L&T Motorsport

WEC LMP1 Season Primer

INTRODUCTION:

The 2016 WEC season marked the fourth year of competition for the budding series. Since its inaugural season, the WEC has consisted of 4 separate classes (LMP1, LMP2, GTE-Pro, GTE-AM) racing on top-level tracks around the world. The double point 24 Hours of Le Mans in June, is the highlight of the series, drawing crowds in excess of 200,000 fans each year. Manufacturers from (but not limited to) Germany, Britain, Japan, France, and the USA, compete for top honors in their classes, and overall victories.

The most notable change entering the season was the addition of the factory Ford GT program. Also new for 2016 was the expansion from eight races to nine with the 6 Hours of Mexico at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez in Mexico City. In total, 36 full season entries made up the 2016 grid, 1 better than the 2015 list. At the head of the field, Porsche, Audi and Toyota went wheel to wheel in LMP1 from green to chequered, putting on a display worthy of carrying the banner declaring the WEC, “the best sportscar racing series in the world.”

LMP1 EXPLAINED:

Le Mans Prototypes (LMP) represent the top-level of sportscar racing in existence. World-renowned auto-makers design cars and compete in the WEC with the hope of driving the sales of their vehicles. Performance at this level of motorsports translates to better brand recognition, a more prestigious perception of the company, and exposure to a larger audience.  For these reasons, many of the manufacturers who have, and currently compete in the series, represent some of the most storied marques that have ever taken the road.

The rules and regulations of the LMP1 category result in the production of high tech and visually stunning automobiles. To encourage the development of hybrid technology, the regulations are designed to benefit those who produce the best energy recovery systems (ERS). Cars are allowed to deploy a limited amount of hybrid boost per lap, somewhat similar to the KERS system in F1. Non-hybrid cars are permitted to compete in LMP1, but are limited to privateer entries and lack the overall pace to compete for race wins on their own merit.

Freedom in the regulations, fortunately, allows manufacturers to formulate unique solutions in their car packages. As such, the grid consists of LMP1’s with distinct appearances and characteristics. The LMP1 formula has been successful since its introduction with the re-launch of the series and has made for some great racing. 2016 was no exception.

2016 LMP1 SUMMARY:

Nine full season entries participated in LMP1 for 2016. Audi, Porsche, and Toyota ran hybrid power units, while the ByKOLLES and Rebellion teams ran traditional gasoline engines in their cars, competing against each other in the privateer sub-category.

Audi Snow Silverstone

Photo Credit: Audi Team Joest

The season’s first event took place at the historic Silverstone circuit in the UK. An early spring snow welcomed the cars and affected some early practice sessions, but gave way to clear skies in time for the first green flag of 2016. The #1 Porsche lead the early stages of the race before an accident with a Porsche GTE-AM car forced its retirement. The remainder of the race was a battle between the #7 Audi and the remaining #2 Porsche 919 hybrid. Ultimately, the Audi took the chequered flag ahead of the Porsche, but was excluded from the race results after the FIA uncovered during post-race inspection the winning cars skid plates had worn past the legal limit. The #2 Porsche was awarded the victory after the Audi disqualification. Porsche had drawn first blood in the 2016 title chase.

Porsche locked out the front row in qualifying the next round at Spa-Francorchamps. The three hybrid teams exchanged the lead early in the race. The #5 Toyota suffered an engine problem while leading in the midway through taking the teams lead horse out of contention. Attrition eventually took its toll on each of the hybrid teams, with the #1 Porsche and #7 Audi suffering reliability issues as well. It would be the #8 Audi benefiting from others’ reliability issues, taking the win at the Le Mans dress rehearsal. Second place went to the #6 Toyota, and the #13 Rebellion, with a rare overall podium appearance, came in third.

The competitiveness of the first two rounds of the WEC championship built the excitement for the headline event of the season. The winning team was anyone’s guess. None desired the win more than Toyota. What unfolded was one of the most remarkable 24 Hours of Le Mans ever witnessed.

2016 24 HOURS OF LE MANS:

Again, Porsche were the slight favorites heading into the race. They made good early on being the team to beat, locking out the front row in qualifying for the second straight race. Somewhat surprisingly, the two Toyota’s filled the second row ahead of the Audi’s hinting the Japanese team may be able to take the fight to Porsche.

