Tough conditions a proving ground for automotive tech.
Win on Sunday, sell on Monday.
So goes the auto-racing adage. In the early days of the automobile, manufacturers used competitions to show off their cars and draw buyers into showrooms.
Results on the track now have a debatable effect on sales, but manufacturers continue to use racing for research and development, perfecting ideas on the track before they show up in production.
Formula One and the World Endurance Championship, with the 24 Hours of Le Mans as its premier event, have long been testing grounds of automobile technology. Seat belts and windshield wipers were developed on the track, as were better aerodynamics, safety equipment and engines. Composite materials like carbon fiber, alternative fuels and energy-recovery systems were all track-tested.
In the last few years, because of the way Formula One is structured, the World Endurance Championship has surpassed it as a technology science lab.
Anthony Davidson, driving at Le Mans for Toyota this year and one of the 2014 WEC winners (as part of a team of three), points out one reason the demands of a 24-hour race translate to automobile production much better than in Formula One, where races rarely exceed two hours.
“From a team’s point of view, the main challenge is reliability,” he says. “Building an intricate modern hybrid racing car to undergo 24 hours of hard racing without the slightest of glitches seems like an impossible task, but that’s what is needed to take victory at Le Mans.”
Le Mans, which ran June 17-18, has debuted technologies that highway drivers now take for granted. In 1926, Lorraine-Dietrich introduced fog lights for its Le Mans cars. One year later, a front-wheel-drive car made its Le Mans debut. The race has also been a stage for early versions of direct-injection engines, disc brakes and halogen headlights.
Le Mans’ major innovations are now in powertrain technologies, including recovery systems that harvest energy under braking for increased power.
Le Mans has also produced innovations in fuel efficiency. Recent winners have included the Audi 2012 R18 e-tron quattro, a diesel-electric car and the first Le Mans winner to rely on kinetic energy recovery; the Porsche 919 hybrid, powered with a two-liter, four-cylinder turbo engine; and the Peugeot diesel 908 HDi FAP.
The Le Mans Prototype 1 cars that raced at Le Mans have helped accelerate the research into maximizing power and efficiency from alternative fuels, and have helped develop battery technology.
Formula One can also claim successes in hybrids. The power units introduced in 2014 delivered more power than their predecessors, while using half the fuel, but the series has not been the impetus for road-ready technology like the WEC.
In contrast to the WEC’s LMP1 class, Formula One is highly restrictive from a regulatory perspective. It has a multitude of engine suppliers — Mercedes, Ferrari, Honda and Renault — but the specifications of the power unit are clearly defined by Formula One, and variations in power output are a result of the ingenuity of each manufacturer and not differences in fuel type, engine capacity or cylinder count.
Manufacturer involvement in Formula One and Le Mans has ebbed and flowed. The 2008 financial crisis led to a manufacturer exodus from Formula One, with BMW, Renault, Toyota and Honda withdrawing their teams.
By contrast, manufacturer interest peaked in the WEC and Le Mans around 2010. In the LMP1 category were Audi, Nissan, Porsche, Peugeot and Toyota, while other categories had Aston Martin, Ferrari and Porsche as factory-backed entries.
That degree of manufacturer involvement has declined. Peugeot withdrew from LMP1 in 2011, citing the financial climate in Europe.
When Porsche returned to the top LMP1 category at Le Mans in 2013 after a 15-year absence, Wolfgang Hatz, then Porsche’s head of research and development, said the endurance championship was a better option than Formula One.
“It was a choice between top-flight sports cars or Formula One,” Hatz said at the time. “The final decision was the only logical one. F1 was an alternative, but the road relevance is not there.”
He cites aerodynamics as an example. The Formula One aerodynamic work is remarkable, he says, “but so extreme that it cannot result in any development in our road car understanding.”