Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Audi and Peugeot average lap times at the Le Mans Test Day

I wasn't actually at Le Mans for the Test Day, as I was away on holiday (in the sunshine of Tuscany) at the time. However, I have managed to get hold of the timing information from the two four-hour sessions.

I have been busy today trying to do my day job, but I have managed to spend a few minutes trying to work out what it all means. Inevitably, these are only first impressions, but I have examined the stints from the Audi and Peugeot works teams (not the Oreca car), which were more than 10 laps long, and it makes interesting reading:

This is an exhaustive list - all the stints over ten laps are shown, with the exception of Lamy's 13 lap stint when the safety car was out in the afternoon session. This included four laps "off the pace", which it serves no purpose to show.

I have also shown Kristensen's stint as being only 10 laps, although in fact it was 11. For some reason, TK's in lap was extremely slow - his time in the final sector being about one minute slower than it should have been. I don't know if this was a timing glitch, or a real event with an explanation. Maybe a reader can help? The stint in question was from 15:35 until 16:16.

In any event, if first impressions are anything to go by, Peugeot needs to find something like five seconds a lap if they are to get on terms with Audi. The fact that the Peugeot is more economical will not help if it is that much slower.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Duncan Dayton, Highcroft Racing

At the end of last month, I put a call in to Duncan Dayton, the team principal of Highcroft Racing, primarily to congratulate his team on its second place at Sebring, but also to discuss the prospects for the team for the remainder of the season. The idea was that the interview would appear in the pages of dailysportscar.com, but as it is now nearly two weeks since I delivered it to them, and it still hasn’t appeared, I thought I would post it here as a reward to my loyal readers.

Of the performances at the Sebring Twelve Hours, perhaps the most noteworthy was that of Highcroft Racing, with their brand new Honda Performance Developments ARX-01e. Although the Highcroft team were riding high as back-to-back ALMS champions in 2009 and 2010, they seemed to be starting the 2011 season on the back foot, having spent the majority of the winter “busting my butt trying to put a programme together” as team principal Duncan Dayton put it.

The main disappointment in 2010 had been a character-building run at the Le Mans 24 hour race, which perhaps merely confirmed that the French classic does not come easily to transatlantic visitors.

Some suggested that the step up to LMP1 for 2011 was perhaps too far for the Connecticut-based team, but for Dayton, partnering with HPD, it was a logical step, and where the Honda Performance Development crew wanted to be.

However, at Sebring, the timetable was mighty tight. The car arrived at the circuit straight from manufacturer Wirth Research, and proceeded to run faultlessly, confirming Dayton’s faith in the project. When I congratulated him on the result, he was typically modest: “Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good!” he joked.

Surely it wasn’t a question of luck? I put to him. “Well, clearly a couple of things were in our favour,” he replied. “One obviously, Wirth built us an incredible car and given the fact that it’s an evolution of a proven drivetrain, we had got a lot of miles on that package and we were reasonably sure that it would run the distance.”

Dayton went on to say that bodywork pieces for the car were being delivered up to the day before the race. And there were some issues getting those to fit.

And after the race? “We stayed on afterwards and completed 3,500 miles of testing and never even took the engine cover off. It’s a huge tribute to the boys and how they put things together.”

The biggest issue so far for the team has been getting the Michelin tyres to work. “We’ve had a hard time getting them to really come in as well as we’d like,” said Dayton on the subject of the tyres. “We just need to have some time to get that to be where it needs to be.”

In the light of the fact that the HPD was only 32 seconds behind the winning Peugeot at the end of Sebring, I suggested to Duncan that the indications were that the petrol cars were now on the pace of the diesels. “I don’t think so, because if you look at the R18 times the following day, they were running mid 45’s and I’m sure they weren’t running flat out. So there’s something like 3 seconds advantage at Sebring, which would be six seconds advantage at Le Mans. Marino’s best time in the test was 47.5 and they were routinely 45.5 and we were just carrying on with a real good base set up, and I’m sure they were still improving the R18 at Sebring.”

But racing is not all about ultimate pace, it’s about speed in the traffic, in race conditions, I reminded Duncan. “Yes, but even if you look at our race pace, we were a second or two slower than the R15 or the Peugeots. I’ve got to believe that at Le Mans with the R18, which is even a step up, with less drag on the straights, the bigger tyres for the corners and all the different advantages that they have, it’s going to still be a significant challenge for us.

But it must be reassuring that Pagenaud was able to keep ahead of the works Peugeot in the closing stages?

