Never Stop Driving #54: Mercedes takes on Tesla, Ferrari takes Le Mans
This past week, there was so much action and enthusiasm around sports car racing that it was easy to miss the Mercedes driverless milestone. Call it a sign of our confusing times. Let’s start with the Mercedes news.
The company received approval from California to sell the most automated driver system yet available. Mercedes Drive Pilot allows drivers, in certain circumstances, to take their hands off the wheel and eyes off the road. Drivers cannot, however, take a nap and must remain ready to immediately resume driving duties if needed. In the confusing gradient between zero driver aids and full autonomy, the Society of Automotive Engineers calls Drive Pilot a “Level 3” system. It’s the first available in the U.S. market. Tesla’s misleadingly named “Full Self Driving” system is only Level 2 and requires drivers to keep their hands on the steering wheel. The Mercedes system will roll out later this year in California and Nevada.
Meanwhile, the 24 Hours of Le Mans race this past weekend showed that the historic event— 2023 was the 100th race—is as relevant as ever. Major car companies including Ferrari, Porsche, Toyota, Peugeot, Aston Martin, and Cadillac fielded cars, all of which, mind you, required the full attention of the drivers. Spotty rain often soaked portions of the track, turning exacting pre-race strategies to mush. Some teams pitted for rain tires, a potentially costly time event, while others remained on the slick tires that have virtually zero traction on wet roads. There was risk either way. We got to see those agonizing decisions and the consequences, which were often crashes that defined the outcome. Practically every team and driver ran into trouble, including six-time Indycar champ Scott Dixon, who spun his Cadillac on the wet track but had the extreme good luck to avoid a major impact.
There are several classes of cars at the race and therefore multiple winners. The overall winner, with the car that went the farthest in 24 hours, was Ferrari, with its new 499P hypercar. Incredibly, it had been 58 years since the marque last stood on the top podium. There were several strong American results: The Cadillac finished third behind the Ferrari and a Toyota and the single Corvette won its hypercompetitive class. A Chevy NASCAR stock car, entered as a PR stunt, was a crowd favorite.
Just before the Le Mans weekend, Ford announced a new version of the Mustang that is eligible to compete in the 24-hour race next year. Sports-car racing, which many thought was in decline, seems to be as popular as ever, even though American fans are routinely denied the top-quality TV coverage that we enjoy in so many other global sports. Such was the case with Le Mans; the U.S. broadcast of the race was subpar. Generally, one video feed is beamed to different countries, forcing commentators to speak to a video that they have no control of—nor can they predict when a producer might cut to a shot of the pits or replay a crash. Some pull off this tough assignment better than others. We got a superficial view of the race rather than a richly textured insider’s perspective, but I suppose we should be grateful that the race was shown in its entirety since the production costs—cameras and staff around the 8.5-mile circuit for 24 hours—make the business case for the broadcast extremely challenging.
We’ve recently produced several videos and articles that I hope illustrate why Le Mans is so special. Henry Catchpole drove a pre-war Le Mans Bentley and we produced a documentary on the anniversary. Le Mans is a mythical place for racing drivers and fans and we are thrilled to celebrate it.
Have a great weekend!
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