Petrol Heads

As the Le Mans 24 Hours rapidly approaches, the major talking point remains as it has been for the past several years – the parity, or lack thereof, between the diesel and petrol LMP1 cars. At the recent Spa 1000km ILMC race, Sports Car Insider sat down with three privateer team principals running petrol LMP1 cars to get a feel for what it’s like to be on the frontlines of the battle to catch the Audi and Peugeot juggernauts…

Jacques Nicolet, OAK Racing

French real-estate entrepreneur and historic motorsport competitor Jacques Nicolet entered the world of contemporary sportscar racing in 2006, when he bought the Saulnier Racing outfit, which was renamed OAK Racing in 2009. Nicolet says that his motivation for entering the realm of team ownership was simply an abiding passion for motorsport that stretches back to childhood. OAK Racing has run customer Pescarolo cars since Nicolet’s takeover, before Henri Pescarolo’s organisation ran into financial difficulty and OAK Racing itself took over development of his protoypes. The team is currently working towards becoming a constructor of LMP1 and LMP2 cars in its own right.

When it comes to taking on the might of the works diesels, Nicolet’s fellow French privateer Huges de Chaunac adopted an ‘if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’ approach, which was validated when his Oreca team triumphed in Sebring with their year-old Peugeot 908 HDi FAP customer car. But Nicolet can’t countenance the idea of simply throwing in the towel and running one of the oil-burners himself. “You definitely have more chance of winning with diesel than you do with petrol,” he says, “but what I am looking for is to run my own system. It may not be the best, but it’s mine. These days, for a team like OAK, the only possible strategy is to work very closely with suppliers like Judd and Dunlop, and form very close, trusting and long-term relationships.” With Michelin supplying both the works Peugeot and Audi teams, OAK has been able to benefit from being Dunlop’s number-one focus in the paddock. “It’s a hugely important partnership for us,” says Nicolet, “things are totally open, there are no secrets between us. A relationship like that is very important when it comes to our ambition to be a constructor.”

Despite the ACO’s promises to the contrary, the gap between the top diesels and petrols at the official Le Mans test day, which took place shortly before the Spa race, was in the region of ten seconds per lap. But while the equivalency measures are plainly insufficient right now, there’s also the inescapable reality that the factory efforts have a lot more cash to throw around than their sponsorship-dependent private competition. Nicolet agrees, but points out that the sport still needs the privateers to provide the bulk of its entries. “It’s definitely impossible for a €3 million programme to compete with a €60 million programme,” he admits, “but I still think the regulations need to be more balanced starting out.”

As well as the eternal struggle to get on terms with the diesels, the private team’s lot has been further complicated this year be the interlocking Le Mans Series (LMS), American Le Mans Series (ALMS) and Intercontinental Le Mans Cup (ILMC) calendars. OAK Racing’s trek to Sebring for round one of the ILMC was not without reward, as their LMP2 car took a class podium, but Nicolet declares himself dissatisfied with the calendar as it stands. “I think we need a clarificlation between the ILMC, ALMS and LMS. We need to have a clear calendar,” he states. “Right now, there’s no choice. For example, as we went to Sebring, it was impossible to be in Paul Ricard for the first LMS round. The car arrived back on Monday and we would have needed to have it turned around and at Paul Ricard on the following Thursday – impossible! If the organisers want more entries at all the events, they need to make allowances for this in their calendars.”

With the ups and downs of Sebring behind them, the OAK team’s sights are now clearly trained on La Sarthe. A crash at the test day reduced their Spa LMP1 entry from a pair of cars to just one, but Nicolet was not too discouraged. “It’s been tough, but we always have difficulties in the run-up to Le Mans, and every year we’ve done well, so I’m very hopeful,” he remarks. “This year, things are a little different as we’ve entries in LMP1 and LMP2. Over the winter we had to work very hard to make Sebring, which falls very early in the year for a European team. And the gap from Zuhai at the end of last year is very short, too. We managed it this year but I don’t think it will be feasible every year.”

And apart from the constantly shifting short-term goal of the next race, OAK’s long-term ambition to become a chassis constructor is ever-present in the background, too. “Our plans in this respect are very dependent on the future regulations,” says Nicolet, “as before we can start work on a new car we need to be very sure about the regulations. We have the capability to do this and we have the people in the design office who can do the job – we’re just waiting to find out exactly what job we have to do! For the moment, we continue to develop the current LMP1 and LMP2 cars. The latter is almost completely new for this year, and we are very optimistic after the strong result in Sebring. The development work we did on the LMP1 over the winter wasn’t applied to the car in time for Sebring, but we have it now for Spa and Le Mans. We’ve succeeded in remedying one problem – straight-line speed. We’re very confident after recording the best top speed for a petrol LMP1 and in LMP2 overall.”