When the 24 Hour clock began ticking, it did so under wet conditions. A downpour prior to the race start wet the grid enough that the first few laps were turned under safety car conditions. The track quickly dried, and when it did the #2 Porsche built an early lead. While Audi was off the pace and experiencing reliability issues, Porsche and Toyota engaged in a three car battle for the lead.

By sunrise, Toyota was 1-2 with the #6 leading the #5 car, the #2 Porsche in third within striking distance. A spin by the #6 handed the lead to the #5 Toyota and second place to the Porsche. As the hours wound down, Toyota appeared it would take its first Le Mans win. Until the unthinkable happened…

Motorsport Toyota Garage

Photo Credit: Motorsport.com

The radio crackled in the garage with the distraught voice of driver, Kaz Nakijima, “I have no power, no power…” Stunned, the mechanics looked at their monitors as the Toyota was traveling well off the pace. The car was about to take the white flag with a 2 minute gap, but was now barely running. The car limped just past the start/finish line to take the white flag and then rolled to a complete stop. Within seconds, the #2 Porsche passed to take the overall lead. After a lengthy stationary period, Kaz re-fired the Toyota but it was too late and still well off the pace.

Porsche would finish out the lap without incident to claim the chequered flag and the teams 2nd consecutive 24 Hour of Le Mans win. The car pulled into victory circle passing their garage appropriately blaring Blur’s “Song #2.” Meanwhile the Toyota still putted somewhere midway around the Le Mans 13.6 KM circuit. Ultimately the #5 Toyota would be unclassified having failed to meet the minimum lap time requirement for its final lap. The #6 Toyota finished in 2nd with the #8 Audi rounding out the podium in 3rd.

REST OF 2016 SEASON:

Porsche would continue their momentum from Le Mans, going on to win the next three races at the Nurburgring (GER), Circuit of the Americas (USA), and Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez (MEX). The wins coming at the hands of the #1 car piloted by Mark Webber, Brendon Hartley, and Timo Bernhard. The Audi’s put up a fight at the three events following Le Mans and looked to be set to win at COTA if it were not for a door issue paired with an untimely safety car period. Deflated, Toyota were noticeably 3rd best but not as far off the pace as in 2015. Toyota would rise again.

Autosport Toyota Fuji win

Photo Credit: Autosport

Fuji Japan hosted the World Endurance Championship’s (WEC) 7th round. And what a host it made! Possibly the most competitive LMP1 battle in the history of the series, Porsche, Toyota, and Audi were trading the lead all the way through the last hour when the crew of the #6 Toyota elected to not take tires on their final stop. The decision allowed them to exit with a twenty second lead over the #8 Audi. As the laps wound down, the Audi closed to within 3 seconds at the drop of the white flag. Japanese driver Kamui Kobayashi was able to navigate traffic on the final lap and give Toyota their first win since 2014 1.6 seconds ahead of the charging Audi. The win at their home track in one of the best races ever for the WEC boosted the team’s morale after nearly two full seasons of disappointment.

Porsche rebounded at round 8 in Shanghai, with the #1 car taking the win. The results positioned the team comfortably in control of both the Drivers and Manufacturers Championships heading into the final round in Bahrain. With Porsche focusing on reaching the end of the race without incident, Audi took full advantage. Audi Team Joest put on an endurance clinic. The four ringed team that has been a staple of the prototype category for nearly twenty years took home a 1-2 befitting for their marque. The win put an exclamation point to the end of the Audi era and provided the paddock with familiar visuals; Audi on the top steps of the podium.

Gizmag Porsche

Photo Credit: Gizmag

Ultimately, the #2 Porsche drivers hoisted the drivers title and Porsche did the double claiming the Manufacturers Championship as well.

HEADING INTO 2017:

Audi were joined by Rebellion, who opted for an LMP2 effort in 2017, in exiting LMP1. The head-to-head battle between Porsche and Toyota at the top is set. Not to be left out of the LMP1 party, the ByKOLLES team remains for 2017 as well. After two disappointing seasons in the category, the privateer team, via two major off-season upgrades, looks set to embark on their most competitive campaign to date.

