The WEC is at a crossroads. Audi’s withdrawal has left an immense void at the top of the grid. Despite fantastic racing over the last two years with Porsche, Toyota and Audi battling, the outlook of a new LMP1 Hybrid manufacturer entering the series in 2018 is becoming increasingly unlikely. Recent statements by Peugeot’s Chairman of the Managing Board of PSA (Peugeot Citroen) regarding the cost of LMP1-H being the main barrier to their return to the series leave those hoping for a third manufacturer playing the speculation game. Let’s take a look and imagine the possibilities.
Above: Peugeot 908 (Photo Credit Dieselstation.com)
PEUGEOT: After leaving the top level of competition in 2012, the manufacturer has consistently cited cost as being the primary hurdle blocking their return. Most recently, Carlos Tavares (PSA Chairman) in an interview with L’Est Republican newspaper stated, “We will join if they cut down the costs.”
In it’s current formula, LMP1-H does not seem to be viable for the French manufacturer. Repeated statements from Peugeot appear to be aimed at influencing the ACO and FIA to make changes to the regulations controlling the spending in the series. The FIA and ACO seem to be committed to the hybrid formula, which inherently drives up the price of fielding a competitive car. If not Peugeot, then who?
Above: Bentley Speed 8 (Photo Credit Autoblog.com)
BENTLEY: The British manufacturer last competed at Le Mans in 2003 taking a 1, 2 finish. Bentley have been steadily ramping up their sports car program adding former Audi engineer Leena Gade last year, and former Audi driver Olivier Jarvis more recently. With both having experience at the top level of sports car racing, some are reading the tea leaves Bentley may have interest in returning to Le Mans’ prototype category.
There have been rumors surrounding the team of having interest in IMSA’s DPi category. At the moment, DPi’s are not eligible to race at Le Mans. This leaves LMP1 as the only option for Bentley to obtain a spot on the grid as a prototype manufacturer.
Above: Mercedes CLR (Photo credit Puff of Smoke Racing)
MERCEDES AMG: In the midst of dominating F1, could the German automaker embark on a prototype program? The manufacturer last competed at Le Mans in 1999. Visually stunning, the CLR’s tendency to become airborne brought a catastrophic end to the program.
Like Bentley, Mercedes AMG have expressed interest in IMSA’s DPi category. The level of interest is nebulous at the moment. Last summer, reliable sources conveyed efforts were being made by Mercedes AMG to run DPi’s in 2017. Almost immediately, Mercedes AMG representatives dismissed the reports as unfounded explaining the DPi option was discussed, but not to the extent reported by the racing media… Puzzling.
No further stories regarding a Mercedes DPi program have surfaced, although experts continue to hint DPi is a very real possibility if not probability for the manufacturer. Since the reports of a Mercedes DPi program occurred prior to Audi’s withdrawal from the WEC, some have speculated Mercedes may pivot from IMSA to an LMP1-H program. Possibly the most mouth watering prospect on this list.
Above: BMW V12 LMR (Photo Credit Sportscar365)
BMW MOTORSPORT: The blue and white pinwheel will be returning to the WEC in 2018 with a factory GTE-Pro team. BMW have not ruled out LMP1 as a possibility.
When questioned last year, BMW Motorsport Director Jens Marquardt explained, “We’re working closely with the FIA and the ACO…For me Le Mans really gives you a platform and potential to get cutting-edge technology involved in racing.”
What exactly are BMW, the ACO and FIA working so closely together on? Marquardt’s comments regarding future regulations offers fodder for guessing; “There’s new [LMP1] regulations from  onwards. That’s probably a bit early, but second generation in 2021 or 2022… I think it’s going to be very interesting.”
BMW are enticed by the possibility of running a hydrogen powered prototype at Le Mans. Under the current regulations, such a car would be eligible to run as a Garage 56 entry, the ACO’s designation for experimental cars. With Marquardt’s comments regarding future regulations, it appears BMW are not so subtly attempting to influence the ACO and FIA to write regulations allowing hydrogen based engines to compete with LMP1-H cars. Since this is one of the most upfront and public prospects for LMP1, we can file BMW chances as one of the most likely possibilities.
Above: Nissan GTR-LM (Photo Credit NISMO)
NISSAN: To say Nissan’s WEC effort in 2015 was a disappointment would be a massive understatement. The team initially committed to a two car, two full season entry in the WEC. Ultimately, the team ran only in the 2015 24 Hour of Le Mans and only one car of the three crossed the line at race end.
