Thursday, 16 July 2015

Still reflecting on Le Mans – some speculation.

It is partly due to the long break since Le Mans, but it is also in my nature to reflect on such matters; but I am still wondering how Porsche won the world’s most important endurance race. I have said elsewhere that it was as much a case of Audi, Toyota and Nissan losing the race as it was Porsche winning, and in the last quarter of the race a degree of inevitably developed about the destination of the winner’s spoils. The two leading Porsches had run routinely, and if there had been doubt about their reliability at the start of the race, the absence of any pressure from rivals made it hard to foresee mechanical woes interrupting their progress to the chequered flag in the final 100 laps.

But who were the heroes at Porsche? What were the deciding factors? Can Porsche win again in the remaining races of 2015? Will they make Le Mans 2016 look as easy as they did this year? Nico Hülkenberg, Nick Tandy and Earl Bamber, driving the winning car, of course received – and deserved – the greatest plaudits, but they won’t be driving in the remaining championship rounds this year.

Furthermore, a close look at the evidence suggests that their car somehow had an edge over the other two Porsches. The table below shows the average of the best 20% of laps completed for the three of them:

Car No. Drivers Race Ave. Lap Time
17 Bernhard/Webber/Hartley 3m 20.609s
18 Jani/Lieb/Dumas 3m 20.731s
19 Hülkenberg/Tandy/Bamber 3m 20.040s

The driver breakdown, per car, looks like this:

Car No. Driver Average Lap Time Laps
17 Timo Bernhard 3m 20.352s 144
Mark Webber 3m 21.069s 107
Brendon Hartley 3m 20.604s 143
18 Neel Jani 3m 21.053s 162
Marc Lieb 3m 20.858s 100
Romain Dumas 3m 20.449s 129
19 Nico Hülkenberg 3m 20.053s 144
Nick Tandy 3m 19.852s 120
Earl Bamber 3m 20.219s 131

However good the drivers of the no. 19 car were at Le Mans, I will take some convincing that they are more than half-a-second a lap faster than the other Porsche drivers, so one has to conclude that the car had some kind of advantage.

Now it is not unheard of, even in this day and age, that one car on a team of three just finds the sweet spot: whether it is the ride height, tyre pressures, camber angles, aero trim or just the right combination of all of these. In my analysis for though, I suggested that the answer might lie in the fuel flow meters, and I have not changed from that opinion, although I accept that it is speculative.

While at Le Mans, I fell into conversation with Dan Partel, who is now the chairman at Sentronics Ltd, a company that manufactures fuel flow meters in competition to GILL, which is (or rather, was) the only FIA-homologated manufacturer of fuel flow meters for the WEC. He was expecting Sentronics to be added to the list “before the end of the season”, and lo and behold, on July 2nd, an update to the FIA Technical List No. 45 was issued, allowing LMP1 teams to use Sentronics’ AE-040-01 meter forthwith in WEC races.

If the advertising is to be believed, this meter offers better accuracy than the Gill product, although it is slightly heavier. It remains to be seen what impact, if any, the availability of the new meters will have at the next WEC round at the Nürburgring, but surely choice, competition and a free market will not do any harm.

Moving on, and regardless of the vagaries of fuel flow meters and their manufacturers, it was something of a surprise – and it remains a mystery to me now – why the Porsches at Le Mans chose to do 13-lap stints.

As a consequence of running in the 8MJ per lap category, Porsche was restricted to burning fuel at a maximum rate of 138MJ per lap. The regulations permit 68.5 litres of fuel to be carried, which should easily allow 14 laps of the 13.6km circuit. So clearly this was a strategic choice by Porsche. Theoretically, breaking the race into 14 lap segments would have allowed Porsche to complete the race on twenty-eight, rather than thirty pit stops. This would have saved at least 90 seconds on their total race time.

Certainly, by stopping every 13 laps, they were putting in less fuel, and thereby saved time on each pit stop. However – and here is the mystery – the fact that less fuel was needed at each stop only accounts for just over two seconds per stop. Porsche was on average nearly five seconds per stop quicker in the pits than Audi (for fuel-only stops).

I have no explanation for this, so I need to speculate again. One possibility is that by pouring fuel into a tank that already had fuel in it, there was less turbulence during the refuelling process, allowing the fuel to flow in more quickly.

