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Car and Driver: Performance Balancing Issue Overtakes the Paddock on Eve of 2016 Le Mans 24 Hours

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It’s all anyone could really talk about in the paddock at Le Mans. On Friday, as teams were doing last-minute checkouts and tweaking before the Saturday, 3:00 p.m. local time start of the 84th running of the 24-hour classic, competitors in the closely watched and hotly contested GTE class were waiting for a final ruling from the organizers on the all-important BoP calculations, or balance of performance.

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Ideally, BoP uses exhaustive performance data from previous races and track sessions to selectively add weight or diminish power from some cars to create closer competition in highly varied classes such as GTE, the fastest of Le Mans’s two production-based groupings where Porsche 911s and Ferrari 488s compete against Corvettes and Ford GTs. In reality, BoP manipulation is a black art practiced by the French (as well as other sports car sanctioning bodies at different races) to their own peculiar rules.

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Last week’s pre-race testing sessions at Le Mans saw the Corvette C7.R dominate the lap times, but a BoP change implemented after that severely handicapped the Corvette and Porsche teams, they say, and produced disastrous qualifying times for them in the final pre-race session on Thursday. The Corvettes were more than 4.6 seconds off the pace, with the 911s far back as well, while both the new Ford GT and the Ferrari 488 got instantly quicker. Insinuations immediately flooded the Le Mans paddock that the French were manipulating the BoP formulas to recreate the classic Ferrari-vs.-Ford battle at the expense of Le Mans stalwarts such as Chevy and Porsche.

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Porsche’s GT racing honcho, Frank-Steffan Walliser, was so upset by the latest BoP change that in an emotional press conference on Friday he choked up when asked about it. “We need BoP, we don’t need this kind of BoP,” he said. “We will fight.” Cornered by reporters, Corvette racing chief Doug Fehan was said to be fairly apoplectic as well, but both Walliser and Fehan said they would still race no matter what.

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For his part, Ford Motorsport boss Dave Pericak was careful not to gloat, saying of the Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO), which runs the 24 Hours of Le Mans, that “they’ve said over and over that they reserve the right to make a change right up to the dropping of the flag.” However, Pericak did say that the Corvette times were “suspicious,” implying that the Chevy team may have sandbagged a little to try to appear more highly wounded than reality and thus curry a more favorable BoP formula from the ACO.

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All of the teams were called to a meeting on Friday afternoon, where yet another change to the BoP formula was unveiled. In a move highly unusual for being so close to the start of the race, the ACO slapped the two leading turbo cars, the Ford GT and Ferrari 488, with token weight increases (22 pounds for the Ford and 33 pounds for the Ferrari), but, much more significant, cut the Ford’s power output by 1.3 percent through boost pressure regulation at certain revs. The Ferrari boost was left untouched, while the leading non-turbo teams, including Aston Martin, Chevrolet, Porsche, all got breaks through increases in their intake restrictor sizes.

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The problem: Tomorrow’s impending race start means there’s no time to test the changes in further practice or qualifying sessions, so the ACO may have inadvertently lopsided the results yet again, giving one team or another an advantage. The other big problem is that no matter who wins on Sunday, the last-second dickering with the BoP means the taint of hasty and possibly unfair meddling by the organizers could forever hang over the results.

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Still, a lot can happen over 24 hours, and with driver mistakes, pit mistakes, and weather being only a few of the uncontrollable variables, the BoP may prove to be no factor at all. We’ll know on Sunday at 3:00 p.m.

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