International Racing

International Racing

What’s new in the WEC?

With Silverstone’s opener starting this month, here’s how things are poised in the wake of Audi’s exit

BY GARY WATKINS

Audi has departed, leaving Toyota as the only rival to Porsche’s supremacy at the front of the field. There’s a new breed of faster – much faster – LMP2 car and new rules in GTE to spice up the action. A lot has changed in the World Endurance Championship for 2017.

Toyota might have been Porsche’s only challenger for the title going into last year’s WEC finale in Bahrain, but the reality was that its all-new TS050 Hybrid wasn’t a regular challenger for race victories. There are multiple reasons why that could change for the 2017 season, which kicks off at Silverstone on April 16.

Toyota arguably has more to gain with its year-old TS050 Hybrid (below) than Porsche has with an older design. The German manufacturer, championship winner for the past two years, is going into its third season with its second 919 Hybrid, a machine that was in turn a redesign of the 2014 original.

Toyota had a lot to learn in 2016 after its switch to a small-capacity, direct-injection turbo engine and battery storage for its hybrid energy, the same technology used by Porsche since its return to top-flight sports car racing.

“This year we are definitely in a better position: we are in better-known territory with scope for progress, possibly more scope than Porsche, because we are newer to these technologies,” says Toyota Motorsport technical director Pascal Vasselon.

Enforced changes to front and rear aerodynamics, to deprive the cars of downforce, could play into Toyota’s hands. It has traditionally focused its more limited resources on its low-downforce package for the Le Mans 24 Hours, which has held it back in the regular WEC six-hour races.

LMP2 lap times will tumble thanks to extra power and aero

“The new regulations, I would say, better suit our resource limitations,” says Vasselon. “You will have more things in common between the two car specs.”

LMP1 cars, like their LMP2 cousins, will be restricted to four and a half sets of tyres for qualifying and the race, a reduction of eight tyres. That puts a new onus on double-stinting the Michelins that both manufacturers use. Toyotas have traditionally been light on their tyres in the short history of the reborn WEC.

“It was definitely one of our strengths last year,” says Toyota driver Anthony Davidson. “And it was the same back in 2014 when we won the championship.”

FASTER LMP2 MACHINERY

A new breed of P2 racing car comes on stream in 2017. More power – somewhere in the region of 100bhp extra from the spec Gibson V8 – and more downforce mean lap times are going to tumble.

Expect the new cars – all French-produced ORECAs in the WEC – to lap the Silverstone Grand Prix circuit three to four seconds quicker than their predecessors. And at Le Mans, when all four of the constructors licensed to build cars to the new rules are present, times in the region of 3min 25sec are predicted. That’s more than 10sec faster than last year’s class pole.

Faster means more difficult to drive, which is significant in what is meant to be a pro-am category. The key to success in P2 has been finding a quick silver-rated driver – there must be one per car. Witness the Signatech Alpine team’s run to the title in 2016, with American Gustavo Menezes – a refugee of the European Formula 3 seriers – as its ‘amateur’.

Former LMP1 privateer Rebellion is switching to LMP2

Alex Brundle, who is returning to the WEC with the team bearing the name of Hollywood action hero Jackie Chan, thinks the dynamic could change.

“These cars are a lot less plug-and-play than what we had before,” says the Briton, three times a class winner last year. “You really have to attack from the moment you hit the brake pedal to the moment you turn in. And if you screw up mid-corner, because all the extra power is in the top end, you’re going to lose a lot of time.

“We are going to find out who can really drive with these cars. If you manage to get a sneaky ex-GP2 driver as your silver, that’s going to be significant with the extra power and downforce.”

A FULL WORLD TITLE

The manufacturers and drivers in GTE Pro will battle it out for full world championship titles in 2017. They previously competed for what were known as World Endurance Cups. It might sound like a matter of semantics, but it’s a big deal for the car makers taking part, namely Aston Martin, Ferrari, Ford, Porsche and, from 2018, BMW. They were the ones who pushed for the upgrade in status and, after being rebuffed by the FIA at the end of 2015, they got their wish this season.

A new system of equating GTE performance – front- and mid-engined, turbo and normally aspirated – comes on stream this season. This so-called ‘automatic’ Balance of Performance was desperately needed. The battle in GTE Pro was close in the final points table last year, but rarely so out on the track as a topsy-turvy BoP handed one car and then the next an advantage.

GTE battle is now for a world championship

Exactly how it works hadn’t been disclosed at press time, because the final details had yet to be thrashed out ahead of the official WEC pre-season test at Monza on April 1/2. It appears that an average lap time over a full stint will be worked out for each make of car based on its performance in its best two stints of the race. The BoP will then be adjusted accordingly for the next event. The idea is to give the process a fresh transparency.

Allied to this system are new sporting rules to put a cap on the tyre war that has lately proved pivotal in GTE Pro title battles. Mid-season tyre development by Porsche in 2015 and Aston Martin in 2016, with respective partners Michelin and Dunlop, gave them a leg-up in the battle for the championship.

Michelin and Dunlop, the only two tyre suppliers in the WEC for the moment, are limited to three specifications of tyre per car over the course of the season. That contrasts, for example, with the seven specs of Dunlop used by Aston last season. The same regulation that limits the prototypes to four sets of tyres for qualifying and the race also comes into force in GTE Pro.

IMAGES: LAT & DUNLOP