AUDI vs PEUGEOT vs ASTON MARTIN
It’s a circus, a festival – and racing’s greatest test. Twenty-four gruelling hours that stretch human and mechanical endurance until they snap. Three teams think they can go all the way…
New rules have pushed Audi into building a dramatic closed car for its latest assault on Le Mans. We asked the team for the inside story
By Damien Smith
There’s no roar and certainly no scream. Just weird silence as the stealth-shaped missile, LED spotlights glaring crystal-blue in the bright Florida sunshine, takes some semblance of form as it grows ever larger. Then WHOOOOSH! The carbon-black thing has passed just feet from the thigh-high pitwall and is already chattering over the spine-compressing bumps of Sebring’s Turn 1. As it passed, a dull drone could just be detected over the sound of minutely manipulated air and Michelin rubber on concrete. That’ll be the engine, then.
The speed does not compute with the (lack of) sound, but that’s always been the case since Audi Sport swept aside petrol power with its first turbodiesel Le Mans engine in 2006. Will we ever get used to it? Probably not. But this close up — without the expanse of a gravel trap to deaden the sensation — it’s deeply impressive; in its own, darkly sinister way, almost as much as a banshee V12.
This one’s tiny, too. Since that first sensational straight-out-ofthe-box win at the 24 Hours five years ago, the German turbodiesel has shrunk from V12 to V10, and has now bypassed V8 for superskinny V6, shedding weight and, yes, power along the way. But not necessarily much speed, even if that was the intention of the rulemakers. Le Mans organiser the AGO wants lap times to rise closer to the 3min 30sec mark at its famous 8.47-mile track (fastest race lap last year was 3min 19sec), so now regulations squeeze the oil-burners from 5.5 litres to 3.7 in 2011. The manufacturers must conquer the motor racing oxymoron of going faster with less. More than ever, efficiency is the Holy Grail.
To overcome the loss of grunt, Audi Sport’s crack design team has felt compelled to abandon the open-car concept it has followed since the birth of the all-conquering R8 11 years ago. That stealthshaped missile is the R18, Audi’s first prototype coupe since the hedge-betting (and short-lived) R8C, which ran alongside the R8R `spyder’ during Audi’s first Le Mans campaign of 1999.
The logic behind the change in philosophy is typically simple. Open cars create greater drag, that old foe of all aerodynamicists. Quicker driver changes used to be the trade-off for the compromise of an open cockpit, but now that advantage is null and void. New pitstop regs allow only two mechanics to change tyres. No matter how quickly drivers trade places, no time will be gained because the crews will take longer to put on new boots. So, no pitstop advantage plus less power equals a drag-reducing hard-top. It’s the obvious choice, although Aston Martin clearly begs to differ (see page 60).
The other obvious change is the ugly great ‘shark fin’ that runs from f, the top of the cockpit over the back of the engine cowling. As Motor Sport explained last year (see October 2010 issue), it’s de rigeur for all new prototypes as a method to stop the tendency for these cars to flip when they get sideways at high speed — although as Peugeot has discovered, it won’t necessarily stop them from flying…
You know I can’t talk about the new car, so this is going to be a short story. It’s a one-pager!” grins Allan McNish, two-time Le Mans winner and, in our opinion, the best sports car driver on the planet today. He’s in good humour despite the disappointment of the day before, when his final race in the old R15 Plus was GG ruined when a rash Marc Gene punted his Peugeot into the Scot’s team-mate Dindo Capello in the fifth of Sebring’s 12 hours (see page 18). It’s history, just like the R15. Now he and the rest of the Audi Sport team are fully focused on R18, two of which — already in ‘Evolution 2’ guise following a January test here in Sebring — will pound round the rough road course for the next five days.
McNish was the first to shake down the R18 in Europe during November, and has tested it several times since then. So, what does he think? “In terms of pure performance, it’s a wee bit tricky to say because until you stick it on a circuit against your rivals you don’t really know. But it did all the things it should do; it reacted to the changes we made to it. I came away from the test thinking ‘yep, we’ve got something to work with’.”
What about the V6? “Definitely, significantly flatter,” he says. “When you accelerated out of secondgear corners, for example, with the R10 or R15, V12 or V10, it didn’t really matter, you had a hell of a lot of torque and your driving style had to accommodate that. When we went to diesel initially we had to stop rolling the car into the corner: to brake in a straight line, turn it and squirt it. If you wellied it mid-corner you’d get a real load in the tyre and big oversteer. Now with these new regulations, and even with the restricted power we had here in the race at Sebring with the R15 Plus, we’re driving it a bit more like a Formula 3 car. Momentum is key because you just don’t have the power and in traffic it’s harder because you don’t have any ‘free passes’. If you go in too hot you have nothing when you come out the other side.” With this in mind, Audi’s new turbodiesels are driving a six-speed gearbox (instead of five) for the first time.
Tom Kristensen — all-conquering eight-time Le Mans winner and the man who with McNish and Capello completes Audi’s ‘super trio’ — picks up on the theme of less torque. “The R10 was a brilliant first diesel car that surprised me very much in the way we used it as a tool,” he says. “It was a big, grumpy, robust thing with a little bit of terminal slow-corner understeer which is quite easy to handle but difficult to make perform. The R15, the second generation, was like a girlfriend with a lot of class, but very difficult! A peaky girlfriend! The performance band of R15 is quite narrow and to keep it in check over a few hours, 12 hours or 24, is a pretty good challenge.
