The conclusion to the FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC) in 2017 at times seemed like the end of an era and possibly the end of top-class prototype competition. Cue the announcement of the plan for the 2018-2019 “Super-Season” shifting the World Championship from a European summer series to an extended season incorporating two Spa 6-hour & Le Mans 24-hour races, creating more fear for the future among the fans. But with eyes set on the prize the ACO and FIA did not shift from their vision and added a cherry to the championship announcing a shift of North American venue from COTA to the historic venue of Sebring in early 2019 – perhaps this could work out OK?
At the 2017 season finale in Bahrain, Boris Rotenberg unveiled BR Engineering’s BR1 chassis with both AER (V6 turbo) power for SMP Racing, and V8 power of the new Gibson LMP1 engine as Dragonspeed announced they had also selected this chassis for their LMP1 program.
A long cold winter of speculation followed and started to show signs of spring with the confirmation of two full-season Toyota TS050-Hybrids (with double F1 World Champion Fernando Alonso confirmed for the full season) and the ByKolles ENSO CLM P1/01 Nismo.
In January the emergence of the long awaited Ginetta LMP1 chassis, the ponderously titled G60-LT-P1, powered by an endurance specific derivative of the Mecachrome F2 power unit at the Autosport show further peeked excitement – how many P1 entrants could there actually be this season?
The next big announcement sees Rebellion Racing return to the top category from time in LMP2 running two newly-developed Oreca R13s both with a high performance derivative of the Gibson power unit utilised in LMP2 – and as if to add icing to their cake, on the eve of the Prologue Rebellion announced a new technical partnership which brings the famous TVR name back to top flight motorsport.
Hence we now see a total of ten, yes 1-0, TEN LMP1s enter the 2018-19 season, and its the variety that gives substantial reason for hope and optimism.
In the past the technical team at WEC, lead by Vincent Beaumesnil, have utilised the Equivalence of Technology (EoT) measures to try to ensure that past Hybrid systems have been comparable allowing the manufacturers to explore different packages and levels whilst still achieving the competitive racing that we have become used to on this pinnacle of motorsport. Their challenge now though becomes arguably tougher, but they have the tools and practices to achieve the same across the diversity of normally-aspirated, turbo-charged and hybrid systems to be found in this Super-Season.
Potentially the largest challenge the tech team will face is to pander to the one remaining manufacturer’s (Toyota) needs whilst ensuring the LMP1 category remains close and competitive.
Beaumesnil and his team also need to show the plethora of GTE-Pro manufacturers (and those stood in the wings) that this form of motorsport is the place to be. A step from GTE to LMP1 remains feasible; with Ferrari once again making noises about their existence in Formula 1 not being a given, and having achieved everything in GTE-Pro as 2017 World Champions, Aston Martin and to a lesser extent Porsche and BMW (for different reasons) are all interested in new regulations for 2020 and the ability to fight for overall victories must be a prize worth chasing? Those now in the wings could include Mercedes, Audi and Bentley; with a centenary anniversary for the Le Mans 24-hours on the horizon Bentley must feel the hand of history on its shoulder… Have the ‘racing trucks’ still got it?
Of course the beauty of WEC racing is in the categorisation, and should LMP1 not live up to its past glories then its is quite clear that a competitive LMP2 category of 8-cars will bring close combative racing once more. Whilst the category has to-date been dominated by the still prevalent Oreca 07, some diversity is creeping in this season with both Dallara and Ligier represented to varying degrees.
The other news for LMP2 is a tyre-war has broken out of the winter with incumbent Dunlop being challenged by plucky French upstart monolith Michelin in 2018-19. Three teams have taken the Euro over the Pound and gone French on tyres, the Racing Team Nederland Dallara P217 (Top-Banana to its friends!), the good old US of A entrant from Dragonspeed (Oreca 07) are forming a special relationship, and naturally the French entry Larbre Competition with their 2018 Ligier JSP217-Gibson.
The ranks of GTE-Pro have been bolstered this season by the long awaited return of BMW to endurance racing, and if the past and progress elsewhere is anything to go by they will not hang-around in getting right on the pace and contending for category wins. The BMW M8 GTE looks enormous, but much like the Bentley in GT3 competition its powerful stance is just evidence of its intent, and given the driver line-up we do not expect them to hang around, as exemplified by their progress year to-date in IMSA competition.
All the usual suspects from Ferrari, Porsche and Ford return with their latest sharpened saws and improvements. Aston Martin Racing brings a completely new toolkit to the category in the form of the Aston Martin Vantage AMR, which may be a wonderfully beautiful machine but wearing its new hi-vis safety livery we personally find it a bit too nouveau for our eyes, and hence may afford it a degree of ridicule until they paint/wrap it in something a little more becoming of an Aston Martin.
In GTE-Am we now thankfully have a challenge to the Ferrari 488 GTE in the form of the Porsche 911 RSR with its a mid-ships power unit accommodating the de-rigure huge rear diffuser!
We are also blessed as it turns out (thanks to the regs) with another 18-months of the venerable Aston Martin Vantage in its 2017 form, which is a huge relief to many a connoisseur!
And so with the scene seemingly set for 2018-19 transition, the “Super-Season” there was just one more surprise to be sprung when SMP Racing announced this week that 2009 F1 World Champion Jensen Button would join them in the BR1 from Le Mans onwards.
More to come but book some time next weekend to tune in to the WEC as it kicks off not on the snow swept steeps of Northamptonshire at Silverstone but in the rolling hills of the Ardennes at the jewel of Belgium motorsport Spa-Francorchamps. All the usual platforms should be offering along with the addition of Velocity in the USA and DMax live in Spain.