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14 reasons why it's not just about F1 in 2014

  1. 1. Darth Vader to compete at Le Mans

    Audi’s new LMP1 car has lasers! Though unfortunately not for ionising slower cars to their component molecules, but for lighting the road. The new laser headlamps will make their debut on Audi’s new R18 e-tron quattro, and can apparently light the road up to 800m ahead. Or alternatively blind everyone on the traditional paddock Ferris Wheel. But, of course, the laser headlights just point to Audi’s habit of trying out new tech at Le Mans.

    In 2001, it used a V8 equipped with direct injection that eventually became the TFSI system you can find on a humble A3. The company has won the 24 Hours of Le Mans seven times with a turbodiesel (unheard of up to that point), and 2012 saw the company’s first victory with the R18 e-tron quattro with a hybrid: a TDI for the rear axle and an electric motor on the front. Suffice it to say, it is the LMP1 team to beat in 2014, and the new R18 e-tron quattro has been “fundamentally redesigned” to stay ahead of the newly ferocious pack.

    The ‘new’ R18 looks a lot like the old, but new rules regarding fuel efficiency mean that it is actually 5 per cent narrower, and features a pair of hybrid systems to go with the V6 TDI powering the rear wheels. One is called Energy Recovery System Heat (ERS-H), and the other a more traditional KERS system, which Audi calls ERS-K. Both store energy in a new improved flywheel energy recovery system. We assume it will also be quite fast as well as clever.

  2. 2. The silent assassin in 'Garage 56'

    It’s called the Nissan ZEOD RC (Zero Emission On Demand Racing Car) and is set to compete at this year’s Le Mans under the same Garage 56 rules as the Nissan DeltaWing. Basic news: it’s a hybrid with a 300bhp, 1.6-litre turbo four, supplemented by a pair of electric motors and lithium-ion batteries that allow the ZEOD, during the course of 11 laps and 55 braking ‘events’, to recuperate enough energy to run a subsequent full lap of Le Mans on pure electric surge. So it’s unlikely to be hitting the podium, but seeing it whoosh down the straight at 186mph all but silently will be an eerie experience in itself…

  3. 3. The other LMP1 team at Le Mans

    Toyota has become a bit grump about Audi’s domination of endurance racing, and has redesigned its own LMP1 car to compete. Unsurprisingly, it’s a hybrid, but instead of a small turbo engine, Toyota’s new baby will feature a modified version of the 3.4-litre, n/a V8 used in the current TS030 Hybrid, supplemented by capacitor-based energy-recovery systems for the electric motors on both axles. That’s different, because the 2013 car only uses the techie motor stuff on the rear axle. Watch out, Audi.

  4. 4. Aussie grit versus German engineering

    TG’s favourite Australian former F1 driver joins forces with Porsche to contend Le Mans in a 2.0-litre, 4cyl hybrid LMP1 car. After Porsche’s 16 years out of enduro racing, all eyes are on Webber and Team Porsche.

  5. 5. Carlos Sainz drove this Buggy in the Dakar

    The Dakar Rally happens a long way away. Not even anywhere near Dakar any more. But it involves machines that look like this one, rampaging across deserts and mountains, and for that reason alone, you should care. OK, you’re already too late to care about this year’s event, which ran for 6,000 miles and the first two weeks of the year through Argentina, Bolivia and Chile, but it’s the spectacle more than the result that matters.

    Last month, we drove Stéphane Peterhansel’s Mini, which has sensible 4WD and a sensible diesel. Carlos Sainz’s SMG buggy has a spec list that sounds more supercar than family SUV: mid-engined, rear drive, V8 power. Chevy V8, to be exact, with around 420bhp and 490lb ft of torque. So while the Mini has the advantage on the Dakar’s soft sand stages, when it comes to pure speed across rough terrain, this French-built buggy rules - it’s grudgingly admitted by the rest of the field to be the fastest thing out there.

    Massive wheel travel, open-pipe V8 soundtrack, stunning South American scenery - no wonder that globally the Dakar rally has the second biggest motorsport audience after F1. Bigger than NASCAR, bigger than WRC, bigger than MotoGP.

    On board, it’s just ex-WRC champ Sainz, together with co-driver Timo Gottschalk, tackling arguably the world’s greatest endurance race with 430 other competitors, not only in cars, but trucks, bikes and even quads. About 30 per cent of them won’t make the finish.

    As with many forms of motorsport, the pressures of the race’s environment and geography have given rise to bespoke design, the result being outlandish machines capable of stunning feats of mountain-descending, dune-surfing and rock-crawling, and that alone demands that the best way of seeing off your New Year hangover is with a dose of the Dakar.

  6. 6. Robert Kubica gets his career back on track

    He won’t say as much, but for Robert Kubica, Formula One is looking like a very distant dream indeed. A right wrist smashed to pieces in an off-season rally accident in early 2011 means he no longer has the strength and leverage he needs in the tight confines of an F1 cockpit. But F1’s loss has been rallying’s gain.