“Now with R18 you need to think more about momentum and rhythm, and using every inch of the track. It’s about being cool and smooth.”
McNish last raced with a roof over his head at Le Mans in Toyota’s GT-One way back in ’99, Kristensen and Capello more recently in Bentley’s Speed-8. The cockpit of the R18 looks claustrophobic and visibility will undoubtedly be restricted compared to the open cars of the past. “It’s a different challenge,” McNish admits. “For sure, it’s a bit easier in an open car in the wet. If someone blows up in front of you and dumps oil, all you do is pull the tear-off from your visor and keep on going. If it’s wet, you don’t have a windscreen to compromise you with fogging. But ultimately the regulations have dictated to a degree that you have to go for a closed format to get the efficiency.
“But I’ll be interested to see how Aston get on because they’ve obviously looked at it in a completely different way to everybody else. Sometimes you look at these things and think `crikey, they’ve got it wrong’. But when they blast past you then you think maybe there’s more ways to skin a cat…”
Dr Ulrich Baretzky is the architect of Audi’s turbodiesel revolution and veteran of BMW’s F1 turbo era of the 1980s. So I ask him: why a V6? “One of the reasons was to have a very short and compact engine to allow the biggest freedom possible for the car designers. The size also allows the possibility to use a hybrid system behind the engine.
“The other reason is we try to develop things which can be used in production engines. The load on every piston and cylinder in a V6 is higher than on a V8, which would have been the alternative and the route that Peugeot has chosen. So you have to respond to this and find solutions to help overcome such problems. We can develop some interesting techniques and have learnt a lot about how to manage really high combustion pressures and so on. There are other reasons, but I will have to talk about them in years to come!”
So, if Audi is developing efficient technologies for the road through racing and has allowed for the possibilities of a hybrid thanks to a small V6, that’s the next step — right? Not necessarily. “It’s not a question of whether I’d like it or not,” says Dr Baretzky. “At the moment, in every comparison of a hybrid with a diesel from Audi, the diesel consumes less. The diesel is the more efficient powertrain. There are some powertrains now — Peugeot has launched one — that are both diesel and hybrid. Maybe this will help. But the overall problem, the weight, you always have. If you have to accelerate and decelerate with 200 kilograms extra this is a consumption that even a diesel could not cope with. You’d have more consumption than you’d have without a hybrid system.
“The system should pay for itself,” he says, warming to the theme. “Motor sport should be about truth: the more efficient, quicker, better car should win, and the rules should be made according to that. The AGO says we have to encourage this technology. Why? If this technology is a better solution, it will come. If we have to encourage it and it turns out to be the wrong route, it is a waste of energy and time.”
So what about a more conventional petrol route? Aside from Audi and Peugeot in the top prototype division, there is Aston Martin — and the British manufacturer has stuck to its guns on the back of equivalency promises from the AGO. Petrol engines have shrunk this year from six litres to a maximum 3.4— but Aston has chosen something completely different: a 2-litre turbo straight six. Baretzky describes the move as “incomprehensible”.
“They made an open car with the wrong engine,” he scoffs. “A straight-six engine with a turbo — sorry, but this is one of the worst combinations I have ever seen. First of all, if you want to have a 2-litre, they have two cylinders too much. A four-cylinder would be enough to make this performance. And a straight six has a really critical thing with torsional vibrations, because you have a very long crankshaft. BMW did something similar in the late 1970s with the M1 and they had only engine failures. It was a really robust engine, but the torsional vibrations were destroying everything. They will find out. I’m sure about that. They just wanted to have a link to the V12 they are still building, so it’s half a V12 in a way. Maybe. But things like that do not count if you want to win Le Mans.”
But he is adamant that a petrol engine can beat a diesel — with the right resources. “You don’t always compare concepts, a diesel and a petrol engine, you compare a factory team with a private team. Take our old R8 for example. With a private team, it immediately lost three seconds a lap because the overall performance of the team could not be the same as a factory team. They don’t have the resources, the specialists, the experience. I’m sure — and I’ve told the AGO very often — that if somebody like us comes and makes a gasoline-powered car on the same level and investment we do with the diesel, I think it would at least be on the level of a diesel — maybe even quicker. I’m pretty sure about that.”
So if it is the quicker way to win Le Mans, why doesn’t Audi do it? He doesn’t give me a straight answer…
Finally, I have to ask him… the lack of noise. Die-hard fans struggle to warm to the whispering turbodiesels — and even Bernie Ecclestone has said Formula l’s switch to 1.6-litre turbos threatens to destroy the appeal of his sport because of the reduction in aural drama. Dr Baretzky is used to this question, but still bristles when he makes mention of Ecclestone — largely, and significantly, because the Audi man formed part of the panel of advisers who drew up the new F1 engine regs, which will come into force in 2013.
“Bernie should remember the time 30 years ago when his Brabhams had BMW’s 1.5-litre four-cylinder and he became World Champion in 1983,” he says. “He shouldn’t forget about that. Maybe he is too old!
