Race tech versus road tech: Does your car have anything in common with a Le Mans endurance racer?

Audi R18 at Le MansYou might think your car works hard, but it doesn’t. Sure, it may slog through years of commuting and miss a few oil changes, but it’s never been in an endurance race.

What is endurance racing? If Formula One is a sprint, these races are marathons. The most hallowed is the 24 Hours of Le Mans, which really is one full day of mechanistic torture and frayed nerves. The goal of an endurance race is to travel the furthest distance at fastest speed. And to finish.

There are other endurance races, but Le Mans has always held a special place in the gearhead imagination. In decades past, Le Mans made the reputations of Bentley and Aston Martin, and gave the world great cars like the Jaguar D-Type and Ford GT40.

They say racing improves the breed, and the Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO), organizer of Le Mans, still touts the race as a proving ground for automotive tech. So what do these racecars have in common with ones we drive?

Audi R18 e-tron quattro front three quarterPrototypes

The stars of Le Mans or any other endurance race are the prototypes, which are purpose-built cars that can take full advantage of any available technology, whether it’s available on street cars or not.

The prototypes really don’t look like anything you’ll see on the road, unless your Batman. Mid-engined, with barely enough room for the driver in center-mounted cockpits, they bristle with aerodynamics aids that would make a Formula One engineer jealous.

Take last year’s Le Mans-winning Audi R18 e-tron quattro. It might have LED headlights like a banker’s A6, but its chassis is a carbon fiber monocoque, and we’ve never seen anything like that wicked stabilizer fin on a street car.

It’s the same story under the skin. All R18s use a 3.7-liter turbodiesel V6, while the e-tron quattro adds a flywheel-based hybrid system, which stores electricity as kinetic energy instead of using heavy batteries. 

The driver can use the system to power the front wheels on demand. In a race, the electricity is primarily used to power the car out of corners or to motor in and out of the pits.

So, while Audi does build road-going cars with diesel engines, hybrid powertrains, and all-wheel drive, none of them work quiet like this beast.

Le Mans used to give the world some of its most desirable road cars, like the supercharged “Blower” Bentleys that established that marque’s reputation, or the Jaguar D-Type, which morphed into the gorgeous XKSS road car. Soon, that could again be the case.

Racing-style hybrid systems like the Audi R18’s are starting to make the transition to road cars. The Ferrari La Ferrari and McLaren P1 aren’t based on prototype-class racers, but they do use short bursts of electricity to aid acceleration, just like the cars on the track.

The Ferrari and McLaren also feature sleek carbon fiber bodywork with shapes dictated by wind tunnel testing, although neither is as extreme as the spaceship-like Le Mans racers.

Audi is even reportedly working on a roadgoing version of the R18. The R20 would be a hybrid hypercar to rival the Porsche 918 Spyder, P1, and LaFerrari.

What’s taking Audi so long, and why can’t you have a high-tech hybrid that isn’t a multi-million dollar hypercar? It comes down to cost. For now, performance hybrid tech is just too exotic to be mass-produced.

It’s the same story with the cars’ lightweight bodies. Carbon fiber is really expensive no matter what you shape it into, because each part has to be hand-made. Although, with ever-stricter emissions regulations demanding lighter, more efficient cars, manufacturers might have to resort to carbon fiber for their mainstream models in the future.

Corvette C6.R at SebringGTE

This is where things get more normal. GTE-class cars are based on production cars, so they at least share skin and some basic components with cars people can actually buy. They’re also called GT2, GT3, or just GT, depending on the series.

Gearheads will find a few familiar faces, such as the Corvette, Viper, Ferrari 458 Italia, Porsche 911 GT3, and Aston Martin V8 Vantage, at any endurance race.

Say “racecar” and its easy to picture a vehicle taken to the extreme, built for the singular purpose of going fast; with their wings, scoops, and gutted interiors, the GTE cars certainly look the part.

However, racing is also about rules, and that’s what really sets these racers apart from their everyday counterparts. To keep things, fair, many of them are actually less powerful than the factory versions.

Take the Corvette C6.R. The Corvette ZR1 it’s based on has a 6.2-liter supercharged V8, producing 638 horsepower and 604 pound-feet of torque. The C6.R trades that monster motor for a naturally aspirated 5.5-liter unit, with 491 hp and 485 lb-ft.

Of course, that doesn’t mean the C6.R is slower than the ZR1. It benefits from a fast-shifting six-speed sequential transaxle, slick racing tires and, at 2,745 pounds, it’s much lighter than the stock ‘Vette, which weighs 3,353 pounds.

Racing is as much about the drivers as it is about the cars, and class rules like the ones governing GTE are how organizers keep the latter from overshadowing the former. So there isn’t much tech transfer here, because the road cars GTEs are based on are sometimes too tech-y as it is.

Nissan DeltaWing at Petit Le MansGarage 56

If prototypes are the ultimate endurance racers, and GTE cars are street cars that have been modified to race, Garage 56 is for cars that are neither. It was created as an experimental class for green technologies.

Garage 56 was created last year for the Nissan DeltaWing, a radical prototype that was originally designed to be the next-generation Indy car. When the organizers of that popular American open-wheel racing series decided to go with a more conventional design, the DeltaWing’s creators decided to take the car to Le Mans.

With its triangular shape, the DeltaWing is literally one of a kind, although it does share an engine block with the Nissan Juke. It was designed to save fuel by eliminating aerodynamic drag. It throws all assumptions about car design out the window.

That’s why each year’s entry is chosen by a selection committee, and why they don’t officially compete. That’s where the title “Garage 56” comes from: it’s an extra slot on top of the normal 55-car Le Mans field.

Will we ever be able to drive DeltaWings of our own? Some pretty strange cars, like the Caparo T1, BAC Mono, and KTM X-Bow, have been deemed street legal. Still, the DeltaWing’s unorthodox shape might be too radical for bureaucrats.

With its limited frontal area, the DeltaWing probably wouldn’t pass crash tests. Since it’s also wider in the back than the front, it probably wouldn’t be much fun to park either.

The DeltaWing’s engine is at least based on the Nissan Juke’, with added turbocharging, direct injection, and racing reinforcements. So maybe we’ll see a souped-up Juke powered by a similar engine in the future.

The best thing about Garage 56, though, is that it changes every year. Each new entry can bring along a new piece of tech that could make its way into road cars. The DeltaWing might be too much of a stretch, but the possibilities are unlimited.

Jaguar XKSSFork in the road

The more high-tech racecars get, the less they resemble street cars. While the radical Le Mans prototypes and rules-restricted GTE cars make it hard to fantasize about victory lane during the morning commute, they’re the best at what they do.

Building a car that can survive 24 hours of lapping, while putting on an entertaining show, requires some specialization. All we can do is hope that some of that tech trickles down to what we drive.

It’s not like that hasn’t happened before. Those Blower Bentleys and Jaguar XKSSes went from race-winners to coveted road cars, and even if that never happens again, some racing tech could still make the transition.

The 1953 Jaguar C-Type used disc brakes, which are now standard equipment on production cars. So are the turbochargers that powered the dominant Le Mans cars in the 1970s and ‘80s.

See a pattern here? Tech that was once unattainable has become commonplace. Hopefully, that pattern will continue.

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