By Jim Taylor, Editor MACS ACtion Magazine
The long awaited battle of the racing hybrids took place in Le Mans, France last weekend during the famous 24 Hour race. What used to be a test of endurance has become a flat-out round the clock sprint, and the earlier strategy of “saving the car” for the last hours of the race is no longer sound practice.
This was Toyota’s debut at Le Mans and to win, a team must be full-on, all the time. At the start, the two Audi E-trons (using electric assist and a high performance diesel engine) set the pace, followed closely by Toyota’s two TS030 gas-electric hybrids. The German team also had two, similar but non-hybrid vehicles in the event.
While the Audi’s stayed ahead for the first few hours, they were not dominant as the Toyotas could stay close enough to be a constant threat. At one point a few hours in, a combination of pit stops, traffic and wily driving put a Toyota out front. From the early view, it was shaping up as a great battle between new technology cars.
But even though teams are supposed to “make their own luck,” occasionally fate stacks the deck against them. One Toyota was taken out after it went airborne following a hit by a slower Ferrari under braking; both cars suffered violent impacts with the barriers. Toyota driver Anthony Davidson suffered back injuries in the accident and the car was severely damaged.
The second TS030 soldiered on and even challenged for the lead again, but eventually ran afoul of engine trouble just after the 10 hour point. The team took pains to make it known that the failure was not in the hybrid system, and the team manager noted that his cars had shown they were well capable of challenging the Audis.
So the “Battle of the Batteries” never materialized to any depth. In the LMP-1 class, it was an all-Audi podium, with the E-Trons taking first and second overall and a diesel Audi in third place as well. The value of the high performance hybrid drive (or assist) is now firmly established, and the organizing club has acknowledged this with several rule changes for the 2014 race.
Two years from now, cars may use energy recovery systems up to four times more powerful than the present ones, but the system must be ready to go at the beginning of the season; updates or developmental system changes will not be permitted during the year.
Additionally, while engine displacement in the top class becomes unlimited, fuel tank size will be reduced and the allowable fuel consumption rate will be reduced by close to 30 percent. The sponsors say this will improve efficiency and “encourage racing technology to be more applicable to road cars.” Forced induction will become legal again (up to 4.0 bar or roughly 58 pounds of boost !) and restricted air intakes will no longer be required. The engine builders have many challenges ahead and the balance between performance and economy will be intriguing.
In other Le Mans news, the U.S. Starworks team won the LMP-2 class, beating an assortment of well developed international teams. In the GTE-Pro class, Corvette Racing had a less-than-memorable weekend, enduring a variety of mechanical and crash-induced problems. Although they were running first and third in class at the 10-hour mark, by the checkered flag one ‘Vette was classed in 5th place and the other, although still running, was classified as “retired” due to not making the minimum number of laps.
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