“Sound — noise — is energy. The less you hear, the more you use for propulsion. Also, I had a lot of discussions over the past two years about what our spectators expect. When you look at the crowd now they are only old people. In 20 years time they will be dead, and who is going to be in the grandstands then? We’re missing the young people, and we have to ask them what they really want to hear. Do they really want to sit in a grandstand being deaf after one hour or do they want something else? Maybe the sound is nothing for them.
“The message has to be a completely different one. In the old days, the more sound, the quicker the car — this was the image we had in our head. But people change. We in motor sport have to take care of that. Also there’s the fact that every race track is surrounded by an environment, with neighbours who don’t want noise — and you in England know that better than anyone.”
So noisy racing engines are an irrelevance in the modern age, apparently. Care to write in on that one? We await your letters.
Audi Sport often projects an austere image and it is personified in the form of the man in charge: Dr Wolfgang Ullrich. All of Audi’s top hierarchy seem to be engineering doctors (“they’re not medical ones!” McNish helpfully quips). The result is a team that goes racing with cold, clinical efficiency.
So I’m surprised to find that in person Dr Ullrich is warm and quick to smile. We speak on the opening day of the Sebring test. Outside, two R18s are lapping hard: one sprints in and out of the pits as the team works on setup programmes, the other completes race stints. Everything is calm and on schedule, and Dr Ullrich is relaxed, happy to talk, and despite all the years of success in sports car racing, keyed up to deliver Audi a 10th Le Mans victory.
“It is a completely new challenge every year and the more competitive you have been the more you want to continue to show it,” he says, speaking with slow and thoughtful purpose. “With the new rules it is a new era. With the downsizing of the engines a step has been made that is also relevant to road car development. The new cars have to be far more aerodynamically efficient to be fast with these smaller engines, and for us it was very important to be a part of this new era.”
Dr Ullrich gives examples of Le Mans racing feeding into road cars: the use of direct injection in the R8 and how 90 per cent of parent company VW’s fleet now features such engines; the transformation of diesel technology into the dominant power in sports car racing that has given these engines a “sporty touch” they have never had before.
Le Mans has been good for Audi in less expected ways. “Every year a German magazine runs a poll of its readers to vote for the best cars of the year, and they also have questions like which car manufacturer is the most successful in racing,” smiles Dr Ullrich. “We managed, with never being in Formula 1, to at least be at the level of Mercedes and BMW in the minds of the people.”
So Audi doesn’t need F1? “We haven’t up to now. We have always decided not to do it because the technology in the rulebook of F1 never had relevance to our road car development and our customers. Therefore it makes no sense.”
But as we’ve already learnt, Audi played a part in the formation of F1’s new smaller-engine rules. Grand Prix racing is about to become more relevant to VW, so will Audi take the plunge? The sports boss remains non-committal. “It depends very much on what is going to come. At present I think we are exactly right with what we are doing: the mix of sports prototypes and the DTM.”
He is enthusiastic about the new Intercontinental Le Mans Cup, a seven-round World Championship in all but name that includes the 24 Hours itself. The Sebring 12 Hours marked the first round. “This was really impressive, eh?” he says. Most people at Sebring agreed that the FIA should grant the series world title status, because with major manufacturer interest in both prototypes and GTs it deserves it. Plus the ILMC, the clumsiest motor racing acronym yet, will be meaningless to the outside world. But Dr Ullrich is cautious.
“This is a point that has to be clarified. Only the FIA can give this name to a championship and today it follows only an AGO rulebook. But whenever you go into an FIA championship they will put their hand on it and they will start to steal it, and you never know whether it will go in the right direction. Therefore, I think we should give the ILMC a chance to position itself in the motor sport world, then we can see. But I think we shouldn’t push too hard. If you try to make two steps instead of one you sometimes make three steps back.”
His wariness of the FIA is obvious, and although he doesn’t mention him by name, Dr Ullrich was clearly no fan of former FIA president Max Mosley — as his answer to a question about his dialogue with Mosley’s successor, Jean Todt, suggests.
“There are dialogues, ongoing dialogues about championships within the FIA, what the FIA is going to plan, what the FIA thinks the manufacturers want to do. But I think we need to stabilise the relationship between the manufacturers and the FIA, which has not been in a good shape. There is quite some improvement to be done. I’m hopeful that we can improve now with new, responsible people. It’s a good chance for motor sport, but I think there have been some chances given away in the last years.”
Back to Le Mans. We are in the middle, or perhaps still only at the beginning of, a great era for the 24 Hours. Audi’s rivalry with Peugeot is as intense as any in the race’s great past. Dr Ullrich describes it as “thrilling”.
“Working at a very high level of competition is something we like. We all know the stronger the competition, the more perfect you have to be. You must always look intensely and clearly at what the others are doing, but you must take your own route because you can only beat people with your own strengths — not with the strengths you see in others. That’s not the way. We have seen with Peugeot when they came for the first two years they just tried to see how we did it. Now you see they are through this phase, they have built a base and they work to their own ideas, as we do.”