    Kubica has proved himself to be an astonishingly versatile driver, happy dealing with 5g lateral cornering forces or naffing past trees in full Scandi mode. This adaptability has made the 29-year-old Pole a massive hit with rallying fans, and for 2014 he gets a proper break.

    Last year, Kubica plied his trade in the lesser WRC2 category. He won it convincingly in his Citroen DS3, winning five rounds outright, so the French marque put him in its full-house WRC car for last November’s Wales Rally GB. To put it mildly, that didn’t go according to plan. Kubica crashed out. Twice.

    It’s possible that showing might have put Citroen off, but whatever the truth, Ford hasn’t been shy about stepping into the breach, giving Kubica the car that his undoubted talent deserves. For 2014, he’ll campaign a full-house M-Sport Ford Fiesta RS WRC in every championship round, alongside Finn Mikko Hirvonen and Welshman Elfyn Evans.

    TopGear awarded Kubica a Man of the Year 2012 award. And if he rewards Ford’s faith in the manner we suspect, another could well be on the way, together, we suspect, with a fair few WRC podium places. And surely rallying success would help banish any remaining demons that must lurk in the back of his head, given his unfulfilled F1 career. But, for us, it’s about more than that: Kubica provides floating viewers with a reason to tune into the WRC this year. Better still, he’s not the only reason why rallying is on the up.

  7. 7. Formula E beams down

    An FIA championship that features electric racing cars, urban circuits, car swaps mid-race, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Jean Todt driving the safety car. Only the last bit is a lie.

  8. 8. Loeb heads off to WTCC...

    Yep, after his nine-time domination of WRC, the living legend that is Sébastien Loeb is quitting gravel for tarmac permanently and moving his Citroen camp into the World Touring Car Championship in 2014. Which means a raft of current WTCC drivers throwing down their entries with an exasperated sigh, because, let’s face it, Séb and his new Citroen C-Elysee WTCC car are unlikely to be a rubbish combination.

    “Going to the WTCC is a new motivation for me. I feel like the old driver who is just retiring from WRC,” said the King of Driving in a recent interview, “but in the WTCC, I feel like the young new driver who is arriving, so it’s another feeling.” Which, unfortunately for the current champion - and Loeb’s Citroen teammate - Yvan Muller, means that Séb will be turning out with fire in his eyes. And a reinvigorated Sébastien Loeb is a thing of beauty - as we saw when he demolished the Pikes Peak record last year in the 208 T16. Loeb’s new Citroen is slightly less committed than the 1:1 bhp-to-kg power-to-weight ratio of the T16 special, but still uses a 1.6-litre four-cylinder turbo to produce a healthy 380bhp and 295lb ft of torque - some 80bhp up on his more familiar WRC car - and uses a six-speed sequential box to drive the front wheels. Even with the lightweight Loeb on board, the C-Elysee weighs in at just 1,100kg - meaning that a WTCC car isn’t lacking in pace. Which also means that the Citroen team should prove a welcome addition to the factory WTCC teams that currently feature Honda and… Lada. Don’t laugh.

  9. 9. ...and TG's favourite rallyist kris meeke takes his WRC spot!

    Three years ago, Kris Meeke finally got the break he so richly deserved - as a works driver for the Prodrive-run Mini WRC team. It lasted less than a year.

    It’s still not known exactly why Mini pulled the plug on its WRC programme, but it left one of the UK’s brightest driving talents back in the wilderness. Well, apart from the odd appearance on a well-known BBC2 motoring programme. Now, while his future achievements will never, can never, reach as high as escorting James May around a rally stage in a Bentley Conti GT, we are very pleased to hear that Kris has a full-time seat in a Citroen DS3 WRC. To be exact, it’s the seat vacated by one S. Loeb, Esq.

    No pressure. Not that it would get to him. Kris is far too easy-going and good-natured for that. It’s just one of the reasons the bloke from County Tyrone in Northern Ireland is such a hit with fans. And race teams, too. You see Kris is no prima donna: he grew up helping out with his Dad’s successful rally business, has a degree in mechanical engineering and his first job after qualifying was as a computer-aided designer for the M-Sport Ford World Rally team. Meeke doesn’t just know driving, he knows every inch of the cars themselves and is just happy to be involved in the sport he loves. After the Mini deal fell through, he picked himself back up by helping other teams with car development. He knew his onions and was much in demand.

    How did he get into driving in the first place? That came when he entered a competition run by Peugeot UK. He won that, and his reward was an entry into a national rally. He won his class first time out. By four and a half minutes.

    But that’s the past; what we’re excited about is the future. Meeke is great to watch: fast, committed and always pushing - a driver in the mould of Burns and McRae. This is a man who loves to drive fast in rally cars and happens to be very, very good at it. He alone is a reason for British rally fans to get excited, but since he’s also joined in the WRC’s ranks this year by 24-year-old Welshman Elfyn Evans in a works Ford Fiesta, we’d go so far as to say 2014 ought to be a vintage year.