The impact of Audi’s withdrawal and Mark Webber’s retirement from racing left one empty seat at Porsche and six former LMP1 Audi drivers looking for a ride. Let’s take a look at the teams and their lineups for 2017.

PORSCHE:

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A revised 919 Hybrid will be the chariot for the German team’s pilots. After winning the Drivers and Manufacturers championships, and claiming top honors at Le Mans, all in consecutive seasons, any open seat in the 919’s would rank among the most desirable in motorsport. Along with Mark Webber’s retirement, Mark Lieb and Romain Dumas’ departures left three such spots available to fill.

On the back of a powerful resume having won Le Mans three times, former Audi driver, Andre Lotterer will join Porsche in 2017. In addition to Lotterer in the #1 919 Hybrid, another former Le Mans winner Nick Tandy will share the car as a new teammate. Having shined in the teams 3rd car, winning the 2015 Le Mans race with Niko Hulkenberg and Earl Bamber, Tandy’s rise through the Porsche racing program has reached its peak. The duo will be rounded out by returning WEC Driver’s Champion, Neel Jani. It will be the first time the trio have raced together. The team will need to gel early if their 2017 goals are to be realized.

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Photo Credit: Porsche LMP1 Twitter

Brendon Hartley headlines the lineup for the #2 car. He will be joined by fellow New Zealander, Earl Bamber. Much like Nick Tandy, Bamber looks to add to his list of accomplishments with Porsche having risen through the GT ranks to reach the top seat the marque has to offer. The #2 car will have an advantage in continuity over the #1 in the form of Timo Bernhard. German born, Bernhard has raced with Hartley in the last three seasons and become an integral part of Porsches success.

The new 919 Hybrid was introduced at Monza, sparking some curiosity and conversation. Many could not see where the cars mirrors were and equally as many were stunned by the size of the headlights. Visuals aside, the car did well straight out of the box, leading two out of three sessions on the first day of practice.  The car was also notably quickest in the rain. Saturday night in the practice session at Monza was run primarily in the wet after a thunderstorm soaked the track early in the session.  Porsche found itself at the top of the timesheets for session’s entirety.

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Photo Credit: Daily Sportscar

Ultimately, Neel Jani logged the fastest lap for Porsche with a 1:31.606.  Overall, the testing event was a success for Porsche, turning more laps than Toyota and completing the test absent of any major setbacks.  The Porsches were spotted running slow on track on a few occasions, bet never failed to regain full power before returning to the pits.  Porsche’s 919 Hybrid appears every bit capable of defending its titles and Le Mans crown in 2017.

TOYOTA:

The Japanese manufacturer looks to step up its game in 2017. Hungry for accolades, the self-proclaimed “sore losers,” will run two heavily revised TS050’s for the full WEC season with an additional third car planned for Spa and Le Mans. Seeking their first taste of Le Mans victory, the team is fielding a potent driver lineup with many familiar faces for the season ahead.

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Photo Credit: Toyota GAZOO Racing Twitter

Toyota ran cars numbered #5 and #6 in 2016, for 2017 it will be cars #7, #8, and #9 (Spa and Le Mans only). Three time World Touring Car (WTC) Champion, Jose Maria Lopez is the only new addition to the full season lineup. The 33 year old shined in the WTC, and provides the team with another solid pair of hands. Lopez fills the seat occupied by Stephan Sarrazin alongside the returning Mike Conway, and Kamui Kobayashi in the #7 car. As for the #8 car, all three drivers are returning. Sebastian Buemi, Anthony Davidson, and Kazuki Nakajima, will take the grid with unfinished business on their mind after the 2016 Le Mans result.

Departed from the full season, but not from the team entirely, Sarrazin will lead the entry for the #9 car entered at both Spa and Le Mans. The two remaining open seats for the third car were announced just prior to the prologue event at Monza. Nicolas Lapierre will return to Toyota and look to take a third consecutive class win at Le Mans after winning the race in LMP2 for KCMG (2015), and Signatech Alpine (2016). The two-event third car lineup will be rounded out by Yuji Kunimoto. The Japanese driver is the reigning Super Formula champion and will be making his debut in prototypes with the Toyota ride.

