Fuel steam ahead for frugal flyers at Le Mans
The 2014 Le Mans 24 Hour.

Whether you can like or lump motor racing, there's no escaping it. That's because - like space exploration and war - racing is a catalyst for change in everyday technologies, such as the car.

And no race is more influential on car design than the gruelling 24 Hours of Le Mans, which I attended last weekend.

The organisers this year lifted the bar, requiring cars in the elite LMP1 category to be a whopping 30 per cent less thirsty than in 2013.

So, to have a chance, the competing marques had to outdo themselves. Reliable, light, sleek, zesty... and frugal.

Those were the qualities - amazing driving skill and focus aside - needed to win.

Le Mans, inaugurated with weird rules in 1923, is motoring's equivalent of a Test cricket match.

The main differences are the lack of breaks for drinks, afternoon tea, rain, bad light or a pigeon on the track.

Indeed, a 10-minute torrent at this year's Le Mans contributed to a three-car smash, sidelining an Audi and hampering a Toyota.

The city of Le Mans' conquerors over time have included the Romans and the British though, lately, Germany has had the whip hand.

Porsche leads the Le Mans race tally board with 16 wins, though Audi has owned the event since 1999, apart from 2009 when Peugeot stepped in.

Le Mans is racing pedigree personified. In 1906 the inaugural French Grand Prix was held here - on a circuit 103km long.

If it was a chilly day you could knit a scarf while waiting for the cars to reappear.

Innovations in car design ramped up in the 1930s, when Bugatti and Alfa Romeo honed their aerodynamics to suit the Mulsanne Straight.

Thankfully, cricket's tame draw is impossible in a locale never much taken with the flannelled game.

However, cancellation is another matter. World War II caused a 10-year hiatus in the event, as did strikes in 1936.

This year, France's rail union held a 78th anniversary stoppage causing some hasty travel rearrangements for many of the nearly 300,000 spectators, including me.

These days, Le Mans is one of seven races that comprise the World Endurance Championship.

The other six, though, are mere borderline enduros, running for just half-a-dozen hours each. That's why you've never heard of them.

Not that I should scoff. While in France, I took part in the 15 Minutes of Le Mans for journalists at an adjoining go-kart track.

My 100 per cent driving focus dissipated, I'd stab, at 37sec., which makes me think a sadist devised the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Indeed, the inaugural one was decided by three 24-hour races held over three years.

I think 24 hours is plenty enough to be on edge, as I sensed first-hand at 3am last Sunday in a racetrack shuttle bus.

Aboard was the pensive wife of a champion driver, looking forward to race-end 12 hours hence.

Keeping her waiting until 2016 would have been torture.

Le Mans is never over till it's over, with the winner's wheels required to be still spinning on terra firma when the 24 hours ticks over.

So, if even at 23:59, your car decides to sputter and choke - it's bad luck. No cigar.

Competitor, spectator or driver's spouse, you can only rest assured at 24:00.

And this year, against setback after setback, it was Audi that yet again prevailed via the R18 e-tron quattro No. 2 car of Andre Lotterer, Marcel Fassler and Benoit Treluyer.

Second was Audi car number 1 led by nine-time Le Mans winner Tom Kristensen while Toyota was a game third after ill luck.

The Porsche of a plucky and skilful Mark Webber sort of did that 23:59 death throe thing on him just when he had what seemed a secure lead.

But this was Le Mans, an event that can be cherished for similar qualities as five-day cricket.

Both formats provide a test of skill, endurance and teamwork while encountering estimable foes, changing conditions and fluky fortunes.

And the officials nailed it, setting conditions that shoved the entrants' technologies even further towards providing real-world driving benefits, as the adjoining article outlines.

The West Australian

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