NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Critic’s Annex 89- Road to Le Mans: Racing Redefined

Hello, race fans. Welcome back to the Critic’s Annex, where we take an additional look at motorsports-related programming on a weekly basis. Last weekend, while Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was finally breaking that long, overhyped winless streak at Michigan, one of the most well-known endurance challenges on the planet, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, was in action in France.

As you may know by now, Audi won once again with their R18 e-tron Quattro, a rather interesting diesel-electric hybrid vehicle where under normal circumstances, the car was rear-wheel drive. However, whenever the electric motors attached to the front corners of the car were activated, the car became a four-wheel drive vehicle. This technically side-stepped an ACO rule that specifically bans four-wheel drive vehicles since it is not a full-time setup.

However, that wasn’t the only interesting hybrid prototype in town. Toyota returned to Le Mans for the first time since 1999 (the manufacturer stopped coming to Le Mans in order to focus on their then-brand new Formula One effort). Their steed of choice: The Toyota TS030, a new gasoline-electric hybrid. In overall design, the car appears to be simply a more modern interpretation of the TS010 from 1992 and the TS020 (also known as the Toyota GT-One) from 1998 and 1999. However, its much more than just that.

First, a brief history lesson. Back in the early 1990’s, the FIA sanctioned the World Sportscar Championship. It was a prototype-only series that attracted manufacturers and privateer outfits. Around 1991, they instituted a rule mandating 3.5 liter engines similar to those found in Formula One at the time (IMSA did not mandate this for the Camel GT Championship, but did allow those powerplants to be used). The idea was that there would be an additional use for that technology. Unfortunately, all that did was escalate costs so that the championship was cancelled after 1993. Toyota appeared on the scene in 1992 with the TS010, the fetching piece of machinery seen in “this testing clip”:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZrRcH-M5oP4. The car, powered by a 3.5 liter V10 engine, was designed to take on the Peugeot 905’s that were dominant at the time. It was also built with bodywork that either covered the rear wheels like in the clip, or without wheel covers. It was a quick car, earning victory at Monza, but was generally not quite good enough to defeat the 905’s unless mechanical ailments hit the French cars. However, the end of Group C at the end of 1993 ended the program. It should also be noted that there was no tie-in between these cars and the Toyota Eagles being run by Dan Gurney’s All-American Racers in the IMSA Camel GT Championship at the same time.

For 1998, Toyota returned with the GT-One (codenamed TS020), a challenger for the GT1 class. Since it was a Grand Tourer, road cars had to be built (they built a grand total of two road versions, and both of which are currently in museums). The car’s main competition were the Mercedes CLK LM’s (1998) and the CLR’s (1999), along with the Porsche 911 GT1-98, the Nissan R390 GT1, the Panoz Esperante GTR-1 and the open-top prototypes of that era (Ferrari 333sp, Riley & Scott Mk IV, Courage C36, BMW V12 LM, etc.). The car was very fast, but not the most reliable. Both years that they competed, only the slowest of the three cars finished the race. This was the entry driven by former Formula One racer Ukyo Katayama, Toshio Suzuki and Keiichi Tsuchiya, the Drift King (you may remember him from the three NASCAR exhibition races in Japan back in the late 1990’s). They finished ninth in 1998 and nearly won the 1999 race.

Two changes more or less ended the program. First, there was a move away from the GT1 class after 1999, likely partially in response to the multiple takeoffs at Le Mans involving the Mercedes CLR (most famously, “Peter Dumbreck flipped into the trees”:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KqGq9OnHLHs during the race), and towards open-top LMP prototypes. Also, Toyota was gearing up to enter Formula One (which eventually happened in 2002) and the team that ran the prototypes ran the Formula One team.

That same team is back now with the new TS030 Hybrid. However, this car was not supposed to debut this season. The original grandmaster plan was to debut in 2013. However, due to multiple factors, the timeline got moved up. More on that in a bit.

The actual show begins with a look back at Toyota’s racing history on the world stage. A significant amount of time is spent talking about Toyota’s successes in the World Rally Championship, where multiple championships were won in the 1990’s. However, no reference was made to the scenario where the entire team was thrown out for a year due to an illegal air restrictor that was designed to conceal itself from scrutineers.

In the special, it was explained that the TS030 Hybrid’s debut was moved up to 2012 partly due to a desire by Toyota management to show support for their workers that were affected by the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan in March of last year. In addition, Peugeot decided to pull out, effectively leaving Audi without any competition.

The decision left Toyota Team Europe (TTE) nine months to build a car from scratch for Le Mans. TTE actually spent many years trying to perfect the setup that they wanted to use in the TS030 Hybrid. The overall goal here was to acquire information that they could transfer over to street cars.

In January, five months before Le Mans, the first TS030 was fully assembled and started at TTE’s factory in Köln, Germany. The engine for the car was built separately from the chassis in Japan was a new generation hybrid engine based on a prior model that was tested in a SuperGT-spec Toyota Supra in 2007. That particular model tested in a number of official SuperGt test session alongside regular SuperGT racers (footage was shown in the special), but never actually raced.

