Edd Straw speaks to the home­grown tal­ent that will lead the charge to top­ple Porsche at Le Mans

Motor Sport News - - Le Mans Preview -

Thirty-two Bri­tish driv­ers have won the Le Mans 24 Hours. There’s ev­ery chance the num­ber could rise to 33 in 2016, given half of the six works LMP1 en­tries have a Brit aboard. But for that to hap­pen re­quires ei­ther Audi, which fields Oliver Jarvis in its #8 car, or Toy­ota, which has An­thony David­son in #5 and Mike Con­way in #6, to top­ple Porsche. No easy task at Le Mans.

The num­bers aren’t en­cour­ag­ing. Porsche dom­i­nated Le Mans last year and has only been beaten once in the last eight World En­durance Cham­pi­onship rounds. But Audi and Toy­ota have al­ready proved much stronger in 2016 than they were for much of last year. So it’s game on.

The Audi R18 e-tron qu­at­tro car­ries the same name as its pre­de­ces­sors, which stretch back to 2011, but it’s a very dif­fer­ent car this year. Built around a new mon­coque, with rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent high-nose aero­dy­nam­ics and a step up from the four mega­joule class to 6MJ hy­brid di­vi­sion, which ne­ces­si­tated a move from fly­wheel to lithium-ion bat­tery stor­age tech­nol­ogy, it al­ready has a win and a pole po­si­tion to its name. Jarvis, shar­ing with Lu­cas di Grassi and Loic Du­val, claimed his first WEC win at Spa last month and is rev­el­ling in the new car – even though the ag­gres­sive step means win­ter test­ing was trou­bled and the odd me­chan­i­cal grem­lin still rears its head on the turbo diesel ma­chine.

“It’s go­ing to be a tough 24 Hours and it’s go­ing to be damned close,” says Jarvis. “You just can’t call it. Porsche seems to have a pace ad­van­tage up to a cer­tain point, but that doesn’t mean any­thing in the races without re­li­a­bil­ity.

“We had to be so ag­gres­sive on the de­vel­op­ment and re­ally push the lim­its, so you are go­ing to have is­sues. You bring new parts all the time and aren’t get­ting as much test­ing as in pre­vi­ous years. We’re aware that, with a com­pletely new car, we’ve got to make sure re­li­a­bil­ity is up to Audi’s usual stan­dards.

“I wouldn’t say we un­der­es­ti­mated the chal­lenge, but peo­ple do un­der­es­ti­mate the com­plex­ity of these cars. Ev­ery­thing in­flu­ences ev­ery­thing else. It’s not just about the new bat­tery, all the sys­tems have to talk to each other. We didn’t have the smoothest win­ter, so we ar­rived at Sil­ver­stone with un­knowns. But it’s started well.”

While the Audi was ac­tu­ally the least com­pet­i­tive of the three cars at Spa in a race of at­tri­tion, this was a con­se­quence of its low-down­force pack­age be­ing too trimmed out. It will be a dif­fer­ent story come Le Mans.

But the car that flew at Spa, in race trim at least, was the Toy­ota TS050 HY­BRID. The mar­que’s in­sipid de­fence of its 2014 WEC crown last year (its fastest race lap at Le Mans was 3.4 sec­onds off the pace) led to a rapid re­sponse. A new en­ergy-stor­age sys­tem and a move up to the 8MJ class, with the su­per­ca­pac­i­tor sys­tem re­placed with lithium ion bat­ter­ies, was al­ready planned but the 3.7-litre at­mo­spheric engine was also binned in favour of a hasti­ly­de­vel­oped 2.4-litre twin-turbo V6.

At Sil­ver­stone, the car was not a vic­tory threat but that was al­ways ex­pected to be Toy­ota’s weak track. But at Spa it led for three hours in the hands of David­son, Se­bastien Buemi and Kazuki Naka­jima be­fore the engine let go. A dra­matic dif­fer­ence to 2015.

“It was soul-de­stroy­ing last year,” says David­son. “No­body de­serves to drive for the same team they won the cham­pi­onship with, get the shiny num­ber one and go out to de­fend the ti­tle like that. I loved it up un­til the pro­logue test, then it was worth­less! No­body could be­lieve the 6s gain Porsche had from 2014 to ’15 – we were happy with two!

“It’s be­cause of that sit­u­a­tion that we not only had to re­design the hy­brid sys­tem, but the engine as well. That was sup­posed to be done over one or two years, not six months. We have got to be rel­a­tively happy with what short a time­frame we had to de­sign and de­velop this car, par­tic­u­larly the pow­er­train side of things. We can still ex­tract more per­for­mance out of it as time goes on.”

While the World En­durance Cham­pi­onship is a cov­eted prize, Le Mans is the big one. Toy­ota has a dif­fi­cult re­la­tion­ship with the race that it should have won sev­eral times in the past, most re­cently in 2014, but never has. David­son, too, has not won in eight at­tempts, so it’s a very big deal for both. For Toy­ota, win­ning Le Mans has be­come an ob­ses­sion.

“If we win Le Mans by any means, we will take it and we will de­serve it,” he says. “Whether we can win it on pure speed, I’m not 100 per cent con­fi­dent but I’m cer­tain we’ll be a lot bet­ter than last year. I’ve never seen the team so fo­cused on that one race.”

Jarvis is even more bullish about Audi’s chances than David­son is of Toy­ota’s. Not only has the Audi been the only car to beat Porsche to a pole this year at Sil­ver­stone, but he ex­pects Le Mans to be the car’s best track.

“It is prob­a­bly our big­gest op­por­tu­nity in pure per­for­mance terms,” he says. “The rules are writ­ten with Le Mans in mind so I don’t see why we can’t take the fight to them. We have a good down­force pack­age and while we are miss­ing the ex­tra 2MJ of boost Porsche and Toy­ota have, that has the least ef­fect at Le Mans be­cause the straights are so long. Our top speed cer­tainly isn’t bad [the Audi was fastest of the three man­u­fac­tur­ers at Spa]. But a lot of it will come down to mak­ing the tyres work. With all this tech­nol­ogy, peo­ple for­get it’s the four tyres that are in con­tact with the track and if you don’t get them to work, it can’t do any­thing for you.”

A re­minder that no mat­ter how cut­ting edge the cars be­come, a big part of win­ning at Le Mans is the con­nec­tion be­tween the car and the road. His­tory sug­gests that Brits are pretty damned good at de­liv­er­ing on that score at Le Mans, and this year they def­i­nitely have the equip­ment to win. ■

Set-up tweaks for Le Mans should boost Audi’s LMP1 chances

Photos: LAT

Audi won Spa’s World En­durance round Jarvis (left) took Bel­gian vic­tory An­thony David­son will tackle his ninth Le Mans with vic­tory in his sights

Toy­ota has un­der­gone a mas­sive re­design since its strug­gles in the 2015 cam­paign

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