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What It Takes To Win The 24 Hour Le Mans Endurance Race

by : Tomi Adebayo on : 04 Aug 2017 13:05

24 hour LeMans Shell VPower24 hour LeMans Shell VPower

Have you ever wondered why there are different brands of petrol and diesel used in cars? What could possibly differ between brands? Surely fuel is fuel, right? Wrong! UNILAD investigates at Le Mans.

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24 hour LeMans Shell VPower24 hour LeMans Shell VPower

The race to produce the most efficient, powerful and cleanest fuel has been raging for decades and the petrol giants have been waging that battle on the tracks of some of the most iconic races in the world, including Le Mans 24 where our reporter, Jon Devo was there to investigate how Shell’s involvement in racing helps super-powered racing motor cars perform as impressively as they do.

Le Mans 24 as a testing ground

Le Mans 24 has been taking place since 1923 and is the ultimate test for race teams as well as the providers of tires, oil and most critically – the fuel. Le Mans was originally conceived to help drive innovation in road cars by using the best drivers and the best engineers to push the limits of what a road car can deliver.

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24 hour LeMans Shell VPower24 hour LeMans Shell VPower

Disc brakes are a great example of an innovation that was pioneered at Le Mans by Jaguar. But with the cars travelling at speeds topping 150mph on average around the 8-mile circuit, aerodynamics and fuel efficiency have been other significant areas of focus and improvement.

24 hour LeMans Shell VPower24 hour LeMans Shell VPower

It’s for that second reason that energy giant Shell has been providing fuel for the race for a number of years now. We picked the brains of some of the Shells experts to learn exactly what the company has learned from working with the race teams at Le Mans 24.

What does it take?

There are some critical things that the teams have to get right to challenge for trophies. They need great drivers, obviously, and a lot of luck, but they also need efficient vehicles. Efficiency is where fuel can really make a difference. Efficient fuel also produces lower emissions and that is of particular relevance in a world that is increasingly moving towards low emission and zero emission vehicles.

24 hour LeMans Shell VPower24 hour LeMans Shell VPower

Shell’s V-Power diesel race fuel is designed to perform a dual function according to Jo Swindells, Fuels Scientist at Shell Global Solutions: “The fuel has two jobs essentially, it’s designed to maximise power, but also, it keeps the engine cleaner, which improves fuel efficiency.” One big challenge for engines is keeping the intake valves and fuel injection nozzles free from a filmy residue and deposits.

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24 hour LeMans Shell VPower24 hour LeMans Shell VPower

They wouldn’t tell us exactly what chemical components go into giving Shell V Power its unique properties but they did tell us that one weekend of Le Mans 24, provides them with the equivalent of a year’s performance data.

Shell’s special blend

Throughout the race weekend, Shell’s Motorsport Fuel Scientist Marcel Ehlert man’s the Shell Mobile Lab. Explaining Shell’s role at Le Mans, Marcel said: “There are similar components to the fuel we use here and the fuel you’ll find at home, but at Le Mans, we use a special blend designed specifically for endurance racing.

24 hour LeMans Shell VPower24 hour LeMans Shell VPower

“The fuel is blended for the whole season, which also includes the other 6-hour races throughout the year. So we blend a huge vat of fuel and from that main tank in Monheim in the centre of Germany we take what we need for each event.”

24 hour LeMans Shell VPower24 hour LeMans Shell VPower

For Le Mans 24, Shell’s tankers carried 240,000 litres to fill the 60 underground tanks, which hold around 3000 litres each. After the test and qualifying sessions, they filled them up again with another 60,000.

Each batch of fuel is meticulously tested by checking the purity of the first and the last drum, a practice learned from Formula 1, the once the race is done, the lines are flushed and the remaining fuel is collected.

24 hour LeMans Shell VPower24 hour LeMans Shell VPower

It takes about a generation (four years) for developments in fuel to reach ordinary vehicles, but Marcel doesn’t believe there’s an approachable limit as to how far fuel development can go: “As long as engines keep on changing, there isn’t a real limit. It’s something you can discover quite closely, as I also work in the pit, for fuel development at Formula 1 and this is a question I ask myself, is there an end to what we can do? But then the next season, the next new engine design and suddenly they’re getting more out of the fuel. It goes back and forth.”

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Track to road strategy

Senior motorsport manager at Shell Peter Fordemann explains why Shell chose to be involved at Le Mans 24: “This race has always been at the forefront of pushing technology and performance. We saw the first real twin hybrid systems here for example and the companies involved are always thinking 2, 3, 5, 10, 20 years ahead.

24 hour LeMans Shell VPower24 hour LeMans Shell VPower

General production cars and touring cars use petrol that complies with fuel values defined by the FIA in Appendix J 252.9, Peter explains how Shell’s racing V-Power compares in simple terms: “You have 102 Octane RON (Research octane number) and 90 MON (Motor octane number), this (Shell V Power) fuel is above that.

24 hour LeMans Shell VPower24 hour LeMans Shell VPower

It has been pushed intentionally from our end to be used at a much higher level of octane rating and different components in order to suit the engine’s needs and technical needs. The aim of this strategy is to deliver permanent improvements and learnings for the product we are going to put on the road in the future. That may be next year or in two years time.”

24 hour LeMans Shell VPower24 hour LeMans Shell VPower

Shell calls this strategy “Track to road” and it’s essentially the reason why they get involved in motorsports. Working with their motoring partners, Shell is always looking for ways to develop their fuels, but also the engines that use them, in terms of economy, efficiency and reliability.

Tomi Adebayo

I write about all things tech!

Topics: Technology