"We're always concerned with the weight."
For Jeroen Bleekemolen, being fast is part of the job. The successful racing driver and winner of the 24-hour races in Le Mans, Dubai and on the Nürburgring will talk about his experiences at the opening of the Lightweight Technologies Forum on 10 September at COMPOSITES EUROPE in Stuttgart. Because lightness is the basis of success for professional pilots. In an interview, the 37-year-old explains why some drivers even go hungry before the race.
What does the weight of a vehicle mean to you as a racing driver?
Jeroen Bleekemolen: For a racing driver, weight is one of the most important things of all. The three key factors for speed are low weight, contact pressure and engine power. However, the extent to which lightweight components influence success also depends on the racing series and the respective rules. In Formula 1, for example, there was no minimum weight for the driver until this season. As a result, all drivers have tried to lose as much weight as possible - also at the expense of physical fitness. Some even complained that they were constantly ill because they had lost so much weight. We're talking about two to three kilos here, but it shows the importance of weight in racing. If the driver is lighter, the weight saved can be put into parts that make the car faster. In general, more lightness means more speed. From the pilot's point of view, for example, ten kilograms of weight saved by an LMP1 vehicle in the 24 Hours of Le Mans is an average of 0.2 to 0.3 seconds per lap. On this circuit, 0.6 to 0.7 seconds per lap make a significant difference because the circuit is very long.
What influence does weight have on your driving experience?
Bleekemolen: A heavy car can be driven in a completely different way. Not only from the driver's point of view, but also as far as the components are concerned. A big problem with heavy vehicles are the brakes. They get too hot very quickly on the racetrack. Every everyday car would have the same problems under these conditions. That's why cars are usually much lighter than road vehicles.
The weight changes the entire handling of the vehicle dramatically. A heavy car is difficult to corner and is usually understeered. Less weight makes everything easier. In long-distance races, the difference between a full tank and an almost empty tank is huge. We need around 100 litres of fuel per hour and then have to go into the pit lane. The weight of the fuel is more important than worn tyres. After one hour, the car is faster due to the smaller amount of fuel, no matter how old the tyres are.
What experience have you had in sports with lightweight construction technology?
Bleekemolen: We constantly have to deal with weight. When designing a new vehicle, it is always a matter of placing heavy parts as low as possible. For example, the engine has to sit very low because it is heavy. But normally the rules set us limits, so we can't get too far away from the road vehicles. Of course, the designers check all the materials they process very thoroughly.
Why do you still feel safe in a light vehicle?
Bleekemolen: Quite simply because the car is easier to drive. It makes you feel safe. Since I can brake faster, accidents can be avoided more easily. At the same time, lightweight materials such as carbon are very stable and therefore also convey safety. As a driver, I feel much more comfortable with a light yet strong safety cell around me than in a car with a roll cage.
To what extent is lightweight construction technology also a success factor for you?
Bleekemolen: The more you can change with and at the weight, the better. But it also depends on the rules of the race series in which you start. In Formula 1, for example, lightweight construction technology is at the top of the list. In my series we can only make cars lighter to a limited extent because of the rules. Wherever it is possible, it is done.
Why is racing a good testing ground for lightweight developments?
Bleekemolen: On the racetrack, we push the materials to their limits. In any case, it's much more than on the road. We improve our lap times through late braking maneuvers, high top speeds and good acceleration. The 24-hour races in particular are real stress tests for every car. It takes a strong car to reach the finish line. And every advantage helps with less weight or a different distribution. It is one of the most important factors to make a car fast.
In your experience, what innovations in weight reduction have made it onto the road?
Bleekemolen: This is difficult to judge from the outside, because many components are made with either fewer or lighter materials. The air conditioning system alone has improved considerably in the meantime. Because the temperatures in a racing car are so high, this is the ultimate test. As soon as it works, it can be transferred to road vehicles. The same applies to batteries. They are heavy, but we have achieved a lot in this area. In the race, we want to use the maximum possible engine power and consume as little electricity as possible. This can be easily transferred to everyday cars. It makes everything more efficient, whether it's directly about weight or the electricity consumed in the vehicle. Headlamps, for example, have improved enormously - both in their function and in their energy consumption.
As a driver, where would you like even more lightness?
Bleekemolen: There are still many areas that could be improved. If you analyze all parts of a car, there's still a lot to be found. We simply have to continue to work on innovations, gain experience and do better afterwards.