New regulations, new teams, new drivers, yet not unconvnentional results at the 2014 edition of the Le Mans 24 Hours. Former LMP1 race engineer and current designer gets an insight of what happened this year and what to look out for next year.
Nicolas Perrin spent quite a few years on the pitwall at Le Mans - being a race engineer for the Courage LMP1 team - did design his fair share of Formula One aerodynamics and is building his very own LMP1-H car now, which makes him a more than an able person telling some intersting details about the 2014 Le Mans 24 Hours than I am. He addressed the race weekend, the LMP1 cars and his very own project, which is literally taking shape as you are reading this.
There wasn't anything too much surprising to me as far as the performance of the cars are concerned and the way they were managing them. I think the show was good, which was enjoyable. There were seven cars that could win it, so that's what we need at the moment.
The LMP2 cars are interesting, because they are very close together and reliable now. The winner car was designed six or seven years ago now, and they were running against brand new ones. So that shows that you can't make much progress by redesigning the car every year, because they already reached their optimal performance.
If you look at the finishes, there were a lot of crashes due to drivers' mistake. Even the factory drivers, they were caught up in accidents - e.g. if you look at the Toyota when it rained. It was a bit difficult to understand what exactly happened, but definitely there was aquaplaning, and with all those GTE cars around there was that pile-up. It just shows how challenging it is for drivers. You really have to be focused, because there are many slower cars around you. Visibility is of course a problem, too. It's not like driving a Land Rover, it certainly is more difficult than that. But these are the things that make Le Mans interesting.
Still, I'm always surprised by the number of accidents happening each year, but it's not surprising when you look at the average speeds and the length of the covered distance. There are also 56 cars. And as a Toyota driver said it is also Le Mans deciding who is going to win, it's not only you. There are a lot more things out of the teams' control and that's what makes it special. I would have liked to see another winner than Audi, but they deserved it.
At the Porsche Curves the drivers are always on the edge, because they are very fast corners. But I don't think we should remove the fast corners. One thing the accident shows is that the LMP1 cars may be a little bit too fast if you look at the lap times, so the performance of the cars may be reduced in the future to around laps of 3:30. It doesn't seem like a lot, but actually it makes a huge difference.
It's one car that went off there this year, but it's part of the challenge and it shows how safe these cars are with the driver walking away. Nevertheless you cannot be careful enough and it was an example LMP1 cars still being capable of taking off. They can't fly as much as before. We haven't seen video footage yet - if there's any -, but the car went flying into the fence, spinning mid-air. So there's that very much present issue of cars going sideways, losing downforce and thus getting airborne.
I don't think it's a satisfying result and I don't think the team is happy with that, because it's not much fun being slow, is it? Even if you finished fourth - which happened to other smaller teams as well in the past. Getting there, based on the fact that you had less problem than the others, is not something I'm interested in. I'd rather do something like Toyota - being the fastest, break down and come back next year.
But I don't think the guys at Rebellion are having much fun right now, to be honest, because they are battling the regulators for a power-boost to their car. They don't have the speed even for the podium - which we knew would happen. This year four of the seven manufacturer cars finished - or three and one coming in very much behind. But this is not going to happen every year. I wouldn't want to go to Le Mans relying on hoping people not finishing in front of me. Quite the opposite - we need to be fast and then make sure to finish the race.
For their first year they were really close to winning. There was going to be a battle between them and Audi for the win at the end. Their disadvantage - in my understanding - is their concept for the engine and the turbo. They are really on the edge with it. It's a small engine and you're stressing it more than a big engine. Also, they are doing energy recovery on the exhaust, too, which will always be less reliable than the ones on the braking system, because it involves high needs. Many things can go wrong with that system. That's my understanding as an outsider.
I think Toyota made the right decision with their hybrid system. They haven't gone extremely conservative with the design, they are not able to bypass the hybrid if it fails. So when it breaks, it's done and it's my philospohy as well. They didn't have a major issue, they had a small electric problem that can happen to anybody and does happen every now and then. I think they would have deserved to win this year, because they had a fast and reliable car, and yes, they had this issue, which is not a fundamental one.
