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The Way It Is/ Penske's Porsche Spyder LMP2 cars are ready for Sebring and the new ALMS season

by Gordon Kirby
Last year's American Le Mans Series was dominated by the factory turbo diesel Audi R10s run by Champion Racing and driven by Allan McNish, Rinaldo Capello, Emanuele Pirro and Frank Biela. The exhaust note-free diesel R10s were unbeaten, winning seven of ten races while the conventional R8s substituted to win two of three mid-summer races as the R10 program focused on Le Mans.

The turbo diesel Audis were the first alternative-fueled major league racing cars of the modern era. The R10 represented a technological breath of fresh air for a sport gone stale on pursuing new technology and Audi's success with the car was a boost for the ALMS, providing the series with a sheen of forward thinking absent in so many of today's racing categories.

The only car to beat Audi in last year's ALMS was Penske's lighter Porsche Spyder LMP2 car which scored a one-two sweep over the Champion Audi R8s at Mid-Ohio, a track where light weight and nimbleness pay dividends. The Penske Porsches added to the lure of the ALMS and once the car's early gearbox problems were sorted-out the pair of yellow DHL Spyders went on to win the LMP2 championship with Saascha Maassen/Lucas Lohr driving.

The LMP2 Porsche is powered by a 3.4 liter V-8 with a mechanically-operated throttle system because fly by wire is not allowed by the ALMS rules. The Porsche makes around 550 BHP and over the winter, Penske and Porsche engineers have worked together to improve the car aerodynamically and mechanically, making this year's latest version substantially quicker than last year's prototype. Also, a pair of the latest Spyders have been sold to Rob Dyson's team so that there will be a fleet of four Porsche LMPS cars in this year's ALMS.

Penske will run two cars in all ALMS races this year for Ryan Briscoe/Sascha Maassen and Roland Dumas/Timo Bernard. Third drivers for the longer races like Sebring are Penske IRL driver Helio Castroneves and Emmanuel Collard, the current Le Mans Series world champion. Roger Penske personally will call the shots on the Briscoe/Maassen/Collard car while Penske Motorsports president Tim Cindric runs Dumas/Bernard/Castroneves. Dyson's cars will be driven by Chris Dyson/Guy Smith and Andy Wallace/Butch Leitzinger.

Porsche director Wolfgang Durheimer is reponsible for the company's R&D division and Burdheimer approached Roger Penske at the Detroit Auto Show in January of 2005 and proposed the Penske/Porsche partnership. More than thirty years ago a similar partnership with the Porsche 917/10 and 917/30 CanAm cars brought Penske a pair of CanAm championships with Mark Donohue and George Follmer and Porsche had no doubt that Penske and his team were the right people for the German auto maker's latest foray into big-time American sports car racing.

Deiter Steinhauser, a veteran Porsche engineer, is project leader on the Spyder program. Team manager is Jeff Swartwout who worked for Truesports and then Reynard for many years and most recently ran Lola's American support program. Porsche engineer Owen Hayes is an American who lives in Mooresville, N.C. during the racing season where he works at Team Penske's headquarters. Hayes is fluent in German and he and veteran Penske engineer Nigel Beresford are the Spyder project's chief engineers.

"Owen and I work very closely," Beresford explained. "He deals with a lot of the input and information into the Porsche system and I deal with Penske side of things. Essentially we work hand-in-glove with Porsche. It's a much closer working relationship than we've had in the past even with our own technical partners at Ilmor.

"This is quite a different project compared to the way that Penske Racing has worked with its technical partners in the past," Beresford added. "Usually they supplied the engine and we built the chassis but on this project we operate the car for Porsche and give them meaningful feedback on ways to improve the reliability, performance and operation of the car. What we don't do is make bits to replace Porsche bits. It's a more intimate relationship than, for example, when we bought Reynards [from 1999-2001] and completely re-engineered the majority of the car."

Beresford and some veteran Penske race mechanics from the IRL team were brought into the Spyder program when testing started in Germany in 2005. "We were involved as soon as the car started running with drivers and mechanics in Germany," Beresford reported. "In the latter half of 2005 I spent probably two or three days out of every week at Weissach sitting in on meetings and reporting back to Roger on the progress of the development of the car. John 'Myron' Bouslog was also involved at that early stage and Gary Glaze, Penske's ace gearbox mechanic, as well. The three of us were quite heavily involved from the word go. We attended all the first tests.

"When the car came over to the States in late 2005 and we started running with our own crew, we were able to report back on various aspects of what we were finding about maintaining and operating the car. This year's car reflects a lot of those suggestions and requests. The bodywork and performance is really a quantum leap over last year's car.

"This year's car is mechanically essentially the same as last year's car," Beresford added. "There are some small changes on the mechanical side but principally what's been done is an entire repackaging of the bodywork."

