24hrs into the future
As I write this, there is still just under two hours of the 2012 Le Mans 24hrs race to run. It’s the 80th running of the legendary Grand Prix D’Endurance and without doubt, it’s been a historic running of the self-styled greatest race in the world.
To steal a catchphrase from the footballing world (apparently there’s some football tournament or other also running this weekend. I hadn’t noticed) it’s been a race of two halves, and for that we have to be thankful to Toyota.
Audi has utterly dominated Le Mans for the past 13 years, picking up ten victories (this will be its 11th if it hangs on in there) with only Bentley, BMW and Peugeot able to spoil an otherwise flawless run. With a financially-addled Peugeot having abruptly pulled the plug on its endurance racing team earlier this year, we had expected the 2012 Le Mans to essentially be an Audi benefit, an internecine war between the four silver cars; diesel-hybrids versus vanilla diesels. But thankfully, and against all odds considering that both team and car are brand new, Toyota’s TSO30 petrol-hybrid gave a Audi a proper race. Well, for a while anyway. A spectacularly horrifying accident for the No.8 Toyota with Sky Sports F1 pundit Anthony Davidson behind the wheel resulted in a Toyota on its roof and a broken back for its driver. That reduced Toyota’s challenge to one car, which came within an ace of taking the overall lead from Audi but another clash of panels (this time with the astonishing needle-nosed Nissan Deltawing car) caused enough damage to the No.7 Toyota for it to be retired just past midnight. Le Mans was Audi’s again.
The win is historic though, as it’s the first win for a hybrid, technology that the Automobile Club L’Ouest (ACO – the governing body of Le Mans and the World Endurance Chanpionship) is very keen to promote. This is where Le Mans shines so much brighter than tightly controlled Formula One; in its technical innovation. Audi’s R18 e-Tron quattro racer uses a 3.7-litre V6 diesel with a Williams Hybrid Power flywheel hybrid (flybrid) powering the front wheels at certain points around the circuit. Toyota uses a petrol V8, combined cutting-edge super-capacitors to harvest electrical power from braking and release it back into the drivetrain under acceleration. Besides those, was the amazing Nissan Deltawing which looked like a cross between a jet fighter and a spaceship, uses a road-car based engine with half the power of its rivals to perform at (almost) the same level and which promises a new world of race car dynamics and development.
And it’s going to get even better. With Porsche already long since confirmed for a new works team to compete in the top-level LMP1 category from 2014 and Mazda just this week confirming that it will return to the scene of its 1991 win as a supplier of diesel SkyActiv racing engines to privateer teams, the competition is really hotting up. Honda, Jaguar and others are rumoured to be considering returns to La Sarthe while the road-car-based GT category already includes Porsche, Ferrari, Corvette and Aston Martin, which produced some astonishingly close racing this year.
From 2014 though, the ACO has announced a remarkable change in the rules. Essentially, it’s tearing up the rule book and moving Le Mans to an energy-usage formula. Teams and classes will be given a set level of energy they can consume to run the race and then it’s up to them to figure out how best to use that. Diesel, petrol, hybrid, turbine, rotary, fuel cell – you name it. Run what ya brung.
For road car technology, this will be a major boon. As Formula One stagnates and switches at the same time to pointless 1.6-litre V6 turbo engines, assisted by hybrid KERS electric motors that are already behind the technology curve of some road car hybrids, Le Mans’ uncorking of the rule book will provide a platform for development and innovation the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the sixties in motor racing. And one which will likely have a direct benefit to future road-going models. After all, if an engine design, electronic system or hybrid setup can survive 24hrs of non-stop pounding in the cauldron of the Greatest Race, it should work pretty well in a family road car too. Le Mans has been partly responsible for the development of, amongst other items, disc brakes and dual-clutch gearboxes. Hybrid and part-electric motoring could just become a lot more fun if the development programme includes a weekend spin in the Loire Valley…
Addendum: It’s now three hours past the end of the race and, yup, Audi won with the No.1 R18 e-Tron hybrid of Marcel Fassler, Benoit Treluyer and Andre Lotterer taking the flag, with the three other Audis in line astern. A dominating 11th win for the four rings, then, but with the intriguing clouds of increased competition on the horizon. It’s going to be a long 365 days to the next Le Mans and, as my father-in-law would say, “it’s as far away now as it’ll ever be.”