The perils of 'improving the breed' on the track - Derek Bell Column - March 2014

Date: 
27th March 2014

Racing improves the breed, or so the old saying goes. I must admit that it’s a notion I’ve often had trouble getting my head around. For example, I doubt that the Ford Escort 1300E ever benefited from the Blue Oval’s GT40 programme. These days, however, there is a much more overt correlation between competition bids and road car development. Indeed, in many instances it’s more a case of motor racing following the road car market’s lead. Just look at the number of hybrids now venturing trackside.

I recently found myself chatting with a Porsche engineer and conversation naturally turned to the firm’s new sports-prototype. As I understand it, the rules for the Le Mans 24 Hours – which is part of the reanimated World Endurance Championship – have been rewritten for 2014. The big factory teams have been tasked with reducing the amount of fuel their cars use on each lap by almost a third compared with last year. In turn, the amount of power generated by the obligatory hybrid systems has been increased somewhat. Manufacturers are allowed free rein when it comes to engines, though, and the Porsche 919 Hybrid features a V4 boosted by both F1-style regenerative braking and the recovery and recycling of thermal energy derived from exhaust gases. Both of these systems in turn feed into an electric motor, which powers the front wheels. The petrol engine, meanwhile, drives the rear axle. Remarkably, the car weighs just 870kg.

The thing is, what I took away from our brief natter wasn’t so much a sense of awe at the technical bravery of the project, more the nagging suspicion that it’s needlessly complicated. And the same goes for its rivals. I asked the engineer what happens if one of the hybrid systems packs up: will it still run using only the petrol engine? No it won’t. And do racegoers really care about all these technical doodads? Do they improve The Show? I doubt it.

Of all the marques I have ever been involved with, none placed greater emphasis on using motor sport as a proving ground for new technologies than Porsche. I didn’t always appreciate that, mind you! I only ever had two arguments with the team’s management, and on both occasions it was due to me acting as a glorified test driver rather than a racer. The 1982 season with the new 956 was mixed at best, the highlight being my third win at Le Mans. Unfortunately, the rest of the year passed by without a single win, my team-mate Vern Schuppan and I never really gelling as a driving pairing. By the time we arrived in South Africa for November’s Kyalami 9 Hours, I was pretty brassed off and then I learned that our car was to be equipped with a developmental Bosch Motronic fuel-injection set-up. In qualifying, our 956 coughed and farted its way round, and it had the most appalling throttle lag.

I voiced my concerns to the team manager Peter Falk, who explained – or tried to explain – that every race had to be part of a development programme. That much I could grasp, but it didn’t explain why the sister car of Jacky Ickx and Jochen Mass still had regular mechanical injection! Peter was sympathetic and, following various phone calls to Germany, he announced that the race numbers would be swapped over and we would drive the regular car. I remember being relieved to hear this, but then I was haunted by the nagging suspicion that Jacky and Jochen would win without any problems while we’d have trouble with the mechanical injection!

As it, happened, there was a quirk with the Motronic system that allowed fuel to collect in the engine. The moment you fired it up, the fuel ignited and flames belched from the back of the car. When the mechanics went to turn over the engine in Jacky and Jochen’s car the night before the race, the flames soon spread. After that, they decided that Ickx couldn’t run that engine so he reverted back to his old car… He and Jochen won the race and we finished second.

It was an interesting lesson in team politics but it also gave me an insight into Porsche’s mindset. As a driver, I just wanted to drive flat-out and win races. I couldn’t have cared less about racing improving the breed. Porsche, though, was more interested in using motor sport to field-test potential advancements that could be carried over into road-car design. Which reminds me of the experimental PDK double-clutch transmission that almost cost me and Hans Stuck the 1986 drivers’ title – but that’s another story…

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