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Toyota hybrid to race at 24 Hours of Le Mans

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author photo by Dan Carney October 2011

Everybody knows how pokey hybrids are, right? Heaven help you if you are behind a Prius at a light because you just know it is going to creep away like he's rushing to see the dentist.

Don't tell Toyota, because the company is building a hybrid race car to compete in the 2012 24 Hours of Le Mans sports car race, the highest profile sports car race in the world.

But really, the reason hybrids often seem slow is that the driver is treading lightly on the gas pedal to preserve battery charge and maximize fuel economy. Most of them aren't rockets, but they look slower than the really are because of the conscious choice hybrid drivers are making.

Also, today's hybrids are optimized to save gas, with little concern for performance, so even with the pedal on the floor, they don't tend to be very quick. But that is the result of engineering decisions by the car makers rather than an inherent limitation of hybrid technology.

The electric motor in a hybrid system can add power like an electric turbocharger, such systems are already in use in the Formula One world championship. That series labels the hybrid assist with the catchy moniker "Kinetic Energy Recovery System" since it captures stored mechanical energy through a spinning flywheel rather than energy stored it batteries.

Toyota's racing hybrids will also have to compete against fuel-saving diesels. Recent race winners Audi and Peugeot have benefited from the extra driving range of their fuel-sipping diesel-powered race cars to reduce the number of pit stops, which can really add up during a 24-hour race.

So Toyota's hybrid racer will aim to balance the potential to add bursts of speed with the ability to reduce the number of pit stops needed to find the fastest solution.

In doing so, Toyota's race engineers will face the same obstacles that bedevil production hybrids, such as the need to reduce the size and weight of the battery and electric motors, the need to recharge the battery as much as possible while braking, and the need to keep the battery from overheating.

Components that can survive the ordeal of a 24-hour race will be battle-tested for consideration on future Toyota hybrids like the Prius and Camry. "We aim to learn from the experience of competing in such a challenging motorsport environment to enhance our production car technology," explained Tadashi Yamashina, chairman of Toyota Motorsport GmbH.

The team hasn't built the car yet, but expects to unveil it in early 2012 so they can enter some races before the big one at Le Mans in June.

Audi and Peugeot have become very experienced with their diesel racers at Le Mans in recent years, so it will be difficult for any newcomer, least of all one relying on a new technology, to unseat them as favorites to win the race. But even if Toyota doesn't beat the incumbent teams, the valuable experience gained should make future Prius buyers the eventual winners.

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Toyota hybrid to race at 24 Hours of Le Mans - Autotrader