In the second part of his Le Mans 2016 preview, Radio Le Mans’ John Hindhaugh writes exclusively for Mobil 1 The Grid to preview the LMP field, as Porsche, Audi and Toyota look to go head-to-head in the highly-anticipated battle of the big guns.
In alphabetical order, Audi, Porsche and Toyota, are the three major automotive manufacturers vying for supremacy at the Le Mans 24 Hours this weekend.
Porsche are the defending Le Mans and FiA World Endurance Champions. They have had a steady start to the 2016 season so far, in which they have opted to refine the 2015 version of the 919 (nine-nineteen) hybrid, as opposed to making wholesale changes. After all, why fix what isn’t broken?
Their early selection of battery power paid dividends last season, and the power from the 2.0 V4 four cylinder petrol engine was delivered with (just) enough reliability to get them home in both manufacturers’ and drivers’ standings.
The pace of development, though, is relentless. Porsche’s competitors have both switched to battery storage for the electrical power that makes up around half of the 1000-1400BHP that these cars now produce. The German team knew they were being gained upon and may have pushed the technology a little too far. So much so that they have elected to return to the 2015 specification battery pack, rather than risk a failure at this year’s 24 Hours.
This is an interesting choice as the issues that Porsche have suffered at Silverstone and Spa – the first two WEC rounds of the season – did involve hybrid systems, but seemed to be mechanical rather than something as fundamental as the storage media.
Given that each of the manufacturers are bringing only 2 cars to contest the Le Mans 24 Hours, Porsche therefore have far less ‘wriggle room’ than usual in terms of their tactics and overall reliability. There will be more on the repercussions of this later.
Nonetheless, the 919 is unique among the contenders as it has 2 different ways of harvesting electric energy. The first – through the front axle – is common to all of the LMP1-H entrants.
The second is a ‘gas back’ system, which utilises the spent exhaust from the engine AFTER it has already used some energy to spin up the conventional engine turbocharger.
Effectively, it is a second turbine, downstream of the turbo, which quite literally turns the force of the escaping gas into electrical energy. This, in turn, is stored in the batteries until called upon to drive the wheels.
There’s a huge amount of secrecy surrounding where and when the energy is then deployed.
Clearly, you can use it to either;
a) Go faster
b) Save fuel
The motive power units are not the only areas of military-like secrecy. The FiA Endurance Committee has seen fit to bring in a new rule (introduced in the aftermath of the Le Mans test day) that forbids teams from ‘hiding’ their cars behind upturned bodywork, or lines of mechanics, while being worked on in the garage.
All of the manufacturers have played this game, which is mainly to do with trying to keep prying eyes – or in our case, interested observers – from seeing suspension components.
Front and rear interconnected suspension (FRICS) was outlawed in F1, but Porsche and Audi have been keenly developing mechanical and hydraulic systems for their road cars for some time. Search for ‘Hub-Wank system’ (no sniggering at the back there) and you’ll find two patents filed by Porsche in 2011; one for damping the torsion bar across each axle, and one for a mechanical linkage between front/rear suspension, with a damper on each end.
‘Stroke Damping’ (I know, still a little snigger-worthy) will be a buzz topic this year.
Audi’s version of this FRICS is hydraulic, rather than mechanical. This reflects the shift to F1-style fluid actuated control systems for gear-changing, steering and suspension employed by the Audi Sport team, with more and more of their workforce now being recruited from F1.
The R18 of Audi is pretty much a brand new car. Parts of the central monocoque and chassis have been retained, and the 4.0 litre V6 TDi is familiar, but reworked. The rest of the car – including, crucially, the aero philosophy – is new for 2016.
Audi are exploiting aerodynamic regulations from a couple of years ago concerning the front of the car, allowing a discernible front wing under the nose, rather like a single seater. In addition, Audi have moved away from their flywheel energy storage system, to a battery pack.
Crucially, they have elected to only use 6 MJ of energy, as a opposed to Porsche and Toyota, who use the maximum of 8 MJ. This gives Audi a little more fuel to use on their diesel engine. But each of the manufacturers have been cut back from last year, by around 7% on the fuel allowance for their internal combustion engines.
Remarkable, then, that everyone is talking seriously about lap records being broken at Le Mans and other circuits this year. Audi won on the track at Silverstone, but had the car riding too low and were excluded post-race. However, with travails for the others, they scored an unexpected, but welcome, win at Spa.
Toyota had a miserable 2015. Having won the World Endurance Championship in 2014, 2015 was meant to be a victory lap of the globe. Alas, the reality was far from that.
The Japanese brand massively underestimated the opposition – particularly Porsche – and how quickly they would be able to improve and, ultimately, go more quickly.
Toyota didn’t stand still. They bettered their 2014 pace at some tracks by 2-3 seconds a lap. The problem for them was that Porsche were knocking 4-6 seconds off the Toyota ’14 lap records which, in retrospect, was just remarkable.
It had been Toyota’s plan to hold onto their sonorous V8 for another season. But it was clear that wasn’t going to fly. So the new engine programme was pushed forward by over a year – almost unimaginable in racing terms. And so, the 2016 TS050 was launched, complete with a 2.4 Turbocharged V6 petrol engine.
The super-capacitor storage was replaced with batteries, and the harvesting and deployment systems on front and rear axles – already the best in the paddock – were given a makeover, refined and made even more efficient.
More complicated it was, too, as we found out at Silverstone. A damp track, with tyres not really working in low ambient temperatures, left Toyota scrambling for any kind of balance and speed. They were nowhere.
We’ve come to know Toyota Gazoo Racing as a resilient group – their response to 2015 proved that in spades – so it was no real surprise to see them bounce back at Spa.
However, what they did was more than just bounce. The TS050 flew. And should have won, were it not for heavy grounding over kerbs causing component issues in the engine bay.
Indeed, it is at this point where I normally say, “So the overall winner will come from LMP1-H”, so here I go again with my pick:
Porsche ‘should’ win again; my bet is on the World Champions Timo Bernhard, Brendon Hartley and Mark Webber.
Toyota are quietly confident, and will apply pressure at the front of the field. But for how long?
So they ‘could’ win.
Audi? Well, they have bet the farm on the new aero and some clever control systems. If they get the balance right, they might just have the pace – It’s Audi, for goodness sake! They have made a Le Mans career out of winning without having the ‘best’ car.
BUT – and that is a big ‘but’ – it’s just not that straightforward this year.
With none of the top manufacturers having anywhere near 100% reliability, and with each only having two cars per team, it is certainly conceivable that there could be an upset.
How big an upset? Well, that’s the key question.
Rebellion Racing has a pair of achingly pretty Oreca-built chassis, with AER engines. And ByKolles have their own chassis – again, with the AER engine.
Generally speaking, these non-manufacturer teams have no chance to challenge the big guns. They have their own championship, recognising the gulf in resources and finance between the teams.
Yet, Rebellion have been 3rd in both of the opening 6 hour races this season.
Rebellion are the pick of the two ‘privateer’ teams, and have finished 4th at Le Mans in the past. Bart Haydon’s team are run with precision and tactical savvy. Their drivers are top quality; their car is reliable.
I’m not going to say it – I’m certainly not going to write it – but 2016 has already been a year for sporting underdogs, right?
You can follow the 84th running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans at www.radiolemans.com, and trackside on Mobil 1 Radio Le Mans, at 91.2fm – Programming from Le Mans begin on Sunday of race week, with additional reports from Scrutineering. Radio Le Mans’ live coverage will cover every moment the cars are on track, from practice on Wednesday through to the end of the race on Sunday. Full programme schedule at www.radiolemans.com.