PORSCHE LMP TEAM. Porsche 919 Hybrid. Neel Jani (CHE) / André Lotterer (DEU) / NickTandy (GBR)

A week today we’ll all be reminiscing about what a great/good/not bad race we’ve just seen at a sunny/rainy/cold/snow-bound Silverstone; so let’s take a meander through the classes and see just what we can maybe expect to see from the runners and riders of the FIA World Endurance Championship Class of 2017.

LMP1

It’s all change at the sharp end of the field, with a brave new Audi-free world. The Monza Prologue showed that whilst reputations and history are respected, everything moves on and whilst there may have been misgivings and concerns in private of how the Ingolstadt gap would be filled, Toyota and Porsche stepped up to the plate and showed themselves to be more than capable of continuing the spectacle.

2017 could be seen to be a transitional year for LMP1, almost treading water until the entry of (at least) the customer Ginetta chassis in 2018, but the speeds shown at Monza do go some way to alleviate the concerns that the season would be somewhat of a dead rubber.

Rebellion may have moved to LMP2, but ByKolles remain in a newly merged category, there now no longer being LMP1-H versus LMP1-L, factory versus privateer, they all fight for the same podium.

Porsche 919 Hybrid

The defending champions return with an updated 919 Hybrid, retaining the 2016 tub but with 60 – 70% of the car being newly developed, according to acting Technical Director and Team Principal Andreas Seidl. The two immediately obvious things that you will see are a change of livery to the new corporate scheme also seen on the Porsche GTE entries and those massive headlights. They’ll be little sleeping on Tertre Rouge this year as the 919s pass!

Photo: Kristof Vermeulen. Raceshots.be / Club Arnage

Porsche again compete in the highest efficiency class, the 919 allowed to use 8 megajoules of recovered energy and just 4.31 litres of fuel over a lap of Le Mans; the newly refined aero packages harnessing the buzz phrase of marginal gains to garner every hundredth of a second in lap time. Being restricted to just two aero packages this year, a ‘Le Mans’ low downforce and a ‘normal’ higher downforce will highlight any deficiencies in the design team’s work with a more compromised approach to aero setup now forced upon the teams.

Driver wise, 2016 saw Mark Webber retire from the cockpit and Romain Dumas and Marc Lieb leave the LMP1 team, their replacements being Earl Bamber in the #2 car, joining Timo Bernhard and Brendon Hartley and Nick Tandy and Audi refugee André Lotterer in the #1, joining current World Champion Neel Jani. It remains to be seen how quickly the new crews will jell, especially in the #1, but from the times displayed at the Prologue, lack of pace will not be a factor for either car.

Toyota TS050 Hybrid

Like Porsche, the 2017 TS050 Hybrid is an update of the previous year’s car, however, virtually everything has been fettled in one way or another. Who can predict what dramas await the Toyota Gazoo team this year. Surely 2017 cannot be as harsh for the Cologne based team as 2016.

Keeping the same monocoque as 2016, the TS050’s two aero packages have been finessed and refined but it is under the surface that we suspect the main bulk of the off season has been spent working on. Every area of the car apart from the monocoque has seen updates and improvements, not least the powertrain, comprising a new 2.4litre, twin-turbo, direct injection V6 petrol engine combined with an 8MJ battery hybrid system, designed and developed at the Motor Sport Unit Development Division at Higashi-Fuji Technical Centre. The seriousness of this work and the intent to demonstrate reliability is seen from the quoted figure of 30,000km of test mileage completed before the Prologue. Toyota certainly does not want a repeat of its 2016 Le Mans heartache.

The driver squad has changed slightly for 2017, with José María López joining Mike Conway and Kamui Kobayashi in the #7, replacing Stephane Sarrazin whilst the #8 crew remains as Sebastien Buemi, Anthony Davidson and Kazuki Nakajima. The gentleman’s agreement to keep the rules static with the resulting implications for budget, mean a third Toyota will take to the grid for Spa and Le Mans, to be piloted by Stephane Sarrazin, Nicolas Lapierre and Super Formula champion Yuji Kunimoto, quite a formidable line up.

One area that Porsche do not seem to have fear of budget spend is FIA fines if the Prologue is anything to go by. While the Toyota’s paraded down pit lane to scrutineering for all the world to see, the Porsches were neatly shielded in form fitting covers.

