"The golden goose is on the loose
And never out of season
Some blackened pride still burns inside
This shell of bloody treason"
Two minutes to midnight - Iron Maiden
A song lyric. The near silent, almost eerie sound of an LMP1 car making its way down Mulsanne. The sight of that milky white light streaming out of headlights as a lethal looking purpose built race machine tackles Arnage, hot in pursuit of the car ahead, darting through the shadows at the hallowed ground that is the Circuit de la Sarthe. The legendary 24 Hours of Le Mans.
The words, the sounds, the sights all tie together when you think of this historic race. This, after all, is the 2014 edition of that fabled endurance race that requires Herculean efforts on the part of drivers and team personnel alike, while also putting machinery through the automotive equivalent of the Ironman World Championship. And this, the 82nd running of the event comes with the promise of a battle of epic, nay nuclear, proportions. A battle that is all within the family that too. It is reigning champions Audi versus returning heroes Porsche, burning from the smart that their record is fast being closed in on. It is Ingolstadt versus Stuttgart. It is the four rings versus the Wurtemberg coat of arms. What Sparta? This is Le Mans!
When Allan McNish, Tom Kristensen and Loic Duval's Audi R18 e-tron quattro crossed the finish line at the 2013 edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the celebration in the Audi camp was raucous. This, not only because winning the prestigious 24 Hours of Le Mans was a feat in itself, but also because it was Audi's 12th win at Sarthe. Now the marque returns to Le Mans with one goal in sight to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans once again and rack up their thirteenth victory at the event.
The car Audi R18 e-tron quattro
For the 2014 edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the men from Ingolstadt will once again field an Audi R18 e-tron quattro in the event. However, nomenclature aside, the 2014 car is a marked evolution over the 2013 car. To begin with the car comes powered by a 4-litre V6 TDI engine with an electric turbocharger that is mated to a flywheel accumulator system and an exhaust energy recovery system. The car also features several aerodynamic modifications that allow it to comply to the new regulations for the 2014 season of the World Endurance Championship. The width of the car has been reduced by 10mm, the height increased by 20mm and the car also features a new front wing. A first for the car is that it has swanky new blue laser beam backlights that add to the LED headlamps. Of course, Audi says that this means they can use this technology in their production cars in the future. What we're more concerned about is the light that it's going to throw up ahead as the car grips the track and winds its way through the dark and densely wooded circuit. Bluish white light. Deathly silent Audi. Menacing Le Mans. What's not to like?
Audi will field three R18 e-tron quattros in the 2014 edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The Number 1 car will be driven by former F1 driver Lucas di Grassi, nine-time 24 Hours of Le Mans winner Tom Kristensen and last year's Le Mans winner Loic Duval. The Number 2 Team Joest car will be piloted by the trio that won the Le Mans back-to-back in 2011 and 2012 Andre Lotterer, Marcel Fassler and Benoit Treluyer. The Number 3 Audi will be driven by Filipe Albuquerque, Oliver Jarvis and Marco Bonanomi.
Le Mans luck
Audi has made it a habit to win Le Mans. The squad has terrific drivers, experienced race engineers like Leena Gade who have guided them to more than one Le Mans victory, and the resources to put together a complete race-winning package. We'd say they have the best shot at taking the crown this year as well.
"Mission 2014. Our return. Coming home." During the 2013 edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the banners and hoardings were everywhere. Porsche, the 'winningest' manufacturer at Le Mans, was making a comeback to the sport. Why were they doing it? Well, presumably with Audi racking up win after win and already reaching Number 12, Porsche's record of 16 wins was under threat. And given that Porsche and Le Mans go hand in hand a comeback was inevitable.
The car Porsche 919 Hybrid
The Porsche 919 Hybrid comes powered by a 2.0-litre V4 petrol engine. The direct-injection, monoturbo engine puts out 500PS of power and revs to 9000 rpm. The 919's energy recovery system is two-fold. One system recovers thermal energy from the exhaust gases as they pass through an electric generator. The other system uses energy recovered from the braking system. This energy is stored in a Lithium-ion battery and is made available to a driver via an electric motor that drives the front axle, making the Porsche 919 temporarily all-wheel drive. The complication for Porsche is that the 2014 race will be the first actual real world test of the car's reliability in a race situation. Tricky stuff, this.
Porsche will field two 919s in the big race this year and they have a driver roster with tremendous experience on their side. The biggest name they have is Mark Webber, former F1 driver, who also has sportscar racing experience under his belt, having raced in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1998 and 1999. Alongside him in the Number 20 car are 2010 Le Mans winner Timo Bernhard, and Brendon Hartley who has experience in the LMP2 class. The number 14 Porsche will be driven by Romain Dumas, who partnered Bernhard to that win in 2010, with Neel Jani and Marc Lieb as copilots.
Le Mans luck
The closer we get to the first race of the World Endurance Championship and the 2014 24 Hours of Le Mans, the quieter Porsche appears to be keeping. Is this because they want to downplay the affair, on the off chance that they do badly? Or is it because they want to make a big splash with a surprise win?
Now while the world focusses on this terribly complex battle that is brewing within the Volkswagen Group, with Porsche hoping to give Audi a sharp uppercut to the jaw, or front wing as it may be in this case, there is a dark horse waiting in the wings. Toyota made their return to Le Mans in 2012, with the TS030. That return didn't go so well for them, though, with both their cars retiring. Although it is worth mentioning at this point that the TS030 has the distinction of being the first ever petrol hybrid to have ever entered the 24 Hours of Le Mans. In 2013, though, the team finished second and fourth at the event. For 2014 they have the TS040 waiting to show the European contingent just what the Land of the Rising Sun has on offer.