I’m hoping that some of these questions might be answered during the Nürburgring Six Hours. One thing which is going to play into Porsche’s hands is that the Endurance Committee has met and decided that teams should be allowed to use eight sets of tyres for the Nürburgring race (just as they are for the races at Bahrain and Shanghai), rather than the six sets that were allowed at Silverstone and Spa. There is no getting away from the fact that Porsche’s tyre loading problems caused significant delay for them at Spa, so this will be good news indeed for the Le Mans winners, as they try to stop Audi steamrollering to the WEC title as some compensation for losing Le Mans.

It seems like it has been a long time since Le Mans, and the next round of the World Endurance Championship at the Nürburgring is still more than six weeks away. In the meantime, I have a visit to the Spa 24 hours, round 4 of the Blancpain Endurance Series, to distract me. A 58-car entry list (25 of which are in the Pro Cup) and a tremendous race between Audi, BMW, McLaren, Bentley, Lamborghini, Mercedes, Nissan and Aston Martin in prospect.

After that, I’m off on holiday for a welcome rest and some relaxation. Life is certainly not dull these days!

Saturday, 11 July 2015

Single-seaters... proper racing cars?

These days, I admit, the majority of my focus on motor sport tends to be on sportscars. Sports prototypes, Grand Touring cars competing over longer distances in races that usually involve more than one driver and several classes of cars with a variety of potential – that’s what catches and holds my interest.

It was not always the case though. Devoted readers (do I have any?) might recall that the first race I ever went to was a Formula 1 race (here) and it was Grand Prix racing and the World Driver’s Championship that filled my thoughts in my youth. Even when I became involved in commentary work, there was little doubt that F1 was the pinnacle of motor sport and I although the strategy, tactics and drama of endurance racing came to enthral me, I was always interested to watch young drivers rising through the ranks of Formula Ford, Formula 3 and into the highest echelons. I watched many such, and they became personal favourites: Ayrton Senna, Derek Warwick, Johnny Herbert, Mika Hakkinen, Jenson Button – they all came from somewhere. Some never made it to the top: Tommy Byrne for example, or Marc Hynes … Some had raw talent, other sparkling personalities, but one somehow built up a knowledge through watching drivers go through their formative years.

But for a number of reasons, my attention has wandered off single-seaters recently and I find myself struggling to keep up with the plethora of junior categories and Formula 1 seemingly populated by drivers who hardly warrant the same level of hero status that I conferred on the Grand Prix stars of my youth.

Despite that, in recent weeks I had the opportunity to visit both Battersea Park to witness the Formula E race and Silverstone, for practice day of the British Grand Prix. In both cases I spent the day wandering the spectator enclosures, rubbing shoulders with true enthusiasts: folk who had widely differing experiences but who were all united by a passion for racing.

Inevitably, Formula E at Battersea was an adventure into the unknown – not only because I hadn’t seen anything like the cars before, nor had I seen anything like the track through the park before. Initially, I have to say I was impressed. Arriving on public transport, walking over a bridge into the centre area; it reminded me more of the atmosphere of the London Olympics than a motor race. The raceday programme was a curate’s egg affair: only £8, printed on environmentally-friendly re-cycled paper, reasonably interesting articles (including one about previous races in London, at Crystal Palace), some good pictures, but no proper entry list. True, there was a full page description of each driver, but no entry list on a single page that you could have open as the cars went past.

Who was that in car number 21? Black, red and silver: yellow helmet? Er… look through the pages, find Mahindra Racing (oh, that's really Carlin)... aha! Bingo – Bruno Senna! It wasn’t helped by the fact that the PA commentator (not sure who he was) wouldn’t refer to the car numbers when talking about the cars either – it was all Nelson Piquet this and Loïc Duval that. And although we had paid for “Silver” tickets, the view of the track was rather limited: cars flashing between trees, and no big screen to see the rest of the action.

Another note to the commentator, you need to establish how much of your audience can actually see a screen before you say “you can see the damage on Chandhok’s car!” No I can’t – I need you to describe it to me!

I knew before I set off that there wasn’t much of a support programme, so the fact that there was a lot of hanging about with nothing to do came as no real surprise. Merchandising and fan areas were nicely laid out though – in very much more of a village fair way than one usually gets at a race meeting. What I found particularly annoying was the loud, modern music which was played through the sound system during the lead-up to the race. I’m probably being old-fashioned though – many of my fellow-spectators seemed to be enjoying it and dancing away the hours before the race.

