When the tricolor flag waves this afternoon, it will signal a start of a new era for sports car racing at Le Mans.
This year’s twice-around-the-clock endurance classic not only sees the return of Porsche to the top prototype ranks but also a set of sweeping new LMP1 technical regulations that have redefined the way manufacturer-driven class.
LMP1s are no longer measured by speed alone, but also fuel efficiency, with each car limited to a specified fuel allocation. It marks as much as a 30 percent reduction in consumption from last year.
Additionally, the Audi, Toyota and Porsche squads are equipped with cutting-edge hybrid systems, which have become mandatory for all factory LMP1 teams, and at an increase of up to four times the energy capacity and release from previous years.
In fact, the cutting-edge new-for-2014 regulations been unrivaled in virtually any other form of motorsports.
“I had several discussions with engineers who had been working in Formula One for many years and they all say that it’s by far the highest level of technology they’ve seen on a race car,” said ACO Sporting Director Vincent Beaumesnil.
While the prototypes from Audi and Toyota may have a similar appearance from last year’s models, both the R18 e-tron quattro and TS040 Hybrid are all-new, along with Porsche’s 919 Hybrid.
The regulations call for a weight reduction of 30 kg, a 10 cm narrower car, smaller 14-inch wide tires as well as a larger greenhouse area and revised driving position for improved driver visibility.
In terms of powertrains, each manufacturer has gone for a significantly different approach.
Porsche, making its return to the 24 Hours of Le Mans with a factory prototype for the first time in 16 years, has opted for a gasoline-powered 2.0-liter V4 turbo engine, combined with a Formula One-like KERS unit on the front axle and an exhaust gas recovery system on the rear.
The 919 Hybrid will run with a maximum of 6 megajoules of hybrid capacity per lap of Le Mans.
Toyota has also gone with a dual hybrid system, but with two electric motors that are mounted on both the front and rear axles and supercapacitors storing the energy.
The TS040 Hybrid utilizes a 3.7-liter normally aspirated V8 gasoline-powered engine, marking a 0.3 liter increase in displacement from last year. Like Porsche, Toyota will run in the 6 MJ energy sub-class.
Two-time and defending FIA WEC champions Audi, on the other hand, has opted for the lowest sub-class of 2 MJ with its diesel-powered R18 e-tron quattro, which also features a larger 4.0-liter V6 turbo powerplant but with only a single, flywheel-driven hybrid system powering the front axle.
Audi’s approach of running with the minimum amount of hybrid capacity offers the reward of having the possibility of more fuel flow per lap compared to the Toyota and Porsches, but effectively at the same fuel tank capacity as the competition.
The fuel flow meter is at the heart of the new regulations. Each LMP1 car is equipped with two meters, one as a backup, in order to regulate the allocated fuel flow per lap.
As an added twist, cars that exceed their allocated fuel consumption by more than 2 percent over a three-lap consecutive average will be given stop-and-hold penalties ranging in severity.
The FIA relies on an automated system to monitor each car’s fuel consumption and hybrid energy usage in real time. Teams, meanwhile, will have the same information available to them so they can correct any overconsumption issues to avoid penalties.
Despite some early concerns over the races turning into economy runs, the opening two rounds of the FIA WEC have produced entertaining races, although both going in favor of Toyota.
Anthony Davidson, Sebastien Buemi and Nicolas Lapierre led a Toyota 1-2 at Silverstone, while the trio also took top overall honors three weeks later at Spa.
While there’s undoubtedly been some detail changes to the regulations, primarily around the interpretations, ACO tech chief Beaumesnil has been pleased with the early results leading up to the 24-hour enduro.
“The cars are competitive and reliable,” he said. “Many people had some expectations that there would be some problems. But in the end, they’re racing, fast and reliable.
“It’s really impressive the level of preparation the competitors have. The work between our guys is very good. For sure it’s going to be tough because all the manufacturers really want to win.”