Prologue Test

Photo Credit: NBC Sports

Unveiled at Monza, the TS050’s look largely unchanged from their 2016 versions.  A slightly raised nose and larger intakes at the front of the car are the main visual differences.  Toyota GAZOO Racing will be encouraged by the performance of the car at Monza. The Toyota’s lead two out of the five practice sessions and turned the fastest lap of the weekend. On the final practice session, Frenchman Nicolas Lapierre clocked an impressive 1:30.547 in the #8 Toyota.  The lap was a full second faster than the best Porsche could manage in the weekend.

Perhaps the most uplifting item for Toyota coming out of the prologue event was the cars pace on the straights. Porsche had been the fastest in previous seasons down the straights, but Toyota appears to have gained ground on Porsche at the very least.  Of course, being fast down the straights bodes very well for Le Mans.  Despite a few instances of stopping out on track, the Toyota looks to be up to the task of battling the Porsches at every stop on the calendar.

BYKOLLES:

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Photo Credit: ByKOLLES

A new look for ByKOLLES will, hopefully, achieve better results and more frequent finishes in 2017. As the only privateer team in LMP1, ByKOLLES are not afforded the hybrid boost systems ran by Porsche and Toyota per the regulation limits. However, the team will be running a presumably upgraded engine to what they ran in 2016. Over the winter break, ByKOLLES announced their car will run the engine from Nissan’s 2015 LMP1 car. The move from an AER engine to Nismo power should make for a faster, and more reliable car in 2017.

In addition to the engine upgrade, ByKOLLES have brought in some star power to headline their 2017 driver lineup. After teasing the racing world in 2017 with a drive at a testing session in 2016, Robert Kubica will join ByKOLLES for the full season. Many had ruled out the possibility of Kubica ever racing sports cars, let alone an LMP1 after a rallying accident in 2011 where he partially severed his forearm. The incident ended his Formula 1 career. Unabashed by the setback, Kubica resumed rallying in 2012, winning events, and taking home the World Rally-2 Championship in 2013 with Citroen.

Oliver Webb will continue with the team after competing in the 2016 campaign. His return, as of yet, is the only major carry over from the prior year’s car. The third seat for the ByKOLLES car remains open.

We got a glimpse of the capabilities of the new package in Italy at the prologue event, and it would turn out to be just that, a glimpse only. The ByKOLLES LCM P1/01 managed to turn only a few laps during a wet session in Monza.  The team will have to come to grips with their mechanical woes if they are to steal occasional podiums. With the new LMP2 cars being significantly faster than years past, ByKOLLES could find itself scrapping for overall positions with LMP2’s should the team encounter even the slightest hiccups during races.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR:

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Photo Credit: Daily Sportscar

Toyota will have to take a step forward to regularly compete with Porsche for race wins. Although the Japanese team was in contention at most races in 2016, the TS050’s lacked the outright pace of the 919’s. Clearly Toyota want to seize their opportunity with less competition at Le Mans after Audi’s withdrawal. Committing for a three car effort might finally result in Toyota’s breakthrough Le Mans win.

Porsche undoubtedly look to continue their reign in 2017. The German manufacturer must not become apathetic and continue develop their ride. Elsewise the old racing adage of, “if you’re not moving forward you’re moving backward,” will again prove true. Porsche could find itself looking up at Toyota come years end if it does not stay sharp. Toyota are as hungry as ever.

Watch out for ByKOLLES scoring occasional podiums in races heavy with attrition. The team will be looking for better results with their new Nissan engine and stout driver’s lineup. If Kubica shines, a 2018 ride with one of the hybrid teams may not be out of the question. ByKOLLES also stands to get a head start on the 2018 season when more non-hybrid LMP1’s (GInetta, SMP Racing, Rebellion) are expected.

Despite having a reduced car count, 2017 will be an important year for the WEC. Perhaps more important than the on track action will be information regarding the future direction of the series. The series is desperate to add another manufacturer and the meetings by the ACO and WEC surrounding the Le Mans event could produce some news and hints of what to expect in the coming seasons. Perhaps IMSA’s Dpi’s will be permitted to race at Le Mans? Maybe new regulations will be announced that appeal to Peugeot? Expect L&T Motorsport to keep fans informed of all pertinent WEC and prototype news for the season’s entirety!

Silverstone cannot come soon enough. It’s time to go racing again in the WEC!

Rob Carlson

Enthusiastic San Diego based petrol head with a BS in Business Management.

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