“Right, we were pushing as hard as we could. You know we weren’t full rich, because we were trying to save fuel; we realised quite early that the only chance that we had to beat them was on one less fuel stop. We weren’t going to be able to beat them on pace. And at the end, we kept telling Simon we’ve got to save fuel and go fast, which he was able to do, but we were on mix 4, which was as lean a mix as we’ve ever run, usually we would be running mix 3 and that would be as lean as we would ever go, but we weren’t making the fuel numbers so it was unfortunate that we couldn’t really chase the Oreca down, but I’m sure they had more in hand too, they had more fuel on board and they could have gone richer if they’d needed to.”

Despite the fact that the new car hasn’t yet done any running in the wet, Dayton was upbeat about prospects for Le Mans. “I will say that the car traditionally has been extraordinarily good in the wet. The P2 car was phenomenal in the wet. Oftentimes the drivers would hope that it would rain because it was just so fantastic. So I don’t think it’s anything that would be anything that would worry us.”

Also the fact that the HPD is an open car might be advantageous if it rains at Le Mans. “We think for sure it is better to be in an open car in the wet. We’ve heard from some of the drivers that the visibility in the R18 is quite bad. Clearly they’re going to have a heated windscreen, they’re not going to have to worry about fogging or anything like that, it’s more the debris. From that standpoint, then I think the drivers would much prefer to be in an open cockpit.”

Duncan’s last words were for the folks in Japan: “Obviously our hearts and minds go out to the folks in Japan… last year’s championship winning car was sent to Japan to HGT, which is the Japanese equivalent to HPD which was the base for their Formula One development, and they had the car on high stands and were looking at it, and just about to start taking it apart when the earthquake hit and the lift collapsed, and the car was crushed. One of the HGT associates was unfortunately killed in the earthquake so it’s definitely a tragic story from our standpoint. They were 30 miles from the epicentre. The uncertainty for us is that we don’t know - I don’t think they know yet - how that will impact the program in the long run - whether it will be cancelled because they have to focus on their own population and try and get things up and running and where they should be, or whether it would be something that would be a great rallying cry for the Japanese people to find some motivation and support.”

In any event, Duncan Dayton’s enthusiasm is still on full throttle for the remainder of the season, and Highcroft must be a favourite for another ALMS crown. And hopes are guardedly high for Le Mans, too.

This concludes what I submitted to dailysportscar, but our conversation also included some fairly stern comments that Dayton had for the ACO, which I didn’t include for dailysportscar readers, as I wasn’t sure how helpful they were. As your reward for reading this far though, here are some of Dayton’s thoughts about the Le Mans organising club.

In response to a question about the ability of the petrol-powered Highcroft HPD to compete equally with the diesel-engined cars from Audi and Peugeot, Dayton said: “The thing that frustrates me more than anything is the fuel fill time, because (at Sebring) we were 32 seconds down at the flag and every single pit stop their fuel time was anywhere from five to seven seconds faster than ours. And while I realise that they have a smaller fuel tank, as I understand the ACO regulations, the fuel fill times are supposed to be the same because the amount of energy is supposed to be equivalent as well. So they shouldn’t have an advantage in taking less fuelling time than us.”

Duncan has analysed the data well - by my calculations too, comparing the Highcroft car with the #2 Audi, fuel fill was on average 6 seconds faster for the diesel car.

The fuel tank sizes stipulated by the regulations are 75 litres for petrol and 65 litres for diesel. Fuel flow into the tank is governed by a restrictor, which is the same diameter whether for diesel or petrol, and since the viscosity of diesel is greater, it will flow more slowly into the tank. However, the viscosity is also dependent on temperature, so it may be that the high temperatures experienced at Sebring led to the faster diesel fuelling time.

I could find no mention in the regulations that the fuel fill times should be the same between diesel and petrol, though, so Dayton’s complaint would seem to be that the regulations have not been written the way that the ACO told him that they would be.

It is now clear that Highcroft will not be at the Le Mans test day on Easter Sunday, but when I spoke to him, that decision had not been made. Dayton was definite that the team would not - could not - be at both. “We’re weighing the relative merits of Long Beach versus the Test Day - ideally we would do both, but given the short turn-around time that the ACO has put in place, in some ways I think it’s kind of a slap in the face for the American competitors. Given that they (the ACO) own the circuit, that they could do it any day they want, why do they pick Easter and why do they pick a date that makes it almost impossible? Particularly for someone like us, who’s shop is on the East Coast, three days travel time by transporter to get the cars back here (to Connecticut from Long Beach), so that prohibits us from being able to ship it to the test day.”

I asked which event HPD would do, in that case.

