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Here’s how Audi plans to win Le Mans

  1. Audi board member Dr Ulrich Hackenberg is not one given to hyperbole, so the following pronouncement should be taken with some degree of seriousness. “Audi has arguably never before faced such a difficult task at Le Mans.”

    Be in no doubt, this year’s Le Mans race will be one of the fightiest - and hopefully most exciting - since the dawn of Audi’s outright domination. 1999 was the turning point for the Four Rings; they blasted onto the scene and quickly became the Le Mans superpower, clocking up 12 wins to date.

    This year of course, the rules - a little bit like in Formula One - have changed. Not only that, but Audi and Toyota now have a new playmate: Porsche. Porsche, don’t forget, still has more outright Le Mans wins than any other manufacturer, and has enlisted Formula One refugee Mark Webber to oversee its first LMP1 contender since its last win in 1998.

    Then there’s the added spice of Toyota finding some serious pace, taking the first two wins of the WEC season thus far. That’s something that hasn’t escaped Audi’s attention, and one that’s given its chief race engineer Leena Gade food for thought.

    We caught up with Leena on the eve of what promises to be a bloody, brutal battle at La Sarthe…

  2. TopGear.com: Hi Leena, how are you?

    Leena Gade: I’m good thanks.

    TG: What was your reaction when you first read the new WEC regulations?

    LG: [laughs] I thought they were… interesting. I think from a pure racer’s point of view people will be questioning what we’re doing, because this year it’s all about efficiency and saving fuel.

    Having said that, it provides a challenge, because we’re now having to think about how much fuel we’re using, which we did before but you could manipulate it to an extent. It’s made it more interesting in some respects, and a bit more of a pain in the ass in others.

  3. TG: Our brain isn't as big as yours, Leena. Can you give us an outline of what's changed?

    LG: This year we’re regulated on how much fuel we use per lap, but also on how much fuel flows to the engine, and on top of that how much recuperated energy from our hybrid system we can use.

    There are four different classes of hybrid: 2 mega joules, 4MJ, 6MJ, and 8MJ. We’ve opted for the 2MJ class with our diesel engine (Porsche and Toyota have opted for the 6MJ class with petrol engines). The rules are written so that there is more benefit to having a bigger hybrid system, but the problem with a bigger hybrid system is the penalty with the weight, so as a result we’ve gone for the lower energy class.

    It’s a little bit complicated, and there’s a table written by the FIA and ACO that tells you how much energy each one can use per lap, based on how much fuel you’ve got in the tank and how much hybrid energy you have.

  4. TG: Erm, is it right that Le Mans has become this?

    LG: I wouldn’t have chosen to do it this way if the rules were up to me, but there’s got to be relevance from motorsport to the general public. Apparently we’re going to run out of fuel at some point, so we have to be a bit more conscious about this kind of thing. Plus it’s pushing the technology much further for making efficient engines, and that’s a good thing.

    TG: Fair enough. It’s certainly made the race a lot more stressful than it already was.

    LG: There’s a lot more calculation going on. The hybrid energy is a little bit simpler to handle than the fuel in some respects, because you have a given amount of energy you can recuperate and a given amount of energy you can use to boost the car. But the fuel has to be managed much more by the driver, because they’re lifting off in order to be able to save fuel at given points around the track.

    We have engine engineers who are constantly looking at the numbers, and how much fuel we’re consuming pretty much every corner, and there’s a lot more talk going on between driver and engineer to be able to react and adapt to that kind of thing.

    And that’s one of the biggest challenges for the drivers. Before we would have just let them jump in the car, give them a couple of instructions and off they go. Now you’re talking to them all the time to give them information on whether they need to be more conscious of saving fuel or not, because now there are two different ways of getting a penalty.

    You either consume two per cent over the amount of fuel you’re allowed to have in one lap, or there’s an average that’s calculated - a little bit complicated to explain but basically once you open up an over consumption on one lap, you have the next two laps to get it sorted out.

  5. TG: Ah. Of course. Are you confident you've got the niggles in the R18 sorted?

    LG: Well, we’ve done a lot of work since we started testing the car last year to get it to work the way we need it to, but we’ve suffered a bit like the other two teams on one respect. The fuel flow meters provided by the FIA arrived quite late - the FIA in general have a hard time getting those things to work, they introduced them into F1 and into the WEC at the same time.

    In F1 it’s slightly different because they don’t get an instantaneous penalty for the amount of fuel that flows to the engine, whereas we will get that penalty. So to handle all of that they’ve had a tough time.

    That’s had a knock-on effect to us, because the later we’ve got them, the less chance we’ve had to really adapt and develop our systems and processes to handle it. So that’s not been perfect. But we’re in a better position now.

  6. TG: Toyota are looking massively not-slow-at-all. Are you worried?

    LG: I think that maybe for a couple of people their pace came as a surprise, that they’ve come out of the blue, but that’s not actually the case at all. I think they’re incredibly strong, I think they’re a really, really good team, they’ve pulled together and created a car that’s just been bulletproof this year.

    Am I surprised? Not really. Am I worried about them? I think I welcome the competition - same goes for Porsche. A few months back Porsche had a car that maybe wouldn’t have been able to complete three or four laps, now they’ve got a car that can be on the pace and with fewer reliability problems.

    On the other side, they’re still a developing team, they’ve got some weaknesses, but then every team has. I welcome the challenge from both, because it’s good for the sport.

  7. TG: Looking forward a bit, Nissan are coming in next year. And they’re shouting quite loudly about it too.

    LG: I think there always has to be that kind of thing. I think it’s great that there’s another competitor, we need more of this in sports cars because it’s been a while since we’ve had some big manufacturers.

    And there’s a reason why they’re coming to WEC and not heading off to F1, and that’s because it’s incredibly expensive to do F1 and really, what relevance does that have to the road cars? Sports cars have much more to offer.

    Of course, Nissan has to shout about it too, because they’re not going to come in and say, ‘Yep, we’re going to come out and finish somewhere behind the other three!’ That’s just not how you do it. You don’t generate interest in that way. It’s not going to be easy for them though - it wasn’t for Porsche, Toyota, and indeed us or Peugeot.

    TG: And how exactly does Audi plan to win again this year?

    LG: A lot of hard work, lots of preparation, and hopefully that we’ll all pull together and work together.

    TG: Thanks Leena, and good luck!

    LG: Thanks!

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