Hybrids Dominate 2012 Le Mans 24 Hour Race

By Bill Moore

Posted: 18 Jun 2012

Hybrids are here to stay. That's the powerful lesson conveyed from the 80th running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans; and the king of the hill, for now, is Audi's powerful e-tron quattro R18s.

From the very start on June 15th to the very end 24 hours later at 3pm local time, as spectators and supporters waved bright yellow flags all along the final lap, Audi hybrids dominated the race, only briefly relinquishing control of the lead to Toyota's own hybrids, the TS 030s, which were the only serious challengers until accidents doomed their efforts during the tenth hour of the race.

The Audi v. Toyota competition in the LM P1 class demonstrated that the acceleration offered by KERS (kinetic energy recovery systems) gives these cars, despite the increased weight, a definite edge over the conventionally powered racers. While Audi went with flywheel energy storage, Toyota incorporated ultracapacitors. As the cars, often hitting speeds in excess of 240 mph, brake for the multiple curves and chicanes (left-to-right or right-to-left jogs used to slow down traffic), some of that energy is converted to electric power that is used to help accelerate the car as it chargers out of the curve. A pair of 75kW electric motors drive the front wheels, effectively giving the car AWD. The acceleration was quite noticeable from the live streaming video coming from the Audi cars as they blew past other competitors on the track.

To get a sense of the race, the Le Mans circuit is now 13.5 km (8.4 mi.) in length, running mostly north-to-south using roads that carry normal traffic the rest of the year. Starting in Le Mans, the course swings east at the famous Dunlop bridge, then south along the Route de Tours (D338), until it reaches the village of Mulsanne, where it abruptly turns north again and back to the start. It is at this sharper-than-90 degree turn where Toyota's No. 8 car with Anthony Davidson driving clipped or was clipped -- the details are still sketchy -- a GTE-class Ferrari and instantly went airborne and ended up in the barrier that surrounds the turn. Davidson walked away from the crash, but was hospitalized with two broken vertebra. He's expected to be up and around in three weeks and fully recovered in three months. That left the No. 7 car to challenge for the lead, which the Audi hybrid quickly regained, never to lose again. Eventually a blown engine and other road damage forced Toyota to withdraw the last TS 030, much to their disappointment.

Audi also had its bit of bad luck as one of its pair of R18 Ultras, both conventionally-powered TDI V6 diesels delivering 532 bhp, crashed into a tire barrier in the exact same place his teammate had earlier in the race, but this time with more devastating effect, virtually totaling the car. The first accident was repairable in the pits, the second was not.

But in the end, Audi's luck and the sheer braun of its cars -- and skill of its drivers -- triumphed, taking 1st, 2nd and 4th place finishes, with the two e-trons at the top of the podium.

Toyota says it's returning with its TS 030s to race at Silverstone in England where we can expect the battle of the hybrids to continue; and in so doing, insure that in the minds of the racing world, the electric-drive technology has moved from curiosity to serious competitor.

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