There may be hope for the gasoline-powered sports racing prototype cars that compete in the International Le Mans Cup, Le Mans Series (in Europe), American Le Mans Series and 24 Heures du Mans contests during the 2011 season.
For years, the diesel-powered cars of Audi and Peugeot have resigned the petrol-infused racers to competing for “best in class” honors, thanks to the inborn abilities of the diesel cars to make better mileage and have more torque off the corners. What was the last time a petrol-powered car won at Le Mans? That would be Bentley in 2003, an aberration from the Audi-Peugeot internal wars.
In publishing its rules for all series under its wing in mid-December, the Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO) gave an early holiday gift to the gas-powered prototypes with its introduction of the following clause: “Performance adjustment through the application of article 19 [ACO reserves itself the possibility of balancing performances between the different engines and technologies] as well as the two-percent rule. This means keeping the lap times of the quickest cars in each technology within a range of two percent, in relation to the quickest car, all technologies combined, through decisions taken by the ACO.”
In plain English, this means the ACO can – and likely will – take steps to keep the Audi and Peugeot challengers from running away with the races this year, as they have in the past seven seasons.
Audi and Peugeot have both confirmed entries for the coming season in LM P1 and both intend to use a closed car, where Audi has been running an open vehicle to this time. The Audi R18 and Peugeot 90X have been shown to the media but not yet raced. Any testing has been done in private.
Somewhere in the UK – or wherever he goes on vacation – Aston Martin Racing (AMR) chief and Prodrive owner David Richards is dancing a jig, as this particular manufacturer has committed to building an all-new gasoline LM P1 racecar in the expectation of some relief from ACO. After earning “best in class” honors the past few years, AMR is looking forward to fighting for outright victory in the 24-hour race again.
In the LM P2 sector of prototype racing, the ACO has decreed production-based engines with a set pricing in order to keep manufacturers in the class and also bring added relevance to LM P2. This group also becomes a true “pro-am” category in all Le Mans championships, as at least one driver must be a so-called “gentleman”, non-professional driver in each car.
The ACO has also given its blessings to energy recovery in the LM P1 class, provided the recovery of energy is used for fuel efficiency. This will be a tough nut for the ACO to police, but since combustion and electric power must be controlled by the driver, it should be interesting to see who “gets” it.
Weights for all LM P cars, whether LM P1 gas- or diesel-powered, and for every LM P2 car, has been limited to 900kg. Any balancing procedures will likely be done through restrictors, the easier manner of juggling the diverse number of LM P1 cars competing at The Sarthe circuit.
The objective of “performance balancing” won’t be limited to the fastest and quickest LM P1 class in ILMC, ALMS, LMS and Le Mans competition. The GT class, which had belonged to LM GT1 and LM GT2 classifications, has been morphed into a single GTE unit.
There’s more to it than that, though, as there always is. The GTE category has been split into two sub-species: GTE Am and GTE Pro. As the names imply, one driver in any GTE Am car (all cars in this class must be at least one year old) has to be driven by a gentleman driver, while GTE Pro is unrestricted in this manner, yet will feature performance balancing, as in the LM P2 category, in order to keep one marque from overpowering another.
All of these rules are open to change at any given moment by the ACO, which reserves the right to adjust their findings as needed to equalize competition. What will it be like to watch a petrol car volley with a diesel prototype? This year’s Le Mans competition – and the Sebring round that’s used for its tune-up – look to be ever more exciting.
© 2010 Anne Proffit
PHOTO © ANNE PROFFIT 2010