After five minutes, he shrugs and gives up. The spectators, keen for a taste of the same kidney-squeezing G-forces that 56 exhausted drivers are experiencing out on track, strap themselves into the brightly coloured 70ft-high spinning poleaxe. Part of a panoply of attractions and bars, the aim of the game is to entertain the 240,000 motor-racing fans in town for ‘Les 24 Heures du Mans’. Or, as the 80,000 British spectators call it, The Big One.
Nothing is sacred – even my water bottle is half the bloody size this year!
Most have pitched tents next to the circuit, close enough to hear the rasping blat-blat-blat as the 200mph sports cars, which average a speed of 130mph per three-and-half minute lap, change up for the Mulsanne straight – then down for the sweeping Porsche Curves.
There is, however, one car that sounds very different to the rest.
When Audi’s R18 e-tron quattro streaks past, it disgorges a smoother, pneumatic-sounding ‘whoosh’. A magnificent swooping beast with a ‘fighter jet’ cockpit, the e-tron is (quietly) attempting to make history by becoming the first hybrid vehicle to win the gruelling 24-hour endurance extravaganza immortalised by the Steve McQueen in 1970.
Key to the e-tron’s design is a carbon fibre flywheel located in its passenger seat. Mounted in a high vacuum, it collects energy under braking and delivers up to 500kJ of power back to the front wheels when the driver accelerates at speeds higher than 75mph. The rear wheels are powered by Audi’s ultra-light V6 diesel engine.
The e-tron’s other game-changing design features include a carbon fibre gearbox – a material not normally known for its durability – and a digital rear-view mirror in the cockpit hooked up to a rear-facing camera.
“The greatest challenge was to find the ideal compromise,” explains Wolfgang Appel, Head of Vehicle Development at Audi Sport. “It was a question of weight, performance, hybrid concept, regulation constraints (hence the 500kJ limit) and perfectly balancing the distribution of all the components in such a way that no appreciable disadvantages arise”.
“They haven’t just stripped everything out, it’s a more sophisticated method of examining every material, every piece of design and every component” says Audi driver Alan McNish, one of three drivers piloting the #2 e-tron. “Nothing is sacred – even my water bottle is half the bloody size this year!”
It’s fair to say that the spectators in the packed Guinness tent are somewhat less interested in drinking water. Throughout the sprawling festival-style party zone known as The Village, grown men in union jacks and fancy dress discuss the ‘hybrid war’ between Audi and Toyota. The Japanese firm’s TS030 LMP1 car also collects energy under braking. But whereas the Audi does it mechanically, the Toyota does is electrically and has a super-capacitor. It also delivers the power to the rear wheels and does not have four-wheel drive.
Not surprisingly the smart money is on Audi, who have won 10 times in the last 12 years. “They [Audi] don’t go racing for entertainment” agrees McNish. “They go to win”. Nonetheless, having been forced to recall nine million cars since 2009 due to something rather disturbingly termed as ‘unintended acceleration’, Toyota is understandably keen to regain its reputation for reliability. A win at Le Mans – particularly over Audi – would provide a huge boost to the Japanese company’s fortunes.
There’s pressure on Audi, too. Word is, they plan to put their e-tron concept car into production. An historic win in front of a TV audience of 300 million petrol-heads would not only be hugely persuasive, but would translate into what the industry calls ‘showroom’ (sales, to the rest of us).
On Radio Le Mans (the race has its own 24-hour radio station) the host expresses surprise that, while nobody expected the Toyotas to be the most reliable, they lack pace. “That’s bound to a leave a little bit of a sour taste in the mouth given that when Peugeot arrived here in 2007 they stuck it on pole. It [the Toyota] just doesn’t get as much aerodynamic grip and it’s a bit slower through the Porsche Curves”.
Against the odds, Toyota’s hybrid takes the lead five hours into the race – but it doesn’t last long. One of their cars retires and things go from bad to worse when a Ferrari 458 GTE needlessly tags the Toyota driven by Anthony Davidson, sending him back-flipping into the air before doing the equivalent of a ‘face-plant’ into a tyre wall. Breath is held and a spooky silence descends when a live heli-cam shows Davidson is not moving.
Eventually the 33-year-old British driver is driven away in an ambulance at a snail’s pace. This, it later transpires, is because he has broken his back. Thankfully, despite snapping his T11 and T12 vertebrae Davidson later Tweets from his bed: “Well that was a big one!” Danger is a part of what makes Le Mans special and as one British spectator puts it: “If you tried to set up a race like this today, you’d never get permission.”
As night falls, the headlights leave long tails of brightly coloured tracer fire hanging in the air – the defining image of Le Mans. In Audi’s vast ‘Arena’ hospitality suite – set up like a five star resort – well-heeled fans spooked by Davidson’s crash settle their nerves with a sip of Speed (Havana Club rum, pineapple juice, watermelon syrup, mint and Red Bull). On stage British soul singer Beverley Knight wows the VIP guests with an impromptu duet that soon puts a megawatt smile back on everyone’s face.
Then it’s back to the race – and talk of how a hybrid victory at Le Mans will define the next generation of road-going hybrid cars. The main concern among petrol-heads is that near-silent hybrid engines point to a future of rather soulless motoring in which cars will become little more than appliances.
When people want to innovate they want to do it in an environment that has some relevance to the cars we drive every day
Alastair, who his late forties and has paid upwards of £2,000 for an impressive collection of laminated VIP passes, doesn’t agree: “Imagine, you could program your car to have any sound you wanted! I’ll be able to hop in my little Fiat 500 and select ‘Ferrari 288 GTO engine noise’ on a touchscreen! Of course, the problem is that the noises are ‘owned’ by individual brands so the car makers are all trying to work how to avoid a situation where they end up suing each other’.
On Sunday morning the spectators – many snoozing on guardrails – are nursing hangovers and sporting orange earplugs in the hope of blocking out the ferociously loud Corvettes. Those in possession of the requisite VIP passes snooze on beanbags or retire to hospitality for a head massage and a smoothie.
Despite a few wobbles (McNish’s #2 e-tron has an unfortunate argument with the Armco three hours from the finish that leaves him a lap behind), Audi’s #1 e-tron driven by Andre Lotterer, sweeps past the chequered flag after 378 laps for a famous victory. Audi’s sister hybrid, e-tron #2, takes second. A diesel-engined Audi takes third for a podium lock out.
Pit crews storm the pit lane to cheer; champagne is passed out. Technically it’s an offence to trespass on the track, but nobody seems to mind as flag-waving spectators stream through a chain-link fence onto the warm tarmac.
The e-tron’s success marks the beginning of a new era of hybrid motor racing. And according to Radio Le Mans commentator John Hindhaugh, you can expect to see many more hybrids next year: “When people want to innovate they want to do it in an environment that has some relevance to the cars we drive every day. Since 1923, when manufacturers debuted innovations such as headlights and windscreen wipers, Le Mans always has been that environment because endurance is what we want from our cars… It’s also the world’s greatest motor race.”
You can argue with him if you like, but you’d be wrong.