I think they only produce 2MJs from their hybrid system because they removed the exhaust energy recovery. I think they were nervous about it. I guess they should have been in the 6MJ category. They never had a rear-brake system, only the exhaust. In my opinion they made the wrong decision by not putting a recovery system on the rear axle. They would have been better with 4 or 6MJs. They didn't have the performance of Toyota - turned out to be good for them. I think you have to have a clear vision of what you want to do with your car. That's why they've spent so much money because they were testing systems that were ultimately not raced. You can save so much money and energy to make the decision before. I think it's not really rewarding for a car manufacturer saying "We've tested four systems and we picked one." It's better to decide on one, based on your experiences and go with that one. It's more clever and efficient.
I don't know what the reason was for their turbo failrues. I've never been a fan of turbos, because I had issues with cars with turbos in the past. It's a small system that can fail a lot. One actually failed in my road car the other day. At the same time Audi have had turbos in their cars for years now and they kept winning. But it takes an awful lot of resources to make that reliable. Personally, I wouldn't want a turbo in my car. It just gives me more confidence to go for a normally aspirated, but bigger engine.
Diesel vs. Everyone else
This year a petrol-engine should have won. Regulations made petrol and diesel equal, and they are - as you can see. The fact that Toyota was faster was due to their advanced hybrid system. So it's more about how efficient you hybrid system is - which is good - and I don't think there's any advantage going Diesel any more, because it's heavy and complicated, also very expensive. Same thing with road cars. We will have to go back to simplier and lighter solutions.
I'm really excited because we're getting the full-size model out and it's been a long time since we've done something that significant. I think it's going to transform the project a lot. The perception is going to change about it, people will see that we are really serious. It's been made possible because the members are coming in. We didn't really have the right amount of them to pay for it, but it did convince the investors to push with it, because they saw so much interest and potential.
Open to Members
You will be able to see the model being built in Birmingham if you are a member. It's part of our strategy that everything we'll do in the future - everything we build - will be open to them and we invite people to come and see. But you have to be a member, and everybody can be one. It has to be this way, because it's a team effort. Effectively the building starts on the last week of June and any member in the Birmingham area can come and spend some time with us on a day we'll let them in. Same with the tour of the model. It will be members first getting to know about the destinations.
The model will be ready at the end of July. We'll tour it around the UK in August and the plan is to go to the continent in September and October. We have no specifics yet, we're just making a road map, but it's also down to the members to suggest where we should come and we also want to go where our members are. It will be very interactive with our members as usual.
If a sponsor comes and wants us to race next year, yes - it is possible for us to start in 2015. It will be only down to our opportunities. Whatever happens, we want to - at least - test the car. We want to show it to the world and start building the team next year. If we can't do Le Mans next year, we'll do it the year after, it's not a big problem. But the message is "2015", because we are ready to do it. If a sponsor comes, we'll be able to put the car on the grid next year.
My job is to make the team an attractive proposition for sponsors. Why would sponsorrs come? Because we already are a global team. So they get instant attention the moment they join, and we provide people such an experience. Ideally we would want one title sponsor to support us and us being completely associated with them for multiple years.
Car testing in the not too distant future?
Everything we do now - the members, the fans and the model - is to make us attractive for them. And the members are the most important part because they give it credibility. If I go to a meeting with sponsors with people already backing the project when I still don't have too much to show other than that, it gives them confidence. It's not the money generated by the members, but showing the potential and the interest expressed by them. There are all these people following me already, and more in the future when I start doing even more things. That is my selling point. And we give back people all we can. It will be a huge success when we will be able to test the car and invite our members to the garage.
Also, we are doing it in the big category where all the spotlights are. LMP1-H is the winning one. We've done F1 cars before, I've operated LMP1 cars in the past and I designed an LMP1-H racer. We have the resources, the experience and the talent. We are the only team - apart from the manufacturers - who know how to design an LMP1-H car. And it's all there, the blueprints don't lie. They are available for everyone to see and download, and you're welcome to do so.
All images are from Wikipedia and of Creative Commons licence, except Perrinn car from perrinn.com