Feature image credit: FIAWEC.

Saturday 19th September marks the third visit to Circuit of the Americas (CotA) for the 5th round of the FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC), and unlike last year the weather looks set to be very hot and humid.

The teams have become more familiar with the 5.513km circuit with the huge rise to Turn One, sweeping corners on the descent through Turns 4,5,6,7 and 8 then fast straights separated by tight slow corners. The speed trap is showing cars touching 300 kmh, and that is closely followed by the slowest point on the circuit of (Turn 12) at just 70 kmh.

So how is this weekend shaping up after Free Practice 1(day) & 2(night) held on Thursday?

LMP1

On initial sight the results of the practice sessions suggest that the Audi Sport R18s have stepped up to the challenges they faced three weeks ago at the Nurburgring.  In particular the #8 Audi delivered 30 laps in FP1. This was backed up by a fastest lap from Lucas Di Grassi of 1:47.684 just 2-tenths off the pace set earlier in the day by the Porsche 919s.  The #17 Porsche then sprung the surprise late in Free Practice 2… Right at the end of the session, and on the final couple of laps in a 16-Lap stint, the #17 posted a top time of 1:47.422 clearly on well-used rubber.

Car #17 / PORSCHE TEAM (DEU) / Porsche 919 Hybrid Hybrid / Timo Bernhard (DEU) / Mark Webber (AUS) / Brendon Hartley (NZL) - FIA WEC 6 hours of COTA at Circuit Of The Americas - Austin - United States
Car #17 / PORSCHE TEAM (DEU) / Porsche 919 Hybrid Hybrid / Timo Bernhard (DEU) / Mark Webber (AUS) / Brendon Hartley (NZL) – FIA WEC 6 hours of COTA at Circuit Of The Americas – Austin – United States

So, as we might expect from Porsche they are holding their cards close to their chests, doing enough to maintain their leading position but just enough.. The philosophy of winning at the slowest speed necessary in the prevailing conditions would appear to be a notable part of the mantra.

To further emphasis the Porsche position, the #18 stole the fastest time in Free Practice 1 from its sister car, but again the detail is telling.  The #18 completed the most laps in the session 34, at the end of the session, it took the fastest time a 1:47.231 but to press that point home it then completed another lap, at 1:47.234… both in a 7-lap stint. That would appear to be an indication of comfort, and a demonstration that they continue to have 4-tenths a lap over their Audi rivals.  It may also be a statement to team management.. more on that later in this article..

Outside of the leading two teams, Toyota continue to run metronomically round, and just to test whether Race Control where paying attention took to exceeding track limits..  Eduardo (Race Control) was up to the challenge and served both cars with a 5-minute stop-n-go in Free Practice 2!  The TS040 looks like it can deliver a 1:49.7 but clearly that leaves them uncomfortably adrift.

The Privateer LMP1s look very competitive with each other, all posting 1:54s. They are benefiting from great fuel capacity & flow, but to be honest it is a different world to the works teams, quite analogous to the situation in Formula 1 indeed.

LMP2

At the conclusion of Free Practice 1 G-Drive Racing #26 & #28 were strangely off the pace, but perhaps it was just a slow start to the ‘weekend’ for the team. The Ligier JS P2 is gaining a reputation for being quite life heavy on a number of components, and its speculation, but potentially limiting running is a solution if budgetary constraints exist.

Image: Martijn van Tussenbroek - SportsCarGlobal
Image: Martijn van Tussenbroek – SportsCarGlobal

Between rounds we had confusion just as to who was going to run in the beautiful blue & chrome KCMG Oreca 05. Matt Howson & Richard Bradley lead the LMP2 driver’s table (KCMG the Team’s) given his current win record Nick ‘Golden Touch’ Tandy would seem likely first choice, but the team favoured their Le Mans Class-winner Nico Lapierre for this round. They are both professionals of equal calibre, and Nick Tandy is chasing the United Sportscar GTLM title for Porsche North America which has its next round just two-hours prior to the 6-hours of CotA… so all in all Nico will be fresher.

Free Practice 2 did see the KCMG (with Nico Lapierre at the wheel) have an off, and the G-Drive Racing #26 of Rusinov/Canal/Bird came out of the session on top with a 1:55.874.  Expect qualifying for the LMP2 category to be a fascinating duel between these cars and the sister G-Drive #28 of Yacaman/Derani/Gonzalez.

