As the final round of the 2015 WEC season gets underway, Radio Le Mans’ John Hindhaugh reports from the sand and the sunshine in the desert heat of Bahrain.
As the teams of the WEC head towards the last six hours of racing for this season, remarkably at this point, only two titles have as yet been decided. Congratulations to Rebellion, who wrapped up the ‘Privateers’ LMP1 crown at Shanghai, despite a spectacular engine fire on one of their glorious R-1 Prototypes. Chef d’Equipe Bart Hayden told me that the car will be repaired and running at Bahrain, as the aim is now to secure a 1-2 in the Championship.
One has to wonder about the future of the engineering-led private teams. Despite the best efforts – not to mention the inconsiderable investment by Rebellion and CLM ByKolles – the regulations have simply not allowed them to close the gap against mega-funded factory hybrid teams. ByKolles have committed to designing and building two new chassis for 2016: a race car and a spare. Yet, before any aspiring LMP1 drivers get too excited, it should be said that the involvement of Bart Haydon’s squad looks far less sure.
With their superb engineering skills going relatively unrewarded in LMP1, and with no place for any chassis designed and built by teams in the brave new world of 2017 LMP2 regulations, there’s a real chance that these teams – along with Strakka, SMP and a number of others that have come to represent the lifeblood of endurance racing – could be lost from the sport.
In the LMP1 class for factory teams, Porsche’s 1-2 finish in China has finally put them arithmetically out of reach of Audi in the Manufacturers’ World Championship. Ever since Le Mans, it was only going to be a matter of time before the title was sealed. Porsche have dominated qualifying, locking out every front row this season, and clearly have the fastest car. Reliability issues prevented the early season results that their pace promised but, since their historic 17th overall victory at La Sarthe in June, they have edged – inexorably – toward the title.
The pace of development at the front of the field this year has been simply stunning. Toyota held the qualifying lap record at Shanghai, with their 2015 cars chopping an impressive 2.5 seconds off that time, yet ended up starting just 5th and 6th. Porsche annihilated the old mark, stopping the clocks at a time of over six seconds better than the record, in far from perfect conditions. Safe to say that, in Bahrain, we’ll be watching the qualifying timing screens very closely to see what Porsche – and to a certain extent, Audi – can do to the records there.
Audi must surely head to the Sakhir Circuit somewhat downhearted; their manufacturer title ceded to group rivals Porsche, despite a brilliant display of driving and strategy in China. Convincingly out-gunned in qualifying, their 2015 R18 showed it has good race pace and is, at least at times, able to pressure the Porsche 919. At Fuji and Shanghai, the four-ringed LMP1 captured the fastest race lap. The No. 7 of Marcel Fassler, Andre Lotterer and Benoit Treluyer can still win the Drivers’ Championship. Wins at Silverstone and Spa, along with a third at double-points scoring Le Mans, as well as an unexpected second place in the USA, kept them at the top of the standings, at least until Fuji. But, alas, their rivals in the No. 17 Porsche have assembled a four-race winning streak that stretches back to the Nurburgring in August.
Mark Webber, Brendon Hartley and Timo Bernhard take a 12-point advantage to the final six hours. Even if the No. 7 Audi wins in Bahrain, as long as the Porsche No. 17 gets to the chequered flag, they should be Champions. It’s hard to imagine the Porsche still running even somewhere near cleanly and being beaten by both Audis, nevermind finishing behind one of the Toyotas as well.
However, stranger things have happened. Tyre regulations this year restrict the LMP1 teams to four sets of slick tyres in the 4 hours of practice, and just six for qualifying and the six hour race itself. Porsche have found it hardest to maintain performance when ‘double stinting’ on a set of tyres. That is, either re-using a set already on the car, or leaving on a set for a second tank of fuel. In the heat of the desert, this could end up being a critical factor.
Porsche face a conundrum in qualifying, where there’s an all-important point for pole position. The way it works is as follows: Two of the three drivers must record a fast lap, and the position on the grid is determined by the average of those laps. Thus, conventional wisdom suggests giving each driver a new set of Michelins – effectively taking the pole and the point in the process – is the way to go. That would ensure even a disastrous 4th position finish would tie a race-winning No. 7 Audi on points, snatching the Championship on 4 race wins (to the Audi’s 3). But it would also use up the best of two sets of precious new rubber, at least one of which would need to go back on the car, most probably at the end of the race in the cooler darkness hours.
• Toyota are due a clean race, and probably some luck on their side. Their TS040s are fast in the heat, and have performed well at Sakhir Circuit in the past.
• Audi eschewed even fighting for pole – ‘burning’ a second set of new tyres in China and gambling on a dry race that didn’t come, they’ll see little drop-off in pace on a second tyre stint.
• There is still a question mark over Porsche’s reliability in the heat: Witness the ‘Juliet-6’ failure for the No. 18 at Circuit of the Americas, where temperatures were high, but not Bahrain levels.
So, still plenty of Championship-deciding reasons to be engrossed in the front of the field, quite apart from the cartoon-like speed of the cars, and the remarkable spectacle of these high-tech machines battling wheel-to-wheel.
Throughout the other classes, too, there’s plenty to be decided.
Rebellion’s Nicolas Prost and Mathias Beche need just a classified finish to confirm the Private LMP1 Drivers’ Trophy. And in the World Endurance Cup for GT drivers, Porsche factory driver Richard Lietz has a very handy 20-point lead over Davide Rigon and James Calado in the No. 71 Ferrari.
In the GT Manufacturers’ World Championship, Ferrari hold a 4-point margin over classic endurance rivals Porsche. And in GTE-AM, the SMP Ferrari trio of Viktor Shaytar, Aleksey Basov and Andrea Bertolini hold a 19-point advantage over AF Corse Ferrari drivers Francois Perrodo, Rui Aguas and the evergreen Emmauel Collard. As for the teams’ title, SMP and AF Corse will also fight out a 19-point gap.
Moving into LMP2, after multiple incidents and controversy at Fuji – and the contradictory Stewards’ decisions which followed – it was to be a more straightforward race at Shanghai, leaving the two Championship contenders separated by 16-points in both Drivers’ and Teams’ standings.
As it is, the 26 G-Drive squad currently hold the advantage over the KCMG, which includes Porsche factory driver and overall Le Mans winner, Nick Tandy. Nick’s not raced every round in LMP2, so only his British team mates Matt Howsen and Richard Bradley have an outside chance of the trophy.
The wildcard here, though, is the26 Signatech Alpine which won the class at Shanghai. Strengthening an already capable team of Paul-Loup Chatin and Nelson Panciatici, former GP2 race winner Tom Dillmann is back for the race in Bahrain. If Panciatici can keep his focus, I’d not be surprised to see that car in the mix. And so, the 36 Alpine could certainly play a part in the destination of the title. Watch this space.