Five of the team’s six drivers for Le Mans (Nicolas Lapierre, Alex Wurz, Kazuki Nakajima, Anthony Davidson and Sebastien Buemi) were interviewed for this special. Stéphane Sarrazin was not interviewed because he wasn’t signed to the team yet (at the time, Sarrazin was still committed to Starworks Motorsport in the LMP2 class). They generally talk about the car in various stages of the development cycle, and how they would virtually test before the actual on-track testing began. This was done in a giant simulator that appeared to be a leftover from when the team was still in Formula One.

The scene now shifts to the Paul Ricard High Tech Test Track in the South of France for testing (Note: this course in various configurations hosted the Grand Prix of France 14 times, most recently in 1990). The drivers talk about how nervous they are for the sessions, while the engineers are a mixed bag between confidence and nerves. The first test goes off fairly well, despite some issues with the transmission. Two weeks later, the official unveiling for the media was held at Paul Ricard.

Audi’s announcement of the R18 e-tron Quattro came as a bit of a shock (at least to Wurz), but showed off a completely different system. The Toyota can store energy that is gathered by the regenerative rear brakes. The Audi cannot store energy, but it can generate it via a Flywheel system somewhat similar to the one in the Porsche 911 GT3 R Hybrid that raced at Petit Le Mans in 2010. This gives Toyota an advantage of reserve electric power if they were to run out of fuel on course. The Audi would still have the starter motor at their disposal, but that can only help you for a short distance, as “Frank Biela found out in 2003”:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x6IVJzt7jVY#t=8m30s.

A second trip back to Paul Ricard saw continued issues with the transmission, along with the added difficulty of a wet track. That turned out to be the least of their problems. Lapierre crashed the TS030 and damaged it enough that the team could not compete in Spa. The 6 Hours of Spa was supposed to be the car’s debut in competition. As a result of the crash, Le Mans would be the car’s debut.

After the crash, the team discovered that the crash was caused by water leaking into the car and burrowing a hole in a control arm. Kinda unusual, actually. A month later, with the original chassis repaired, TTE traveled to Motorland Aragon in Spain to continue testing at the relatively new circuit. The plan was to do a 30-hour endurance test, including pit stops. Davidson kinda screwed up trying to start the car, which kinda bites, but there’s apparently a whole manual that each driver was given that included the proper protocol in starting the TS030. Its apparently not quite like starting your garden variety manual transmission vehicle.

The test proved that all of the aerodynamic, engine and safety modifications made to the car after the Paul Ricard crash were beneficial to the effort. However, since they missed Spa, they could not check themselves directly against Audi.

Finally, we get to Le Mans. We skip the Test Day and go straight to scrutineering, where the cars are inspected ahead of the race right in the middle of the city of Le Mans. Following the inspector’s stamp of approval, the now-blue TS030 is ready to be displayed to the general public.

However, the show detours here to talk about the fitness required to race at Le Mans. Wurz talks about the required physical conditioning since the car can exert over four g’s of force on drivers in the sweeping corners and under braking. Scenes of Wurz training by swimming and riding a road bike up hills was shown. Compared to the rest of the show, this just seemed out of place. Its relevant, but they should have gone about it differently.

Finally, the show finishes off with a look at qualifying, which was actually run the night before the show premiered. Davidson’s No. 8 blew an engine in practice. The team managed to change out the entire unit in 85 minutes on Wednesday, which is quite amazing. Toyota’s speed advantage on the straights was somewhat surprising, and it helped them to qualify third and fifth.

This is where the show cuts off, with narrator William Fitchner asking questions about how the Toyotas will do in the race. Well, we know how they did. Neither car finished. The No. 8 was infamously eliminated when Piergiuseppe Perrazini turned into Davidson at the end of the Mulsanne Straight, causing “this scary crash”:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fzw5i14ewXY. Everyone under the sun blamed Perrazini for the wreck, while Perrazini (via a translator) blamed Davidson. At the time, I thought that it reminded me a little of “Todd Bodine’s crash”:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WWVhfBTpefo in the 1996 Humminbird Fishfinder 500k at Talladega in the Busch Grand National Series. Ok, not an exact match, but I think you get the idea. As for the No. 7, it ran very well early on, but lost time after nerfing the Delta Wing into the wall shortly after Davidson crashed. The engine later failed, putting the car out of the race. I wouldn’t necessarily call their effort “Racing Redefined,” but everyone in Le Mans knew that the Toyotas were there and were quite competitive before they dropped out.

Overall, I thought that the special was an interesting look into the birth of the Toyota TS030 Hybrid and its introduction to racing. However, there was no mention of Peugeot’s pull out actually affecting the effort. This was one of the reasons the whole program was expedited in the first place. The training piece was really out of place in the second-to-last segment and should have been inserted earlier. Also, since they had an in-car camera in the car at the time, I would have liked to see some footage of Lapierre’s crash in Paul Ricard. I’m sure that Toyota’s got some footage of it somewhere. Maybe they should have explained the burrowing instance a little more clearly, or even shown viewers a graphic showing what happened.

That’s it for this week’s edition of the Critic’s Annex. Check us out next week, where I will be covering the Rolex 250 presented by VisitFlorida.com at Road America. Until then, enjoy the road racing in Sonoma and Elkhart Lake this weekend.

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