Obviously, the times posted from the Monza Prologue have to be taken with a pinch of salt, nobody except the teams know what programmes they were working through or how many sandcastles could be built from the luggage being carried, but both Toyota and Porsche ran reliably and visibly quickly with Earl Bamber topping the speed charts in the #2 car clocking in a 319.5 kph hotly followed by it’s sister #1 car 3 kph down. Interestingly, the fastest Toyota was the #8 of ‘Comeback Kid’ Nicolas Lapierre with a speed of 306.8 kph, a whopping 13.3 kph slower than the Porsche and only fast enough to claim 8th place overall in the top-speed stakes ….. watch out for the LMP2s guys (but more on that in a moment). 

ByKolles ENSO CLM P1/01 Nismo

The ByKolles team return to LMP1 in 2017 with an updated chassis that has not only gained a few more letters in its name, but also a new power-plant and what a power-plant at that. A troubled 2016 saw the team battle with an AER engine that, unlike the installation in the Rebellion R-One’s, took favourably to becoming an external combustion engine on more than one occasion. This obviously limited track time, limiting development data and ultimately limiting the chances of Oliver Webb, Simon Trummer, Pierre Kaffer and James Rossiter to show what the car was capable of.

The addition of Nismo as the 2017 motive power partner could prove a major coup for the team. The engine being used is not the more familiar global Nismo offering as used in DPi, Super GT etc but the compact, light and powerful Cosworth-designed unit from the nascent Nissan LMP1 GT-R LM project.   If the installation is more or less problem free and the cooling requirements of the engine can be met, it will be very interesting to see the speeds the CLM is capable of (providing it holds together – more of that in a mo too!).

If we think back to the Nissan GTR-LM’s pace at Le Mans, it was forced to carry around the weight of a dead hybrid system, operate solely in front wheel drive configuration and yet it was still quick in a straight line (we’ll gloss over the corners bit here). 

Unfortunately, and somewhat true to the team’s form, the Prologue proved a troubled weekend for ByKolles, the CLM shedding its rear wing after only 6 laps, only one of which was a flying lap, after missing the first two sessions whilst the new engine installation was completed, at the hands of Oliver Webb.

The other confirmed driver, ex Sauber F1 driver, Robert Kubica, who is making his return to a full season circuit drive after injury did not get the chance to try the updated car. This has to be a worry for the team, especially if they can’t fit in a test pre-Silverstone, which will see the race being logically treated as a test session to iron out those initial teething troubles. No third driver has been announced, although Dominik Kraihamer was due to test the car at Monza.

There has been obvious aero work on the car and it does display some very neat touches at the front, we just hope that it gets to log some significant track time this season. Providing the team can get the car on the grid, keep all of the bits attached to it throughout the race and keep the fire inside the engine’s combustion chambers, this is one to watch with interest for the stat geeks.

This year promises to be quite a lonely one for the ByKolles team and realistically not being in contention for for any podium places, their focus will likely be defending themselves from the very rapid LMP2 ranks. 2018 and competition against Ginetta customer chassis will seem a long way away at times.

Before we wrap up the LMP1 category, did you notice the difference between the Porsche and the Toyota? Yep, we did too, but wait until the are hammering past you at 300 kph …. just for once we’d like to see a braver, bolder approach to liveries as we feel there will be many occasions where a Porsche is mistaken for a Toyota and vice versa this year.

LMP2

Unlike the European Le Mans Series, LMP2 in WEC has turned into a spec series with every team opting for an Oreca 07 (and I’m including the Alpine A470 in that, which is an Oreca with a sticker, or ‘Same Man, Different Hat’ if you will).

Of course, in 2015 the four (and ‘only four’) ‘worldwide’ LMP2 chassis manufacturers were announced by the FIA, ACO and IMSA, they being; Dallara, Onroak (Ligier), Oreca and Multimatic/Riley with a single spec engine from Gibson Technology. However, we now technically have five with the Alpine A470 being homologated, so one does wonder just how that has been allowed (how very urm, ‘French’), although even we have to admit they are a rather fetching shade of blue.

Variety will be seen at Le Mans though with the ELMS entrants bringing their Ligier and Dallara chassis’.

