The Six Hours of Silverstone – electric hybrids at the British Le Mans #FIAWEC

FIA World Endurance Championship 2013 First round: Silverstone, UK, Sunday 14th April 

When most people think of Endurance racing they think of Le Mans, the race that has been run on the Circuit de la Sarthe in Northern France since 1923. However there is now a complete endurance championship that takes place every year of which Le Mans is only one race. Completing the championship are seven other races around the world at famous tracks like Silverstone and Sao Paolo.

Silverstone 297x210

Whilst only Le Mans lasts for 24 hours, the other races last for a still-incredible six hours of high speed racing. All cars are driven by more than one driver over the course of the race, driver changes being an exciting part of the pit-stops. Drivers become real team-mates, working for each other, with the added pressure of knowing that their performance directly impinges on the success of their fellows.

The opening round of this year’s championship was held at Silverstone on 12-14th April. It was a real festival of motor sport, with the European F3 series and a three-hour European Le Mans race helping to build excitement for the main event. Endurance racing is where the newest technologies in electric hybrid power are being pioneered with cars from Audi and Toyota harvesting energy under braking. Toyota use a super capacitor system which can charge the equivalent of a full 3 hour Prius charge in just 11 minutes! This technology will be refined and make its way into the road cars of the future. Audi use an electric flywheel accumulator and the e-tron technology being refined in the WEC race series is already being tested with a view to use in high-volume production.

A marching band on the grid struck up the National Anthem as the drivers sat in their cars waiting for the rolling start. An aeroplane flew overhead trailing a banner celebrating the centenary of Aston Martin, who had four cars in the race. Endurance races begin with a rolling start, so at 11:55:55 precisely the cars started around the track on their formation lap. When they returned to the pit straight the timing was such that as the lead car crossed the line the time ticked over to 12:00 and the race was on!

Race cars

© ALEXANDRE GUILLAUMOT – DPPI MEDIA

Owing to a bad qualifying session the Strakka racing LMP1 was starting out of position on the fifteenth row on the grid. Jonny Kane gave a demonstration of the abilities of the LMP1 class as he had overtaken two GTE cars before he had even reached the start-finish line!

The two Toyotas had started in the first two positions but Allan McNish in the #2 Audi quickly made his way past the #7 Toyota. He bore down on Alex Wurz’s Toyota and was past before the end of the first ten laps! This was not the contest that had been expected between the two big manufacturers, but is explained by the fact that Toyota were running their 2012 spec car. When asked later in the race ‘What can you do about the Audis?’ Toyota driver Anthony Davidson honestly replied ‘Finish behind them.’ Toyota will be bringing one new car to Spa and a truer picture of the LMP1 class will appear then.

I’d watched the start of the race from above the grid, inside in the warm. But Silverstone is a large track of exciting corners and I felt the urge to get out in the action and experience these super cars at close hand. I walked up to Club corner and then sat in the Stowe Lakeside grandstand, watching the cars brake hard for the Vale sharp left-hander after accelerating down from Stowe, sometime three abreast. Vale

An IMSA Performance Matmut LMGTE AM Porsche rounds Vale ©Flaneur

The speeds that these cars travel is astonishing, especially to someone who has spent much of his life driving a VW Golf. But the prototype classes even make the Porsches, Ferraris and Astons look a tad staid. Even more impressive than the straight line speeds are the speeds that all the cars can take around corners. The entrance to the pit lane is at Vale – if the drivers continue straight on instead of turning they enter it, and many was the time I assumed a car was entering the pits, only for the driver to suddenly brake and throw the wheel to port. The cars zipped left as though attached to the asphalt, a great compliment to the engineers who model the downforce and have created a grid of automotive masterpieces.

