Designers of non-open-wheel race cars have to decide on which side of the car they will put their driver. The answer is simple for most American designers, with teams, drivers and car-buying fans accustomed to left-hand drive. But in international driving racing competition, the solution must consider other factors.
Take the recent 24 Hours of Le Mans. Of the 54 entered cars, 31 featured the driver’s seat on the left, with 23 on the right. All of the prototypes were right-hand-drive except for the three LMP1 Audi R10s, while all of the GT cars had the driver on the left. Why opposite layouts between classes, and why were Audi’s cars the only left-side prototypes?
Like NASCAR cars that perform better on ovals with the driver on the apron side, sports cars perform better with the driver on the inside of turns. Clockwise tracks, obviously, have more turns to the right, and counterclockwise tracks (like ovals) have more to the left. Stefan Pfeiffer, the race engineer for the Flying Lizard Motorsports Porsche GT team, once calculated the effect of sitting on the inside of corners as significant.
Most American Le Mans Series tracks run clockwise, as does Le Mans, so why do Audi and the GT cars go the left-hand-drive route? Julian Cooper, the Lola Cars chief engineer who oversaw Lola’s six right-seater prototypes at Le Mans, wonders, too.
One reason is the drivers. Teams face a disadvantage when drivers have to adapt themselves to an unfamiliar side of the car. Whether it’s a British driver adjusting to the left or a French driver adjusting to the right, it takes a certain amount of time to gauge the precise edges of the car. Allan McNish was the only Brit among nine Audi drivers at Le Mans, so Audi’s left-hand drive makes sense if the team wants to cater to the majority. But Cooper, who has seen many drivers adapt to the British Lola, believes drivers aren’t the main consideration.
In fact, the fans are the biggest consideration for Audi and other teams. Fans buy street cars, and Audi’s Le Mans win will certainly attract them to the marque. It makes sense to have drivers on the left side since fans drive on the same side in their road cars. A company like Lola, which does not build passenger cars, only considers performance. Peugeot sells right-hand-drive cars and chose the right for its 908 LMP1 prototypes.
Flying Lizard’s Pfeiffer felt the corporate hand when he brought his performance observations to Mercedes-Benz in the 1990s to work on its DTM German Touring car.
Hence the entire GT class runs left-hand drive. All entries are required to be production-based. Because GT cars have a stronger relation to their street counterparts, their seating position does as well—even for the British Aston Martin, which produces many left-hand-drive street cars. But even though both Aston and Audi might have sacrificed some performance for marketing purposes, it wasn’t much; they won LMP1 and GT1, respectively, at Le Mans.