Still a Porsche to reckon with: Stuttgart sports car maker returns to top class in Le Mans endurance race

Kap Maceda Aguila (The Philippine Star) - June 25, 2014 - 12:00am

LE MANS, France – A cold chilly air nips at the nose just outside the Gare du Mans railway station, a good hour’s ride from Paris. It’s the eve of the world’s oldest active and most prestigious endurance race held in this historic city on the Sarthe River. The excitement is not only visible but, well, audible.

Deep into the night, a long table in front of a nondescript corner bar across the street is full of men engaged in boisterous banter—the volume of which rises even higher when an Audi sedan stops at the said corner’s traffic light. Emblazoned on the side is “24 Heures du Mans” (24 Hours of Le Mans), along with Audi’s four rings. The men lightheartedly rib and harangue the driver, who then revs the engine in response, zooming off as the light turns green.

Some warm French sentiments for the German brand and perennial favorite, no doubt.

The next morning, streets leading to, and at the periphery of, Circuit de la Sarthe are packed—testament to the enduring draw of the motor race in this otherwise sleepy city steeped in history and tucked in the southern countryside.

Speaking of history, there’s quite a bit of that being made today as well, as supercar maker Porsche reenters the top-tier LMP1 Class or Le Mans Prototype 1 after a long 16-year absence. Porsche signs and banners festoon the stands and venue, while not a few fans are sporting Porsche shirts and flags. “The most power driving force we have:” reads one huge Porsche billboard, completed by another to its right: “Our fans.”

At the Porsche customer lounge overlooking a section of the track, Porsche AG chairman of the executive board Matthias Müller enjoins people to “cross their fingers” for the Porsche participants, even as he declares quite simply that “motorsports is Porsche, and Porsche is motorsports.”

“Any car we build has 911 genetics,” adds Porsche Asia Pacific managing director Martin Limpert to The STAR. “We want people to realize the sporty heritage of our brand.”

Müller explains in a release that Porsche was prompted to make a return to the LMP Class at Le Mans because of “new and revolutionary efficiency regulations… In 2014, it is not going to be the fastest contender who is going to win the sports car world championship and Le Mans, but the car that gets furthest with the defined amount of energy. And it is precisely this challenge that the automotive industry has to face. The 919 Hybrid is like a high-speed research laboratory and the most complex racing car Porsche has ever built.”

Tag-lined “Mission 2014. Our Return,” Porsche brass obviously expects its entries to compete—or at least finish, although the stated goal is for at least one of the 919s to finish the grueling marathon expected to total some 5,000 kilometers for the top finisher. Of course, there’s quite a bit of proud history at work. Porsche indeed has motorsports imprinted in its DNA, notching an incredible 30,000 race victories in 60 years of history—a record 16 of them at the extremely demanding gauntlet of Le Mans. Some 90 journalists have been flown to Le Mans by Porsche, which clearly wants people to know it is back.

Thomas Becki, head of product and technical press for Porsche exclusively tells The STAR that although Porsche and Audi are sibling marques under the big Volkswagen Group, the two teams adopt different and totally independent approaches towards success on the track. For one thing, Porsche has dared to adopt a “risky” exhaust recuperation technology in the 919 Hybrid to supplement a kinetic energy recovery system (KERS).

At the heart of the system is a seemingly pedestrian 2.0-liter, DOHC, turbocharged, direct-fuel-injection V4 engine, as rules allow consumption of 4.78 liters per lap (13.629 kilometers on the Circuit de la Sarthe). However, the Porsche power plant generates 500 hp that, coupled with a motor generator unit connected to liquid-cooled lithium ion battery packs, promises otherwise dichotomous qualities of frugal fuel use and immense power. The rear-wheel-drive vehicle also features all-wheel ability via KERS on the front axle. The electric motor is good for 250 hp.

