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  • Peter MacKay

Balance of performance: Abomination or the saviour of motorsport?

Updated: Apr 6, 2020

Where do you sit on the proverbial fence on B.O.P (Balance of Performance)? In theory, it’s a great idea. Closer racing and a bountiful variety of cars racing together. Isn’t that what we crave? However, B.O.P isn’t universally loved, far from it. Factions of the motorsport industry and crucially the knowledgeable fan despise those three letters.

Many series rely on BOP. Deploying weight ballast, adjusting engine fuel flow restrictors or fuel tank capacity to ensure a level playing field. Success of BOP ranges from triumphant to contentious.

One BOP paradox is the GTE Pro class in the World Endurance Championship. Engine sizes for normally aspirated cars (previously Porsche) are capped at 5.5 litres. Turbocharged cars (Aston Martin/Ferrari/Porsche) just 4 litres. Minimum weight is 1245kg and fuel is 90 litres.

To ensure close racing, series organisers can manipulate a cars performance. Measures include weight ballast, adjustment of fuel capacity and turbo boost.

GTE Pro is contested to the very last lap at nearly every race. Quite extraordinary for races contested over 4 to 24 hours. A myriad of cars covered by fractions of a second per lap.

Nevertheless, the ethos of BOP comes under vitriolic criticism.

One could argue BOP caused Ford and BMW to leave the WEC. In the 2018-2019 WEC “Super Season” Porsche won three times. Ferrari and Aston Martin twice. Ford won only once, at Spa in May 2018. BMW never won at all.

Critics believe BOP desecrates the sport and is prone to manipulation by politics. BOP is a complex issue.

One issue that convolutes effective deployment of BOP is ‘sandbagging’, where a team runs slowly in qualifying to avoid BOP restrictions for race day. After all, in a 24-hour race, grid position isn’t so important.

One blatant example of sand bagging was during testing and qualifying for the 2016 Le Mans 24 hours. On the debut of the eagerly anticipated Ford GT, excitement was at fever pitch.

50 years on from the Ford GT’s initial victory with Bruce Mclaren and Chris Amon, the stage was set for a big return.

Losing was never really in the script for Ford at Le Circuit de la Sarthe. With four Ford GTs run by Chip Ganassi and Multimatic, nothing was left to chance.

Final testing at Le Mans looked very promising for Ford. Porsche set the benchmark with a time of 3m 55.4s with Ford just 0.6 seconds behind in a car which debuted just a few months before. Arch-rivals Ferrari were only 0.5 seconds off Porsche’s pace.

During qualifying for the race, the situation unravelled dramatically. Porsche’s trio of Earl Bamber, Fred Makowiecki and Jorg Bergmeister squeezed another 0.5 seconds from their 911 RSR. To be expected, as the red mist descends, and qualifying mode is engaged.

However, improvements made by Ford and Ferrari, were hard to accept for Porsche. Joey Hand, Dirk Muller and Le Mans native Sebastien Bourdais miraculously improved by a mammoth 4.8 seconds. The best Ferrari? 4.3 seconds quicker.

Improving lap time by such a colossal margin is virtually unheard of in motorsport. One cannot fathom the fury in the Porsche garage, they had been hustled by ‘sandbagging’.

Ford went on to win the 2016 Le Mans 24-hour GTE pro class, cementing another milestone in their illustrious history.

For me, this is the paradox with BOP. Ford returning and winning in an unlimited budget assault on the establishment is pure gold for the entertainment business. For your die-hard sports car enthusiast, it may appear that the result had been manipulated. Porsche could claim they were denied the opportunity to fight for the win. So, who should we be keeping happy? Stakeholders like the casual viewer, auto manufacturers, TV stations, newspapers, the series organisers? Or just the diehard sports car enthusiast? For me, the answer is clear. The show comes first.

Without stimulating content there’s nothing to offer die-hard fans or to attract any new fans. In sports car racing, can we provide this action without BOP?

Undoubtedly, the BOP debate will rage on indefinitely. However, the real victims of BOP are the drivers. Without these gallant guys and girls, who sacrifice everything in their life, we would have no sport at all.

Those with unrelenting focus extract most from their car and team. Therefore, they should be guaranteed the best results. With BOP, this is thrown into jeopardy.

Every result in sport car racing can be caveated by BOP. In 2019, the #912 Porsche of Earl Bamber and Laurens Vanthoor won the IMSA GTLM championship. Critics could cry that Porsche had a BOP advantage, thus undermining Earl and Laurens performances.

Earl’s final stint at Long Beach in 2019 should certainly silence any critic. With a broken splitter flapping around for most of the race, the Kiwi held off intense pressure from Dirk Mueller in the Ford GT and both Corvettes to win a classic IMSA race.

Coming back to that paradox. A Corvette, Porsche 911 and Ford GT have no business racing each other. Thanks to BOP, they can. What BOP giveth the fan, it taketh away from the driver.

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