As ever, there has been some shuffling and moving over the close season, not least in who gets to play with the Russian money this year. G-Drive Racing have moved on from Jota to the TDS squad, Pierre Thiriet joining Roman Rusinov and Alex Lynn in the #26, once again competed in the familiar orange livery alongside the other TDS #28 entry for François Perrodo, Matthieu Vaxivière and Emmanuel Collard.

No 26 G-Drive Racing Oreca 07 Gibson. Pierre Thiriet, Roman Rusinov and Alex Lynn.

Jota meanwhile have signed to run the two-car Jackie Chan DC Racing effort featuring the eponymous #38. The driver line up is a real statement of intent, comprising Ho-Pin Tung, Oliver Jarvis and Thomas Laurent in the aforementioned ‘Mighty 38’ and David Cheng, Alex Brundle and Tristan Gommendy in the sister #37. Both cars wear a bold, striking livery and will definitely be ones to watch, especially David Cheng who is unable to look anything but cool no matter what he is doing.

China is the emerging market when it comes to motorsport sponsors and Manor WEC have admirably tapped into that stream with their tie up with China Energy Company Limited (CEFC), a company with a 2014 turnover of CN¥220 billion, so not small fry. This means that unlike last year the two Manor Orecas will feature a plethora of sponsorship stickers, especially with the late addition of SMP Racing branding courtesy of Vitaly Petrov being confirmed as the third driver of the #24.

Vitaly Petrov brings SMP money to Manor CEFC.

That leaves us with Rebellion and their return to LMP2 along with a new livery and a new name, Vaillante Rebellion, the tie in with the French cartoon hero ensuring what is sure to be a big following at La Sarthe in June. Again, a strong driver line up with David Heinemeier Hansson returning to prototype racing, sharing the #13 with Mathias Beche and Nelson Piquet Jr., whilst the #31 features names to evoke many memories as Bruno Senna teams up with Nicolas Prost alongside Julien Canal, who may feel pressure at some point in the season to change his name to something more period. What price a Senna, Prost, (Julien) Mansell line up?

With everyone running the same car, the interest factor in LMP2 will be down to reliability and driver ability. If an issue such as the brake system shenanigans rears its head again, it’s likely to effect everyone and driver ability and sensibility is going to be a major factor due to the speeds the LMP2s are currently reaching.

These new LMP2s are fast, really fast, the Signatech Alpine clocking up a whopping 314 kph at Monza in the hands of Ex-Porsche LMP1 driver Romain Dumas (indeed five LMP2s placed before the fastest Toyota in Monza). It all means that the LMP2 drivers and teams are going to need to manage track position very carefully and try and reign in the red mist. Do not be surprised if they are reigned back a bit mid season

GTE Pro

The usual variety of manufactures compete in GTE, with Ford returning with two Chip Ganassi UK entries against the Ferrari 488s of AF Corse, the Vantages of Aston Martin and the new Porsche “not mid-engine’d” 911 RSRs of the factory Porsche GT Team.

The new automatic BoP system will hopefully try and alleviate some of the ill feeling at constant changes to restrictor sizes which at times seemed to be at an almost per session basis rather than per race. It’s a necessary evil, especially with the new cars being entered, as if allowed to compete unhindered, nobody would have touched the Ford “Proto-LMP”-GT a like last year, even without the massively unsubtle sudden 5 second gap during Le Mans qualifying.

The new 911 is a beast. If you look at the old 911s, such as the Proton or Gulf GTE-AM entries and then push down on them whilst pulling them out from the sides, you’ll get the new factory 911. Also, kick the engine forward a bit (but according to Porsche it’s “not mid-engined”, despite the power-plant sitting in the middle of the car). A serious piece of kit and once again it could be argued they are much more prototype than GT, but at least Porsche have had the decency to admit they’re not going to make any road variants and not take homologation waivers a couple of times before a road version appears. Who’d wait to produce a road version until after you’ve won the big prize eh?

One of the big stories last year in GTE-Pro was whether you ran two or three drivers? It was eventually proven that two was the way to go, it simplifies setup and if you can double stint the tyres it makes race strategy easier with reduced pit time. It is slightly surprising then that both Ford and Aston Martin are back with 3 drivers in each of their cars, at least for Silverstone, Billy Johnson joining Stefan Mücke and Olivier Pla in the #66 GT and Pipo Derani partnering Harry Tincknell and Andy Priaulx in the #67.  

