Just two weeks after the successful launch of the Green Challenge at Petit Le Mans, a revolutionary new "green" project has hit the ground running in the American Le Mans Series. The much-anticipated debut of the bio diesel-powered ECO Racing Radical SR10 comes in this weekend's season-ending race at Laguna Seca, but the team's focus is indeed turned towards the future.
The British-based outfit, led by longtime engineer and team manager Ian Dawson, began work on this new project last December and was poised to hit the track in the season-opening Twelve Hours of Sebring in March. However, homologation issues with the LMP2-turned P1 machine put them on the sidelines, with the focus then shifting to testing and development.
Now, Dawson and his crew have come back stateside to kick-start this unique program, which goes beyond the green initiatives the series already promotes. In addition to the planned usage of bio diesel fuel, ECO Racing has also implemented environmentally friendly procedures like recycling used race tires and using Hemp fiber for non-critical bodywork panels.
The roots of the production diesel engine began some four years ago, when Dawson's Taurus Sports Racing outfit ran the VW Touareg power plant in a Lola B2K/10 in the 2004 Le Mans 24 Hours. It was revolutionary at its time, and two and three years ahead of the entries from Audi and Peugeot, respectively.
"We're not here to say we can go beat Audi or Peugeot or any of the top fuel teams," Dawson said. "What we're here to do is say you can run a production engine. You can run a cost-effective program. If there's some maneuvering in the regulations, there's no reason why we can't be in a similar position [to the competition] at the end of an endurance race."
Dawson has called upon veteran sports car and open-wheel driver Hideki Noda and Indy Lights ace Andrew Prendeville to pilot the P1 machine this weekend. Both, though, only got their first taste of the car in Thursday's test session and have been on an uphill learning curve.
"It's been pretty challenging so far, but I'm excited to be here," Prendeville said. "It's definitely a totally new thing for me in a lot of ways. It's exciting for me as well. The ECO Racing team has been very supportive so far. We've had a couple of challenges so far to work through. But we're here and running."
While it's Prendeville's first start in a sports car, Noda has already been behind the wheel of a prototype this year. The Japanese driver drove Kruse-Schiller Motorsport's Lola B05/40 Mazda in the European-based Le Mans Series as well as the 24 Hours of Le Mans, where he was the victim of a nasty end-over-end crash in qualifying at Circuit de La Sarthe.
Both drivers have praised the team's unique approach to racing with a conscious eye on the environment. "The concept of this project is the way we're all heading," Noda said. "If you look at the environment, it's the way to go. If you want to be competitive right away, you can go faster because the technology is there. This project is all new to us, and we have to develop so many things. But this is the way we need to go."
"It's one of the things that's driven me to jump in here and do this," Prendeville added. "These guys are doing a lot of real things that could be applicable to everyday streetcars. I think that the American Le Mans Series has done a great job of opening up that book for people. There have been a lot of guys, whether it's scientists or engineers, which have been sitting back for a while with these ideas. The fact that there's an outlet now for these things to be tried is a great thing."
One of the setbacks this weekend has been adapting to the series' regulated fuel. Dawson said he had hoped to run on it's own bio-diesel blend, derived from the curcas tree plant, Jatropha. However, the fuel has not yet been approved by IMSA, forcing them to use the Shell clean diesel option, which the factory Audi R10 TDIs also use.
"I think it's disappointing for us because we did all of our running on it," Dawson said. "The Shell fuel has no performance advantage. It's just a different type of diesel. The engine guys at AER worked really hard Thursday to catch up where we should have been. But they've got it. We now have seen performance similar to our tests."
Dawson, though, is hopeful IMSA will allow Jatropha to be used as a fuel option in 2009, when they plan to contest the entire ALMS season. ECO Racing is also aiming to be on the grid at next year' 24 Hours of Le Mans, entry permitting.
The team's plan for the ALMS finale is just to finish, especially considering the challenges they've faced so far this weekend. Noda and Prendeville have only gotten a handful of laps in the car due to various mechanical gremlins. Saturday's four-hour race serves more or less as a test bed for what lies ahead in 2009 and beyond.
"A diesel takes quite a lot of work, just talk to Audi or Peugeot about it," Dawson said. "You start to see that this isn't a bad way to go, but it still needs a bit of resources put into it and that's what we're going to do."