There's no hoarier axiom in the automotive world than "racing improves the breed," and back when cars were still competing with horses, it held true. That's not the case today; most racing series require strict rules on technology to keep races competitive and costs down, such that whether its Formula 1 or NASCAR, the machines on the track have evolved from the kin of road cars to a completely different species.
The one place where automakers still push the limits of technology? The 24 Hours of Le Mans, which this year will feature three machines from Toyota, Audi and Porsche that offer radically different paths to cars of the future — hybrid, all-wheel-drive ones at that.
The favorite comes from Audi; it's won 12 times at Le Mans since 2000, and in one of the two races it didn't win the Audi machinery still won under the Bentley brand. The R18 e-tron quattro the company drove through the streets of western France earlier this week features the latest changes to the winning strategy, with a 4-liter, turbocharged V-6 diesel engine paired with a flywheel hybrid system for maximum fuel efficiency. That flywheel powers the front wheels, and a second system recaptures energy from the heat of the exhaust.
And, just because it can, Audi uses laser beams for the headlights.
Toyota has been attempting to challenge Audi in endurance racing for a few years, making some progress and winning a couple of races, but never breaking through the German automaker's dominace. For this year's TS040 model, Toyota revised its entire system, adding a front-wheel-drive supercapacitor setup to the 3.7-liter V-8 powering the back wheels. In total, Toyota says the setup can generate nearly 1,000 hp, while using 25 percent less fuel than last year's vehicles as required by Le Mans rules for 2014.
Whether it's fast or durable enough, Toyota engineers certainly got the sound of their car right.
The most interesting new model comes from Porsche, which hasn't raced in the top class at Le Mans for 16 years. The 919 Hybrid combines a battery pack and Formula 1-style hybrid energy system similar to what Porsche uses in the 918 supercar with a turbocharged V-4 engine — a configuration chosen to save weight and space. Porsche executives call the 919 the most complicated machine the company has ever built, and despite living under the same Volkswagen corporate roof as Audi, there's no apparent sharing between teams or slack in competition.
All three cars will take to the track this weekend for practice rounds before the first race in April, with Le Mans scheduled for June 14. Audi's triumphs at Le Mans have given the brand a cachet it never enjoyed in the shadow of BMW and Mercedes-Benz, although it's struggled to show how the Le Mans technology helps the models it sells today. This year's rule changes were designed to force more efficient race cars in part to make more tangible connections with everday models; whichever team grabs the checkered flag at Le Mans this year can claim the pole position on a far bigger global race.