“We do which ever one that HPD wants us to do. We hope to be able to defend our championship in the ALMS - the importance of having front line teams and really good prototype competition in the ALMS is critical at this juncture and the International Le Mans Cup (sic) has robbed American fans of consistent appearances by front line teams like Audi and Peugeot. And I think the ACO needs to be very careful about what they do in promoting this because if they kill the ALMS prototype division and they kill the LMS it’s cutting off their nose to spite their face. Without having a significant travel fund to support the privateers, (although we’re supported by HPD, we are a privateer team, clearly), we pay our own drivers, we pay our own staff, all that stuff is on our nickel, so for us to try to do six fly-away races, at a million bucks each, is beyond our capabilities. Is it really a “world championship” if you’ve only got Audi and Peugeot duking it out?”

Dayton’s enthusiasm for the sport is clear, but like many small fish, his passionate feelings spill over into his conversation.

“The other thing I would do if I were in Scott Atherton’s shoes - I’m not trying to tell him how to run his business - but I would say to the ACO: ‘you know, we would love to have two ILMC rounds, but they’ll be Elkhart Lake (Road America) and Laguna, but we’re not going to give you Sebring and Petit Le Mans because you’re going to come to those events anyhow.’ ”

“The other thing - this is an aside - but it galls me: if the ILMC comes to an ALMS round, (Sebring) why do I have to put a zero in front of my number, when they’re coming to our championship? We’re not going to theirs. It just goes to show the mentality that the ACO approaches this all with.”

At least you know where you are with Duncan Dayton. He is honest, straightforward and good at what he does. I can’t imagine such a straight-talking interview with anyone from the ACO, although I would love to have the opportunity!

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Le Mans Test Day - Easter Sunday

With a little over a week until the Le Mans Test Day on Easter Sunday, the time is right to anticipate what we might glean from it. The bad news is that I won’t be there, as we booked a family holiday more than a year ago, so we shall be away in Italy while the eyes of the sports car world will be on Le Mans. However, I am hoping that data will be available, and that even if I can’t be there, I will at least be able to draw something out of the events of the weekend.

In any case, what we learn may well be limited, since the lap times recorded will not necessarily be an indication of potential race laps in June. Allan McNish said to me, following his four-day test of the Audi R18 at Sebring last month: “My guess is that we may not know until qualifying at Spa in May,” in answer to the question of where Audi would be in terms of pace and the opposition, “as we’ll all be on various programmes on the Le Mans test day. Even then, it could be raceday at Spa before a clear picture plays out.”

On the subject of the Sebring test, McNish revealed that the two R18 chassis had been on different programmes - one of which was an endurance test, but he didn’t say (wouldn’t say) what the other programme was. My guess would be that it was to do with fuel consumption on different engine maps, but that is pure speculation. Almost certainly there will be a car at Le Mans from both Audi and Peugeot looking specifically at fuel consumption and, more importantly, the number of laps that can be completed on a tank of diesel.

The fact that Peugeot has announced that they will be running only the three 908s at the test day - and not the hybrid car - is hardly a surprise. They have had a number of setbacks during their testing thus far and their focus must be on avenging the defeat last year in the 24 hours. Ultimately, it will be down to achieving top marks in two categories: pace and consistency. Perfection in the pits and reliability on the track will be essential.

I got the feeling from McNish - both when I spoke to him in person at Paul Ricard and in email discussion after Sebring - that Audi is optimistic. But for both Peugeot and Audi, the less powerful cars demanded by this year’s regulations means that for the first time since Peugeot and Audi have competed together at Le Mans, both manufacturers are at the same point in the development cycle.

McNish recognises the problem: “In reality we are still very much in the early learning stages and trying to understand what makes this car (the Audi R18) tick. It is a very different concept from the mechanical and engineering point of view, so we’re learning all of the time.”

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Circuit Paul Ricard

The six hour race at Le Castellet last weekend was the first time I had been to the Circuit Paul Ricard, and I thought it might be worthwhile to write a little about the experience. If you have already been there yourself, then feel free to agree or disagree; and if you haven’t, then maybe this might serve as a guide and encourage you to make the trip at some point in the future (or otherwise).

The journey.
I was surprised at how easy a trip it is. I managed to get a return flight from British Airways for £122 leaving Gatwick at 06:40 on Saturday morning, arriving at Marseille’s Marignane airport at 09:35. I had booked a hire car from Hertz for £64, which was ready and waiting for me, and although the clock was wrong, I was on my way east towards Marseille not long after ten o’clock.

Without any SatNav, I was relying on a printed out route from Google maps, which had warned me about a partial toll road (paid by Visa, not sure how much, but surely only a couple of Euros). But it all went horribly wrong at Aubagne, when I mistakenly left the motorway at one of those exits at which you can’t rejoin.

