Le Mans 2016 24 Hours: The cars, drivers and tech taking on the hardest race in the world

Motorsport used to be a test of man and machine against the elements, but technology has made that a relatively one-sided battle in recent years. Where the drivers of yesteryear would push their luck in primitive racing cars, today’s drivers can accelerate with ease and simultaneously check their lap deltas with a split-second glance. But even in 2016, there are still events that inspire fear and respect in drivers and manufacturers alike – and Le Mans 24 Hours is one of them.

Since 1923, drivers and carmakers have flocked to the town of Le Mans, France, to race for 24 hours, from day to night. The event takes place on the Circuit de la Sarthe, which is reminiscent of the Nordschleife – mainly because it too seems to be frozen in time, a circuit born in a different era of motor racing. Sure, there are more up-to-date sections with grandstands and facilities, but a lot of the Circuit de la Sarthe consists of straight, fast and narrow tree-lined public roads interrupted only by the odd chicane.

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You’d expect a track with this much history to be mothballed and preserved for future generations, but this weekend Porsche, Toyota and Audi are bringing millions of pounds of drivers and equipment to do battle in the 2016 Le Mans race. Why? Because Le Mans is arguably the best place to test sustainable technology, from turbos and hybrids to petrols and diesels, and everything in between.

Take one look at this year’s entry list and you’ll see what I mean: Toyota are running an bi-turbo V6 engine with hybrid power, while Porsche has opted to use a turbocharged V4 and hybrid engine. Lining up next to them, Audi is using a diesel engine – yes, that’s a V4 turbo-diesel engine combined with a hybrid power system.

Le Mans 2016 24 Hours: The teams and cars

There’s a huge range of cars racing this year, all divided into different classes, from LMP1 prototypes to LMP2, and there’s also the GT class which is based on sports cars that normal (albeit rich) people can buy. However, LMP1 is the class where carmakers are flocking to develop their technology, so here’s a look at the top three teams – in no particular order.

Audi R18

Audi’s latest racing car, the R18 eTron, might look like the Batmobile, but it’s actually super-efficient. The R18’s V6 diesel and hybrid powertrain puts out a combined 1,000hp of power and, as with the hybrid systems used in F1 engines, energy can be recaptured when braking.[gallery:1]

For 2016, Audi is switching to the 6-megajoule class, which means the new hybrid system will collect over 50% more energy when braking compared to last year. The result? Despite producing around 1,000hp of combined power, this year’s R18 uses 10% less fuel than last year’s race car. This year Audi is entering a couple of cars into the race, with ex-Formula 1 and current Formula E driver Lucas di Grassi among its six-driver lineup.

Porsche 919

Porsche’s Le Mans challenger takes a different approach to Audi’s, using a turbocharged 2-litre V4 turbo engine rather than a diesel variant. Porsche has joined the 8-megajoule class, so its V4 engine can use a maximum of only 4.31 litres of petrol per lap of Le Mans. As a result, the 919 Hybrid’s petrol engine actually puts out less than 500hp on its own, so Porsche has connected it to a powerful hybrid system worth 400hp.

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Like F1, the Porsche stores electric energy in lithium-ion batteries, and also uses an electric machine to prevent turbo lag. Unlike F1, however, the rear-wheel-driven Porsche actually channels its electric power through the front axle only. The result? When using KERS (kinetic energy recovery systems), the Porsche is effectively turned into a 900hp, four-wheel-drive racing car. This year Porsche is entering two cars with six drivers including ex-Formula 1 driver Mark Webber.

Toyota TS050 Hybrid

This year’s Toyota will use a 2.4-litre twin-turbo V6 petrol engine with direct injection – and if that sounds underpowered, that’s because it’s only half the equation. Alongside the conventional engine, the TZ050 also uses a 8-megajoule hybrid system. The result? 736kW of power.

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The TS050 Hybrid is good at preserving and recuperating power, too. As with its main rivals, the Toyota is able to capture energy that would usually be wasted when braking – and then channel it to the front of the car.