Of the other runners, the Alpine-Signatech #36 appears to be showing good form currently, as well as the resurgent Strakka-Racing #42 of Leventis/Watts/Kane Gibson 015s.

No doubt Strakka has learnt much about its new ride from the data obtained from completing the 6-hours of Nurburgring. Jonny Kane noted “We knew going into this season that the three of us hadn’t driven at Circuit Of The Americas (COTA) before, so being able to spend extensive time (in the simulator) working on learning the track before the event has helped us get ready. Nick Leventis has spent time testing at the circuit before the weekend as extra preparation for the event this weekend, hoping to gain an advantage over the five other COTA rookies in the LMP2 category.

GTE-Pro

Whilst in Free Practice 2 it looks like the Manthey Porsche RSRs led by #92 have got the measure of the AF Corse 458s #51 & #71 it still looks like a dog-fight. Expect to see race pace and pit work to make the difference here. Sadly the Aston Martin Racing trio continue to struggle with their new BoP allocation, and unless there are hiccups ahead it looks like another character-building weekend for the team from Banbury.

Image: Martijn van Tussenbroek - SportsCarGlobal
Image: Martijn van Tussenbroek – SportsCarGlobal

GTE-Am

Continues to be a category focused on hunting down the SMP Racing #72 Ferrari 458 Italia of Shaytar/Bertolini/Basov. Again with the Aston Martin Racing Am challenge somewhat stymied by the BoP on offer, the main resistance comes from the US heroes of Dempsey/Long/(& Seefried) in the Dempsey Proton Racing RSR. Absent this weekend is Roald Goethe providing an opportunity to once again see a Simonsen (Benny) in an AMR (#96) run car, and it would be both nice and nostalgic to see that car come through for a victory.

Image: Martijn van Tussenbroek - SportsCarGlobal
Image: Martijn van Tussenbroek – SportsCarGlobal

So at this stage of the season, with Le Mans a fading memory, team views must start to focus on the championship standings.

Porsche holds a ‘comfortable’ lead in the manufacturer’s table and the tools to maintain it, but if they are keen on securing the driver’s title too there is much to think about.

The Audi #7 combination of Fassler/Lotterer/Treluyer lead on 95points, 17points ahead of Porsche #17 of Bernhard/Webber/Hartley, It being only 2 points ahead of their sister car #18 of Dumas/Jani/Leib. Of course Audi utilised team orders at the previous round to put the #7 ahead of the #8 R18, the team management at Weissach will need to start to consider who is best place to mount the challenge or they could possibly (with some DNFs) lose out altogether.

Image: Martijn van Tussenbroek - SportsCarGlobal.
Image: Martijn van Tussenbroek – SportsCarGlobal.

For the Private LMP1 teams it is close but we would expect it to come down to which Rebellion #12 or #13. It would take another disappointing weekend like Nurburgring to change that in favour of the #4 ByKolles car.

In LMP2 its the #28 G-Drive chasing the #47 KCMG, with the #26 G-Drive Racing in pursuit of both. Again a team decision may be required as to which Ligier is to pursue the pretty Oreca 05.

The GT championship tables are many, but hopefully the picture is clear its a fight between the respective Ferraris and Porsche teams and drivers, Aston Martin Racing having had a terrible Le Mans (a double pointer of course) and now not having the equipment to exploit due to the BoP decision…

To summarise, we have a Free Practice 3 at 1630uk Friday and at 2345uk 2-Driver 4-Lap average Qualifying to consider. Currently there is little indication that either the extreme heat or humidity will upset the technology employed or lead to excessive tyre wear. Come the race expect 29+ lap stints from the front-runners, attempts to double stint (later in the evening race) will be required as tyre allocations have returned to 6 sets from the 8 at round four.

We don’t currently expect too many surprises, but that is beauty of longer distance races with traffic, wide flat run-offs everything can change and frequently does in the blink of an eye, a momentary lapse of concentration or a flick of Race Controls pen…

Race starts at 23:00 UK (00:00 CET, 18:00 local) on Saturday night. We expect there will be enough action to keep us transfixed through the small hours.  Enjoy it!