Michael Pfadenhauer is a German aerodynamicist who was hired by Porsche from Audi. He joined Porsche in early 2005 by which time the basic architecture and design of the LMP2 car was established. "Last year Michael set about mapping the existing car and helping us find the best way to operate it aerodynamically," Beresford said. "Parallel to reclothing the car he ran a fifty percent wind tunnel model and whereas you could say last year's was pretty much a very conservative effort, he developed what you might call a contemporary style of car.

"The major effort for this year centered on getting more downforce and Michael and his team have been very successful in that. They've also improved the cooling performance of the car. The original car didn't have very much attention to the ducting of the airflow to the radiators, but he put a lot of effort into that aspect of this year's car. It's also much less pitch-sensitive and we have a wider variety of options to match the performance to each circuit.

"All of these cars suffer, just like single-seaters," Beresford added, "that as soon as you get behind another car you lose a lot of downforce."

The Porsche is sprung by torsion bars and has a modern, three damper suspension aimed at keeping the a car's aerodynamic platform as stable as possible. "The car has a Formula One-style, three damper front and rear suspension system with torsion bars front and rear," Beresford said. "The suspension geometry is designed so that the dampers and springs only operate when the car is heaving vertically. They have no effect in roll."

The Spyder enjoys light weight and a low center of gravity. "The car is on the weight limit," Beresford commented. "Two of the main design tenets that Porsche adhered to when they started this project was to get the car as light as possible, which they've achieved. They also wanted to get the weight as low as possible, hence the reason why all the suspension is packaged low down on the front and rear of the car, and also the use of torsion bar suspension. It gives advantages in packaging in some ways and it gives some disadvantages in other ways.

"I guess you could say there weren't many concessions to aerodynamics in the design of the suspension. I think that's a lesson that's been learned and heeded. Certainly, we've done some things quite differently."

Both Porsche and Penske engineers believe last year's transmission problems have been solved. "The transmission, engine and gearbox is basically the same as we ran last year with some incremental improvements and enhancements," Beresford said. "Our principal efforts last year were on getting reliability out of the transmission. The first two races last year we had some major gearbox issues. Part of that was a case of us finding out how tough some of the tracks are. We had a problem at Houston, for example, which hadn't been apparent before, even from our Sebring running."

The Porsche has a pneumatic gearshift system operated by paddles. "The shift itself is mechanical but it's actuated by an air cylinder," Beresford explained. "There's a Megaline proprietary system sitting just behind the airbox which controls a blipper on the engine and an air cylinder on the back of the gearbox."

A hydraulic system operates the Spyder's all-important power steering. "The power steering is essential these days for the long races with the high g-forces that these cars now generate," Beresford observed. "The power steering system only supplies pressure on demand. It charges an accumulator and when it is fully charged the steering pump circulates fluid so it reduces any power drain on the engine and keeps the fluid from heating up as well."

The Porsche is fitted with extremely stout-looking brakes after experiments with smaller discs proved ineffective. "The brakes are capable of doing a twenty-four hour race without any changes," Beresford noted. "We tried running thinner brake discs to try to take some unsprung weight out, but that just hurt the braking performance because the pistons and the calipers were hung out there and they tended to shuffle back so you just had a less stiff system. So we're quite happy to run the brakes the way they are."

This year's Spyder also has room for more fuel just in case IMSA officials were to decide to grant the car greater fuel capacity in the sanctioning body's eternal balancing act of adjusting weight versus power. "The car has slightly more fuel capacity than the car we ran last year," Beresford commented. "We were a bit marginal on fuel capacity. We could always get in our required ninety liters but if the rules changed we wouldn't have been able to take advantage of any increases in fuel capacity."

The '07 Porsche also has a lower roll hoop. There must be fifty millimeters clearance to the top of the driver's helmet with the driver sitting in the car and this year's line-up of shorter drivers has enabled Porsche to reduce the height of the hoop. "The rollover hoop is forty millimeters lower," Beresford reported. "When last year's car was designed it wasn't clear who the drivers would be and Porsche was quite conservative to make sure they didn't paint themselves into a corner there."

Finally, there are some detail improvements to the car's electrical system which can never be underestimated in long-distance racing. "There are some small enhancements in the electrical system to change the energy management distribution in the system," Beresford commented.

Thanks to typical Penske and Porsche attention to detail, this year's Spyder LMP2 is well-prepared to fend off any challenges from Honda's new fleet of Acura LMP2 cars and may be able to challenge Audi for overall honors from time to time. Next Saturday's ALMS season-opening Sebring 12 hours will show us how well Steinhauser, Beresford, Hayes and the other Penske/Porsche engineers have done their winter homework.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2007 ~ All Rights Reserved

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