the WEC, before the company ran out of money and hastily dismantled its entire Le Mans racing team, even recalling the remaining 908-series LMP race cars from its factory team and privateers, and destroying them.

Ah, don’t you love the smell of politics in the morning?

I could spend a thousand words breaking down the reasoning put forth behind the FIA/WEC screwing the ALMS sideways to run a race in front of six camels and some rich men in the desert, but this sentence effectively accomplishes that in under 40.

Since its inception at the end of the 20th century, Don Panoz, Scott Atherton, and the rest of the American Le Mans Series have worked tirelessly to promote Le Mans-style racing in North America, occasionally benefiting from the direct tie-in to the Le Mans 24 Hours, but sometimes suffering for it. This raison d’etre was not lost on anyone, and the series highlighting of not just “Green Racing” but the transfer of technology from race car to passenger car has made it the high-tech rock star of the motorsports world. That the ALMS is habitually treated as the ACO (and now FIA)’s red-headed stepchild is a crime.

Sure, starting the season with a 64-car mega-race sounds cool. The racing all day into night was as great as ever, whether you call it LMGTE-Am, LMGTE-Pro, or just call it like it is and say that Joey Hand kicked everyone’s ass on the last lap and won GT. What the WEC means to ALMS audiences is 9 classes, 27 trophies, and, post-race champagne spraying that seemed to last half as long as the race itself. As someone who’s never been much for “March Madness,” the concept of 192 drivers in 64 cars (well, 62 actually started and 58 finished) divided into 9 classes isn’t racing, it’s a bracketing headache.

But here’s the even bigger question: Did you see it? No, I don’t mean the 90-minute highlight reel hastily cobbled-together for ABC. That’s just a joke that nobody gets, or ever will. I mean the full 12 hours, as webcast by ESPN3.com. From the feedback we’ve been getting, the series second season of Brave New World internet-only delivery is off to no better a start than we saw one year ago. Back then, it was charitably called a limited success with lots of room for improvement. In March of 2012, however, the only great sports car race in America is still a fantastic event in search of a way to reach its fans.

Complaints from fans on the ALMS official Facebook page during the race started early and never lifted – most of them from fans in the USA complaining, “why can’t I watch this race?” Indeed, technical difficulties abounded involving the internet feed and ability to log on, and the ALMS own website didn’t seem to provide much help to viewers who wanted to watch or otherwise needed help getting hooked up. Even watching a replay on ESPN3.com – a great idea in concept at least – is fraught with issues ranging from Internet provider licenses to browser caches to ESPN’s own web servers occasionally just being… slow.

Is web streaming the future of TV? Of course it is. The key word however, as it was in March of 2011, is “future.” Online coverage of qualifying and the race itself is a great idea that should never be abandoned. Following the work ethic of the top racing teams, it is a work that needs to be continuously refined, sweated-out, and perfected.

As shown by a full season and two Sebring 12 Hours, the future still has not arrived.

That’s it for now – I’ll see you at the next pit stop.

SEE THE FULL GALLERY HERE

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