“Those bastards!” laughs McNish when quizzed about the rivalry with Peugeot. “No, I’ve been very lucky. I was there at the end of the 1990s during the big bubble [of manufacturer involvement], then it had a bit of a lull in terms of competition from others. But since 2007 with Peugeot in Europe and Le Mans, and also Porsche and Acura over here in America, the mentality and the racing has been superb. It’s been hard-edged. On the circuit, there have been times with rivals when there wasn’t a lot of love lost and we had some big, terse discussions. But there was still that element of respect, going both ways.
“It’s hard and we have to fight for every inch of Tarmac. But we’re also not 18 any more, trying to make a name. I think that’s important, that we’re established as drivers. We’ve got to a point where we know what the risk is and also what huge accidents are. So we’ll push it to the limit — but we’ll give just the right amount.”
The rivalry has just stepped up a notch, as we prepare for a new era to begin on June 11/12. Audi vs Peugeot, the balance between speed and efficiency, the edgy respect between the world’s greatest sports car racers… It’s a recipe for a true classic.
Audi sings in the rain
A star turn by its drivers helped Audi beat the faster
Audi travelled to Le Mans in 2008 with its three-year-old R10 turbodiesel, but even the most pessimistic of Audi employees couldn’t have foreseen just how much faster the Peugeot 908s would be.
In qualifying it was a Peugeot whitewash the French manufacturer filling the top three spots on the grid with the pole car of Stephane Sarrazin, Pedro Lamy and Alexander Wurz over five seconds quicker than the fastest Audi of Allan McNish, Rinaldo Capello and Tom Kristensen.
When the race started at 3pm on Saturday the Peugeots threatened to pull out an unassailable lead. But crucially, the German cars could run a lap longer on fuel and managed to stay in touch. At 3am rain arrived and suddenly the Audis found that not only could they run as quickly as the Peugeots, but even faster.
In a masterful display of driving the trio of McNish, Kristensen and Capello (left with Ralf Juffner and Dr Wolfgang Ullrich) closed the gap to the leading Peugeot of Marc Gene, Nicolas Minassian and Jacques Villeneuve, and eventually passed it.
The Peugeot drivers baffled to the end of the race, but it was too late. The Audis had snatched victory from the much faster French cars.
“This one was probably the hardest race I’ve ever lived through because the competition was so strong,” said two-time Le Mans winner McNish afterwards. “We knew we couldn’t make a mistake, we knew that if we had any problems we would be out. We just had to be perfect. We had one chance, which was when it rained in the morning, and we took that chance and took it well.”
It’s (not) all in the name
Smarting from last year’s debacle, Peugeot has changed everything about its Le Mans challenger – except the race-winning designation
By Gary Watkins
The name is the same and the family resemblance is there for all to see. Yet that is where the similarities end between the original Peugeot 908 HDi and the secondgeneration turbodiesel coupe that will carry the French manufacturer’s hopes in the Le Mans 24 Hours this June.
It’s not just that the 2011 908 HDi is an all-new car which, according to the launch rhetoric, carries over nothing from the original turbodiesel bar its windscreen wiper. That catchy PR hook may or may not be true, yet the new car is different in its very concept, according to Peugeot Sport technical director Bruno Famin.
“Be careful,” he warns. “The cars look similar, but the aerodynamics work with what you don’t see. They have nothing to do with each other in terms of the overall aero concept.”
Famin argues that they can’t be, pointing out that new downsized engine regulations for 2011 have robbed LMP1 prototypes, both diesel and petrol-powered cars, of approximately 150bhp.
“The aerodynamic set-up is completely different to before,” he says. “The car has to have less drag, otherwise it would be stuck in a straight line.”
The latest 908 is clearly a low-downforce car designed to fly down the four 200mph-plus stretches of the 8.47-mile Circuit de la Sarthe. That much was plain to see on its debut in the Sebring 12 Hours in March, the opening round of the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup. The car lacked the poise of the original 908 — and for that matter the old Audi R15 Plus — through the Florida airfield circuit’s fast corners.
Peugeot’s focus on maximising straightline speed was evident at Sebring, even though it wasn’t using the low-drag ‘snowplough’ front end seen in testing on the new 908 and likely to be brought into play at Le Mans. It experimented running without a rear-deck gurney — in layman’s terms, a flap on the back of the engine cover — through race week. Only as qualifying approached did the Peugeot Sport team change its mind and fit an aero component that most engineers regard as de rigueur for a track like Sebring.
Even so, the 908s were still light on downforce, so much so that the two cars were able to run the softest Michelin tyre throughout the 12 Hours. Audi, like Peugeot in previous years, ran the medium compound during the day before switching to soft rubber when temperatures fell during the hours of darkness.
The new Peugeot has been clocked at more than 330km/h (205mph) on the long Mistral Straight at Paul Ricard during an endurance simulation that finished just as the Le Mans Series field was arriving at the track for the following weekend’s race. That figure puts the top speed of the new Peugeot somewhere in the region of 10km/h (6mph) faster than its predecessor.
All Famin will say is that the new 908 “is much lower downforce than the previous car” and that the “aerodynamic compromise is different to before”.
