The 24 hours of Le Mans stands as the ultimate endurance motor race on the planet. The contest involves four different series of cars; LMP1, LMP2, GTA and GTE, competing on the same track. While the first 2 categories are all usually fully or at least partially factory funded teams running expensive prototype cars, the later 2 are highly modified street cars or purpose built race cars sold to the well funded individuals or small private teams. The winning team will normally complete the equivalent of 18 Formula One races during the 24 hours. All the while maintaining a higher average speed.
The spectacle of watching million dollar factory cars sharing the track with less expensive and less powerful cars is one of the more exciting features of the race format. Although not as expensive as factory teams, a private entry at Le Mans will likely still cost one million dollars.
Make no doubt about the money at play in this contest. Within 50 minutes of the last car crossing the finish line, while we were lining up for buses back to the train station, the private and chartered jets began their orderly exodus from the infield landing strip.
Race day began with heavy rain showers that gave way to ominous clouds and the early odd sprinkle. The rain managed to hold off for the 80th running of the iconic 24 hours of Le Mans. Audi has managed to win at the famed circuit 11 of the last 13 years. The race was more exciting than many had expected after the withdrawal of Peugeot, Audi’s main competition in recent years. Toyota returned to the Le Mans after a near 20 year absence, with a gasoline/hybrid and stepped in as Audi’s main rival to try and prevent a rout. This years contest was always destined to be trial of Hybrid technology. Peugeot had been developing a diesel/hybrid car prior to its withdrawal. The application of hybrid power trains seemed like the perfect fit for Toyota, who had recently departed the Formula One series after years of involvement.
Audi brought four cars to the Circuit de la Sarthe, two of its super lightweight R18 Ultra diesel engined cars as well as a pair of R18 e-tron diesel hybrid race cars. This was the first year that Audi has raced the experimental diesel/hybrid model. The R18 Ultra is a revised version of last years winning R18, with a mandated reduction in fuel capacity and a reduced air induction opening to limit range and power. The e-tron uses a flywheel accumulator system to power electric motors at each of the front. Activation of the hybrid system is controlled by an engine management system that automatically activates the Quattro system for maximum speed, efficiency and traction. Other than the e-tron system and its smaller fuel tank, the 2 R18 models are identical.
The development of a split electric/mechanical Quattro power train has been touted for years as a weight saving solution for Audi’s passenger vehicles. Following the race Audi was quick to note that data gleaned from the cars telemetry system over the 378 laps of racing, was equivalent to years of testing in a conventional passenger car program.