By the second hour of the race the Audis had consolidated their lead in the LMP1 class with the #2 car 15 seconds ahead of the sister car. The Strakka had crashed out, leaving the Rebellion Racing pair to fight it out for 5th and 6th behind the two Toyotas. Wanting to see as much of the action as possible I wandered along the inside of the track towards Stowe, where the ground rises and creates a superb viewing area, well peopled by photographers with huge lenses. If you like cameras then Silverstone on race day is probably the best place in England to spot some rare examples.  Great views of the action along the Hangar straight and around Stowe can be had from the roof of the centre where the medical cars wait in case they are needed. By now the sun was out, although it was windy. But this is England, and any time when it is not actually raining counts as good weather.

In both of the the GTE classes Aston Martin were on schedule to celebrate their anniversary with home class wins, with Bruno Senna lapping the PRO car consistently even though the #97 car was reported to be suffering from traction control issues. In the AM class the all-Danish team were keeping the British marque in top place.

With Radio Le Mans at 87.7 FM keeping me informed of what was going on in the race I continued to walk around the circuit. I soaked in the atmosphere and the noise, several times thinking a very loud car was coming up the internal road I was walking on. It wasn’t. I  watched some of the action on the Hangar Straight from a great little grandstand just past the bridge. A small boy in a perfect replica McLaren racing suit was enjoying the action as the cars roared nose to tail towards the bridge. The trust that each driver places in the hands of his competitors is huge, and with the different classes all competing at once there is a lot of overtaking. Drivers in all classes except LMP1 have to spend a lot of time looking in the mirrors and the marshals are often waving blue flags to show drivers when a higher class car is approaching them.

Walking past the Heliport with its welcoming Danger of death signs I listened to the race on the radio. It said that one of the Toyotas was suffering from porpoising. I thought I must have misheard, but it turns out that porpoising is a legitimate condition that cars can suffer, when the front end bounces up and down. I think though that I definitely misheard when the commentator claimed that one of the new drivers was getting into his car with ‘a small book and a cushion for his back.‘ I can imagine the cushion, but I can’t see a team manager being happy with a driver taking a book into the cockpit. There’s very little time on a lap of Silverstone to have a quick read.

Audi pits

A great shot of an Audi pit stop © ALEXANDRE GUILLAUMOT – DPPI MEDIA

To watch the last hour I returned to the International Pit Straight. The race at the front had come alive since Allan McNish had spun avoiding a slower car, and it had become a high speed game of poker with team managers making judgement calls on pit stops, new tyres and how much to fuel the cars for the final stint. In the end the spin that McNish had suffered played into his hands by forcing him to come in for new tyres. He wouldn’t have chosen to pit and it gave him a mountain of seconds (or maybe a hillock – it was 30) to climb before the end of the race, but once he caught the sister #1 Audi his newer rubber let him get past easily. Or as easily as anything is at 200kph. Which probably isn’t much. It turned out the #1 car had suffered a hybrid driveshaft fault and was unable to make proper use of its electrical power.

When the six hour race time was almost up I was carefully positioned by the finish line to get a snap of the winning Audi. There was no chequered flag waiting though, which should have told me something. Motor races always end with a chequered flag, which I have read descends from an old chequered tablecloth waved at the end of 19th century American horse races. True or not I waited for the flag to appear. It didn’t and when the commentator said that the race was over and Allan McNish and Audi had won I realised that although I was looking at a perfectly good white line across the track, right by the start, it wasn’t the white line… So yes, after six hours I missed the finish. Oh well, there’s always next time.

Trophy

FIAWEC TT trophy © ALEXANDRE GUILLAUMOT – DPPI MEDIA

Endurance racing is the peak of motorsport, testing drivers, technology and equipment to the limit. This race had been chosen as the 2013 Royal Automobile Club Tourist Trophy and McNish, Duval and Kristensen’s names will now be added to this historic trophy. You can find out more about the TT trophy here.

The next race in the enthralling FIA World Endurance Championship is at Spa-Francorchamps on 4th May 2013. The teams will move on knowing that Toyota will have made a big step forward just by arriving with this season’s model. It is a legendary circuit, and being only two hours from Toyota’s base in Cologne they will be hoping to put on a good show. The other classes will be pushing for improvements and with Rebellion, Delta-ADR and Aston taking all the remaining class wins there will be lots of teams out for revenge in Belgium.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s