Hybrids steal limelight in 24 Hours of Le MansBy Botchi Santos
Philippine Daily Inquirer
Thanks to modern technology, I found myself sitting at home from 9 p.m. of Saturday until 3 in the wee hours of Sunday morning watching the first six hours of the 80th running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. It was because of PLDT’s latest fiber-optic technology that I could stream high-quality videos of the race (mostly in-car footage with great commentary in the Audi R18 race cars) to my old and overused laptop.
And it was intense to say the least. Back in 2001, I found myself in Paris with my mother on the same weekend as the running of the famous endurance race. It was a big event back then as it was Bentley’s first time to race on the famed La Sarthe circuit in their EXP Speed 8, after decades of absence, running a reworked Audi LMP (Le Mans Prototype) closed cockpit chassis. The Bentley Boys didn’t triumph that year but did so after two years in 2003, taking the top two spots. Of course, Bentley is part of the Volkswagen-Audi Group and insiders insist that the Audi teams were told to let the Bentleys, the sentimental favorites, win in that year.
Fast forward a decade, and wow, things finally are starting to heat up. Not only is Le Mans now part of the World Endurance Series (a motorsports series composed of endurance events, the shorter ones still featuring six-hour races, the equivalent of three F1 races in a single running), but Toyota finally made a comeback with their hybrid TSO30 race cars. In the late ’90s, Toyota’s TSO20, composed of Japan’s all-star line-up of drivers, came very close but due to an accident failed at, literally, the penultimate hour. Bad blood then that Toyota felt needs to be resolved. Nissan also had bad blood to settle as their R390 GT1 race cars became obsolete in the face of changing regulations that saw the company abandon its Le Mans project. But fast forward again and it’s Deltawing experimental race car, with its quasi-Batmobile look, made huge noise thanks to its amazing fuel efficiency, roughly 30 percent more efficient than the LMP cars but was hence restricted to using a much smaller fuel tank (40 liters compared to the 70 liters or more of the other cars).
Audi made a comeback with their R18 closed-cockpit LMP race cars, and added their own hybrid powertrain as well, perhaps as a PR stunt to upstage rivals Toyota. The Toyota TSO30 (3 stands for third generation or variant) is powered by a 3.4-liter 32-valve dohc V8 petrol, tracing its roots from a Formula Nippon engine (Japan’s top open-wheel series), which is also the standard engine formula now used in the Japan Super GT GT500 class. The Audi uses a 3.7 24-valve dohc V6 common-rail direct injection diesel engine that surprisingly traces its basic design to the 3.0-liter TDI engine used in Audi’s line-up of luxury limousines and SUV’s. The TDI engine in both road and race cars is special because the exhaust ports are in the middle of the V-formation, a technology also being pioneered by BMW in their latest petrol V8’s. This is called hot-side inside, as opposed to traditional engines, which have their exhaust ports on the outside of the V-formation. The result? A more compact overall package, better center of gravity (albeit a slightly higher one) and less weight as this configuration allows for a single turbocharger to be used, in this case a Garret TR30R VGT turbocharger on the R18. But since the E-Tron gets a hybrid system, Audi engineers offset the additional weight by designing its transmission casing with carbon-fiber rather than aluminum and magnesium, unheard of even in other forms of motorsport.
There were some surprises. Anthony Philips, one of the Toyota factory drivers in a TSO30, overtook a slower Ferrari F458 Italia at the end of the Mulsanne Straight, made contact and flipped the Toyota, bringing back memories of The Mercedes CLR LMP cars flipping back in the 1999 on two separate incidents, with Mark Webber flipping on practice on Indianapolis corner, and Peter Dumbreck during race day just before the same Indianapolis corner, which also saw the German marquee cancel its efforts to win and called the remaining car back to the pits. You see, the Mulsanne Straight is a public road, very bumpy when you’re north of 310 kph on the average. With a flat bottom floor and undertray, a significant amount of air that passes underneath the car when the front end bobs and angles upwards, even for just a bit can flip the entire car upwards, like a wing.
Thankfully, Anthony Philips was unhurt. But that ended the race for one of the two hybrids. The other Toyota hybrid got tangled up with the Nissan Deltawing racer and thus both cars retired from the race. This left the Audis unchallenged, until the 22nd hour, when two of the three leading Audis got into their own accidents and left the pit crew running like madmen to repair both cars. This left the No. 1 Audi R18 E-Tron with a lap ahead of its nearest competitor, but with over an hour to go, many things can happen. Thankfully for Audi, in the end, they grabbed the top three spots, and secured a record-breaking 11th win, the most successful team in the modern Le Mans era.
Other dramas were the number 51 AF Corse Ferrari F458 Italia, which won the GTE Class, despite the car being rebuilt overnight after a qualifying accident the day prior. Ferrari took first, second and fourth in its class. Corvette had a nightmare but fought well until its cars were decimated by attrition. Porsches, generally dominant in endurance races, were far from usual form as they failed to overcome the onslaught of Ferrari and Aston Martin, which finished in third.
Toyota, Audi, Nissan, Ferrari, Porsche, Aston Martin and Chevrolet took part in the event. Even Honda participated as an engine supplier. GT Racing offers a spectator friendly motorsport event that features so many brands, and so many teams both big and small to compete against each other, and ultimately, against the daunting La Sarthe circuit. I am not losing hope that one day I would be able to watch it live!
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