Nick Holland considers recent LMP1 changes and creative possibilities for 2016.
It is oft quoted that ‘a week is a long time in politics’, the FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC) has recently taken this to a whole new level. The 2015 season was official drawn to a close in Bahrain on Sunday evening with a glittering fancy white beach celebration. The finalised positions in the final hour of the last race of the season had been settled for all the classifications.
Less than a week later, Audi celebrated its motorsport season, and with little in the WEC 2015 cupboard filled that particular void by presenting its new 2016 R18. A radical, striking departure from the years of evolution, much may be proven and tested but that look is a ‘marmite’ production of GTR-LM proportions.
Potentially heavily influenced by the high-nose of recent Formula One cars, and with time, speed and wins will no doubt gain the respect, even love(?), of the paddock.
In the dark recesses behind this launch however a nightmare lurked in the form of the need for budgetary control in light of the Volkswagen Group’s acceptance of wrong-doing in the use of a diesel ‘defeat device’ to succeed at loosely regulated & poorly managed enviromental tests.
The budgetary constraints meant that decisions had to be made. The new for 2016 R18 had already been committed to, Audi could surely not bow out after welcoming so many challenges, and in 2015 been found wanting.. The Porsche 919 Hybrid had been such a leap forward and so dominant it surely, with enhancements, has more to give.. Hence somewhere in the bowels of the corporate parent a seemingly at first impressions ‘fair’ deal was struck. The costs of each team running a third car at Le Mans would be sacrificed… (I’m intrigued as to how much that saves, my thought is barely enough to cover the VWG Board’s annual biscuit budget!)
A deal, yes between Audi Sport & Porsche, fair… well not entirely.
2015 came down to Bahrain for the World Endurance Drivers Championship due to one fact, the third Porsche had been given its head and left to win the prestigious 24-hour round at the legendary Le Mans and the double WEC points awarded. With both Audi & Porsche satisfied with the performance of the season-long WEC crews, and in full knowledge that to drop any of them in 2016 for Le Mans would create a huge World Championship disadvantage, the ‘WEC Dozen’ were confirmed.
Sadly this leaves six ‘manufacturer-backed’ LMP1 drivers looking at a long winter with little prospect of a 2016 drive to equal their 2015 one.
Furthermore and quite shockingly for Porsche, this leaves their Le Mans #19 winning crew out in the cold with no ability to defend the greatest title in Sportscar history. Sure, due to the vagaries of the FIA consolidated (and carefully co-ordinated) star turn Nico Hulkenburg is not available, but a staggering kick in the pants for Earl Bamber and Nick Tandy.
Just wander back to that Awards ceremony in Bahrain, six whole days, Special Award from the FIAWEC ‘Revelation of the Year’ – Nick Tandy.. Overall Le Mans Winner in LMP1, drove an LMP2 car quicker than Privateer LMP1s, Winner of Petit Le Mans in a GTLM (GTE-Pro) car in the appalling wet ahead of US DP & P2 Prototypes – Left without an LMP1 drive for 2016. Extraordinary !
So what is to be done? Well personally I think that we need to think BIG, think Out-of-the-Box and perhaps most importantly, think Fast!
Back in the mid-80s in endurance racing something remarkable occurred, factory cars found themselves getting beaten, not just by privateers, but by customers of that same factory, Porsche. In 1985 Joest racing (yes, the very same) won in the wonderful #7 Yellow/Black New Man Porsche 956B, in fact eight of the top ten where customer 956-variants. Porsche (and Kremer) ran the newer (safer) 962C.
Why could it not happen today?
Research and those better informed than I suggest that the cost would be astronomic, but then we are thinking BIG. Reliability has been surprisingly good all season, and if Mark Webber’s chums at Red Bull are toying with jumping ship from Formula One (still), this would surely be a value-for-money alternative? For Volkswagen Group if Audi/Porsche offered a well-priced support service this could bring both prestige and a new revenue stream from sweating these year-old assets?
What of Rebellion Racing? Their #12 Oreca can easily be mistaken for a 919 as is, it does its best to keep up with its ‘dirty’ ICE only configuration but would they not leap at the opportunity to do as Oreca did in 2011 (finishing 5th just ahead of Rebellion), and Pescarolo before them, when running Peugeot 908s? Then there is ByKolles, doggedly bringing up the rear of the privateer LMP1 category and already confirmed for 2016; Colin Kolles already has experience of running ex-factory LMPs when he ran a pair of Audi R10 TDis at Le Mans in 2010. So the concept is surely possible?
Yes, it would take some re-jigging of the rule-book, but we’re out-of-the-box remember and the gulf of performance in LMP1 needs addressing somehow. Year-old ex-manufacturer cars with support (cost recovery) could surely give the Championship, or at the very least, Le Mans some much needed expansion in the top category?
And then there are those six Professional Platinum drivers left with GTE/GT3 options by this week’s announcements, where do you expect them to go? What about some of that new talent that has just tested the 2015 R18, 919 and the glorious sounding TS040? Don’t they all deserve a bit of creativity amongst all this motorsport austerity? Don’t let the green lobby and their manufactured misgivings about the emissions tests they specified stop our fun!
And whilst I’m still out-of-my-box, by June 2016 may this be overheard in a paddock somewhere ‘Sorry Ron you can keep Baku, I’m off to Le Mans!’