I used to be quite the hybrid hater, up until I saw how high-end automakers were using hybrid technology in motorsports to make fast cars even faster. From Porsche to Ferrari, from Formula One to American Le Mans, hybrid technology is becoming a motorsports mainstay…and the non-hybrid competition is feeling the heat.
Perhaps that is why the LeMans overseers at the ACO and FIA are placing limits on where hybrid power systems can be used in this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans. Toyota and Audi are both bringing powerful hybrid systems to this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans, combining conventional engines (powered by racing fuel and diesel, respectively) with Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems (KERS). These flywheel hybrids store energy recovered from braking in a flywheel system, which drivers can deploy at the press of a button for straightaways or passing maneuvers.
This hybrid power booster gives certain racers a competitive advantage, and the use of KERS will be restricted to certain areas of certain tracks. At the Circuit de la Sarthe, where the 24 Hours of Le Mans is held, use of the KERS system will be limited to seven “braking zones”, each named after a sponsoring automaker. Here drivers will be able to “recover” energy from braking, i.e. press their power booster button. The ACO is also limiting the amount of energy transferred between two of the “braking phases” to 500 kilajoules, or about 139 watt-hours. Different tracks have different zones where these systems can be used.
Formula One, which is where KERS technology first took hold, places similar limits on the use of drag reduction systems on rear wings. A flap between two vertical rear wings is opened and closed according to track location. When “closed”, the DRS creates more drag, allowing for better cornering. The KERS hybrid system allows drivers to “power out” of corners more effectively than conventionally-powered cars, as the electric motors powered by the flywheel deliver instant torque. You might see how that is an unfair advantage.
Yet despite these exclusionary zones, the Audi R18 e-tron Quattros placed 1-2-3 for top times during this weekend’s first official Le Mans test day. Placing fourth was Toyota’s TS030 Hybrid. It is already looking like hybrids will dominate the 2012 Le Mans circuit.
Hybrid vehicles are here to stay, and their impact is being felt on both public roads and racetracks the world over. The future of motorsports suddenly got a lot more interesting from a technical standpoint as teams compete on a whole new level of performance engineering. I think it is only a matter of time before we see hybrid racers infiltrating every level of motorsports…including NASCAR.
You heard it hear first.