As well as being the world’s biggest and longest-running sports car race, the 24 Hours of Le Mans this year stands as a fascinating alternative power showcase as well a shootout for outright honours between the dominant brand of recent times, Audi, and yet-to-win Toyota.
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Audi has won 11 of the past 13 Le Mans classics, only allowing Bentley (2003) and Peugeot (2009) a tidbit apiece. The race should be a fight between two makes next weekend. The 90th anniversary Le Mans pitches three factory Audi R18 e-tron quattro LMP1 prototypes, with V6 turbocharged diesel/hybrid power, against two Toyota TS030 Hybrids using naturally aspirated petrol engines. Endurance sports car racing today is about blue-sky road-car-relevant thinking, especially fuel efficiency. All entrants in the prototype LMP1 class have been subjected to a ”Balance of Performance”, effectively a handicapping system intended to give all makes a chance. It uses air restrictor size and fuel capacity to inhibit speed and efficiency.

This led to accusations from Toyota that Audi ”sandbagged” in a lead-up race at Spa. Toyota’s technical director Pascal Vasselon estimated the Audi R18 e-tron quattro enjoyed a power advantage over his cars of up to 80 horsepower. In a subsequent handicapping review at the end of May, his petrol-engined cars were allowed an additional three litres of fuel capacity. Toyota, in particular, is desperate to crunch a win this year, to break its duck and also to post a score before Porsche, with its stunning Le Mans record of 16 victories, returns next year. ”Leading Le Mans last year and winning three World Endurance Championship races has given us a taste for success,” team chief Yoshiaki Kinoshita said.

Audi and Toyota offer advanced technologies afforded by the regulations. The three Audi prototypes, the most recent species of part-time electric all-wheel drive, have a blown diffuser, which uses exhaust gases for aerodynamic advantage, not dissimilar to those once used in formula one. While there’s some secrecy about the aid, a rival engineer told Autosport Audi uses the exhaust to create ”virtual skirts” to direct airflow under the car and through the diffuser. Toyota experimented with a blown diffuser but decided against running the system partly due to the effect of hot exhaust gases on tyre wear. But like the Audis, the Toyotas do have the F1-like extra power of KERS (kinetic energy recovery system).

Fifty-six cars will likely meet the starter next Saturday. Ten former winners feature, including defending champions Andre Lotterer, Marcel Fassler and Benoit Treluyer.

Eighteen former F1 drivers are on the grid, including manic overtaker Kamui Kobayashi, making his debut, joining Bruno Senna, Nick Heidfeld, Allan McNish, Marc Gene, Alexander Wurz, Anthony Davidson, Stephane Sarrazin, Sebastien Buemi, Jan Magnussen, Olivier Beretta, Giancarlo Fisichella and Pedro Lamy. Three Australians will race – Ryan Briscoe (HPD ARX-03b LMP2), Jason Bright (Ferrari 458 GT) and John Martin (Oreca 03-Nissan LMP2), plus honorary Aussie Allan Simonsen (Aston Martin Vantage).

V8s E-VOLVO

The grapevine is buzzing with sufficient ferocity to suggest there must be some truth to Volvo entering V8 Supercars in some capacity with Garry Rogers Motorsport next year. Though there doesn’t appear to be a suitable 5.0-litre V8, Volvo can use the US-made Chevrolet or Ford from the Commodores and Falcons in the four-door S60 sedan.

JUNIOR JUMPS SHIP

Strange times. Steven Johnson has never raced anything but a Dick Johnson Racing Falcon in the V8 Supercars series. But this year ”Junior”, now out of full-time driving as general manager of his father’s team, will be at the wheel of the rival SP Tools AMG E-Class of Maro Engel in the endurance events, the Sandown 500, Bathurst 1000 and Gold Coast 600. Cash-strapped DJR has been forced to recruit young enduro drivers who bring money – Dale Wood will be teamed with Chaz Mostert in the No.12 Falcon, while Tim Blanchard will share No.17 with Dunlop Series leader Ash Walsh.

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The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Shanghai Night Net.