From the rain-induced action in the first hour, to the emotional and intense LMP2 battle on the final lap, the Le Mans 24 Hours once again delivered for drama and unpredictability. For us, the race represented our 10th consecutive year supporting Toyota at the French classic; a huge congratulations to the team for a fourth win in four years. To have played even a tiny role in that success is a proud moment for us.
Toyota’s success though is just a small part of the Le Mans story and intrigue. First run in 1923, the event is viewed as the pinnacle of sportscar racing and is one arm of the fabled ‘triple crown’ of motorsport alongside the Indy 500 and the Monaco GP. However, in a day and age where the focus on environmental impact and green technologies is of central importance, is there still the need for a round-the-clock race?
Perhaps the best way to start unravelling the answer to this question is by going back to the purpose of the very original Le Mans 24 Hours held 98 years ago. While grand prix racing at the time focused on car companies building the fastest machines, Le Mans was centred around the reliability of them. It has encouraged innovation in producing reliable and fuel-efficient vehicles that spend as little time in the pits and cover the most distance in 24 hours.
Aerodynamic bodies, fog lights, front-wheel drive, radial tyres, direct-injection engines, disc brakes, slick tyres, racing diesel, and hybrid engines have all been tried and tested at Le Mans. Many of these motoring aspects that we take for granted were developed for the race itself and then adapted to ordinary cars. ‘Win on Sunday, sell on Monday’ has never been more relevant to any motorsport event than the 24 Hours.
For some though, the sight of 62 cars racing around-the-clock goes against our global push for a cleaner and greener society. However, as the race rapidly approaches its centenary celebration, this is precisely the reason why it is an important and necessary event for the future of automotive development.
Green racing isn’t a new thing; Formula E has created a very successful electric car series, and even the likes of our client Greenpower Education Trust have been racing and promoting sustainable technologies for over 20 years! Nonetheless, we’re now at a point where manufacturers using motorsport to demonstrate that they can successfully build and run electric powertrains might not be enough.
For all the trailblazing that Formula E has achieved, it currently finds itself with the powerhouses of BMW, Audi and Mercedes having departed or due to depart the series. According to BMW, they’ve “exhausted the opportunities for this form of technology transfer in the competitive environment of Formula E.” Given that many aspects of the cars are standardised, like the chassis, this explanation is understandable, and certainly not a negative reflection on Formula E.
So if the premier global electric car series has already achieved its purpose for these manufacturers, what’s next for them and how do they showcase that? Endurance is one answer. The fight to build and go to market with an electric car is over; almost every manufacturer now provides an electric range. The next challenge is to build electric cars that have more compact batteries and can last for longer distances. Step forward the Le Mans 24 Hours.
As one of the world’s most powerful automotive marketing tools, the French classic can provide the story of technical innovation like no other. Right now that story is about Hybrid, with its brand-new Hypercar regulations enabling manufacturers to highlight their hybrid technologies in cars that can be derived from road-going cars, providing closer alignment between their production and race activities.
In fact, hybrid technology at Le Mans isn’t anything new. The previous LMP1 regulations saw hybrid power in place since 2012, and with it has provided staggering levels of innovation and efficiency. If we take our friends Toyota, they reduced fuel consumption by 35% between 2012 and 2020, while improving lap times by around 10 seconds over the same period. A quite staggering statistic.
However, the LMP1 category became too expensive, and the visible connection to road cars more distorted. Hypercar is the next phase, and although the cars may not hold up to LMP1 in the racing thoroughbred stakes, it does tick more boxes for manufacturers, hence the arrival of Peugeot, Audi, Porsche, BMW, and Ferrari amongst others in the coming years.
Le Mans organising body, ACO, won’t just stop at hybrid technology either. Next year will see the introduction of fully renewable biofuel, while from 2025 there will be a new hydrogen class with cars competing at the same level as the Hypercars. With manufacturers given freedom to develop the fuel-cell technology, interest is already mounting.
When people switch on their TVs and see cars racing around the 13.626km Circuit de la Sarthe they may question the need or purpose for it beyond entertainment for hardcore motorsport fans. What they don’t see is the technical innovations that exist in their car on their driveway being ruthlessly explored, developed, tested and marketed under intense racing conditions. It’s exactly these innovations as to why the Le Mans 24 Hours will continue to hold such relevance, not just in motorsport, but in the wider automotive world. The next chapter in the Le Mans story? June 11th–12th 2022 – we can’t wait!