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The Janus Perspective at Le Mans

V Sumantran | Updated on August 14, 2014

Core lessons: Automobile companies have always learnt from motorsports,especially from gruelling ones like Le Mans.

Core lessons: Automobile companies have always learnt from motorsports,especially from gruelling ones like Le Mans

Lessons for carmakers from the coveted endurance race

The annual Le Mans race has a unique position in motorsports. As the oldest race for sportscar endurance racing, run since 1923, it is obviously rich in history having shaped the folklore of brands like Bugatti, Bentley, Jaguar, Ferrari, Porsche and most recently Audi. As an endurance race, run twice around the clock for 24 hours, it represents a tough test for both man and machine. Set in the picturesque Loire valley, the breadbasket of France, the idyllic villages that dot the countryside endow the event with a charm all of its own.

Oh! As for the Janus reference (the Roman God with two heads, one looking ahead and one looking behind) the organizers appropriately run the annual Le Mans race and the Le Mans Classic (for historic cars that participated until 1979) just a few weeks apart.

Technical diversity

At Le Mans, the future is represented with probably the broadest array of new technologies – this year we had Porsche with a turbocharged 4-cylinder equipped with hybrid electric technology and Lithium-Ion batteries, Toyota with a large V8 engine and Hybrid powertrain employing super-capacitors, and Audi with a V6 diesel with a kinetic (flywheel) energy recovery system. The rule makers had triumphed in their complex task of simultaneously encouraging technological diversity, enforcing very stringent fuel economy standards (by motor-racing standards) and yet achieving competitive parity to give the spectators a phenomenal show. While the cars achieved fuel economy improvements of almost 30 per cent compared to just one year ago, they were faster than last year, and all three of these major contenders were in close combat for much of the 24 hours.

But such technical diversity was always an element at Le Mans. In the early 1960s, the organizers introduced the concept of Index of Thermal Efficiency, which effectively provided a sliding scale of handicap to reward efficiency of performance. Hence we saw a diverse set of competitors ranging from 7-Litre V8 Ford GT40s competing with 850 cc 2-cylinder Panhard CDs – the latter still capable of 220 kmph from just 70 horsepower. All of this historical variety was in plain view at the Le Mans Classic this year. You had the Blower Bentleys (driven by the very English Bentley Boys, with leather cap and goggles), streamlined D-Type Jaguars of the 1960s, Ford GT40s and Lola T70s from the 1970s and a whole gaggle of Porsches, including one of the legendary 917s, and Ferraris. Separated into 6 classes (Plateaus as the French insisted) they brought back memories for much of the crowd, which incidentally had a larger share of grey haired gentlemen than one is accustomed to seeing in a Formula-1 paddock these days. A specially arranged guest passenger ride for this author, in a 1978 Inaltera, powered by a Ford Cosworth DFV V8 engine, allowed one to watch the scenery of the fabled Mulsanne go by at 300 kmph. These historic cars were pristine and many priceless, and yet they were raced with aggression and spirit. Who said old cars cannot stretch their legs, or indeed old racers. Old age hath yet his honour and his toil, to quote Lord Tennyson.

Future matters

So, no wonder, during the drive back from the event on a sunny Sunday evening through the picturesque French country-side, appropriately motoring in a 1967 Mercedes 250 SL, with the convertible top down, one had to reflect on where we had come from and where we will go from here. The auto industry will need to remould itself to meet the demands of new generations, buffeted by changes in demographics, technology, urban congestion and climate. Coming off a decade where performance, luxury and safety were emphasized, we see on the horizon, ever greater concerns for the environment, new multi-modal mobility solutions and indeed new, more urban and technology-enabled consumer lifestyles. We have seen the auto industry poised at a threshold where, again, a multiple paths beckon. Conventional powertrains are being challenged by advances in Electric Vehicles (think Nissan Leaf and Tesla), Plug-in Hybrids (as in the new Toyota Prius) and now the resurgence in interest for Fuel Cells.

At its core, motor-racing has always been part-entertainment, part-sport and part-technology playground. This means that all three perspectives will need to be tweaked continuously to remain relevant to spectators and participants. And motor-racing has long enjoyed patronage of the manufacturers with the belief that competition improves the breed. This may be true in more ways than one. Just the view from this summer leaves one with the feeling that one has seen enough motivation and vitality to deal with the changes ahead. A modern-day Janus would be satisfied.

The writer is an auto industry leader with perspectives gained from working in the US, Europe and Asia. He can be followed at @sumantran

Published on August 14, 2014

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