“You’re absolutely crazy. How can you waste an entire day watching cars go around a track?” This is the typical response I get when I tell people that I will be digging into watch the annual 24-Hours of Le Mans every June: the most famous and magical and brutal sports car endurance race the world has ever known.
To me it’s like a religion but to the great majority of people out there an event like the 24-Hours of Le Mans is seen as nothing more as a jolly wheeze: an extravagance that men use as an excuse to takeover the lounge for a few hours and chug an excessive amount of beer.
Peel away this profiled veneer, however, and you’ll discover that Le Mans and other endurance events like it are responsible for making road cars, the machines that you and I park inside our garages at night, better. In fact some of the most rudimentary technologies that we all take very much for granted theses days, disc brakes and windscreen wipers, were born around the feared Circuit de la Sarthe in the north west of France.
Closer to this decade Le Mans was also responsible for bringing turbocharged diesel engines to the forefront of the consumer’s mind. In 2006 when Audi Sport decided to power their LMP1 prototype racing cars exclusively with TDI engines many thought they’d lost the plot. Yet the critics were quickly silenced then the debutant upstart R10 TDI became the 75th winner in the event’s then 84-year history.
Audi furthered their success in the years to come: a success that made the once dour TDI badge sexy. Suddenly being seen in a diesel-chugging Audi A3 was actually kind of sexy as the image conjured up images of champagne and winning and the sporting triumph of the human spirit. This would all be torn apart by the 2015 Dieselgate scandal, sure, but up until then the so-called Grand Prix of Endurance had done wonders for the Audi brand.
The marque’s race program also birthed further technological advancements that have since filtered down into its many road cars. Everything from aerodynamics to lightweight carbon-fibre reinforced space-frames that now form the super rigid backbone of its latest R8. Incidentally this halo car also comes equipped with night-slaying Matrix Laser high-beam headlamps: an advancement of the Matrix LED headlamps that caused such a big stir when they debuted in the A8 limousine in 2013.
As of next year Audi will no longer be part of the 24-Hours of Le Mans as they’re quitting in favour of Formula-E. Yet their absence doesn’t mean that the innovation will stop. Porsche and Toyota are still both heavily vested in the World Endurance Championship (WEC) series and as such we can expect great things to come from their continued involvement.
Particularly in this brave new era that looks to advancing hybrid technology: the wedding of efficient yet powerful turbocharged petrol engines with battery packs and electric motors. Porsche has already proved particularly savvy in this department with its 919 Hybrid dominating LMP1 proceedings in only its second year of competition.
As to be expected this technology is becoming more and more prevalent in their road cars. Just look at the Panamera E-Hybrid that debuted at the recent Paris Motor Show. The same can be said for Toyota. I recently drove its new Prius and found that it has never merged a better blend of performance and frugality.
Is this down to their continued quest to clinch that elusive Le Mans victory? You would have to be a serious cynic to not think it so. For motorsport – endurance motorsport in particular – simply makes the road car breed better. So no matter which team wins, ultimately so do we. – Thomas Falkiner