Of the many changes to the Circuit des 24 Heures du Mans, the most visible and immediately apparent are the new pit boxes and massive administration tower. However, it is the behind the scenes changes within the Automobile Club De L'Ouest that have had the most impact. A virtual overhaul of personal has moved the ACO from the past-perceived notion of a difficult group to do business with to that of a more open and accommodating organization. One of the newest members of the ACO team is Fabrice Bourrigaud, who as the "Charge de la Commiunication" is responsible for matters dealing with the press and PR firms around the world. Fabrice is much more than a PR man, he has a genuine enthusiasm for the race and his hometown of Le Mans.
ec: How would you describe your official title and duties with the ACO for the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
FB: My duties? As in communication? I think today, the ACO has changed. Because in the past 10 years there have been a lot of difficulties to preserve, and to protect the race. We had the problem with the FIA in the 90's but we also had some problems with politics in France and I mean local politics within the Sarthe. I think now these days are gone, I think they're more clear about the organization of the race with the politics in Le Mans. And I think that we have a normal, even good relationship with the FIA. For example, you know the new rules for prototypes (2004), it means the we have a normal relationship with them. We are not defending our position as in the past. My job is the development of the ACO. And I think it's quite new.
The best example about communication of the ACO would be last year's conferences. We came to London to present the rules of the race. One month ago we were in Tokyo, at the French Embassy, to meet the Japanese manufacturers, the teams, the drivers, to say, look at Le Mans, it's time for you to come back. The Japanese Federation has been very helpful here, the result is 75% of the Japanese know of Le Mans. So that is something important to us. Many French journalists now show interest with the ACO and Le Mans and with the American Le Mans series. We want to show that now the race is Le Mans, and if you want it to do any advanced racing, Le Mans is the solution.
ec: What was the change behind the management of the ACO? After decades of "we are Le Mans", with the kind of elitist, very snobby attitude towards things. Now it seems you are far more willing to listen to teams, to manufactures, before it was, "this is the way we are going to do things and that's it." Now there is a dialogue whereas in the past there really wasn't.
FB: Yes! It is because you have new people in the ACO like Daniel Poissenot, the head of the sport department. He's arrives with his own experience as a manger of his own company. Me too. I'm arriving from the media. I think you have new people, younger, with a different spirit. We keep the good spirit of the ACO, within the Federation of Le Mans, but I think now we are in the modern world, we need to open our eyes, we need to look at everything around the world, we need to discuss. In fact, all our ACO can do is issue rules for the race.
ec: How does that work?
FB: It's very simple. You need to meet with manufacturers; you need to meet the teams, and to speak with them, to know their philosophy, to know their project, to know their technology. You have a good mix of all this to make the rules and to find a good balance to make Le Mans an interesting race. We want to give chances to everybody. I mean a closed car, an open car. Equal balance at to let all the teams, the manufacturers, the chance to show their technology.
A good example of that would be in 1999, in qualifying Mercedes and Toyota were very, very fast, and BMW looked promising, but nobody picked BMW. Then during the race it was shown that they could go further on brake changes, they weren't as hard on that, so that was sort of their secret weapon. The test day on May didn't really show the strength of their car. So that would be considered a technological advancement. It wasn't really visible until the race and BMW was the race leader.
ec: Yes. Winning the pole is one thing, winning the race is another. More importantly, it's not decided in the first turn even though television likes to think so.
FB: Also that's why the future of Le Mans is to look at the new form of energies, and probably the major goal for manufacturers in coming years is try to win Le Mans in a different form, like with the diesel engine. There are some other forms of alternative fuel projects, like with the WR team.
ec: Are other manufacturers looking at participation over the long term?
FB: Yes, so I think maybe because if you look at Le Mans, the example of Audi, after they won three times in a row, same drivers, so maybe it would more difficult to do the same thing once again or to say OK we are a new manufacturer and we are going to win Le Mans four times. Everybody knows that is very difficult. You need a decent chance to win Le Mans.
So maybe the major goal for today is to say "Okay, four times in a row has been done by Audi, now maybe some manufacturer will win with a diesel engine or another kind of engine and I want to show that this technology can win and do the best results with a showing at Le Mans."
ec: Gerhard Berger announced after 1999 that BMW will not come back to Le Mans, "We won the race. How can we do better than that?" Of course, Berger has always approached things from a Formula One style, and when I spoke with him later in Sebring after Le Mans I remarked that it was not worth sacrificing the sports car program and the other programs purely for F1. Ralf Schumacher had just finished third in the Australian Grand Prix and he made the comment thatthe podium finish in their F1 debut was worth more publicity than the win at la Sarthe. I consider that to be an absurd remark because F1 is a drivers' championship.