  10. 10. Hyundai i10 enters WRC fray

    Motorsport is a rite of passage for any car company wanting to be taken seriously. You might have built millions of cars, but if you haven’t got competition experience, it’s hard to be considered a force to contend with. So, not before time, Hyundai is getting into it - it being WRC. It’s poached a very promising lead driver from Ford - Thierry Neuville - and is basing its car around the all-new i20 supermini which goes on sale later this year.

    Any big marque putting its weight into motorsport is encouraging, and WRC could do with the fillip, Hyundai joining VW, Ford and Citroen in the ranks. The plain white i20? That’s ours. It’s in the car park downstairs. We’re going to turn it into a rally car of our very own. Our version will be… slower. We guarantee it.

  11. 11. Honda will race an estate in the BTCC. Yes!

    Honda Racing is set to contest the 2014 British Touring Car Championship in a Civic Tourer, bringing an estate body back to tin-tops for the first time since the legendary Volvo 850R wagon began competing way back in 1994. It also marks the first time we’ve actually wanted to drive a Honda Civic Tourer. Honest.

  12. 12. Bentley Continental V8 GT3

    Yes we’re being slightly childish, but who doesn’t think that the Bentley GT3 car looks properly awesome? Scheduled to run in the wonderfully eclectic FIA Blancpain Series this year, the tyre-shredding Continental will be mixing it with the more usual Ferrari/Porsche/Lamborghini staples, and early race-pace tests in a feeder event in Dubai looked encouraging. The team itself, M-Sport Bentley, is being handled by Bentley’s director of motorsport, Brian Gush - the bloke in charge when the Bentley Speed 8 won at Le Mans in 2003 - and is an offshoot of Malcolm Wilson’s M-Sport firm: famous for its stirling work in the WRC. Suffice to say the right people are in place.

    The car itself looks on good form, too. The Continental has a structure that isn’t all that heavy, but kitting it out with all the required equipment that makes it a luxurious GT and therefore makes it, well, that makes it a Bentley, adds weight. Quite a lot of weight. So out goes anything burnished or veneered, or knurled. Out goes all the soundproofing, double-glazing, leather, electric operation and anything to make life on the inside nicer (satnav, stereo, aircon). Out goes the useful but heavy four-wheel-drive system and auto ‘box, and in comes a six-speed sequential XTrac race ‘box and rear-wheel drive, lightened double-wishbone suspension, four-way adjustable damping and competition brakes.

    In fact, over a tonne has been lost from a standard Conti in comparison. Which means that it’s lost a Ford Fiesta in weight. But the best bit is that apart from the obvious wings and arches, the GT3 still looks like a Conti. The doors, boot and bonnet are all now pure carbon fibre, and while the wing is unavailable on the road-car options list, the bodyshell itself is more or less a direct carryover. We’re just looking forward to it rolling over a few 458s.

  13. 13. MotoGP: the best racing in racing

    Where else can you see a race in which the leader changes 10 times and a rookie wins the overall championship? If you like racing, you’ll love this…

  14. 14. It might be time to invest in satellite television

    2014 looks set to be a classic in more ways than one, but there are plenty of reasons to seek out some less obvious forms of motorsport. In DTM, four teams and eight drivers will contest the new series in the angry-looking BMW M4 DTM, joining the Audi A5 DTM and DTM Mercedes-Benz AMG C-Coupe in a battle of the Big Three Germans. Expect serious rivalry and even more serious aero.

    In the US, NASCAR is introducing new rules which should amount to “closer, tighter, faster racing”, which, given that there’s barely a cigarette paper between the cars at the moment, presumably means that drivers will sit in each other’s cars for half the race. Still, it should make the inevitable 40-car pile-up even more grotesquely fascinating.

    There’s also set to be some seriously close racing in Formula Renault this year. It’s an interesting series, mainly because many teams have been looking at the formula to scout for new driving talent that hasn’t been picked up by the usual channels (early-years karting, F3 or GP2), and newbie McLaren F1 pilot Kevin Magnussen has appeared direct from the World Series by Renault 3.5 Championship - so it’s worth getting used to a few of the names now.

    There’s also frantic championships in rallycross, karting, V8 Supercars in Oz, including the Bathurst 12-Hour race, Super GTs, the Porsche Supercup, truck racing, Trophy Truck LOORS short-course racing (think BTCC in pickup trucks, jumping and sideways), and even some X Games rallying madness.

    If you prefer your racing by the quarter mile, then it’s hard to ignore the Top Fuel series, where cars are bombs with men attached.

    And if you like it dirty, then it’s worth looking out for the new Land Rover Defender race series that’s being championed by Drew Bowler (he of the Bowler Wildcat). Pitched as feeder/training for events like the Dakar, it looks like enormous fun, as you can find out here.

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