No.67 Ford Chip Ganassi Team UK Ford GT. Pipo Derani (BRA) / Harry Tincknell (GBR) / Andy Priaulx (GBR)

Aston bring back Kiwi Richie Stanaway and introduce development driver Daniel Serra for the #95 and #97 respectively; no place this year for Social Media favourite Fernando Rees, seemingly the victim of a requirement to lose one driver through no fault of their own.

No.97 ASTON MARTIN RACING V8 Vantage. Darren Turner (GBR) / Jonathan Adam (GBR) / Richie Stanaway (NZL)

A great shame as the level of fan engagement that Fernando brings to a drive fits perfectly with the ethos that the WEC is trying to develop within its fan base, so whilst dropping a driver can be appreciated if the performances are awry, in Rees’ case the lap times and race craft were not of an appreciably lower standard that anybody else’s.

No.51 AF Corse Ferrari 488 GTE.

AF Corse will once gain be there or there abouts in the 488 GTEs, maybe helped by the fact that the BoP is initially based on the Ferrari chassis. It will be interesting to see though how AF Corse and Aston react to the Ford and Porsche entries and whether there are again shenanigans with light feet and sandcastle construction mediums.

It would be naive to think that any team is going to be truly open with their pace before Le Mans and also that full-faith will be placed in the new BoP system, so expect arguments a plenty and possibly toys being thrown out of the pram at various points in the season.

GTE Am

Singapore based Clearwater Racing enhance their 2016 Le Mans entry to a full season entry in a strikingly liveried ex-Gimi Bruni Ferarri 488 GTE with Ferrari stalwart Matt Griffin slotting in beside team regulars Keita Sawa and Weng Sun Mok. 

The other 488 in the Am class is in the hands of the Swiss registered Spirit of Race, or AF Corse if you prefer, with Swiss Vistajet airline magnate Thomas Flohr moving up to the WEC from occasional forays in ELMS and the Michelin Cup joining former some-time Aston Martin driver Francesco Castellacci and former Audi DTM driver Miguel Molina.

It could be a tough season for the #54 Spirit of race entry, they will need to lean heavily on the experience and knowledge of AF Corse to navigate through the season with the best results and one would imagine there will be cross-pollination of data throughout the AF Corse empire.

The single Aston Martin Am entry is a rubber stamp of last year; Paul Dalla Lana bringing his Vantage chassis, complete with new aero updates, back to the party with the usual driver line-up of Pedro Lamy and Matthias Lauda. Prologue times show them to be on, or very near the pace (bags of sand and programmes dependent) so expect another good showing this year from the squad who will be hoping to improve on their 3rd place in the Championship last year.

The remaining two entries are Porsches, the more familiar looking 911 RSRs of Gulf Racing and Dempsey Proton. Ben Barker in the familiar blue and orange livered Porsche once again joins Michael Wainwright but Nicholas Foster joins this year in place of Adam Carrol.  

Dempsey Proton drop down to Am from last year’s Pro entry with Proton regular Christian Ried anchoring the young Porsche specialist Matteo Cairoli with the equally shy of years Marvin Dienst, an ADAC Formula 4 and GT Masters graduate. This will inevitably be a tough season for the Dempsey Proton squad but if they keep their nose’s clean then results should follow in this very tight class.

The main issues facing the GTE-Am entries will be the continual sunrise from those monster lights when the 919 Hybrids fly up behind them and the terrific speed of the LMP2s expecting space to be given at all points.

Conclusions

2017 will be a fascinating season. Everybody was concerned when Audi left and many still believe that that is now an act in haste and repent at leisure situation, but the world continues to spin and cars continue to race in circles.

If either Porsche or Toyota find the sweet spot with their car and run away into the distance, LMP1 has the potential to be very processional, but if they both remain close on lap times then some epic battles await.

Then we can add the newly rapid LMP2s into the mix, who will have designs on getting back past the LMP1s into corners at the end of the straights only to be passed again on the exit. Mulsanne corner could be a very interesting place to watch this year.

Finally, in GTE-Pro we will witness two effective prototype models take on two road-car developments while the GTE-Am guys will be running their own race but trying to keep out of the way of everyone else.

Sit down, strap yourself in and get ready for the drop of the flag, once again, we are about to be treated to the pinnacle of endurance racing on the planet.

Carlos Pelosi for Sportscarglobal