Bart Hayden, Rebellion Racing

Rebellion Racing, previously known by the unwieldy title of Speedy Racing Team Sebah, is an Anglo-Swiss outfit with roots in club-level Caterham racing in the UK. Under the guidance of founder and team princiapl Hugh Hayden, it has progressed since the mid-’90s to become one of the top privateer teams in Europe, first running Porsches in the GT ranks, then graduating to prototypes with a Lola coupé. The team suffered a tragic blow when Hayden died suddenly from a heart attack at the end of last year, but it has regrouped under the leadership of his son Bart. For 2011, Rebellion has secured an engine supply deal with Toyota Motorsport GMBh (TMG), the Cologne, Germany-based powerhouse that has previously run Toyota’s works Formula One, WRC and Le Mans teams.

“At the moment it’s purely an engine supply deal,” Hayden says of the arrangement. “They supply the power unit for the car and they have two staff integrated with the team to support the engine. They don’t get involved in the chassis or anything like that, but obviously they’re keen for their product to be shown in the best light, and we’ll often get additional personnel from both TMG and the parent company in Japan coming to the races. With the chassis being supplied by Lola, we have Lola personnel embedded within the team, too. They wear our overalls during the race weekend, so for all intents and purposes they’re part of the team.”

Since Toyota pulled the plug on its F1 operation at the end of 2009, the Cologne facility has engaged in extensive consultancy work in many different areas of motorsport, and although nothing has been written in stone yet, Hayden indicates that Toyota’s involvement could be ramped up in the near future. “We feel at the moment that we’re at the top end of the privateer teams, arguably the best privateer team in Europe, but for us that’s not really enough,” he says. “We have aspirations of closer alignment with a manufacturer, which would be a logical extension of our first year of involvement with TMG. To become a semi-works or works team is a significant step up from where we are, but we’ve set our sights high and don’t want to just accept that Audi and Peugeot are always going to walk away with it. We want to try and build a truly competitive package, and I think if you look at the companies that can supply into this level of motorsport, a company like TMG would be an absolute leader, so of course we would love to be able to leverage that partnership and see it evolve and develop in the years ahead.”

Like Jacques Nicolet, Hayden is still waiting for the long-promised petrol/diesel equivalence, and is optimistic about what can be achieved when that comes about. “Clearly at the moment there’s a large disparity between the performance of the petrol-powered cars and the diesel-powered cars,” he says. “Full factory efforts are always going to be operating at the highest echelons, thanks to their depth of resources and experience. We need a level playing field from the regulations. Of course, even if that comes about the works teams will still be very difficult to beat given their sheer capabilty, but if the field is levelled, then it does mean that a private team that’s lean and mean and efficiently operated and focuses on getting the best from what it has could well have the opportunity to take a few scalps.”

‘Getting the best from what it has’ is something that has occupied a lot of Rebellion’s time over the winter, as the team’s Lola B11/60 coupe has been kitted out with extensively redesigned front-end aero, as well as the now-familiar ‘swan-neck’ rear wing supports. Hayden says of these upgrades, “we wanted to take the opportunity to use the wider front tyre that’s being supplied by Michelin this year and the old bodywork just wouldn’t have allowed us to run that. We also had to make sure that the changes that allowed us to do that would be beneficial in other areas as well. That was the primary driver, but if you look at the heritage of the chassis, it’s entering the twilight of its career, so we wanted to really maximise it and evolve it even further, and based on conversations with Michelin it was clear that we needed to go that way. We introduced the package at the Le Mans test day and were quite encouraged by what we saw there. Obviously Spa’s quite a different beast, but thus far I think we’re reasonably pleased with the way that it’s performing.”

Development of the car is very much driven by Rebellion rather than Lola, and is influenced as much by practical work at the track as it is by theoretical modelling back in the design office. “We drove the requirements for the update, as we’re Lola’s primary LMP1 customer, so if they weren’t going to listen to us then they ran the risk of developing something that nobody wanted,” says Hayden. “They’ve had an engineer embedded with the team since 2009, so they know through first-hand experience of races and tests what areas we felt needed attention or could be improved upon. They brought this to bear particularly when they did the design for the installation of the Toyota engine. Some things, which from a design and engineering perspective might be quite pure, can sometimes make it more difficult to run the car than we would like from a practical and operational point of view, so there has been a marriage between the practicality and design philosophies, which I think has resulted in a better product.”

