Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Sebring prospects

The Sebring 12 hours, the first round of the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup, is coming up this weekend, and I reflected on dailysportscar a few weeks ago on the prospects for the race and the season ahead. Gary Horrocks has now provided an excellent preview ‘over there’, which I commend to you (if you haven’t already read it). For what it’s worth though, here’s my take on the prospects for this year’s 12 hour marathon over the bumps and through the traffic in the Florida sunshine.

Sadly, I won’t be there to witness it at first hand. Somehow events always seem to contrive against me getting there, and once again I shall miss it. At least the second half of the race takes place after bedtime here in the UK, so I shall try and catch some of it while the rest of the family sleeps.

The weather forecast in Florida is good: (it says here) dry and sunny, temperatures in the eighties (nudging 30 degrees Celsius), which may put air-conditioning units under strain.

In the battle for overall victory are two pukka 2011-specification Peugeot 908 cars up against two 2010 Audi R15 (“plus minus”) and a 2010 Peugeot 908 HDi FAP. If you’re reading this, I’m sure you are already up to speed with the regulations, but just in case, here’s a distillation.

For 2011, engine capacity for the turbo-diesels is reduced to 3.7 litres. As Audi’s new R18 is not racing at Sebring, the team will be using last year’s car, the R15, which has a 5.5 litre V10 engine as permitted by 2010 regulations. The ACO has vowed “to maintain a slight advantage to cars in compliance with 2011 regulations” at the expense of those running to the 2010 regulations, such as the Audi R15, which will be handicapped as follows:
  • the diameter of the two restrictors, through which the engine draws its air, is reduced, by four millimetres, from 37.5mm to 33.5mm
  • maximum turbo boost pressure is also reduced by 23% from just over 2.5 to less than 2 atmospheres
  • the fuel tank size is reduced from 81 to 65 litres
  • the fuel flow during refuelling is also reduced - the restrictor through which the fuel must flow into the tank is reduced from 33 to 28mm
(Bear in mind that the fuel tank regulations apply for all diesels, not just the 2010 cars. This reduction is from last year to this.)

Now I’m no engineer, but it seems to me that getting this balance right is a veritable minefield. What if it’s not right? How much is a “slight” advantage? Look at the possible outcomes:
  1. The handicap is not enough and the strangulated Audi R15 with its big V10 is still quicker than the Peugeot. Even if the Audi is pitting more often for fuel, the Peugeot will not be able to catch up. Audi wins, but as the R15 is not entered for Le Mans, no-one cares.
  2. The handicap is too much and the new Peugeots sail away into the distance. Audi achieves its team-building exercise, Peugeot enjoys the benefits of race-testing and gets lots of good publicity, but no-one really cares, because there was no excitement in the race and it is Le Mans that counts… Peugeot won Sebring in 2010, after all, in the absence of competition from Audi.
  3. Audi and Peugeot are extremely well-matched, producing a fantastic battle for the lead throughout the 12 hours. Allan McNish puts in a superb final stint and steals the victory from Anthony Davidson, who trips over a slower car in the last minutes of the race (just suppose). Peugeot complains bitterly to the ACO that the regulations guaranteed them an advantage and lodge a protest.
Of course, Peugeot has a 2010-spec car as well, entered by ORECA, which will be there to battle (it hopes) with the Audis in the first (and possibly third) scenario I describe above.

For everyone’s sakes, I just hope that it all falls out well, that the race serves the series well and adds to Sebring’s reputation… and that circumstances permit me to be there next year…

I don’t mean to ignore the rest of the 56-car entry, although there are elements (in particular the LMPC and GTC classes) which contribute very little and which I hope stay out of the way.

But I shall be paying close attention to the progress of the Rebellion Lola with its Toyota engine, to the Honda-powered Highcroft HPD and to the Mazda-engined Dyson Lola. I suspect that their supply chains will be fairly independent of the tragedy that is unfolding in Japan but I hope that those who are affected do not lose sight of their priorities.

Cytosport's 2010 Aston Martin and Oak Racing's Pescarolos might provide an indication of how successfully the petrol / diesel equivalence has been adjusted for this year, but my suspicion is that not much will be apparent until the debut of Prodrive's AMR-ONE at Paul Ricard next month.

I am hoping that the LMP2s prove reliable - there aren’t really enough of them to sustain any serious level of attrition.

And no doubt there will be a right dust-up in the GT class, with Corvette, Ferrari and Porsche guaranteed to be well-matched, BMW hoping that the lessons of 2010 have been learnt and that the M3s are able mix it with the class leaders, to say nothing of the variety provided by Jaguar, Lamborghini and the Ford GTs.

I can see a late night in prospect on Saturday night!

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