Nissan’s withdrawal and sub-par effort no doubt ruffled feathers of the FIA and ACO. Perhaps the first step towards returning in some form took place recently. One of the Nissan GT-LM cars that raced at the 2015 Le Mans 24 Hour has been gifted to the track’s museum for display. Although this may not indicate much, it at least signifies Nissan still has Le Mans on their mind. If not in the near future, one can hope somewhere down the road, the team will return.
Above: Cadillac Dallara DPi (Photo Credit Wayne Taylor Racing)
CADILLAC: Currently competing stateside in IMSA’s DPi category, Cadillac’s Wayne Taylor racing team have expressed their desire to compete at Le Mans in some form. The ACO appear to be softening on allowing DPi’s to compete at Le Mans in future, possibly even as early as 2018. With car counts in LMP2 down compared to previous years, this solution may increase the number of prototypes on the grid at La Sarthe in 2018. With this option looking increasingly possible for Cadillac, the appeal of an LMP1-H program is most likely low for the American manufacturer.
Above: Mazda Riley-Multimatic DPi (Photo Credit Racecar-Engineering.com)
MAZDA: For several years, Mazda have made it clear their goal is to return to Le Mans after a long absence. The scream of their 787B’s rotary engine down the Mulsanne is a common topic of conversation each June in racing circles. Similar to Cadillac, the possibility of racing at Le Mans in DPi means making the jump up to LMP1-H is a reach.
Above: Audi R18 (Photo Credit Racecar-Egineering.com)
AUDI: The four rings will undoubtedly compete at the top level of sports car racing again. As long as Porsche who operate under the same parent company, Volkswagen, Audi returning to the grid will remain on hold. “Diesel-gate,” may have been the scapegoat, but Volkswagen having two teams competing against each other at the expense of hundreds of millions of Euros each year never made financial sense.
Perhaps there exists a privateer company with enough power to run the R18’s as a non-hybrid LMP1 in 2018.Given the cars complexity; many will balk even if the privateer possesses the capacity take on such a challenge.
Above: Ferrari F333SP (Photo Credit Autoblog.com)
FERRARI: Hey, one can dream right? There is absolutely no whiff of a rumor in Maranello of an LMP1 program. Their F1 and GT programs are the most extensive in the racing world, adding on an LMP1-H effort would add another 0 to the world’s highest racing budget. However, the prancing horse is destined to stand on the top of the podium at Le Mans in the future it’s just a matter of when?
Scuderia Ferrari have struggled to reclaim their position atop the F1 field. Continued F1 frustration may push the decision makers at Maranello to seek other avenues to promote their brand. In an increasingly competitive supercar market, the WEC offers a more marketable track to road sales plan. Nevertheless, as the decades continue to pass, Ferrari’s popularity carries the same momentum without any signs of stopping.
LMP1 MANUFACTURERS OUTLOOK
The FIA and ACO have some important decisions to make regarding the direction of LMP1. The formula which attracted four full season manufacturers (Audi, Porsche, Toyota and Nissan*) at the outset of the 2015 season, has now dwindled to two. The costs of competing in LMP1-H are proving to be unsustainable.
Peugeot appear ready, but only if cost controls are introduced. BMW appear ready, but only if they can run hydrogen technology. Other teams tease their desire to compete, but ultimately barriers still exist preventing them from realizing their wishes.
Balancing these factors is tricky. The FIA and ACO cannot appease all parties. Across the world, grid numbers are increasing in GT series’ and LMP2 based competitions. Although there are a few non-hybrid LMP1’s on the horizon for 2017 in the WEC, the series is set to rely on Porsche and Toyota remaining to bridge the gap until a third manufacturer enters to compete at their level.
On top of this, there is no guarantee both will remain in the series long term. Porsche, after all, shares the same parent company as Audi whose emission scandal resulted in their departure. It is not unforeseeable that the same could ultimately befall Porsche. Toyota may even be more fragile. The team suffered probably the most devastating Le Mans collapse ever last year. Another failure could see the team cut their losses and withdraw from the sport. Or if Toyota Gazoo finally do breakthrough, they will have ticked off the final item on their list of goals. What incentive would the team have to continue?
These factors must weigh on FIA and ACO officials heavily. Coming up with the right formula is essential for the series. Failure to do so may continue to push manufacturers to IMSA as a solution for their racing itch.
With Le Mans less than 100 days away, and the start of the WEC season less than 50, the clock at La Sarthe is ticking.
Please feel free to join the speculation in the comments below!
*Nissan ultimately participated only at Le Mans in 2015, missing all other races before withdrawing from the series