Audi, Peugeot Race to Make Hybrid Cars Cool at 24-Hour Le Mans

Audi AG and PSA Peugeot Citroen are vying to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans with a hybrid motor, a feat that might boost the use of the more fuel-efficient cars.

The two teams have won 10 of the last 11 editions of the race, and are working on a part-electric engine that recoups energy from braking to reduce re-fuelling stops. It’s proving difficult: Peugeot said on April 11 that it abandoned plans to run a 908 Hybrid4 in an official test at the circuit southwest of Paris, citing reliability problems. Audi won’t be ready until next year’s race at the earliest.

They’re dueling for a landmark moment in motor sports that would boost the image of hybrid cars and their brand, according to former U.K. Science Minister Paul Drayson, who has twice raced at Le Mans. The event, sponsored by Swiss watchmaker Rolex Group and glorified in a 1971 movie starring Steve McQueen, draws as many as 200,000 fans.

“It would be a big deal if a hybrid wins,” Drayson said. It’s “a good platform for convincing people a low-carbon future doesn’t have to be boring,” he said.

The 24 Hours of Le Mans was first staged in 1923 near the French town of the same name as a durability test for carmakers, including Bugatti, said Quentin Spurring, who’s writing a history of the event. Drivers take turns to cover the most distance in 24 hours on an 8.5-mile circuit. Audi won with a podium sweep last year, 12 months after Peugeot snapped its five-year winning streak.

Peugeot Scraps Plans

Organizer Automobile Club de l’Ouest will start allowing hybrids in the top class at this year’s June 11-12 race after consulting Audi, Peugeot and other carmakers who might enter in the future, including Toyota Motor Corp., two people familiar with the situation said. Cars can reuse braking energy from the front or back wheels.

Peugeot, whose 908 Hybrid4 stores the recaptured energy in batteries, won’t trial it in the April 24 test, having already ruled out entering it in this year’s race. “The car wasn’t sufficiently mature to run” reliably, Bruno Famin, Peugeot Sport’s technical director, said.

Making a hybrid engine for a 24-hour race poses more problems than for other series because there’s more risk of overheating and parts breaking, Paul Andrews, founder of Lancaster, England-based Oaktec, which develops Honda Motor Co. hybrids for rallying.

“It’s do-able but it’s going to be a long process” of research and development, Andrews said.

‘Performance-Killing’

Audi is grappling with issues after 18 months of designing and testing hybrid parts, Wolfgang Ullrich, head of Audi’s motor sport unit, said. “Weight is so intensely performance-killing that it makes it really difficult,” Ullrich said.

Gruyere, Switzerland-based Hope Racing is risking a hybrid in the top class. Its 40-kilo system that re-uses energy from braking will cut gasoline consumption by 3 to 5 percent, allowing it to make “two or three” fewer pit stops, team director Benoit Morand said.

It’s unlikely to win the race because the team has fewer resources, Morand said, adding its $6.5 million budget may be about six times less than the biggest teams. Audi and Peugeot officials declined to disclose costs.

Carmakers are speeding up development of electric and hybrid systems as governments crack down on greenhouse gases. Peugeot unveiled the first diesel-electric car, a version of its 3008 crossover hatchback, last year. Audi is putting a hybrid Q5 SUV on sale this year. Toyota makes the Prius, the best-selling vehicle in the class.

Dan Akerson, General Motors Co. chief executive officer, told reporters at a briefing in Washington last December that the Prius is a “geek mobile,” and that he “wouldn’t be caught dead” in one, according to the Associated Press.

‘Mainstream, Cool’

“The image of hybrids is that they are niche,” Mike Tyndall, an automotive analyst at Barclays Capital in London. “The efforts of both Peugeot and Audi at Le Mans are to demonstrate that they are becoming mainstream, or even cool.”

In 2006, Audi became the first winner with a diesel-powered car, helping to change its perception as “dirty and noisy” to “quiet, efficient and fast,” according to Drayson.

“The next big thing is electric hybrids” at Le Mans, Spurring said. “All the carmakers are looking at it,” adding Toyota won a 24-hour race in Tokachi, Japan using a hybrid sports car in 2007. Porsche AG followed in another endurance event at Nurburg, Germany last year.

Sports Car Flop

A hybrid has flopped in the Le Mans sports car category before. In 1998, James Weaver failed to qualify a Panoz Q9 after batteries stacked on the passenger’s seat were rendered useless by a broken shaft, Weaver said.

“I was lumbering around with this huge battery and no extra power,” Weaver said, adding the car missed the cut-off to qualify by 10 seconds.

Peugeot is likely to be extra cautious about introducing a hybrid after last year’s event, Spurring said: all three of its diesel cars suffered engine or mechanical failure. Television pictures showed team officials with tears in their eyes as they watched on video monitors.

To contact the reporter on this story: Alex Duff in Madrid at aduff4@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Chris Elser at celser@bloomberg.net

Bloomberg reserves the right to remove comments but is under no obligation to do so, or to explain individual moderation decisions.

Please enable JavaScript to view the comments powered by Disqus.