The Peugeot drivers are a little more forthcoming on the subject. Marc Gene, winner at Le Mans with the marque in 2009, reckons the new car isn’t the same “joy to drive” as the first 908. “You feel the lack of power and the lack of downforce immediately,” he says. “This one is definitely quite different to drive.”
The Peugeot is clearly not the conservative take on the new 2011 rulebook that some observers first postulated when images of the car testing emerged in the autumn. At least in terms of the chassis.
The all-new engine is less of a departure. In its 5.5-litre V12, Peugeot “had an engine that was a reference in the category”, claims Famin.
“There was no question of setting it aside and starting from scratch,” says Peugeot Sport’s technical boss, who calls the 90-degree 3.7-litre V8 a “smaller version” of the V12.
The 2011 908 was conceived as diesel-electric hybrid running energy-retrieval technology, or KERS in Formula 1 parlance. It emerged that the new car was not in hybrid-specification as it began its test programme in the second half of last year, but it wasn’t until the launch of its 2011 contender in February that Peugeot confirmed it would be racing at Le Mans as a pure turbodiesel this year.
That decision had in fact been made in the immediate aftermath of Peugeot’s failure to win the 24 Hours last June.
“After what happened at Le Mans last year [when engine failures put out three of the four 908s1, the board asked us to try to do the maximum to win again,” says Peugeot Sport boss Olivier Quesnel. “That is why we will not run as a hybrid.”
Quesnel suggests that running an energyretrieval system could have been “an extra complication for nothing”, pointing out that his team “can’t do everything”.
“A hybrid is only interesting,” he adds, “if you are sure you will be more competitive, and I am not sure.”
The hybrid project is still very much on the stocks and a car, dubbed the 908HYbrid 4, was unveiled at the Geneva motor show in March alongside Peugeot’s first hybrid production car. The 908HYbrid 4 is believed to have already tested, but Peugeot has decided against giving the car a public airing at the Le Mans Test Day on April 24.
“We have time to do a hybrid later, I think for 2012,” says Quesnel, though he hasn’t ruled out racing the car later this year in ILMC events.
The decision not to run as a hybrid at Le Mans this year probably explains why Peugeot has confused the world by keeping the 908 name for an all-new car. Quesnel had hinted during 2010 that the 90X codename of the 2011 challenger was likely to be retained when the car started racing. But the ‘X’ stood for experimental, a reference to the hybrid system.
The marketing department came up with the idea to retain the 908 badges, according to Quesnel. Xavier Peugeot, the company’s director of marketing and communications, explained that the 908 had “become the standard bearer for the entire range”.
It’s not the first time Peugeot has got into a bit of pickle over the nomenclature of one of its prototypes. It replaced the original 905 halfway through its first full season in 1991 with the 905 Evo 1 bis. This car, built around the same monocoque as the original, quickly became known for simplicity’s sake as the 905B.
Quesnel admits that the world will probably come to refer to this year’s car as the 908 ‘2’ or something similar. Whether the marketing men kick up a fuss will probably depend on whether Peugeot Sport has got its sums right. If the second-generation Peugeot 908 HDi emulates the 905B and wins the Le Mans 24 Hours a couple of times, they can have no complaints.
Peugeot almost perfect
Embarrassing pit crash aside, the 908s finally got the better of Audi
In its third year of competing for outright victory at Le Mans with a diesel, Peugeot finally beat the Audis fair and square in 2009.
Audi was now running its R15, and not only was it slower than the Peugeot 908s, it was less reliable too.
In qualifying the 908s did not have such a convincing advantage as the year before, but all four cars still qualified in the top five places, with only the Audi of Allan McNish, Tom Kristensen and Rinaldo Capello able to split them by landing second on the grid.
In the race it wasn’t all plain sailing for the French make, though, as early on it released Pedro Lamy’s car from its pit box into the path of the sister 908 run by the Pescarolo team. The new R15, however, was plagued with fuel pressure problems, small niggling failures and set-up issues that led to understeer. Peugeot needed no further invitation and the 908 of David Brabham, Marc Gene and Alexander Wurz finished a lap ahead of the second-placed, all-French 908 of Franck Montagny, Sebastien Bourdais and Stephane Sarrazin. McNish, Kristensen and Capello had to seffle for the final step on the podium.
“They drove without mistakes and the ca was perfect,” said Peugeot Sport direct° Olivier Quesnel of the winners. “We were her as challengers and our mission was to topple the favourites. And that is exactly what we did. It was a huge challenge and I am so proud of this truly magnificent team. I really sensed that the public wanted this victory for us.”
And now for something completely different…
Without the diesel option, Aston Martin has to find the clever route to be on a par with the big boys. And convention isn’t on the menu
By Ed Foster
There was a hushed silence as Aston Martin chairman David Richards helped pull the cover off the 2011 AMR-One in February. There had been rumours that the new Aston Martin would be a bit different, but what greeted the 50-strong crowd was more than that. It was radical.
In recent years Aston Martin’s Le Mans cars have followed conventional thinking. Unfortunately, its rivals have followed a less conventional and hugely successful route to conquering the race. In 2008 — when Aston returned to the top prototype class for the first time since the AMR1 in 1989 — it entered a V12 petrol car when the leading Audi and Peugeot teams were using turbodiesels. Fourth place in ’09 and sixth last year were fine results, but on a vastly smaller budget than the giants from Germany and France, and armed with a heavily modified Lola coupe, Aston was never in with a hope of victory.
