Audi carefully chose the hash-tag #welcomeschallenges prior to the running of the 2014 edition of 24 hours Le Mans race. Having won 12 previous Le Mans titles and the last five contests at the circuit, the German automaker now faced competition from its Volkswagen group partner Porsche as well as a revitalized Toyota team.
You have to wonder how sincere the sentiments of the hash-tag were given the changes forced upon the seemingly dominant German team since the end of the 2013 season. To be honest, the betting money seemed aligned to favour Toyota winning their first title at the famed French circuit.
New regulations that focused on energy consumption equality rather than handicapping power output, required Audi to essentially redesign the R18 etron during the off season. Another interesting regulation monitored not only fuel consumption but electrical regeneration on the hybrid systems. Fuel strategy and consumption was tied to a 3 lap average and had to be reconciled and dealt with within that 3 lap window, not across the span of a complete race. The Audi R18 etron entered in the 2014 race was a carry over in name only from last season.
The 3 front running teams chose different variations on hybrid power-plants in attempt to conquer the challenge. Audi once again relied on its 3.0L 6 cylinder turbo charged diesel engine supplemented with a flywheel based hybrid drive system. The Porsche team opted for a four cylinder gasoline engine with a whopping 4.0L displacement and a lithium-ion battery. Toyota paired its gasoline powered 3.7L eight cylinder engine with super capacitors to store the electrical energy. Following a couple of spectacular crashes in practice and qualifying the race started with the Toyotas running away with the race closely followed by the Porsche duo. Audi seemed to have met their match in this year’s running of the famed 24 hour race.
In today’s instant fast paced world, the concept of 24 hour racing seems undefinable. Consider that the 24 Hours of Le Mans covers roughly the same distance as the entire Formula One calendar of races, all rolled into one constant sprint. Think of the strategy used in the F1 races. Engines are manufactured for individual race qualifying, while other engines are produced for each 2 hour race before being rebuilt. The prolonged abuse highlights the term “endurance” when describing the World Endurance Championship that sanctions the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Another wonder, or better yet confusing spectacle of the Le Mans race is the blend of cars and drivers of differing capabilities. Professional and amateur drivers that share the race track at the same time. Fans have coined a term the “Ferrari Factor” for one of the well heeled amateur enthusiasts, who drop $300,000 in entrance fees for the privilege of driving in the race. They usually end up causing some spectacular mayhem on the track and this year’s race was no different. About 2 hours into the race, a Ferrari 458 in the GTE Am class, tangled with one of the leading group Toyota RE40’s causing it to glance into the number 3 Audi R18-Etron at speeds nearing 300 kms/hr. The resulting crash forced the Toyota back to the pits for an 8 lap siesta and repair. The Audi was not so lucky, transmission damaged forced its retirement.
The remaining Audi’s both had issues with gremlins. One electrical issue requiring a full system reboot during the race. Both cars blew their turbochargers which were miraculously replaced in as little time as 17 minutes. Apparently the team practiced this procedure with an actual heated turbo unit with temps of up to 1000 degrees Fahrenheit.
The wonder of 24 hours of racing is that the lead Toyota eventually retired due to an onboard fire, yet the one originally damaged early in the race came back to finish 3rd. Yes third- as the remaining two Audi’s once again proved dominant, taking the first and second places. Porsche had a suspect race and eventually trotted out one car on the final lap for a photo op and to avoid 2 DNF race cars.
It will be interesting to see what regulations are changed for next years season and how the cars evolve as a result. Nissan has announced that it will be joining the top class LMP1 prototype class for the 2015 season. I can’t wait to see what Audi’s hash-tag will look like next year as they look to win their 7th straight Le Mans title.