Preview: Le Mans 2015
I'm getting a little bit of a headache. And while the bodily aches and pains that a writer suffers are usually irrelevant to the contents of a magazine, or website for that matter, that isn't so in this particular case. You see, the cause of this headache happens to be the rules of the 2015 24 Hours of Le Mans. I'm trying to decipher how much fuel each of the Audis is allowed, in relation to the energy output of their electric motor. It is tricky stuff, and involves many calculations that require one to have more digits than most humans have.
After going through the ACO (Automobile Club de l'Ouest)'s technical regulations for LMP1 cars, and then coming to the conclusion that such complex mathematics is quite beyond me, I resort to Google. Several search pages later I find what I am looking for. For the amount of electrical power that each Audi R18 e-tron quattro has at its disposal, it has to consume 2.5 per cent less diesel per lap. Le Mans and the World Endurance Championship going the hybrid way means that fans, if they're paying close attention, have a lot more details to process. But I have a sneaking suspicion that the really smart fans choose to just have fun at the Circuit de la Sarthe, swigging beer and dancing all night long, celebrating what is essentially the most raucous party in motor racing.
So what's going to be different about the supporters who are bound to show up in full force at the crazy roundabout in 2015? Well, this year, in addition to the fans in support of the Audi team, and the contingents supporting Porsche and Toyota, there's a whole new bunch of petrolheads who will be trackside. Say hello to the Godzilla fans who will support Nissan at Le Mans. And maybe, just maybe, they'll have reason to celebrate in 2015. It's a long shot, but even so.
Four rings to rule them all
Think back to almost every single Le Mans over the past decade. With the exception of Peugeot winning in 2009, it's been Audi all the way. Oh, we've had those moments now and again when we've thought that maybe Toyota could sneak in a win. And no sooner had we allowed the thought to cross our minds, than it's been a blown engine here and a crash there. It's a tricky business, racing for 24 long hours, and every year Le Mans invariably weeds out the weak. It's an event that separates the 'almosts' from the 'shoo ins'. And given the might of Ingolstadt, it isn't hard to understand why Audi have been as unstoppable as they have at the Circuit de la Sarthe.
Of course, for 2015, Audi go into the WEC as the reigning champions, their R18 e-tron quattro having won the 2014 edition of the event with Andre Lotterer, Benoit Treluyer and Marcel Fassler behind the wheel. For the drivers, and race engineer of Indian-origin, Leena Gade, it was a third win at Le Mans. Which means that in 2015, the team have even more pressure on them. And it's not just pressure from rival teams. There are two other e-tron quattros that they have to battle. Oliver Jarvis, Lucas di Grassi and Loic Duval pilot one, with Marco Bonanomi, Filipe Albuquerque and Rene Rast in the other. The departure of Le Mans legend Tom Kristensen certainly is a loss for the Audi team, but it had to happen at some time, no?
Onto the car then. The boffins at Audi's factory have spent great amounts of time improving the aerodynamics of the Ulrich Baretzy designed LMP1 car. The 4.0-litre V6 diesel engine that powers the car now produces 549PS of power, combined with 270PS of power from the electric motor, which drives the front axle. The amount of torque on offer is something that Audi are keeping to themselves. Oh, they're not going to let their rivals know all their secrets, now, are they?
Winning at the 2015 edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans will mean that Audi will have notched 14 wins at this historic race. Which means they'll be closer than ever to catching
...Mission 'you can't catch us!'
Porsche, Porsche, Porsche! It is the winningest team at Le Mans, with a grand total of 16 victories at Sarthe. Now, the jury's out on why exactly the team opted to come back to Le Mans after they bowed out in 1999. One faction believes that the plan was initially for Porsche to make their comeback, while Audi moved to Formula 1. Others believed that Porsche came back to Le Mans with the intention of winning again, keeping Audi from surpassing their record. Either way, it is a terrific strategy on the part of the VW Group. Have Porsche develop petrol hybrids and Audi develop diesel hybrids, allowing the group to be at the forefront of technology all the time.
So what is new about the 2015 Porsche 919 Hybrid? The men in overalls at Stuttgart have measured, chopped, tweaked, tightened, and decided that it was worth redesigning 85 per cent of the 2014 car. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that Mark Webber's No. 20 car was within one minute of the leading Audi in the last one hour of the 2014 race. And then the car's anti rollbar broke, sending them into retirement. The sister No. 14 car made it to the finish line eleventh, but not without suffering problems. For 2015, the 919 Hybrid goes from the 6MJ category to the 8MJ category, just like the Audis. This essentially means that the electric motor of the car can now put out 8MJ of energy per lap. The 2.0-litre turbocharged V4 engine will send 500PS of power to the rear wheels, the same as last year's car.
