Stephen Errity, WEC correspondent
The Toyota TS030 hybrid, complete with revised nose design, made a brief appearance at Spa-Francorchamps on Wednesday for a photoshoot with the new Audi R18 e-tron at the Radillion corner. The car was then shipped to Magny-Cours in France, where it's expected to test early next week in preparation for Le Mans. Although Toyota were forced to withdraw from the Spa race after the car crashed heavily in an earlier test, senior team personnel were at the track to speak to the press, along with Audi, about the new hybrid era that's about to dawn in sportscar racing.
Audi Sport boss Dr Wolfgang Ullrich was keen to stress that hybrid technology is only one of many concepts that should be explored in the search for greater efficiency. “We want go faster, for longer, using the same amount of energy, which is extremely relevant to road cars,” he said.
Toyota team president Yoshiaki Kinishita explained the thinking behind the Japanese company's return to Le Mans this year: “Six or seven years ago, we saw that sooner or later green technology would arrive at the top level of motorsport. Hybrid is a core technology for our road cars, so it was vital for that to be part of any return to Le Mans for us.”
Toyota has opted for a supercapacitor hybrid system in the TS030, in contrast to Audi's flywheel technology. Interestingly, both Toyota's hybrid project team leader Hisoaki Murata and Audi's Dr Ullrich believe that their car's system stores and releases energy fastest – so who will be proven right on track?
“We believe a flywheel is the best compromise between weight and performance for endurance racing,” added Dr Ullrich, “but it's good that there are multiple technologies to be trialled – Le Mans is an ideal place to do this. The combination of what we learn on the track and what our road-car development team do in the factory will boost efficiency.”
'Further or faster?' is a key question when it comes to hybrid race cars, especially in endurance events – will the system be used to boost performance, extend range or both? Dr Ullrich contends that the flat-out sprint nature of Le Mans and other long-distance races these days means the answer is far more likely to be performance. But Toyota's Pascal Vasselon disagrees: “it depends on your race strategy,” he said, “whether you need to turn an 11.8-lap stint into 12 laps to make your strategy work, or if you're pushing to find that last tenth in qualifying.”
Vasselon admitted the Toyota team was deeply disappointed to be missing out on the chance to race the car at least once before Le Mans in June. “We were making good before the Paul Ricard accident. We only had one chassis so we knew the risk of this happening. We've missed two more planned test sessions, but we'll reschedule them so we get the mileage we need before Le Mans,” he explained.
With the engineers and managers having had their say, Audi factory driver and 2011 Le Mans winner André Lotterer chimed in on what the new hybrid R18 is actually like to drive. “First of all, more power is always good from the driver's point of view,” he smiled. “It's been very interesting to work with the engineers on this car – it performed very well right from the start. You always look to tweak your driving style whatever car you're, but in the hybrid it's interesting as a longer rolling period gives a greater recharge. For now, we're focused on maximising our speed.”
The revised 2014 technical rulebook for Le Mans-style racing is due to be released shortly and both Audi and Toyota are excited by the possibilities they should present. “The new rules should mean that the most efficient car will win, which is how it should be, as that meshes with our objectives for road cars.” Kinoshita-san said Toyota was particularly interested in the rumoured possibility that the 2014 rules will allow twice as much energy to be recovered as is currently the case.
One downside of the new hybrid era is that the huge cost and complexity of the technology could mean the gulf between the manufacturer and privateer teams in LMP1 will be even wider than it has been during the diesel era of the past few years. Kinishita-san admitted that it could be another three or four years before Toyota or another manufacturer could offer an affordable, off-the-shelf hybrid system to privateer customer teams. Dr Ullrich suggested this is something that will be addressed in the 2014 rulebook, but it seems any hopes of shock victory by any of the underdogs will have to wait. “If you want to bring new technology into the sport, it has to be the manufacturers taking the lead and making the big investments at the start.”
And finally, the key question – will a hybrid win Le Mans this year? “Audi won the first Le Mans it entered with a diesel car, so to do the same with a hybrid would be fantastic,” says Gass. Toyota are understandably keeping their expectations in check, but having confirmed that they will enter all remaining rounds of the WEC after Le Man, there could yet be fascinating battles on the horizon in 2012, even if it's too much ask that the TS030 will be competitive straight out of the box in La Sarthe.