The car TS040
The TS040 comes powered by a 3.7-litre, naturally aspirated V8 engine. Its predecessor, the TS030 was also powered by a V8 engine, although a 3.4-litre engine in that case. However, while the TS030 only had a supercapacitor system mounted on the rear axle and supplying energy to the rear wheels, the TS040 has one mounted on the front axle too. This, in effect, means the Toyota is four-wheel drive car, as and when the drivers need it to be.
Toyota also has a rather experienced driver line up, and one that already has two years of Le Mans experience with this team under their belt. Piloting the Number 7 car are Alexander Wurz and Kazuki Nakajima of F1 fame, along with Nicolas Lapierre who won the 2005-06 season of A1GP. The Number 8 car will be piloted by Anthony Davidson, Stephane Sarrazin and Sebastien Buemi, who took the car to a fine second place finish last year.
Le Mans luck
Toyota has made considerable progress over the last two years in the World Endurance Championship, winning three of eight races in 2012 and two of eight races in 2013. More important is that second-place finish at Le Mans last year. They seem to have sorted out all the niggles that plagued them. They have every chance of stealing the limelight this year. We'd keep an eye out for them, alright!
The Automobile Club de l'Ouest has over the last couple of years invited unusual machinery to compete in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, with Garage 56 being used exclusively for these oddball racers. Of course, this doesn't mean that one can just strap a V8 engine onto a shopping cart and head down to Sarthe. The cars that are allowed to enter the event are all machines that showcase some technological advancements that are unique. In 2012 it was the Nissan Deltawing. In 2013, although the car eventually didn't make it to the grid, it was the GreenGT LMP-H2 a machine that used Hydrogen fuel cells to power electric motors that propelled the car. And now in 2014, there's this the Nissan ZEOD RC. The ZEOD, like the Deltawing, has been designed by Ben Bowlby and has once again that unique shape. In case you were wondering, ZEOD RC stands for Zero Emissions On Demand Racing Car. The car is powered by a hybrid electric drivetrain with lithium ion battery packs. Two of the drivers piloting the car will be past winners of Nissan's GT academy Wolfgang Reip and Lucas Ordonez, with the name of the third driver to be announced shortly. Given that the Deltawing attracted lots of negative attention for being just too darned slow during the race, and was ultimately shunted into the wall by Kazuki Nakajima in the Toyota TS030 in 2012, we wonder how this one will fare.
Consider this a crash course in the 2014 edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. While most of you are aware of the four categories in the great race being the LMP1, LMP2 prototype classes and the LMGTE Pro and LMGTE Am classes, for 2014 there is a further subdivision. The LMP1 class is broken into the LMP1-H class and the LMP1-L class. The first category is meant for manufacturer teams only and thus features Audi, Porsche and Toyota. In this case the H stands for hybrid, which means the teams need to necessarily have a hybrid system incorporated into the power units. The LMP1-L class where L stands for lightweight features independent private teams that do not need a hybrid system in their cars. There are further complications in order to ensure that teams, despite the differences in powertrains and in hybrid systems are able to maintain the same energy delivery over the course of a single lap. This is governed by a highly complicated table called the Equivalence of Technology table. According to this, Toyota and Porsche which run in the 6 mega Joule hybrid sub-class will be allowed 139.5 mega Joules of energy per lap, and a fuel tank capacity of 68.3 litre. The diesel Audi, which runs in the 2 mega Joule hybrid sub-class will be allowed 138.7 mega Joule of energy per lap and a fuel capacity of 54.3 litres. Cars which exceed their energy allocation will be penalised.
View from the TRACK
Let's face facts now that the 2014 edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans seems like such a gosh darned terrific race, you really want to go and watch it live at the 13km long Circuit de la Sarthe. Here's what you need to know:
General enclosure ticket (which gives you access to all spectator areas of the circuit) prices for the 24 Hours of Le Mans cost 56 Euro (Rs 4700) for ACO members and 73 Euro (Rs 6100) for non-ACO members. Children born after 15th of June, 1998 can enter for free provided they are accompanied by an adult.
Sarthe is a one horse town that comes alive only during the 24 Hours of Le Mans. By the time you read this all the hotels in and around the town will already be booked as will tent and camping facilities. But, there's a simple solution. If you intend to only watch the 24 Hour race, get there on Saturday morning, and wander through the circuit. Watch the race. Grab some food in the Le Mans village, and fill up on energy drinks. Stay at the circuit and don't think of taking a nap! You could try your luck and contact the good folk over at gptours.com for package deals that cost between 295 Euro (Rs 25,000) and 1800 Euro (Rs 1.5 lakh).
Fly into Charles de Gaulle Airport and take the TGV train that will bring you to Le Mans. Trams to Sarthe are available, and walking to the circuit from there is entirely possible.
Now that you already are at Le Mans, there are some things you simply ought not miss. For those of you who are bold enough to try it, just walk through the campsites near the track. There will be the wildest 24 Hour motorsport parties that you will ever see. Bonfires, mayhem and bonhomie all at once. Don't miss eating the rillettes sandwiches at Sarthe either what strawberries and cream are to the Wimbledon, this is to Le Mans. And make sure you walk through the market areas on either side of the track you will find Le Mans memorabilia aplenty from old scale models to books. For those of you who happen to have 300-odd Euro lying around, ensure you take a helicopter tour of the circuit while the race is going on. It is a view of racing that you simply will not forget. And make sure you buy a portable Radio Le Mans headset that allows you to keep track of the race all through.