LMP1 Retrospective EP2 - 2004 Nasamax DM139
Up until the last couple of years, diesel power was the norm in LMP1. Mainly thanks to the successes of Audi, the alternative fuel source got a massive boost in popularity. Before the diesel vs petrol wars kicked off however, there was a team willing to try out a third option: Bio-ethanol.
Eco-friendly fuel was first used at Le Mans in 1988, when the Rubson Porsche 911 SC won its class running on a mixture of gasoline and ethanol. 15 years later Team Giriox fielded a Mclaren F1 GTR running on fuel based on sugar beets. They finished 5th overall.
The first team to use Bio-fuel in a prototype Le Mans racer, was team Nasamax. It was Founded by wealthy Hong Kong-based environmentalist Tony King. He put John McNeil in charge of managing the Le Mans project. Nasamax partnered with two specialized firms. Some of the best in the business. Renewable fuel source specialists ASTEK or Applied Science Technologies, who would be responsible for developing and delivering the fuel itself, and motorsport legends Cosworth. Their new 2.65L single turbo XDE V8 would be exclusively used by the Nasamax team.
The car was based on a Reynard 01Q. The 01Q was already a two year old design by this point but was still a very capable race car. This made it possible for Nasamax to focus on the engine and fuel system.
Bio-ethanol and regular petrol have very different characteristics. The main difference is the fuel consumption. The maximum allowed fuel tank size was 90 liters. For a petrol powered car this is good for about 15 laps, but a bio-ethanol car will only do 10. The latter has a smaller amount of energy per unit than petrol meaning that you need more of it to achieve the same result.
But more Bio-ethanol used doesn't mean more pollution as the fuel is entirely renewable anyway. Because the fuel was based on locally produced sugar beets and potatoes, the car produces an unusual but pleasant alcohol like smell that was less intoxicating compared to regular racing fuel.
Major modifications had to be done to cope with the bio-ethanol's unusual characteristics such as the fact a higher fuel flow was needed. Ignition timing, air management, fuel hose material, etc... Even the fuel tank itself was wrapped in a new Nitrogen Blanket System or NBS, usually found in the aircraft industry, to prevent a potential fire or explosion.
The team had a first test session scheduled at Le Mans in February, but due to heavy snow not a lot of data was gathered. The car's first real outing and test session would be the Sebring 12 hours, an event and track known to be exceptionally cruel to the cars due to the rough road surface. One of the major hurdles was the air density. Just as regular cars the 01Q would lose power the higher the altitude and the hotter the temperature, only in a much more significant matter. On race day, the temperature got as high as 31 degrees Celsius.
The main goal was still to collect as much data as possible, finishing the race would have been a nice bonus but sadly the car never made it. Just half an hour into the race, after the first pit stop, the car refused to start. Since the XDE version was based on a Champ car engine, which used external starters, the team had to develop a whole new starter assembly from scratch. Several tries later and a small arsenal of batteries wasted, the team gave up and packed up.
After the rough start at Sebring, the main event was next, the 2003 24H of Le Mans. Tasked with driving the revolutionary race car were Robbie Stirling, Werner Lupberger and future Le Mans winner Romain Dumas. During Sunday testing Stirling managed over 300 km/h on the Mulsanne straight proving that the 01Q had what it takes. The starter issue was fixed proven by the many trouble free pit stops.
Testing was going along smoothly with minor growing pains fixed along the way. The mechanics were still up for a great task though as after completing 27 laps, driver Bryan Herta, who was only present during testing, spun the car and crashed into the tire wall at the end of the Mulsanne straight. The team spent the following 45 minutes repairing almost the entire back half of the car. The relief and satisfaction was great when Romain Dumas managed to set a new best time of 3:57:472 at the very end of the test session.
After a qualifying session filled with red flags and minor gearbox issues at the start, the car was back in form. Dumas was again responsible for the fastest time with a 3.54.320. That put the car in 21st place on the grid.
During warm up, disaster struck. Major heat damage occurred when the right cylinder bank of the turbo V8 developed an ignition problem. The mechanics did their job well as they replaced the entire engine and repaired as much as they could on the damaged exhaust, monocoque and wiring harness as well as replacing the heat protective blanket that was completely destroyed. With just two hours to go till race start, the car was ready to roll.
The first couple hours weren't without issues as the gear selector cable had to be replaced three times. After the mechanic's busy start to the race, they finally got some time to rest as the car went on to lap the circuit consistently without any major problems.
After 117 laps of racing, Lupberger brought the car in after hearing and feeling a suspicious knocking. A support bearing inside the gearbox was found to be the root of the problem and the mechanics were in for a long and tough night shift. As the gearbox had potentially more broken parts flinging around inside, the team decided to replace the whole back end just be sure. They were prepared for this as they brought along a spare unit. The spare unit however was incomplete after the team stripped it for parts to fix the car after Herta's crash in testing.
Four hours of hard work later the 01Q was back on track. All the team wanted was for the car to see the chequered flag, but it wasn't meant to be. After completing 20 more laps, Werner had to stop the car as smoke was pouring out. Werner and the track marshals battled the fire for 5 minutes straight. They managed to prevent the car from burning down, but after 138 laps the race was over.