Porsche is pinning its hopes on the 919 Hybrid to clinch the top-tier LMP1 Class or Le Mans Prototype 1. The category features cars with less than 600 hp, a minimum weight of 870 kilos (for LMP1 H), and measurements not exceeding 1,900mm and 4,650mm for width and length, respectively.

Despite a 16-year absence from the LMP Class that left it with no previous data or experience to refer to, the newly formed Porsche team had bravely opted to develop its own engine—thinking of long-term benefits rather than to achieve a quick but unfulfilling win by procuring “existing components from other companies.” Behind the two cars—bearing the numbers 20 and 14 to signify the year of Porsche’s return—are some 230 team members at the development center of Porsche AG in Weissach, Germany.

Meanwhile, carrying the torch for Porsche in the LMGTE Pro Class—highly modified, production-based, two-wheel-drive GT cars—are two 911 RSRs of Porsche Team Manthey. Based on the 7th-generation 911, the racecar variant delivers 470 horses from a flat six mated to a sequential six-speed Porsche GT racing transmission.

Before the 3 p.m. start of the endurance race, the cars are allowed warm-up laps beginning at nine in the morning. A couple of short races then ensue: the Le Mans Legend and Porsche Carrera Cup.

At the grid, the Porsche 919 Hybrids sit at second and fifth, paced by a Toyota TS 040 Hybrid and separated by another Toyota and an Audi e-Tron Quattro. Reaching speeds in excess of 320 kph on the straight, the LMP-Class cars quickly lap the lesser vehicles, and things get more exciting—and dicey.

Through the night, the three drivers in each car take turns pushing the cars past 38 turns lap after lap. Rules have it that no driver may take the wheel for more than four hours within a six-hour period, and more than 14 of the 24 hours.

Overnight, the standings shuffle, and find the Audi pacing the Porsche 919 Car 20. However, the Audi develops some problems and has to pit. The 17 minutes it is worked on in the paddock is more than enough time for the 919 to take the lead with a scant three hours and 39 minutes remaining. “After 16 years, we can say the classic words,” roars the radio commentator on live feed. “Porsche is leading Le Mans!” The lounge occupants cheer in approval.

The jubilation is much too short-lived, however, as with less than two hours remaining, Car 20 (piloted by Timo Bernhard, Brendon Hartley, and Mark Webber) suffers a powertrain problem. Former F1 driver Webber, now driving on electric power, pits in the hopes of getting back on track, but the “team could not repair the damaged powertrain.”

The second 919 (driven by Romain Dumas/Neel Jani/Marc Lieb) follows suit with a drivetrain problem. Even if Car 14 is later able to cross the finish line under its own power, it is not classified.

Two Audis take home the first and second place honors, with the top car registering 379 laps or 5,165 kilometers. Toyota’s TS 040 Hybrid notch third, while Cars 14 and 20 of Porsche wind up with 348 and 346 laps, respectively.

Salvaging a bit of glory for Porsche is the podium finish of a Porsche 911 RSR of Porsche Manthey. Car 92’s Marco Holzer, Frédéric Makowiecki, and Richard Lietz finish third in the GTE-Pro Class. In the GTE-Am Class, Porsche’s Klaus Bachler, Christian Ried, and Khalid Al Qubaisi land second place.

Despite the disappointment, the Porsche team is counting its blessings. Mark Webber says in a statement: “That was tough for everyone. It would have been such an amazing achievement to go through to the finish. I think we never expected to be in such a great position towards the end of the race. What Porsche did is a very big feather in its cap.”

Müller adds: “Our return to Le Mans has been a strong team effort. It almost happened that our secret dream came true to top the debut of the Porsche 919 Hybrid with a podium finish. For a remarkable period we were leading the race. I want to thank everyone who contributed with hard work. Now we keep our heads up and will plan an even stronger return for 2015.”

Porsche later posts a video on YouTube after the race, paying homage to the team and congratulating the winning Audi entries. It ends most appropriately with the words that should make us even more excited.

“Le Mans 2014: Day One on the way to Le Mans 2015.”

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