Le Mans Returns to Austin This Weekend. Here's What That Race Could Mean for Your Next Car.
The Lone Star Le Mans Series returns to Circuit of the Americas this weekend. It is not exactly like its much more prestigious relative, the 24 hours of Le Mans. The biggest difference? It’s not 24 hours – just six. And there’s more than one race, but the two big ones are Saturday at COTA where you’ll be able to watch more than just cars circling the track. You’ll get a glimpse of the future.
Manufacturers like Aston Martin, Dodge, Ferrari, Ford and others use their motor sports divisions to test the limits of their engineering. They also, sometimes, create something that ends up in every car on the road. In the 1953, a pair of British drivers won Le Mans driving a Jaguar that was the first to use disc brakes. And some discoveries are less obvious, but no less critical, to your car’s performance.
“Windscreen wipers, the first ones were at Le Mans. They were never on road cars before racing,” said Alastair Moffitt, manager of marketing and communications at Toyota Gazoo Racing. “The entire principle, this came through racing.”
Yes, windshield wipers became a thing after they were used extensively at Le Mans.
“They were the early days of the development of the automobile,” said Moffitt, “Now, we’re much, much further advanced. So, you’re not taking huge takeaway objects like that, but you are learning things, always.”
Moffitt says most of what the racing series has been innovating lately is fuel efficiency. This is the circuit Volkswagen and Audi used to hone their turbo diesel engines in the 2000s – and more recently manufacturers like Toyota are perfecting hybrid technology.
“We have engineers here in Austin working on this car that come from the hybrid road car development program to learn the hybrid systems perform in a racing environment, the challenges that they face and to learn how to take that back into road car technology and to improve road car technology.”
Of course, there isn’t a one-to-one correlation between how things work in a race car and what shows up on a showroom floor. Your car will never have a thousand horsepower or a need to average 140 mph for several hours at a time, hopefully. Christian Fittipaldi races a Chevy Corvette prototype. He's a second-generation driver from a racing family. He says sometimes he prefers the technology that’s already in his Chevy at home.
“Well, I tell my Tahoe is 20 times, a million times more comfortable than my race car. My race car can be quicker, but my Chevy has AC, has a television for my daughter. It almost talks to me, my car," he says. "It has everything.”
That's right. Despite all of the technology upgrades, the cars won’t have air conditioning as they race for hours this steamy September weekend in Austin.
So, what is the Lone Star Le Mans?
Practice and qualifying lead up to Saturday's two big races. The shorter International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) SportsCar Championship starts late this morning. This is the penultimate IMSA Championship race, with Fittipaldi leading for the drivers' title. If he wins, it would be his third in a row.
The longer World Endurance Championship (WEC) Six Hours of Circuit of the Americas is scheduled to start at 5 p.m. and end at 11. The WEC race is sanctioned by France's Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA).
Both races feature four different classes ranging from the fastest prototypes to modified cars you might see a version of on a showroom floor – if you shop your local luxury sports car showrooms.