Of course, Aston had nothing even vaguely resembling a diesel in its road car line-up, but despite performance balancing promises from Le Mans organiser the AGO, the petrol V12 was outclassed. Diesel is still irrelevant to Aston Martin in 2011 so good old gasoline must remain the source of power. The team only committed to the campaign on the back of new promises of equalisation, but even if the AGO has got its sums right, it was clear a new approach would be required to take on Audi and Peugeot — especially as the budget deficit between those two and the British make remains very much unchanged. Aston Martin has to be clever.
So what Richards pulled the cover off was an open-top prototype the like of which we’ve never seen before, powered by an inline sixcylinder turbocharged engine. Intriguing — although Audi’s engine guru Dr Ulrich Baretzky has hardly sat on the fence in his reaction. “Incomprehensible” was his description of this choice when we quizzed him (see page 53).
To make the challenge even greater for Aston Martin, the go-ahead on the new car came incredibly late. As team principal George Howard-Chappell explains: “We needed to get all our ducks in a row in terms of sponsors, drivers and funding, and once that was sorted we didn’t press the button until we got assurances from the AGO that Article 19 was going to happen.” Article 19 being that allimportant balancing of engine performance.
The AMR-One only ran for the first time (three days of testing at Snetterton) three weeks before its race debut, the Le Mans Series opener at Paul Ricard on April 3. That was very much a public test session, during which the car was five seconds off the pace. As Le Mans preparations go, it’s as unconventional as the car.
Motor Sport visited Aston Martin’s Gaydon base to talk to Howard-Chappell before the car had turned a wheel. As usual he was friendly, but unsurprisingly he seemed distracted. He had a few things on his mind, as he explained some of the thinking behind the AMR-One concept. “It’s a really complex subject,” he says after closing the door to his office. “If you went round the constructors and asked ‘how did you make that decision?’ 90 per cent of them would have done an aerodynamic study of an open and a closed design with either CFD or a wind tunnel, and then made a comparison between the two.
“The quality of that experiment is going to largely determine the decision made, but the crucial thing is that what’s assessed is not going to be the same at every place. Everything is interactive and it’s unlikely.., in fact, I guarantee no one will come up with the same answer.
“In our case the comparison between the two showed a slight advantage for the closed top. However, that’s just the aerodynamics. There are so many other aspects. You’ll have a slightly higher centre of gravity with a closed car, but it will be slightly stiffer because it’s a closed section. There are also issues with visibility, which are very important, and with ventilation.
“For smaller teams like us you have to think, ‘if we chose an open car, would we have more time to spend improving the rest of the car if we didn’t have to think about the screen, wiper, ventilation and doors? Could we overcome the slight aero advantage?’ Maybe we can.”
But what of driver changes, which are easier in an open car than with a closed cockpit? As discussed in the Audi R18 story, driver changes are no longer the limiting factor when it comes to pitstops as only two mechanics can change tyres at once, so that benefit is gone. “That’s if the race goes according to plan,” counters Howard-Chappell. “It doesn’t always work out like that, and if things aren’t going to plan you’ll struggle to change the driver and fuel in time if you’re in a closed car.”
There have been rumours that Aston has come up with a new ‘trick’ aero idea. Whatever the team has found, it hasn’t been designed via a wind tunnel. Similar to Nick Wirth’s Acura/ HPD prototypes and his Virgin F1 cars, the AMR-One has been created in cyberspace using Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD). “We do something slightly different to what Nick does, though,” says Howard-Chappell. “We have a full-scale testing technique that compliments our CFD, whereas I think he tends to take his CFD result and go straight to the circuit.” So does this `full-scale testing technique’ involve a wind tunnel? Howard-Chappell is tight-lipped: “It’s the actual car and I’m not going to say more than that.” Whatever it is, he believes it’s produced some interesting results.
“It’s really difficult, because we believe there are some unique things on the car in the way we’ve approached it. But we’re not about to advertise them to people in a magazine! That’s not in our interests and we’d never get our rivals doing that either.” He stops and looks patiently at me. Next question!
So what has the team come up with? It’s a genuine secret. In our May issue, however, Delta Motorsport technical director Nick Carpenter gave us some insight into what might be going on. “They’ve pulled the splitter exit further back, so the air is exiting just forward of the rear wheels — that’s going to generate an awful lot of front downforce,” he said.
Aerodynamicists, designers, engineers, drivers, the press — we’ll all be keeping a close eye on the team to try to fathom what Aston has discovered when we get to La Sarthe.
The next big talking point is the engine. Under new rules engine sizes have been cut this year, meaning Aston has finally turned its back on the classic V12. Thanks to the importance of reducing drag, the engine had to be neatly packaged yet still produce the required power. Enter the 2-litre turbocharged inline six.
“This is where we have differed a bit from conventional thinking,” explains HowardChappell. “The reason for that is when you take a car like this, you don’t have any packaging issues in terms of length. We have gone for the inline six because it’s a very slim engine, it’s light and when we are looking at the sort of output we’ve got it works really well with a six-cylinder.”