This year Porsche will field three cars at Le Mans. Car No 17 will be piloted by Timo Bernhard, Mark Webber and Brendon Hartley, and is painted red and white, to evoke memories of the iconic 917 that won Porsche their first Le Mans title in 1970. The black No 18 car, will be piloted by Romain Dumas, Marc Lieb and Neel Jani. And the No 19 car, decked out in traditional German racing colours of black and white, will be driven by Earl Bamber, F1 driver Nico Hulkenberg, and Nick Tandy. Porsche are running out of time before Audi beats their record. But there's one other faction that can spoil the party for both these teams...
...Approaching fast from the East
Japan's chances at the 24 Hours of Le Mans come in the form of the Toyota TS040. Well, let's recap a little, shall we? To begin with, Toyota made their return to Le Mans with the TS030, the first ever petrol hybrid to enter the 24 Hour race. But their comeback in 2012 didn't go as planned, with both cars retiring. They did a little better in 2013, finishing second and fourth. And in the 2014 edition of the event, the No. 7 car driven by Alex Wurz, Stephane Sarrazin and Kazuki Nakajima led for half of the race distance before heading into retirement. Anthony Davidson, Sebastien Buemi and Nicolas Lapierre finished third in the No. 8 Toyota.
Well, the No. 8 Toyota is the same car that won the Japanese manufacturer their first World Endurance Championship title too. Which is why they're hoping that the new and updated TS040 can do the trick. With tweaks made to the regulations, there have naturally been tweaks to the car. The front end of the car has been redesigned, the aero package of the car has been completely revised and all the extra weight from last year's car has been chopped right off. The car, according to the engineers at Toyota, has been given an 80 per cent makeover. So it is almost all new.
Toyota have decided to stay in the 6MJ class for 2015. The petrol engine is a 3.7-litre V8, which in combination with the electric motor gives the car a combined power output of 1,000PS. With over 30,000km of testing in France, the TS040 looks good to go.
What about the drivers then? Well, Buemi, Davidson and Nakajima, the reigning drivers' champions in the WEC will pilot the No. 1 Toyota. The only disadvantage for the trio is that Nakajima is recovering from a broken back - an injury sustained during the first round of the WEC 2015. Behind the wheel of the No. 2 Toyota are Wurz, Sarrazin and Mike Conway. Can the reigning WEC title holders come and rain on the German parade. There's a bunch of Japanese fans hoping for exactly that! But wait, actually RUN!...
...Godzilla is coming!
So, here it is finally - the Nissan GT-R LM Nismo. And even though Nissan has managed to use the GT-R title to evoke memories of that iconic car, and even though the car's front end bears a striking resemblance to the original Godzilla, it is but skin deep. Mechanically there's really nothing GT-R about this.
But we have to hand it to the Japanese. They certainly know how to do things differently and this Le Mans Prototype is possibly one of the best examples of exactly that. The Nissan GT-R LM Nismo is the first prototype that's come from Nissan since 1999, and designer Ben Bowlby was given a rather simple brief - don't make it an imitation Audi. So he ignored the trend that LMP1 cars have set of late, and instead of a rear-engined car, he built a front-engined car. The engine is a 3.0-litre 60 degree V6, with twin turbochargers and direct injection, with 510PS of power on offer. Just behind the engine is the electric motor, which drives the front wheels, with an extra 710PS on tap (that's really the figure that Nissan has released!).
There are three of these GT-Rs that will make it to the grid for the 2015 edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The No. 21 car will be piloted by Tsugio Matsuda, Lucas Ordóñez and Mark Shulzhitskiy. The No 22 car by Harry Tincknell, Alex Buncombe and Michael Krumm. And the No. 23 car by Jann Mardenborough, Olivier Pla and Max Chilton. More than just one Nissan GT Academy driver on their driver roster.
What should Nissan aim for in their Le Mans return? We'd love it if they were the biggest upset in Le Mans history in recent times. But we also know that that is rather unlikely. Maybe they should just aim to finish the race then? And we can save some room for Godzilla Returns in 2016!
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