Finding Balance… Or Not
The words ‘Balance of Performance’ have become almost as hated and criticized as ‘smoking’ and ‘fiscal cliff’. The original idea behind the concept was brilliant and critical to the development of GT racing; yet over the years the idea has become diluted, and it is now time to find a new way to ensure close and competitive racing.
Under the original concept, front-, mid- and rear-engine cars, with four-, six-, eight- and 12-cylinder engines; those suited for the race track such as the Lamborghini Murcielago; and those that aren’t (Nissan GTR), could compete on a level playing field. The idea was to reduce the cost of development to help the private teams on which endurance racing thrives, and place the emphasis of success on the human element of racing – the drivers, mechanics and strategists.
It started well in endurance racing in Europe but the idea morphed, and as competition closed up, arguing the balance of performance between cars became a powerful tool in the armory of competitive teams. They used it as a way to find an advantage… or hobble an opponent.
In the early days of BoP, the Maserati MC12 was up against Ferrari's 550 Maranello, Aston Martin's DBR9 and Corvette's C6 in the FIA GT Championship. Everything about the Maserati was better for competition, from its mid-engine layout to the fact that the roll cage and door hinges allowed drivers to roll out of the car faster than the Corvette boys during pit stops.
Series organizer Stephane Ratel turned to the FIA, which put the matter in the hands of its technical consultant Peter Wright. Wright came up with a system that would allow fair competition between the cars. With Steffan Kosuch of DATAS, the performance of the Maserati was mapped, and then used real track data to equalize the cars. Air restrictor sizes were a key part of the equation, as was weight and, if the results still favored one car over another, the volume of fuel carried could also be changed. “If, over two races, we see anything more than a half-second difference between the cars, then we act,” Wright said at the time. ‘We can generally get them to within a quarter of a second of each other.’
Yet as the competition became closer, there was an opportunity to create grey areas in this black and white world, and it all began to unravel. The FIA GT Championship introduced a standard ECU, built by Magnetti Marelli, to help map cars more accurately. But ‘success ballast’, awarded to cars that finished races well placed, rather complicated the issue. How could a car that had collected 100kg of success ballast be accurately mapped? Teams started to create a strategy around a complete season, ensuring they were carrying minimum weight at crucial points of the season, and arguing for performance breaks where they could.
It was cheaper to have an argument than it was to develop a car. As a member of the media, I was never that far away from an argument whichever side of the Atlantic I stood.
The last series that used Wright’s method for its true meaning was the FIA European GT3 Championship, which took place without a technical rulebook. The series was designed for the gentleman driver. While a professional expected to be within a second of his fellow professionals, there could be seconds between a good amateur and a bad one. Actual performance of the cars was incidental. They needed to be in the ballpark, and no more.
To that end, it was satisfactory for drivers of the caliber of Christophe Bouchut and Jean Marc Gounon to test the cars at a preseason event, making sure that the cars performed as expected, and give their feedback to the FIA. “It is racing, but not as we know it,” lamented Prodrive’s George Howard Chappell as the company tested its GT3 Vantage at Paul Ricard in southern France. There was no performance testing required – it was purely reliability. This was perfect. For Ratel’s gentlemen drivers, they needed to know that, on their day, they could win.
However, the system was also being introduced into ever more professional series, and that’s where the problems really started. The FIA tried a more scientific approach to Balance of Performance, mapping each of the FIA GT World Championship cars at Michelin's facility in France, but still the method was not entirely accurate.
In the World Touring Car Championship – contested by Chevrolet, BMW, SEAT and Alfa Romeo – balance of performance used rev limits and weight handicaps. An FIA Bureau was set up, and new measures were being issued at each race. Balance of Performance had to accommodate saloon cars with hatchbacks, front-wheel drive with rear-wheel drive, H-pattern gearboxes with sequential, and most controversially, diesel power with gasoline.
Then, there was Le Mans. Audi and Peugeot ran factory cars on diesel, while the privateers ran on gasoline. The privateers couldn’t hope to compete, even though the organizers did their best, using a combination of turbo boost pressure, weight, fuel tank size and even ride-height.
The alternatives are not decisive. The FIA and the ACO have introduced the idea of a fuel flow meter under the 2014 regulations. This will limit the performance of the engine, and increase the emphasis on efficiency. The idea is to ensure that not only will the most efficient engine win, but privateers will have their chance to shine too. So while the manufacturers will put their development money into hybrid systems, privateers will be able to run large capacity engines far below their optimum performance, and be able to win.
“It is down to fuel consumption, and you need the best you can get,” says engine builder John Judd. “I am confident that we can produce a good petrol engine. The average power over a lap will be achieved by the engine that has the best fuel consumption - grams per kilowatt hour. We have ideas how to do that, and they include producing a light engine, low revving, reduce friction losses and we can do that OK. The question is whether or not anyone will be there.”
GRAND-AM’s solution currently is to limit engine power and map the cars aerodynamically, and impose tight restrictions. It takes control of the development, and the regulations make the cars run below optimum performance. In 2014, the new series will run a plethora of categories as it amalgamates with the ALMS, and the arrangement is to simply deploy the survival of the fittest strategy – keeping the most successful and dropping the least popular.
One thing is clear; Balance of Performance as we know it has had its day, and now it is time to move on.
Andrew Cotton is currently editor of the magazine Racecar Engineering, and as a freelance has covered endurance racing in Europe and North America since 1999. Follow him on Twitter - @andrewcotton12.