But here the commentator let us down again: the build-up to the start, with cars obviously on the grid and drivers preparing themselves was not described at all. That increasing tension before the race was not communicated to the crowd at all: surely an opportunity missed. Once the race was underway, though, I have to say the atmosphere in the stand changed – and it was a real treat to watch the cars at close quarters, even if it was through a veil of trees.

Sam Bird was particularly impressive (I was there on the Saturday and was pleased he won Sunday’s race), and generally the racing was what racing should be. Only, if I may be allowed one final gripe: I would have far preferred to not have had to listen to an accompaniment of background music for the entire race. I know the cars are quiet, but actually being able to listen to them would have been nice…

What I found particularly pleasant, was being able to leave the venue at the end of the race (around 5pm), walk to the station and be home in less than an hour.

Silverstone, the following week, seemed initially to have slipped back into all its bad habits with traffic. I’ll admit I may have timed it badly, arriving at the traffic jam at the Green Man on the A43 at 10am on Friday, (Practice Day), but I did not expect to spend more than an hour to get from there to the circuit entrance. Traffic management was chaotic, I’m afraid.

However, once safely inside, Silverstone was at its best. The sun shone, the grass was green and everyone seemed in a good mood. When I mentioned to someone about traffic problems, he said that he had had no problems at all: arriving a little later, as he had, seemed to have done the trick.

The raceday programme was expensive – £15 – but at least included the traditional insert, with entry lists for all the support races as well as the GP itself, spaces to fill in grid positions, etc. Of course Formula 1 cars are too important to have numbers on the side (except for the Saubers), so knowing that the Hamilton and Rosberg were 44 and 6 was of little use. What was useful was the PA commentator telling us that the first-named driver had a black camera mount above the driver’s head; the other driver having a yellow one. Knowledge of that might have saved the crowd giving a resounding cheer to Fernando Alonso as he brought the McLaren-Honda round on one lap!

Although the two weekends were very different from one another in many ways, there were many similarities too – not least in that typical British weather at both venues meant shorts, suncream and umbrellas were all required. I would be interested to know how many people actually attended both events, how many of those at either event were attending their first-ever motorsport event, and how many will be inspired by their experience to come back.

I have always been of the opinion that witnessing motorsport (in fact witnessing anything first hand) is better than watching it on a screen from afar – even if the actual view might be better on TV, nothing compares to actually “being there”. But to make it worthwhile to be there, the event has to motivate the public in order to make people undertake the effort of paying the cost and going to the trouble of making the trip, rather than simply pressing a button on the TV remote control.

In that vein, it was not the technology of Formula E that attracted them to Battersea Park, it was the show; the novelty. The same is more or less true of Formula 1: regardless of the noise, the quality of the racing or whatever, it is the fact that it is the British Grand Prix that draws people to Silverstone every July, no matter what the weather does.

What about you? Were you there? Did you have fun? Will you go again? Answers below!

Monday, 6 July 2015

What's happening at Audi?

It is no secret that I like Audi. I like their road cars (indeed I own one), I enjoy watching them go racing and I count as friends several of their drivers and engineers, not to mention Martyn and Theresa Pass, who have worked tirelessly and loyally as the PR representatives for Audi UK for many years.

Once again this year, the Audi UK Press Fleet allowed the Radio Le Mans team the use of some of their cars in which to travel to and from Le Mans - my mode of transport was a 2.0 litre turbo-diesel A4, which swallowed up not only pitlane commentator Bruce Jones, our chauffeur (‘the Baron’) Paul Tarsey and myself but also our luggage, which included a large case full of computer equipment and two boxes of books and other reference material. As the owner of the shortest legs in the crew, I sat in the back, but there was still adequate space, and although I didn’t keep track of refuelling (shame on me), as far as I remember we only needed to make one refuelling stop the whole week.

Earlier this year, I was also able to try out the new TT – the solution to rather a different problem – and had a great deal of fun. The model I drove was a 2.0 petrol-engined coupé with a six-speed manual gearbox. This delivered 230PS (227bhp), and 0-100kph in six seconds, according to the manual. The new body shape is appealing, and the driving experience – especially with the all-electronic LCD screen dash – extremely good. I’ve read some reviews that don’t like having the satellite navigation positioned in front of the driver rather than in the centre console, but for me it worked fine (I don’t need my passenger contributing to navigational decisions).

