LE MANS, FRANCE — The Indianapolis 500 and the Monaco Grand Prix are two of the most famous, legendary and prestigious races in auto racing, but there are other races that resemble them.
But the 24 Hours of Le Mans, which comprises with the other two elite races a kind of triple crown for drivers, is by far the longest, biggest, wildest and most spectacular race in the world.
And while Le Mans is usually all about endurance, and known for its slow finishes as teams drive in formation past the checkered flag, the 79th edition, which starts at 3 p.m. Saturday, is the least predictable and likely to be one of the most closely fought in decades, its leading participants suspect.
“I think there will be a beautiful battle,” said Bruno Famin, the technical director of Peugeot Sport. “I think the Audis and the Peugeots will be very close. And I think that will create a very intense battle.
“I remember the battle of the Peugeot and Toyotas in the early 1990s, and I think it will be a battle a little like that.”
No one really has any illusions that this year, as in the past few years, the overall victory in the highest category will go to any car other than an Audi or Peugeot.
“It will play out between Peugeot and Audi, and that is logical because it is also a money battle, and in terms of financial investment, they are the only ones that deep into it,” said Sébastien Bourdais, a driver with the Peugeot team, who was born and grew up in Le Mans and has taken part in the race eight times.
But because the race is one of endurance, the other teams take part with the hope of inheriting the victory if something goes wrong among the leaders. Last year, Peugeot, fresh from a victory in 2009, showed that it had the fastest car but that reliability counts as much as speed. All the Peugeot cars had problems and failed to finish while the Audis, which were slower but more reliable, took the top three spots in the race.
Audi has won the race nine times since 2000. In 2003, the race was won by a Bentley, which was based on an earlier Audi and was also owned by the Volkswagen group.
Peugeot won in 2009, after returning in 2007 from an 11-year break to challenge Audi’s dominance. The two raced with diesel engines, after Audi had made history in 2006 with the first diesel-powered engine to win the race.
What makes this year so unpredictable, according to the manufacturers, is not only that they have both worked on their weaknesses to create cars that must clearly be closer to each other, but also that there was a complete overhaul of the regulations this year. So both have completely new cars.
“I think that Audi has put an enormous amount of resources into gaining in performance,” Famin said, “and we tried to work on reliability. So each of us will have made a step closer to the other.”
They have taken completely different approaches to the new regulations, with Audi having created a six-cylinder engine and Peugeot running a more streamlined aerodynamic design.
“We will see which of them has best read and interpreted the rules, but whatever happens I think that it is symbolic and shows a difference in culture between two manufacturers, one Germanic and the other Latin,” said Olivier Quesnes, the director of Peugeot Sport.
Alexander Wurz, a driver at the Peugeot team who has won Le Mans twice and who also has had a long career in Formula One, said the battle between the two manufacturers has reached the same level of technical competition as in Formula One, which is generally considered the pinnacle of auto racing.
“Every year the two manufacturers are raising their level,” said Wurz. “It gets into really high-end stuff now, the way they are doing their testing, their research, their wind tunnel.”
“In some respects we are at a higher level than in Formula One here, because we have no testing restrictions and we do an extraordinary amount of testing, which I am only used to doing in the crazy Formula One days from 2000 to 2005,” Wurz said. “It is cool, it is a proper engineering-orientated motor sport.”
Moreover, the two manufacturers are using the series in the same way as the manufacturers that made up the Formula One teams over the past decade, in order to sell road cars and improve road car technology.
Audi has taken the risky step of creating a new diesel engine of only six cylinders for Le Mans this year, rather than 10 last year and 12 when it started out with diesels. That, according to Ulrich Baretzky, Audi Sport’s head of engine technology, is because downsizing of engine capacity while maintaining power is the way of the future in road car technology.
“We thought about doing a V-8,” Baretzky said, “but while the V-6 was more difficult to do, it is much more in line with the way the engine of the future on road cars will go. We want to keep the power, and we must reduce the volume and each piston must work more than before.”
Indeed, that is the message that both the Le Mans race organizers and the car manufacturers want to send out in the 2011 edition of the race.
“We have a completely new rule book which is very much dedicated to technologies that are coming into our road cars in the future, with a clear idea on downsizing cars, a clear idea on having smaller engines and trying to be even more efficient,” said Wolfgang Ullrich, the director of Audi Sport.
But if the world’s greatest endurance race were only about two manufacturers, few other teams, let alone spectators, would show up or watch it. The outsiders in the top category include the Aston Martin team, which has also built a new car, but which most insiders say cannot match the leaders. And then there are the private teams, like Oak Racing, one of whose cars is run by Henri Pescarolo, one of the biggest specialists in the discipline, having won the race four times and finished on the podium several times as a team director.
“The big story this year is that it is the big unknown,” Bourdais said. “It is the big unknown because we start from zero, we don’t know where the competition is and we don’t know where we are related to them.”
And that, of course, is what will make it worth watching.
Source : NY Times