Prius Power Makes the Wrong Noise for Le Mans Racing

Another 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race is in the books. Audi once again came out on top, successfully crossing the finish line first at the Circuit de la Sarthe after two full rotations of the Rolex. That’s 12 wins for Audi in the last 15 Le Mans attempts -- pretty damn impressive.

Audi’s competition was especially strong at the 2014 Le Mans race. Toyota entered two of its TS040 Hybrids and Porsche was back in the top-spec class for the first time since 1998, with a pair of 919 Hybrids. The three Audi R18 e-tron quattro race cars lacked pace in practice and qualifying. But as Toyota and Porsche ran into various problems during the race, Audi was staged and ready to pounce.

These top-spec LMP1 prototypes aren’t conventional racecars. They are all hybrids and feature all-wheel drive, with electric motors. The Toyota is arguably the most conventional due to its naturally aspirated, 3.7-liter gasoline V-8. The Audi uses a 4.0-liter V-6 turbodiesel and the Porsche has a turbocharged gasoline V-4 displacing just 2.0 liters. The especially trick 919 Hybrid is able to recover energy (therefore charging the batteries) from the exhaust gasses (instead of just recharging under braking, like on the Audi and Toyota). While I respect the technology, I’m not sure I like the idea of a Prius-like powerplant in a racecar.

I’ve been an endurance-racing nut for ages. I grew up in the IMSA GTP and Group C (FIA) era of the 1980s and early 1990s. Each race car had its own unique design, and most had gloriously aggressive engine notes. The gorgeous Martini-sponsored Lancia LC2 used a twin-turbo Ferrari V-8. Mazda’s 1991 Le Mans-winning 787B was powered by a four-rotor Wankel that put out 700 to 900 horsepower, depending on the state of tune. Porsche’s all-popular 956/962 used a classic flat six with various engine cooling and turbo setups. TWR’s Jaguar XJR models used a wide array of engines including a V-12, a twin-turbo V-6, and a screaming, 11,500-rpm V-8 from Formula 1. The virtually unknown Lola T92/10 was fitted with an especially strong 3.5-liter Judd V-10. All of those setups are far more pleasurable to the ears than the latest hybrid Le Mans LMP1 cars.

I spent lots of time listening to those engines when my passion for prototype sports cars merged with my career. In the late 1990s, I became the team manager of an historic racing and rally team. We ran an air-cooled IMSA Porsche 962, a Nissan NPT-90, and a pair of Intrepid GTP race cars in the Historic Sportscar Racing (HSR) series in the U.S. and its equivalent in Europe, Group C/GTP. In 2004, we shipped both Intrepid racecars to the United Kingdom to compete in the European historic series. Our highlight was entering a car in a 24 Hours of Le Mans support race. This was the first time Group C cars returned to Circuit de la Sarthe since they ran in their era. The sound of the Intrepid’s 800 horsepower Chevy V-8 rumbling across the French countryside still echoes in my brain.

Which brings me back to this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans and the hybrids. I like the technology and see the brilliance of having manufactures interested in testing new ideas and equipment in the racing world, but it bothers me that privateers are no longer competitive in running top-spec LMP1 cars. Back in the Group C/GTP days, you could buy a Porsche 962, set up a team, and have a go at running in the great race. You might not win, but it was possible. That’s no longer possible, and that’s a shame.

Meanwhile, I also worry about the future of historic prototype racing. There’s little chance you’ll see a car like the Porsche 919 running the Circuit de la Sarthe in 15 years.

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