Racecar Tech: Endurance Racers

Endurance racing is fairly unique in that it is the only form of racing that even fans can find a bit tedious at times. This isn't because the racing itself is in any way boring, but there is just so much of it. This is actually quite a good thing for us as consumers, since many important technological developments have come about as a result of this. Anything that's truly going to be usable on a road car has to stand up to some rigorous testing, and endurance racing is nothing if not this.

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While many of these developments might start off on F1 cars, it is through endurance racing that we get practical uses for them. This makes for an interesting mix of cars that can found on the track during endurance races. You will often find prototype cars racing alongside (albeit, in different classes) the same street cars that the technology ends up in. Any discussion of endurance racing usually boils down to talking about the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Le Mans is the most important endurance race of the year, and sets the standard for the sport.
Since races last so long, fuel consumption is an important issue, as the need for frequent refueling can keep an otherwise excellent car from being competitive. Thanks to advances in diesel engines in recent years, we have seen the last five runnings of Le Mans won by diesel-powered cars (four wins for Audi and one for Peugeot), and the effect of this can be seen in the increase in diesel engines offering from Volkswagen as well as other automakers. This is really one of the more significant advances to come out of endurance racing recently.
While diesels have been run at Le Mans as far back as 1949, it has only been recently that they have been able to not just finish the race but even win it. This is another of those great things about endurance racing, the rules are more flexible, which allows for more creativity on the part of the engineers than the restrictive rules of Formula 1 allow. This means that in addition to engines that use different types of fuel, we have also seen a (a few) engines that are vastly different from standard piston engines.
The first of these was a turbine- powered Rover which first raced in 1963. While a rotary-powered Mazda was the only non-piston car to ever win at Le Mans (1991), this is still encouraging. Sure, the technology on a Formula 1 car is unquestionably impressive, but the technology in endurance racers can influence what kind of car we buy tomorrow, not in 10 years. Bentley's customers were able to buy supercharged models the same years that their cars were winning at Le Mans, just as a Mazda buyer could have a rotary-powered RX-7 in 1991 and VW/Audi is building efficient diesels right now.