Endurance-Info and Sportscar365 have launched “Behind the Title” – a series of interviews with key industry and series executives that explores their unique background and passion for sports car racing. First up is ACO President Pierre Fillon.
Pierre Fillon has been an enthusiast of the 24 Hours of Le Mans for his entire life. The Sarthe-born Frenchman grew up at the famed endurance race and was elected President of the Automobile Club de l’Ouest in 2013.
The successor to Jean-Claude Plassart, who became only the eighth President of the world renowned-motorsports organization, has been responsible, in part, for the launch of the FIA World Endurance Championship, alongside Plassart and FIA President Jean Todt.
When did your passion for the 24 Hours of Le Mans begin?
“The 24 Hours of Le Mans has been in my family’s history. My grandfather should have participated in the first edition in 1923. He was a passionate car enthusiast but my grandmother didn’t let him race because she thought it was too dangerous.
“I had the opportunity to drive a Amedee Bollee and it’s clear she was right! At 80 km/h (50 mph) it did not have brakes required for endurance racing.
“My family were big fans of the Peugeot brand and my grandfather was a member of the ACO from the [start]. He proudly screwed the logo on the grill of the family’s Peugeot.”
When was your first visit to the race?
“I was born in 1958 and I came to the race for the first time in 1963. I haven’t missed a single edition since 1966. I officiated as a scout in the early 70s, where we worked for three hours and had three hours of free time.
“At that time, we had access to everywhere. I also distributed timesheets to teams and worked as a safety worker. I also spent one year in the commentary booth with Jean-Charles Laurens, who was the voice of the 24 Hours.
“I helped identify drivers’ helmets and had the chance to rub elbows with Henri Pescarolo, Jacky Ickx and Pedro Rodriguez. Even several decades later, the memories are very moving. To see your heroes up-close was a great moment.”
Do you have any good memories?
“I have dozens and dozens of memories. I remember one night at about 3 a.m. in the race I was in Jean-Louis Bousquet’s pit. I was there during refueling. Members of the team serviced the car but not the driver. I went to fill a water bottle and I will always remember the expression on his face.
“In 1977, I swore to myself that I wouldn’t come. I had exams on Friday and Monday [studying in medicine] during the race weekend. Jacky Ickx was leading at 11 a.m. and I finally cracked to come and see the finish. That year remains a good memory.
“Later on, I had chance to meet Jean-Paul Driot when he launched into Formula One. I had congratulated him by email, stating what I thought of his project. He called me afterwards and we became friends. I followed DAMS and Panoz and had the chance to follow the team to the U.S. several times.
“There were also some sad moments. I could never forget Allan Simonsen’s fatal accident in 2013. Everyone’s aware that motorsport is dangerous but nobody is really prepared for such a tragedy.”
Do you also enjoy driving?
“I took courses at Pierre Petit’s school and then at La Châtre school and then Le Mans. Actually, I was the one who pushed my brother to drive a race car. I had a chance to try a Lola-Mugen F3000 (ex-McNish car). It was an incredible experience.
“I drove in the Le Mans Classic in 2004 in a Chevron B8, which remains a great memory. Having been overtaken by a Ford GT40 and Alpine was something quite surreal. It took me a few seconds to realize I wasn’t in a video game!”
Do you regret not being able to take part in the 24 Hours of Le Mans?
“How could I otherwise? Laurent Senechal, who was an instructor, told me that I had the level to be a driver in the 24 Hours. I took part in three VdeV Endurance Series races at Estoril, once in a Porsche and twice in a CN prototype. But unfortunately not in the 24 Hours.”
Chairing the ACO has come as the ultimate reward?
“I had imagined [one day] becoming President of the ACO. I met Jean-Claude Plassart in 2004. The idea was to develop other activities on the circuit.
“I’ve been a member of the ACO since 1995 and became director ten years later. In 2009, I had the responsibility of the ASK ACO with the creation of the new karting complex and also the creation of the sport committee with the development of the ILMC and FIA WEC, in partnership with the FIA.
“Jean-Claude Plassart and I formed a highly complimentary pair. He was appointed me Vice President in 2010 and you know the rest. But to answer your question, yes, to participate in the ACO’s adventure at this position is exciting.”
Where do you see motorsports in ten years, and more specifically the 24 Hours of Le Mans?
“The model of the 24 Hours is to be a laboratory of innovation and [proof of that] has come with the innovative new LMP1 regulations.
“Certainly, we have to adapt to changes in society but there is a bright future for motorsport as an accelerator of innovation for road vehicles. The ACO has always constantly projected into the future.
“It’s also the role of Garage 56, which can test future technologies. An exception will be in 2016 for the extraordinary human adventure of Frederic Sausset. We are very much in support of this.
“I think by 2025, everything will revolve around electric. Autonomy remains a limiting factor today and electric cars are more suitable in town but we will still need engines for longer distances.
“Hydrogen and fuel cell are very likely the technologies of the future and you can imagine these in the 24 Hours.
“But the magic of Le Mans should be preserved at all costs… A mix of prototypes and GTs, with different technologies, drivers and pro-am teams, while also controlling costs to attract new manufacturers.”
Could we ever see the 24 Hours of Le Mans become a permanent circuit?
“This project was studied a few years ago but it’s untenable financially. The local authorities have other concerns. in addition, a race on the big circuit must remain something rare.”