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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    I watched snippets on YouTube. I would have liked to have watched the race (at least long sections of it, I can’t stay up 24 hours anymore!), but the only choice in the US was the terrible MotorTrend coverage, where they unceremoniously go to commercial mid-sentence during the commentary and at inopportune times. Apparently, you can buy full access everywhere else in the world but Canada and the US, where they sold the rights to MotorTrend. Thanks, WEC.

    I certainly agree about the Motor Trend coverage. Their ads appear at the most inconvenient times.

    There’s no way I can stay up for 24 hours anymore either, so I record (DVR) the race. When the coverage is just showing cars going around, and the commentators are busy trying to come up with something to say, I fast forward. When I see some action, I stop the fast forward and watch for a while. After the Motor Trend ads, I would watch at normal speed for a while then go back to fast forwarding. I went through the entire 24 hours that way, and I didn’t lose any sleep. Of course, the race had been over for quite some time when I finally finished watching.

    “There were several strong American results”
    You left out Glickenhaus with strong 6th & 7th place finishes in the Hypercar division!

    “A Chevy NASCAR stock car, entered as a PR stunt, was a crowd favorite.” Thank you Larry for telling it like it is. It was a PR stunt rather than a traditional Garage 56 (DeltaWing, ZEOD RC, etc.) that’s supposed to showcase innovation. Preparing a NASCAR ‘stock’ car for endurance road racing is a feat, but not innovative. Lots of people crowing about it blowing past GT-class cars, which is easier when you don’t have to meet GT tech requirements or BoP. Keep rocking. Enjoying my Hagerty article emails.

    What if you sent Cammisa and Catchpole to cover it in full next year? Have them live-stream the whole thing with a skeleton crew. You can’t tell me that watching a sleep-deprived Professional Idiot and his English co-worker wouldn’t be riotously good fun.

    I believe that Drive Pilot only works on certain Interstates and only up to 40mph. Essentially useless (and somewhat dangerous) for an Interstate.

    Attending the 24 Hours of Le Mans is a bucket list item that is highly recommended. Even my sweet wife now understands (perhaps, in part, due to the rose wine she liked over at Le Tertre Rouge (which remains open most of the time.) Missed out on the KFC this year in the infield in the first leg of the Mulsanne straight. Something for everyone.

    Regarding the Mercedes Pilot being the first level 3 system, I have to wonder where the GMC truck “hands free” driving system fits. The commercials hawking the hands free capability play incessantly, and have for months. Seems to be essentially what Mercedes is marketing.

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