And as with the other two teams, Toyota is entering two cars this year with three drivers each, and you might recognise the names of at least three of their drivers: Toyota is fielding British ex-F1 driver Anthony Davidson along with former F1 racers Sébastien Buemi and Kamui Kobayashi.

Le Mans 2016 24 Hours: The rules

While Formula 1 works best by giving car makers strict rules to follow, the World Endurance Championship – which the Le Mans 24 Hours race is a part of – gives its competitors way more freedom. That way each manufacturer can pretty much design and develop what they want, and the rules simply serve to balance things out.

After speaking to three-times Le Mans winner and Audi Motorsport director of co-ordination, Allan McNish, it’s clear that this is one of the major pulls for the WEC and Le Mans specifically, and why the World Endurance Championship has so many carmakers excited.

Manufacturers are very much into WEC, and they’re buying into the fact that they’ve got a freedom of choice,” he says.“If they believe that it’s a hybrid system with a battery and a small little engine that is the future of their technology, they can come and develop it, race it and improve it.”

“There are very different concepts there in terms of technology and style. [Carmakers] prefer to have the freedom of choice for developing what they believe is the next generation of technology for the road,” McNish says.

I spoke to Rob Leupen, team director of the Toyota’s WEC team and vice president of Toyota Motorsport GmbH, and he said the same thing. When I asked why Toyota was so involved in Le Mans, he replied: “The regulations are facilitating so that Toyota can show their hybrid technology, one of the key elements of Toyota road cars.”

Marketing does offer a big draw – with manufacturers such as Toyota wanting to show their technology can marry performance, efficiency and reliability on a world stage – but there is a genuine trickle-down from the racetrack to the road.

“It’s important [to appeal to] a certain range of customers to be able to say, ‘here’s the sort of technology we can show – on one side, high performance, and on the other side, reliability,” says Leupen. “On the other side, motorsport gives engineering divisions within the company a lot of knowhow, a lot of information which you can put in future car development.

“We’re now doing development for the next generation of hybrid powertrains. What you see in the TS050 is a turbo hybrid powertrain, and it’s the first you can see from Toyota. So in the longer term […] you’ll definitely see this sort of technology in a Toyota or a Lexus car.”

Even in the past 30 years, Le Mans has gained a reputation for innovation, and three-times winner McNish witnessed it firsthand. “I saw the era of Le Mans where you would have to conserve the car, [to the] era where you just didn’t even think about that and reliability had to be bulletproof,” he says. “Or suddenly going from a petrol engine to a diesel and having to do things like develop a traction-control system, because no-one had ever developed a traction-control system for a diesel racing-car engine.

“Then a few years later, having your performance from the diesel reduced by regulations, and the introduction of a flywheel hybrid system that was recuperating energy and then boosting through the front wheels – so effectively having four-wheel drive at different points.”

Le Mans remains at the forefront of road car technology, but given that its new rules seem to be working, the WEC championship is now looking ahead to the next development.

Le Mans 2016 24 Hours: The road ahead

“There’s this idea of Garage 56, which is a garage that can be given to a team or manufacturer that’s doing something very different, without all the usual implications that it has to be involved in the championship etc,” McNish tells me. “Some ideas are being proposed with filling that Garage 56 in the future, and that’s something you’d never see in Formula 1. It’s like a wildcard effectively.”

In fact, it looks like carmakers are looking to a world beyond hybrid technology too, and they’re only too keen to race them in the future – at races like Le Mans. Toyota has given us hydrogen-powered cars like the Mirai, so I asked Toyota team boss Leupen just how likely we would be to see a fuel-cell racing car – and it could be sooner than you thought.

“Fuel-cell technology is something we need to look at, but given what is required to make it perform in these circumstances, there is still a lot of work to do,” Leupen told me. “But the fuel cell for the future – in the year 2021, 2022 – is surely something we should take into consideration for this kind of racing.”

This year’s race promises to provide another exciting melee of technology and human skill; another brutal test of endurance for cars and drivers alike. And five or ten years from now, it’s exciting to think that the car you drive might use technology perfected at the hardest race in the world.

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