In 2011, as well as taking on the challenge of developing an ageing chassis, Rebellion have had to grow from an exclusively European-based team to global travellers, taking in the two North American rounds of the ILMC and the series’ visit to Zuhai in China. The logistical challenge has been significant so far. “We were testing at Paul Ricard the weekend before Sebring,” recalls Hayden, “so we were faced with the challenge of how to physically get cars from the south of France to Florida for Sebring. Fortunately, through our years of involvement with Lola we’ve actually got three chassis, and so we consulted with the ACO and asked if they’d allow us to fly one of those chassis to Sebring whilst at the same time running the other two in Europe. They thought it was a good idea and we were grateful to them for that support. That eased some of the burden, but nonetheless as a private team we have to keep control of resources, so it did mean a quick overnight hop for the team to get from one venue to the other, and we flew some of the spares we had at Paul Ricard to America, too.”

Rebellion is certainly well-placed to break the diesel hegemony if and when the ACO manages to crack the balance of performance nut. And in the days after Spa, Lola chairman Martin Birrane announced that a further two Toyota-engined Lolas, run by an as-yet-unconfirmed team, will join the ILMC in 2012. Intriguingly, Birrane also pointed to Lola’s instrumental role in previous works programmes by the likes of MG, Chevrolet and Nissan, hinting that perhaps Audi and Peugeot could be facing very stiff and well-funded opposition before very long.

Benoit Morand, Hope Polevision Racing

Hope Polevision Racing are relative newcomers to international sportscar racing. The private Swiss squad, run by Benoit Morand and Jean-Marie Brulhart from the city of Fribourg, is a team that is perhaps more committed than any other to implementing innovative drivetrain technology on the racetrack. Following two years of Formula Le Mans one-make competition, the team has made the significant step up to LMP1, running an Oreca chassis loaded to the gunwales with cutting-edge hybrid technology. The heart of the system is an energy-recovery flywheel from  Hope Polevision’s technical partner Flybrid Technologies. This was originally developed for the Honda F1 team and consists of a carbon disc that stores the kinetic energy generated under braking, then releases it as the car accelerates out of the corner. The Hope Polevision car also boasts a two-litre, four-cylinder turbocharged engine for maximum relevancy to current road-car technology.

Such a pioneering endeavour cannot be expected to run completely smoothly, of course, and there have been some significant setbacks – the car did not run at the Spa 1000km as planned and will now head to Le Mans next month with very little mileage on the clock. Morand’s attitude to the problems is pragmatic, however. “Of course, we’re disappointed not to be running here, but it’s not entirely unexpected, as we have been running a little behind schedule and there have been delays getting parts we need,” he says. “The car is being damaged by vibrations, not from the hybrid system itself, but from the engine, at low rpm (between 1300 and 1800).” Admirably, Morand is not willing to compromise the team’s principles for short-term performance gain. “It was important for us to have a small engine. We wouldn’t have this problem if we were running a V8, but that won’t save fuel or energy. A smaller engine is a risk, as it doesn’t have the potential of a bigger one, but we are doing it this way. We want to save fuel and also, for road-car applications, a smaller engine works better a flywheel.”

This philosophy bodes well for Morand’s ambition for Hope Polevision Racing, which he shares with many other petrol-powered privateers – partnership with a major manufacturer. And the major manufacturers could perhaps learn a thing or two from him. For one thing, Morand doesn’t share their current obsession with full-electric drivetrains, which look likely to be limited by the constraints of battery technology for some time yet. “We don’t think full electric is the future,” he states simply. “We think it will be other technologies like our flywheel.” Morand says there has been serious interest from several potential partners so far, and unlike some of his petrol-powered rivals, he has nothing but good things to say about the ACO, whom he says have been exceptionally supportive of his efforts with hybrid technology. An overall victory for a hybrid car at Le Mans or another major sportscar event is probably closer than we think, but for now Morand and his team are happy to endure the tribulations associated with being early adopters, in the hope that that first victory will be theirs.

Thanks to Sylvie Nicolet of OAK Racing, Stephan Gervais of Rebellion Racing and Marjorie Bourqui of Hope Polevision Racing for their assistance with this feature.

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