The most impressive technology was the matrix LED headlights, which were bright enough to bring dozing squirrels scurrying out of the trees; but intelligent enough to dim selectively when passing cars, cyclists or other road users were around. All in all, a very fine, if somewhat expensive, car. And it would be the cost that would probably prevent me buying one. That and the fact that I don’t actually want an Audi TT. For some reason, Audi’s small sports cars don’t quite stir the soul in the same way as certain other makes do. The thought occurs that for around the same price as a TT, I could get a Lotus Elise – with all its sporting heritage, and, having owned a Lotus Elan +2S many years ago, a brand for which I have a great sentimental attachment.

Lotus was founded by Colin Chapman way back in 1952, and I was surprised to learn recently that the first Audi to go on sale to the general public in the UK, was in 1965, just fifty years ago. It is not the cause of great celebration though; the current Audi brand having grown from the “Union” of Audi, DKW, Horch and Wanderer in 1936. If you want to go further back, though, the original Audi company (founded by August Horch) was started in 1910, eighteen years before Chapman was even born, so maybe my sense of sporting heritage is misplaced.

In 1965, though, the pioneering, four-stroke Audi F103 went on sale in the UK, and 32 examples were sold in that first year. (In case you’re wondering, the F102 was a two-stroke DKW.) This year, Audi sold its two-millionth car and has 51 different models for prospective buyers to choose from. For all its heritage, Lotus can’t match that.

In my view, what Audi does well (apart from the R8, which is simply astonishing), are big powerful saloons and estate cars. I have thoroughly enjoyed time that I have been lucky enough to spend in the S4, RS4, RS5 and S6. The combination of the ability to absorb luggage passengers and cover plenty of miles at impressive average speeds with technology at the fingertips and comfort in abundance is unparalleled.

The other thing that Audi does well, of course, is to win Le Mans – a feat that eluded them this year, but it was some of the detail from that which was the original intention of this article.

In terms of average lap times, there was very little to choose between Audi and Porsche. Porsche though brought two cars to the flag with only the merest whisper of a problem – some bodywork damage and a drive-through penalty.

All three Audis had – by their own high standards – significant problems. First was Loïc Duval’s encounter with slow-travelling GT cars when he was accelerating out of a slow zone; or more to the point the encounter with the barriers that came immediately after he took evasive action. That put the number 8 car a lap down. Then there were rear bodywork failures which led to Marcel Fässler spending nearly seven minutes in the pits having repairs made to the no. 7 car. Finally, the third-string R18 e-tron quattro, which for a while looked like the car most likely to take the fight to the Zuffenhausen-built cars, had problems with the hybrid system, which eventually led to the need to replace a front corner of the car, and costing more than a quarter of an hour.

Had Audi been able to deliver better reliability, they still might not have won the race of course, but they certainly would have enlivened the last six hours, as they would have been able to prevent Porsche from taking things quite so easily and potentially putting extra strain on their rival’s cars.

There will be many a post mortem meeting back at Ingolstadt – indeed there has already been a major investigation into a problem with the electronic engine seals on the no. 7 car that scrutineers uncovered following the warm-up session on the morning of the race. Due to a (manual) handling error on the seals, they were not able to be read: not by the official FIA/WEC reader, nor by Audi’s own equipment. Audi Sport Team Joest, having been found guilty of swapping the positions of the seals, admitted the fault on their side in a hearing held more than a week after Le Mans in Paris. The outcome is that the team has been fined €50,000 and deemed to have used four out of the five engines that they are allowed to use in the season. Lotterer, Fässler and Tréluyer will thus have to complete the remaining five races of the season with only one new engine – although the two engines used so far at Silverstone, Spa and Le Mans are available, if there is enough life left in them. Fortunately, Audi is famous for welcoming challenges!

Anyway, here’s the driver data from the three cars:
Car No. Driver Average Lap Time Laps
7 André Lotterer 3m 20.412s 132
Benoît Tréluyer 3m 20.421s 146
Marcel Fässler 3m 20.786s 115
8 Loïc Duval 3m 21.767s 124
Lucas di Grassi 3m 20.363s 161
Oliver Jarvis 3m 21.175s 107
9 Marco Bonanomi 3m 22.317s 126
Felipe Albuquerque 3m 21.306s 154
René Rast 3m 22.070s 107