As mentioned earlier, Baretzky isn’t a fan of the choice. According to the Audi engine man, a four-cylinder turbocharged unit would have been the way to go, and he reckons an inline six will produce calamitous torsional vibrations.
As usual, Howard-Chappell gives little away when I — very tentatively — pass the message on. “Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, aren’t they? That’s absolutely fine — that’s his opinion. There are no such problems, we’ve measured it and it’s fine. We believe that engine is our best solution and the one that gives us the most potential. We stand by that.”
A turbocharged engine will offer a new challenge to Aston’s regular drivers who are used to a V12 with plenty of torque. “The engine does feel down on power because of the new regulations,” works driver Darren Turner tells me at Paul Ricard as he prepares for what would become a six-hour test session. “It’s a very different feeling from the V12, which had masses of torque. Even though we’re not running at anywhere near our full potential you can still tell.
“I haven’t got a huge amount of experience driving turbos and it’s just something you have to adapt to. It’s a different driving style and throttle application. You obviously notice it more in the corners because you have to minimise when the turbo kicks in and what effect it has on the car’s balance.”
The engine may well be the biggest challenge Aston Martin is facing this year as it is entirely new. The V12 was taken out of existing production cars and modified for racing. It was a proven entity. Running reliably for 24 hours straight out of the box is asking a lot.
“Of course we’re worried about the engine,” HowardChappell admits. “We started the programme very late and we haven’t had the development time we’d have liked, but we’re confident that with everyone’s effort we’ll arrive at a good solution. It’s just a question of when.” I duly ask when. “Le Castellet [the Paul Ricard race] will be very much a test, then we have the Le Mans test [April 241 and the Spa 1000Kms [May 5-71. By then we should be in reasonable shape, but we don’t believe we’ll be on power with the diesels unless there has been an adjustment by then. We’ll have to wait and see.”
The ongoing adjustments to the petrol and diesel regulations are exactly that — ongoing. Baretzky is adamant that you could win Le Mans in a petrol car if it was properly funded and prepared. “The counter-argument to that,” says Howard-Chappell, “is that if you think there’s more potential currently in the petrol rules, why don’t you develop a petrol car?” The editor put that exact question to the Audi engine man, and as you might already have read, he didn’t get much of a reply.
Will the engine perform and stay reliable? Is sticking to petrol the right option? Will the AGO peg the diesels back enough? Only time will tell. Aston’s ‘test’ session at Le Castellet threw up various problems, most of which were to do with a misfire, but little can be taken from that. It’s early days and it was brave — but probably unavoidable — to test so publicly in a race.
Whatever Aston Martin learnt at Paul Ricard, the team must have returned to Gaydon with an ‘action list’ that stretched to the M40.
The challenge for 2011 is huge, but of course Aston Martin is looking far beyond this year with the ambitious concept of this car. The manufacturer wants to win Le Mans and its determination should not be underestimated. Audi works driver Allan McNish commented in his recent Motor Sport audio podcast, “you mustn’t forget that George Howard-Chappell knows how to build a very good sports car”. That he does, and coupled with a strong driver line-up and one of the most hard-working teams in the sports car paddock, you can’t write them off.
“It’s always hard to tell who your competitors will be,” says Howard-Chappell as I leave Gaydon. “To be honest, I really don’t know. I always say that’s the whole point of the sport. When people come with new cars, new line-ups and new teams you don’t know what’s going to happen — and that’s the great joy of it. If you knew the answer you wouldn’t need to go racing, would you?”
Aston Martin is beginning a new chapter in its against-the-odds quest to catch Audi and Peugeot. It’s going to be an adventure.
Aston’s outright attack
The British marque ticked a box when it stepped up full-time from GT1
Aston Martin returned to Le Mans with a full-blown works bid for outright victory in 2009 offer a 20-year hiatus, armed with a petrol Lola-Aston Martin LMP1 car.
Its chances of beating the Audi and Peugeot oil-burners were slim, though, due to the speed advantage they appeared to hold. Not to mention the fact that the Aston Le Mans programme was only given the go-ahead six months before the race. Unsurprisingly, in qualifying the two 6-litre V12 Astons were eighth and ninth, over four seconds off pole position.
Come the race, however and various problems for the well-funded Audi and Peugeot teams allowed the 007 Aston driven by Jan Charouz, TornalS Enge and Stefan MOcke to quickly climb up the order. The gorgeous-sounding V12 may not have been quite on the pace of the eerily silent diesels, but it encountered few problems.
In the second half of the race the drivers were told to look offer the V12, which was on the edge of its durability because of the amount of power the team had eked out of it. Thankfully it finished a very respectable fourth (and first of the petrol-powered cars, left), just two laps down on the third-placed Audi of McNish, Kristensen and Capello.
“We exceeded all our expectations and I am absolutely delighted,” said the chairman of Prodrive and Aston Martin, David Richards. “We came here with modest expectations, but once again Aston has punched above its weight and this is a fantastic achievement for everyone involved.”
Aston Martin went on to win the 2009 Le Mans Series, 50 years offer it had won the World Sportscar Championship with the muscular DBR1.