I probably spent about 20 minutes in the narrow and picturesque streets of Aubagne, past a busy Saturday market, eventually going somewhat out of my way through GĂ©menos, before finding road signs to Le Castellet and the D396 towards the circuit.

I had media accreditation through dailysportscar, which meant that I could pick up my pass from the Best Western Grand Prix Hotel, a few hundred metres to the west of the main entrance to the track.

I had booked a room at the Etap hotel in the Industrial Zone of Les Paluds Agora on the outskirts of Aubagne for the Saturday night, which cost me a further 50 Euros (including breakfast), which was about 15 minutes from the track, and my only other cost was 17 Euros of diesel for the hire car and parking at Gatwick Airport. Food at the track was kindly provided by Carlo and his staff at Smoking Dog (although I did sample a ‘baguette jambon’ from one of the track catering facilities), and I was suckered into buying a round of drinks for a motley crew of journalists and photographers at Marseille airport on the flight home while waiting for the 23:55 departure.

So all told, I reckon the trip cost me no more than £280, which I reckoned represented reasonable value for money.

The track.
The circuit is located in a fairly desolate region in the hills between Marseille and Toulon. The landscape tries hard to be spectacular, wide valleys separating rising hills, and a winding road up to the circuit.

The entrance to the circuit is at the entrance to the Le Castellet resort hotel, a five-star spa hotel where a room will cost you more than 300 Euros a night, and whose gates you drive past before going under the road bridge towards the circuit’s ticket barriers.

My first impression was good - the circuit staff were friendly and courteous as my pass was checked and smiles greeted me as I was waved into the press car park. The spring sunshine may have helped, but the place looked clean, tidy and well-maintained. Sadly, the press car park was not surfaced and spaces somewhat haphazardly marked, but that really was the only thing I could fault it on.

Having made the trip, I didn’t want to spend all my time in the media centre looking at TV screens, so I made the effort to get out into the spectator enclosures to better feel the atmosphere of the place. (I did the same thing at the Algarve circuit when I first visited, too, but I wasn’t blogging then… let me know if you’d like me to write something about it retrospectively.)

The site itself is very long and narrow and as it is primarily a test venue these days (of course, it was not ever thus), I was not expecting much in the way of options for the spectator. However, I was pleasant surprised and not at all disappointed.

Opposite the pits are quite steeply banked open grandstands, offering a good view of the start and into the pits.

From here, you can wander the round the track in the opposite direction to the cars, to the Grand Prix Hall, where you can stand on a high balcony overlooking the final tight right-hander, the Virage du Pont (Bridge Bend?), which leads onto the start-finish straight. Various refreshments are available here, which is a good idea, as from here you can walk all the way to the far end of the circuit, and although you cannot get as far as Signes, you can watch the cars exiting there and coming down to Beausset, the long right-hander which follows.

For this race, two large screens were available, loudspeakers carried the track commentary (and Radio Le Mans was on FM, albeit rather scratchy if you went beyond the Grand Prix Hall).

I’m not sure how well the PA commentators kept up with the race (in fact I’m not sure who was commentating, as I don’t think Bruno Vandestick was there) and of course when captions came up on the big screens, they were not always easy to read unless you were very close. TV directors assume that their audience is watching from armchairs in lounges on flat-screen Panasonics, to the cost of folk on the spectator bank at the track looking at a screen a hundred metres and more away.

What also made the race more difficult to follow was that the ‘position lights’ on the sides of the cars were not always working properly. In the closing stages of the GTE battle, both the AF Corse and the JMW Ferraris were showing one green light on the side, so it was impossible to tell who was actually leading. Having implemented a good idea, it needs to be made to work correctly, otherwise, what’s the point?

Overall, a very good trip. The schedule meant that I was away just under forty-eight hours, and I have to admit that work on Monday morning was a bit of a struggle. But the Provence sunshine was good for the soul, and being my first race of the year, of course I was going to enjoy it. The track itself is interesting, with all kinds of different corners. It may not be a great or classic place, and the elevation changes are only subtle, compared to the Algarve or Spa, but everything about the place seemed just right in some way.

I’m ever so glad I went - thanks to my wife for letting me do so!

The winning Pescarolo in the paddock after the race

Friday, 1 April 2011

Casualty of the Japan earthquake

I have learnt recently that Highcroft's ALMS winning HPD chassis has been crushed in the Japanese earthquake. Apparently it had been shipped out there for HGT to look at (in the former Honda F1 base, about 30 miles from the epi-centre) when the earthquake struck. One of Highcroft's partners was also killed, it seems.

Our thoughts of course are with all those who are affected by these and the other tragic events around the world. Some things make motor sport seem quite frivolous.