Le Mans 24 Hours, and how it benefits you
We’ve just witnessed the 82nd running of the world’s most gruelling race, the Le Mans 24 Hours, where Audi clinched its 13th victory. The race also marked the return to Le Mans of one of the most iconic names in the sport. Porsche’s history at the circuit is legendary, and there’s even a section of track – the Porsche Curves – which bear the marque’s name.
Porsche’s 16 year hiatus from Le Mans hasn’t been a total divorce. GT classes have been dominated by the 911, and the LMP2 classes saw the open top RS Spyder compete at Le Mans until 2009 – but they’ve not entered teams in the premiere classes since 1998. Then, it was the utterly reliable GT1 which saw the maker clinch first and second on the podium over its rivals from Mercedes, Toyota and BMW. And while the honours fell to Audi this year, Porsche’s return to top level endurance racing with the 919 Hybrid was extremely impressive.
But what does it all mean for you, the end consumer? Who really cares about racing, and why does it matter? Here’s five reasons that may change your thinking.
1) Extreme engineering
Porsche’s return was significant for a number of reasons, not the least of has been the shift to hybrid powertrains. The focus is now on efficiency, safety and sustainability; power alone will not win races. We’ve already seen that with Formula 1 this year.
The focus is now on efficiency, safety and sustainability; power alone will not win races.
The 919 Hybrid’s predecessor, the GT1, used a 3.3 litre flat-six engine that produced around 600 hp, enough to hit a top speed of 330 km/h along the Mulsanne Straight. The 919 uses a turbocharged two-litre V-4 engine that produces more than 500 hp at the rear wheels, plus an electric motor that sends more than 250-hp to the front wheels.
Porsche says the 919 Hybrid will hit speeds at over 300 km/h, and unofficial estimates put that at fairly close to matching the GT1’s outright pace.
2) It’s clever
The hybrid system gathers up energy that may otherwise be wasted and turns this in to electrical energy. There’s a generator on the front axle that springs into action under braking to charge the onboard liquid cooled lithium ion battery, and a little generator in the exhaust which is powered by the exhaust gasses. That also sends power to the battery, which is stored up and called on under hard acceleration. Similar systems are fitted to road cars today, including the road-going 918 we tested earlier this year – but the extreme conditions found in the race environment help to push the technical limits of these systems. By developing them and pushing research into these areas, costs reduce and better ways of doing things are discovered.
3) It’s lightweight
Where the GT1 weighed around 1050 kg in race trim, the 919 Hybrid weighs just 870 kg. Much of that has come through restrictions governing the dimensions of the cars, but also by switching the rules to prototype regulations. When the GT1 raced, manufacturers had to also produce street legal versions of the car, so a lot of compromises had to be made over the way the car was constructed, what it was made from and where things like the lights and other bits were positioned.
Under prototype rules, that doesn’t apply. Manufacturers are free to uses as much carbon fibre as they like, and they’re free to develop pure racecars without compromise. There are restrictions of course, but they’re designed to make the racing even, not incur enormous costs associated with tooling up for limited run, exclusive special editions. In some ways it’s a shame: you won’t see a 919 Hybrid road car hurtling down Sheikh Zayed Road any time soon. In other ways, it’s a blessing: getting one of those puppies over a speed hump could be quite costly.
4) It’s safe
The prototype has a closed monocoque which gives the driver more space than the GT1 did. It is also strengthened with additional side panels made from a material similar to that used for bullet-proof vests. These panels are designed to protect the driver in the event of a side impact and prevent the control arms penetrating the cockpit if a wheel comes off. The driver sight lines are also impressive: he sits higher than before, and the wheel housings have been lowered to help him chose a better line through slower corners. And who doesn’t like a safer, faster car, right?
5) It’s got frickin’ lasers
Ok, so the Porsche 919 Hybrid doesn’t, but the Le Mans winning Audi R-18 e-tron does. And they’re satellite-guided, which is even cooler. Audi discovered that by programming its new laser high-beams to swivel into a turn just before the driver turns the wheel, they worked tremendously well. Drivers are always thinking about the next turn – looking ahead and preparing for what’s next. It appears that now, their headlights are too. And who doesn’t want lasers?