Privaters prepare to step on the gas
Question marks over the new Aston could leave Pescarolo and Rebellion vying for top petrol honours
One is coming back to try claim what seemingly became its rightful place as the top privateer. The other is stepping up for its fourth season in the prototype ranks with a works Toyota engine and big ambitions. The fight between Pescarolo Team and Rebellion Racing for petrol honours behind the turbodiesels could provide one of the most intriguing baffles at Le Mans 2011.
The team that bears the name of Le Mans legend Henri Pescarolo returns affer a year’s hiatus, with the man himself back at the helm. The name has changed, from Pescarolo Sport to Pescarolo Team, but the squad is very much the same one that between 2000 and ’09 notched up three podiums and finished in the top 10 every year.
Pescarolo fields one of its eponymous 01 chassis with a restricted ‘grandfathered’ 5-litre Judd V10 for team old boys Emmanuel Collard and Christophe Tinseau and newcomer Julien Jousse (leff with Pescarolo, after winning the LMS opener at Paul Ricard). The crew, including engineer Claude Galopin, is to all intents and purposes the same group that accrued those previous successes.
The team’s return is an amazing story of philanthropy. The assets of the organisation that its founder had been forced to sell over the winter of 2008/09 were purchased by Jacques Nicolet, boss of the Pescarolo-equipped OAK Racing team, and Joel Riviere, who runs an upmarket track-day company. Then they were handed back to Henri Pescarolo on an open-ended loan.
Pescarolo, the most vocal critic of rules generally reckoned to favour the turbodiesels over petrolpowered machinery, insists he’s not back for one year only”. He has plans to build a new car, more likely in 2013 than ’12, and promises that if there’s a level playing field, he will “fight with the factories”.
The Rebellion squad, formerly Speedy Sebah, is a Swiss-funded, British-run organisation that has landed a supply of a new Toyota LMP1 V8 for its fleet of Lola LMP1 coupes. Rebellion has to pay for the factory-built engines, but the deal is a coup nonetheless for a team bidding to become the top privateer not only at the 24 Hours but also in the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup.
Team boss Bart Hayden, who took charge after the death of father Hugh over the winter, describes working with Toyota as a “real privilege”. The target for Le Mans, he says, is to pitch ourselves against Aston Martin and the other top petrol teams like Pescarolo and hopefully come out on top”.
In pursuit of that aim, Hayden’s team has expanded and undergone a re-organisation for 2011. A bolstering of its engineering staff has included bringing in former Williams and McLaren Formula 1 race engineer James Robinson.
Rebellion Racing has already shown its pace, claiming pole position for the LMS opener at Paul Ricard, but there is more to follow. A new aero package from Lola was due to come on stream at the Le Mans Test Day at the end of April.
The GTs looking to right a wrong
BMW and Chevrolet floundered at Le Mans last year, but now they should be right in the frame for GTE honours
Chevrolet and BMW, the two full factory operations contesting the renamed GTE category at the 24 Hours, each have something to prove this year. Chevy should have won a class then known as GT2 in 2010, while BMW was frankly nowhere. A desire to right the wrongs of last year at least in part explains why both manufacturers ramped up their programmes over the winter.
Le Mans 2010 was both a high and low for the Pratt & Miller Chevy factory squad, five times a winner in GT1 at the 24 Hours. The Corvette C6.R, racing on the Circuit de la Sarthe for the first time, had a clear edge on rival machinery from Ferrari and Porsche, but ultimately missed out on a class victory courtesy of an engine problem related to cam timing which put both cars out.
The ‘Vettes flew down the straights at Le Mans, to the extent that Corvette Racing admitted its poor pace in the American Le Mans Series was the result of a lack of downforce. There’s a new aero configuration for 2011, but Corvette stalwart Oliver Gavin believes that the car retains its advantage from last year.
We have looked for more downforce over the winter, but we think we can get the car back to where it was in terms of straightline speed,” says Gavin. “Making sure the car is strong at Le Mans is still a big focus of the team.”
Gavin reckons the BMW will be strong in a straight line at Le Mans, at least on the evidence of the Sebring 12 Hours in March (below), a race in which Bimmer claimed a 1-2 victory.
If there was one car we couldn’t keep up with in the tow it was the BMW,” he explains. They have clearly worked super-hard over the winter.”
Gavin is right there. BMW Motorsport has a new version of the V8-powered M3, the result of natural development and revisions to the rules, to be run by the Rahal team in the ALMS and Schnitzer in Europe and the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup.
Three-time World Touring Car Champion Andy Priaulx, back at Le Mans for the second time, isn’t so sure about Gavin’s predictions.
“It’s difficult to judge before we get to the Test Day (in April) because a car that is good for the ALMS circuits isn’t necessarily good for Le Mans,” he says. “It’s a big car, and that frontal area takes its toll at high speed. I’m not sure we are going to get close to the Corvettes on the straights.”
The BMWs should be more competitive than last year. Its 2010 Le Mans campaign was very much a toe-in-the-water affair: the European-spec version of the car was late and Schnitzer’s focus for the first half of 2010 was the Nurburgring 24 Hours. Worse still, it was handed a smaller-diameter air restrictor ahead of the 24 Hours.