One of the things I’ve learned to appreciate about the annual 24 Hours of Le Mans race is that, rather than limiting differences between cars to make it more “fair”, they set generalized limits for competition but are eager to have the teams experiment. And this pays off quite a bit for some of the big teams: the manufacturer teams will test new technology in this brutal crucible before it shows up in their production road cars. It also allows for tactical experimentation. Audi made quite a splash a few years back by winning the event with a diesel car. They’ve done so several times since.
The 2012 race was just this past weekend and it saw a couple of firsts. Both Audi and Toyota fielded hybrid cars, Audi with diesel hybrids, Toyota with petrol hybrids (not like a Prius is hybrid, this is different stuff, but still very cool). Neither of the Toyota cars finished. Audi, however, took four of the top five spots with their two hybrids finishing 1-2, largely due to fuel efficiency. And the organizers of Le Mans have responded.
They announced just a few hours after the race was over that they were changing the engine rules for next year. Previously they had limits on displacement for the engines, but no more! Now the deciding factor will be a mandatory minimum fuel efficiency. The initial minimums are quite low of course… diesels are expected to manage about 4MPG. But think of it! The flexibility of technologies for the engineers has opened up immensely here. Power? Any idiot can make an engine powerful nowadays. Efficiency, though, that’s the key. The 2013 race is going to be fascinating as we see what new ideas are fielded. I’m especially eager to see what Peugeot, Audi’s recent rivals and absent from the 2012 race, comes up with.
And that’s on top of things like chassis design, aerodynamics experimentation, regenerative braking, safety modifications, and so on. Things that go into production. Audi’s diesel engines, for instance, were originally models straight out of their existing road cars (heavily modified, needless to say). None of the stamped out everyone-is-equal garbage NASCAR foists on us.