FB: You can remember the name of the driver that won at Le Mans but maybe only if he has won three times, four times, five times, six times, and you must remember the most important thing that Le Mans is the race for manufacturers, the teams, and I think it is very important nowadays where everything is considered in the terms of marketing, about what is the goal of a manufacturer. The goal is selling cars. So Le Mans is the right way to show how competitive the make is. Le Mans is not a race for the driver but for the team and the manufacturer. So Audi, for Porsche, for Toyota. I think it is very important. That is why I think we have a future. I remember the part of Mr. Berger, and the only thing we can say is that the ACO was there in 1923 and we are still here in 2003, Berger was with BMW in 1999, now, where is he?
ec: Hopefully unemployed (laughs). On a serious note though about marketing, looking from a US point of view, with BMW being in F1 at Indianapolis, they have not captured the public imagination. Montoya is a very good driver and a good personality, Ralf is Michael's brother but just where is the visible BMW connection. A Williams F1 car is not the same as the LMR that won Le Mans. That car even looked like it could have been a BMW.
FB: Good observation, look at Audi ! You can see that all the dealers' sales for Audi after the initial victory at Le Mans, the change of their image and especially the sales in the US market. This helped to promote the Audi S. Which proves that we are right about what participation at Le Mans can do with a good result.
ec: I wanted to ask you about safety issues. When the hump was lowered on the Mulsanne for safety issues after the flying Mercedes incident, was this really necessary? If the FIA is so concerned with enforcing safety, how can they continue to have a race such as Monaco? Which is in terms of safety issues is a relic to a past? They cannot have it both ways.
FB: As an organizer, first of all, safety is very important for racing. Safety for the track, safety for the drivers, safety for the cars, even safety for the fans. It's one of our goals.. Second thing is we can't organize our race without the agreement of the FIA, so we need to show that we are doing our best for safety. It's a very important reason. It's been tough selling the problem of the Mulsanne. We must recognize that only Mercedes had a problem. And I think the truth was that for this race, in 1999, there were several very big manufacturers, and they did their job properly.
But from the test day on, Mercedes understood it had a problem. It showed that Toyota had a better car, and maybe even the BMW. After that, Mercedes tried to close the gap to stay with the others. It didn't work and I don't know why. I think that the Mulsanne was not the real danger. The honest rule should be to build a car for the track, not to modify the track for the car.
ec: Rather than engage in a long battle with the FIA over this and the working commission, was it the decision of the ACO that it was easier to compromise and go ahead and do this then have any interruption in the race. It's not really a big deal but it's the idea of messing with tradition. The Mulsanne has always been a big tradition.
FB: That is true. But now for 2004, we know that we have the same rules in agreement with the FIA. We can't have any problems with any manufacturer, or with the FIA. It is very important. Safety is the thing. We have done much to make the most of safety in cars in the prototype class. The working commission was fair but it cannot be an issue of safety at this corner or that corner or Mulsanne.
ec: Have you ever considered that the amount of entries be increased? Would you like a larger field of cars or do you think 50 is most workable number?
FB: For sure! We are sorting out 50 boxes because we are sure we'll have 50 cars on the starting gird. Better than 48. In fact, we know that the track allows with the FIA rules; we can have a race with, a larger field. I'm not exactly sure, but I think it's 65 cars. It's quite logical because it's a very long track. But the problem is that we have a pit lane, which was built at the beginning of the '90s, according to the rules of the FIA of this time, now we can't build in the arrangement that we have more than 50.
But, I think now the rules have changed so for the future we will be able to build more boxes. But when you have to modify something after building it initially, it costs a lot. It we have to build new boxes, we have to modify a lot of things, especially the exit of the pit lane, just before the Dunlop curves. We have a proposal, but it'll cost a lot of money.
ec: With the tradition of the ACO and the race, and looking at the economic needs of today, where would you draw the line? Granted the more cars you have the more money you would make. Do you feel it would reach a point where it would delude the quality of the entrants.?
