LEADING THE CHASE FOR BRITISH GLORY
Edd Straw speaks to the homegrown talent that will lead the charge to topple Porsche at Le Mans
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
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