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Johansson’s Car Could Electrify Racing

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, August 14 2009
Stefan Johansson's American Le Mans Series car is black and blue and green. (Photo courtesy the American Le Mans Series)

Stefan Johansson's American Le Mans Series car is black and blue and green. (Photo courtesy the American Le Mans Series)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

Stefan Johansson has competed in just about every type of car in single seater racing and sports cars. From the over-powered, oversteering Porsche 935 in endurance racing to a high-boost Ferrari turbo in Formula One and a Reynard chassis at the Indy 500, the Swede’s career has included some unique machinery.

Fit and trim as ever, Johansson considers his current ride, a Ginetta-Zytek hybrid prototype that competes in the American Le Mans Series, one of his toughest assignments.

The Ginetta-Zytek 09HS is new and radically different. Powered by a 4.0-liter V-8 and a 40-kilowatt electric motor, the car is a work in progress. Whether the hybrid racer becomes a fixture depends in part on how well Johansson, co-driver Johnny Mowlem and the Corsa Motorsports team can develop it.

“This is definitely a technical challenge,” said Johansson, whose Corsa team will compete this weekend at Road America in Round 7 of the ALMS. The duo scored a podium finish in their first outing as a fully operating hybrid at Lime Rock in July. But they are still a long way from competing head-to-head with the other current LMP1 category prototypes from Acura, Peugeot and Audi.

“Right now we’re not getting a lot of the benefit of the electric motor, but we’re dealing with all of the negatives,” said Johansson. “It would be nice to get 20, 30 or 40 more horsepower.”

Car builder Zytek Engineering is working in conjunction with Corsa team owner Steve Pruitt, who has a contractual agreement with Zytek for marketing its hybrid products in the North American automotive market. Ultimately, the goal for Corsa Motorsports is to showcase the Ginetta-Zytek’s technology at the 24 hours of Le Mans.

Zytek has already been successful with its hybrid systems in racing applications. In July, defending Formula One world champion Lewis Hamilton took his first victory of the season in a McLaren-Mercedes chassis equipped with a Kinetic Energy Recovery System built by Zytek.

The company’s eponymous chassis have also found success in sports car racing.

“Whenever Zytek has come over with its cars to race in the ALMS, they’ve run rings around the competition,” said Johansson. Occasionally dropping in for selected races, a British-based team won the pole at the Petit Le Mans in 2005 in a Zytek 04S and then took the over-all victory at Laguna Seca. More recently, a Zytek won the LMP2 category of the 1,000-kilometer Le Mans Series race in Portugal in an 09S chassis. All these cars, however, were powered by conventional V-8 engines.

The current challenge for the Zytek engineers and Corsa: the rulebook governing the hybrid technology used in sports cars designed for the Le Mans 24-hour is quite different from the rulebook governing the sprint races of Formula One.

In Hungary, Hamilton had a “push to pass” button in his F1 machine that allowed him to use 6.5 seconds of electric boost from an 80-kilowatt motor each lap. Johansson and Mowlem do not have the boost on demand. Instead, their 40-kilowatt motor’s output must be integrated into the drive train along with the Zytek V-8.

The Ginetta-Zytek’s electric motor, which also functions as a generator, is mounted between the V-8 engine and the gearbox. Heat from the rear brakes is converted into electrical power, which is then stored in a lithium ion battery pack. That battery pack sits in the space next to the driver.

That means a lot of extra weight in strange places. And, it leaves no room for ballast to adjust the handling. “All the extra weight is in the back and up high,” said Johansson, who said the result is a pendulum effect. “It does affect the handling quite drastically. If you just look at the steering wheel while its under braking, you can see the car is really nervous.”

A suspension re-design could help compensate for the extra weight, but more significant would be additional kilowatt power beyond the current limit of 40. (The motor in the Ginetta-Zytek is capable of 60 kilowatts.) Also, the whole system is limited by a requirement that the team use a battery that is commercially available – which does not apply in F1.

At present, the rule makers at the Le Mans 24-hour are taking a wait and see approach to the hybrid. In effect, the ALMS is serving as a hothouse for the new technology while the Automobile Club de l’Ouest – the Le Mans rule makers – observe the results.

“We are for the ACO a bit of the canary in the coal mine,” said ALMS President Scott Atherton. “The ACO and Le Mans are well known for writing rules for cars that don’t exist yet, the diesels being the best known example. Right now, there’s so many unknowns about the capability of hybrid technology.”

Eventually, the hybrid technology could well appear at the Le Mans 24-hour. The cars will have to be equated to the LMP1 prototypes currently operating under fuel power such as gas, diesel or various blends of ethanol. It’s likely that significantly better fuel mileage and a better launch of the corners with the high-torque boost of the electric motor would be a hybrid’s only advantages.

In a 24-hour race at the circuit in France with its long straightaways, such advantages are worth pursuing. Cars able to launch off the corners better prior to the long straights have a significant edge.

In the short term, the best ally the Corsa-Zytek project may have is the confirmation by Peugeot that the French manufacturer has undertaken a hybrid technology study for possible use in motor racing in the form of a Peugeot 908 HY. A commitment to race a hybrid by Peugeot, currently the reigning champions at Le Mans with its diesel-powered 908, would certainly get the attention of the rule makers.

The rule makers also have had to confirm issues of securing the batteries in case of a crash, which delayed the Ginetta-Zytek’s debut as a true hybrid, and the safety of track workers who may have to assist drivers after an accident in a car with large amounts of stored kilowatt power.

For now, with its long straights the 4.0-mile Road America circuit is one of the better test beds for the Ginetta-Zytek in determining how well the 09HS might fare at Le Mans. Typically, the ACO have at least one technical representative at Road America, because it’s as close as an American track can get to the 8-mile circuit in France.

Last weekend, the Ginetta-Zytek was quickest among the prototypes in the morning warm-up on a wet track during Round 6 of the ALMS at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. It was a sign of progress, but was also due to unique conditions that found the Acura LMP1 entries biding their time until the race.

After five straight victories, the Acura ARX-02a’s will be the quickest in top speed and through the corners at Road America on a dry track and probably in the wet as well. The Ginetta-Zytek, meanwhile, will continue as a high-tech showcase in pursuit of a role on the big stage at Le Mans.

– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, August 14 2009
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