2004 saw a change in regulations. LMP900, LMP675 and LMGTP cars now fell under the LMP1 or, if the teams decided to tune their car down, LMP2 class. Previous regulations were still applied but an entirely new set was added for any new teams wanting to enter the LMP1 class. Team Nasamax could have entered their 2003 car, like most teams did. But by 2004 their Reynard 01Q was modified on so many levels that it barely resembled the original car. Therefore it was given a new name, Nasamax DM139, and became the very first LMP1 car since it was modified with the new regulations in mind. Robbie Stirling and Werner Lupberger returned for driving duties with newcomer Kevin Mcgarrity taking over for Romain Dumas who was now driving for a different team in GT-Class
The single turbo Cosworth engine was replaced by the Judd GV5 V10. The naturally aspirated Judd was easier to work with and since it was a larger, lower revving engine, it was more suited to endurance racing as it wasn't highly stressed. The 5 Liter V10 was good for 600 horsepower at 7800 rpm and a torque figure of 600 Nm at 6500 rpm.
What mainly set the LMP1 DM139 apart from the "old" LMP900 cars was the aerodynamics. The flat floor was now replaced by two tunnels with a 20 mm thick wooden plank in the middle as per regulations to limit the ground clearance. This meant the car now sat higher giving the team more freedom in aerodynamically tuning the car.
Due to the lower amounts of downforce, the car was slower in the corners but undeniably the fastest car of the entire grid in a straight line. During testing it clocked the highest recorded speeds at four of the five speed traps located on the Mulsanne straight. The car was more exciting to watch too as the drivers liked the playful driving characteristics, they liked to call it "a chuckable car".
The notoriously unforgiving officials were on their side as they allowed the team to run a much larger fuel tank, 120 liters to be exact, to make up for the "energy per unit" problem. This did give the car a weight penalty every time they fueled up, but at least now they could run longer stints.
The Nasamax DM139 was a massive crowd favorite. The team even had a partnership with the small town of Arnage, located at the corner bearing the same name. They brought their car to the city center and showcased it to the citizens and school children. Proving them that "going green" doesn't mean "going boring".
At the first qualifying session the car was thoroughly put through its paces and compared to the test sessions speeds, was going 6 km/h faster. Gear ratios were changed and double checked to allow the car to go even faster. A slight misfire made the team replace the ECU, spark plugs and injectors. Nothing was left unchecked as the team wanted to avoid the overheating problems that prevented them from finishing the race the year before.
During the second qualifying session, the pneumatically powered gearbox was acting up and needed a quick repair. It had been sent to a manufacturers company for servicing before the race but a slight error had been made. the team mended the box themselves which cost them valuable minutes. A best time of 3.42.429 put them 14th on the grid.
During warm up, an unusual test was done. With the new larger fuel tank in place, nobody really knew how far the car would go. So Werner Lupberger was sent out and tasked to keep driving until the car ran out of fuel. 12 laps later the car ran out of fuel...at the other side of the track. The time it took for the car to be towed back to the pits and a last minute oil pressure sensor failure, which the team needed to take the entire floor of just to get to, meant that the car left the pit lane during the formation lap. The car line up on the grid just in time and the race was on.
After only seven laps Lupberger drove the car in the pits reporting a misfire. For the next couple of hours, the misfiring kept annoying the mechanics as they couldn't find the cause of the problem. The spark plugs, coil pack and even the entire wiring loom was changed, each in separate pit stops, but to no avail. The paddleshift system also needed repairs. This in theory more complicated task was fixed relatively fast.
Despite the ongoing misfire, the car ran consistent lap times. At the halfway point the car was in 20th overall and had completed a total of 169 laps. Further attempts to fix the misfire were unsuccessful and the team decided to just stop bothering with it.
In the early morning, the starter motor was acting up. The team would have to hit it with a broomstick every time in the pits to make it work. Out of fear that if the car stopped on track, and that the driver couldn't get his hands on a stick himself, they opted to replace the starter motor. Meanwhile, the engine was re-mapped to make life more easy with the still ongoing misfire. By now the car dropped down to 21st position with 277 laps completed.
In the last stages of the race, the Nasamax DM139 started to regain more placed and ended up finishing the race 17th place with 316 laps, almost triple the distance of the previous year. The goal of being the first to finish the biggest endurance race in the planet with a car powered by wholly renewable fuel was accomplished.
Overall the team was very happy, but knew that if it weren't for the misfire, that cost them valuable seconds each lap, they could have finished in the top 10 and maybe even the top 5. Nevertheless, John McNeil and his team proved that in the highest level of motorsport there is definitely a place for competitive eco friendly race cars such as the Nasamax DM139.
The team's successful Le Mans race got picked up by news agencies, magazines and even environmental organizations across the world and put motorsport as a whole in a positive light. John McNeil and Team Nasamax ended up winning multiple awards because of their efforts.
This article was part 2 of an ongoing retrospective series about the LMP1 class that will soon cease to exist after the 2019 24H of Le Mans. More articles will follow in the coming week, each from different creators.