Paris, 10 Jun 2003
Space technology will thrust two cars into this year's legendary 24-hour Le Mans race. Thanks to new composite materials designed for space travel, the cars will be lighter and safer, making them more competitive in the world-famous race that takes place this year from 14 to 15 June in France.
Le Mans, which has been held every year since 1906, is an international event in automobile endurance racing. Right from the first race it has been a test bed for new technologies – for example, disk brakes were first used in a Le Mans race in 1953. This year is no exception and several new technologies, originating from Europe's space programmes, will be showing their worth.
ESA Technology Transfer Programme (TTP) has been working since 2002 with Henri Pescarolo and Andre de Cortanze of Pescarolo Sport, on two priority lines for development: performance and security. In collaboration with Bertin Technologies in France and Grado Zero Espace in Italy this collaboration led to the identification of areas that could greatly benefit from space technology: space composite materials for structures, space thermal insulation and innovative lightweight cooling systems.
Henri Pescarolo, team leader of Pescarolo Sport, is very satisfied with the result "undoubtedly the space technology we use improves the car's performance and safety," he says.
This was already demonstrated at the Le Mans qualification test day last month, when the two Pescarolo C60 Peugeot cars achieved a very encouraging 9th and 13th position out of the 50 cars participating.
For Pescarolo engineers André de Cortanze and Claude Galopin it was particularly important to verify that the effort to make the cars more aerodynamic through the use of the new space composite materials on the C60 Peugeot had borne fruit. Having both cars doing the same tests at the same time was a great opportunity to evaluate the different adjustments on each car, and to choose the best configuration for the actual race to come.
"We did not seek pure performance or high qualification, our objective was to perfect the behaviour of our C60 Peugeot configuration," summarized Henri Pescarolo at the end of the test day. "We made some very fast laps and could see that we had made a lot of progress, but the variations between the different participants were much less this year and this year's race will be much tougher than last year.
Lighter and safer with space materials
The performance to weight ratio, which is vital in Le Mans, persuaded the Pescarolo Sport team to use hi-tech carbon composite materials, the same material employed in satellite construction, to construct the racing car. This allowed a reduction of 29 kg in the overall weight thus compensating for the loss of 60 CV of engine power due to new Automobile Club de l'Ouest (ACO) regulations.
To make the cars safer, thermal shields similar to those used on the European Ariane-5 launcher were placed between the engine and the flexible fuel tank in order to protect the tank from engine fire hazards and similar material was used to insulate the manifold and turbo. The same insulation shields have already proved their worth as they were used in the Pescarolo Sports car that ran in the Paris-Dakar race in January 2003.
This year Le Mans cars are still open-topped, but new rules for next year's race will introduce closed (saloon) bodies, which will introduce new challenges to control the temperature inside the cars. Grado Zero Espace have already had experience in designing and creating innovative clothing for the McLaren Formula 1 racing team using high-tech materials from ESA's space programmes and they have produced two sets of cooled undergarments for the Pescarolo team. These are worn under the driver's racing suits and need no special modification.
"We will work with Pescarolo in this year's race in order to adjust the garment and to try and obtain a weight reduction of up to 50% by 2004, "says Silvio Campigli from Grado Zero Espace. "The cooling system is encapsulated in an advanced textile structure designed for low cooling dispersion."
Space tech already a winner
The technology and 'know-how' obtained through the development of the European space industry have already proved their worth at the first race in the seven-event FIA Sportcar Championship, at Estoril, Portugal in April 2003. The Pescarolo Sport team that won used the same lightweight composite space materials and insulation shields that will be used at Le Mans.
"We started the cooperation with Henri Pescarolo to demonstrate how space technology can provide innovative and practical solutions for endurance racing," says Pierre Brisson, head of ESA's Technology Transfer and Promotion Office. "When exotic space technologies prove their worth in tough races like Le Mans and Paris-Dakar, they will also find their way into the mass-produced cars we all use everyday, providing improvements in comfort and maintenance and more importantly, contribute to greater overall safety and reliability."