FB: Yes. The most important for the ACO is sport for sport. So the most important thing is quality of the entrants. For example, we received this year 72 entries, which is less then the past two years, but we have very good cars. Only very cars, only very good teams and very good drivers. So, you can easily imagine our difficulties with the decision of the selection committee because we will have to eliminate more then 20 good cars.
That's why quality is the most important thing, but today we know that we have lots of very good competitors, so that's why we have the reflection to see what we can do in the future to have more than 50 cars on the grid.
ec: On the selection process, seeing how Sebring was the first race of the ALMS season, you're looking at the entrants and a great many teams that entered Sebring. Those that win their class got an automatic entry in for Le Mans. But for those who didn't do very well, even if they were out in the first hour of Sebring, does this reflect as to "this is not a good car, or not a good team" with regards for their entry for Le Mans.
FB: No. Sebring is only one part of the process of selection. We have people from the ACO during the year that are going all over the world, to see cars, to meet manufacturers, to review cars. We can now see with the American Series, the results of a team, how they work, how they are competitive over a season. "I want to do Le Mans" is not enough for a selection. So it is many things that the ACO consider before making the selections.
ec: What was your media background and how did it prepare you for the communications post with the ACO?
FB: I started my career in Le Mans as director of communications for the Le Mans daily newspaper, which is well known. I was born in Le Mans, so I know very well the race. I was very young when I came for the first time to see the 24 Hours. So my career started with the newspaper. After that I was the director of communications for the city of Le Mans, just before joining the ACO.
I was involved with the city, all the links, and with the race and special projects during the race. Probably you remember the Courage with colors of the city of Le Mans, and the year before the Ferrari of Michelle Ferte with the color of the city of Le Mans. It was my project ! So I have always had good relations with journalists and the media.
ec: You have the French version of what Indianapolis has been for years. Many workshops near the speedway where the research and the building of many technical parts to work in conjunction with the 500. It may be just one race, however, the work goes on year round.
FB: Yes. We have next to circuit, due to the reach out of the department. We have something Le Technopark, an industrial area where we have now the French Federation, with the department for young drivers, like a driver's school. We have teams like Pescarolo, like Courage, there are now small companies that are working on research like computers on the car industry.
ec: Sounds like you're developing Le Mans as a motorsport hub of France.
FB: Yes it is true. It is what we want to do. And not only the ACO I think but the city of the Le Mans, because I think it is a big chance to keep up such a famous race. So it's great having the originality of Le Mans. And we need to develop that. It is what made Le Mans so special and not just another city in a region of France.
ec: When did the ACO approach you to take the job as communications boss?
FB: It was now a little more then three years ago. President Cosson came to see me and said "I want you to come and work with us," and when he said that the first time, I remember it was just after Petit Le Mans in 1998, and then he said, "you must join the ACO. I know you love Le Mans, I know the job you can do in communications, and Le Mans is your future." And he showed me the special edition of USA Today, concerning the creation of American Le Mans Series. It was the beginning of the story.
ec: So the creation of the ALMS helped you influence your decision? Because it looked like there was much more international appeal then just regional. That's interesting.
FB: Yes, but now I need to improve my English. It's very bad this afternoon. Next time is better.
ec: From the years of going to the race as a child and then getting older, what are the few memories that you have of the individual races that stand out as your favorites or that really made an impression
FB: I have a special memory from 1980 with Jean Rondeau. Because I'm from Le Mans and Jean was my hero, because he was like me, a guy from Le Mans with his own car, and he did something very exceptional. Here's a car, and he uses it to win the race, it's exceptional. Very exceptional. After 1980, I think the first victory of Jaguar, I mean the comeback of Jaguar was something incredible. It made me fall in love with British cars.
ec: Ah yes, The battle between Jaguar and Porsche in 1988. I think you have to go back to 1978, between Renault and Porsche for a contest that had so much at stake.
FB: I remember that especially because of being of Le Mans, we have a big factory of Renault in Le Mans. So it was very important for us to see Renault racing in Le Mans and try to beat Porsche, as is now, the reference of Le Mans. So, 1980, probably 1977 and 78, first the win by Porsche, second the win by Renault, and after that, 1988.
My favorite car is probably the Jaguar D-Type, and then the Porsche 917, because for me these two cars are maybe the major examples of cars made for Le Mans. These two were made for the Mulsanne straight, I love these two cars. And the third one, I think, is a Porsche GT-1 from 1998. But my heart is also with the Courage Porsche because that was one of my projects with the city of Le Mans. I did all the race with the team from the pit box and it's something very special.