Mark Donohue, driver and champion in the Penske Porsche 917/30 Can Am car shown above, once famously wrote of the already terrifyingly fast car, “If you can leave two black stripes from the exit of one corner to the braking zone of the next, you have enough horsepower.” At one point, the car in question had 1200 horsepower, and probably could lay quite a bit of black stripe, but even that wasn’t enough for him. They’re faster now, but modern day race cars have drifted from that old-school spirit.
What is racing for if it doesn’t push technology forward? These days GT class grids are full of cars with fewer horsepower than their street car counterparts. The GTLM class of cars is limited to around 500 horsepower, which is about what a base Corvette makes. Hell, McLaren pushes 710 horsepower from a 4-liter twin-turbo V8 in its 720S, but the GT3-class version of that same car is restricted significantly to between 450 and 500, depending on the track. Why is any old Joe off the street allowed to purchase hundreds more horsepower than a pro driver is given?
Endurance racing began decades ago as a test of man and machine. Most cars couldn’t even run for 24 hours straight without breaking down, so the races were more about keeping the car in one piece than setting record laps. Today, while there are still mechanical failures—Toyota’s engine failing on the last lap of Le Mans in 2017, or Porsche’s gearbox tearing itself apart with minutes to go at this year’s Spa 24—these are exceptions that prove the rule.
For at least the last twenty years or so, endurance racing has become much less about endurance. Where drivers used to have to use their skills to preserve the race car in order to still have four wheels under them at the end of a race, it’s now an all-out fight from the drop of the green flag. Nobody has to worry about their car going the distance anymore, because these detuned machines are hardly stressed at all by 12 or 24 hours of flat-out high-rev action. As long as the car doesn’t get hit, or doesn’t hit anything, it’s pretty much guaranteed to go the distance. What does that tell you?
Maybe we’ve reached the upper limits of human capabilities. Maybe Indycar shouldn’t go any faster than Arie Luyendyk’s 1996 record lap of 239.2 miles per hour. Maybe NASCAR drivers just can’t handle anything above Rusty Wallace’s 2004 record 216.3 miles per hour. Then again, maybe racers should be a little bit afraid of what their cars are capable of.
Look at how good the Formula One race was last weekend. The cars were severely grip limited by rainfall, and the most skillful drivers in the world were forced to prove their worth by tiptoeing to a reasonably quick lap. Mistakes were made, like Max Verstappen’s pirouette while going in a straight line. Now imagine if Formula One cars had 2,000 horsepower instead of 900, and the drivers were fighting wheelspin on dry surfaces. Maybe take away half of the car’s downforce, too, to make sure they aren’t carrying deadly speeds through the corners. Then it’s a real fight. Not only against the other cars, but against your own car!
Horsepower is cheap these days, anyone with a pulse and a down payment can get over 700 horsepower from their Dodge dealer. Why can’t we expect the same from an OEM’s racing department? Shred some tires, get a little sideways in the corners, lay black stripes from the exit of the corner to the entry to the braking zone. We have the technology to go faster, so why don’t we push boundaries a little?