Image credit: Nick Holland.
Porsche has now demonstrated the ability to not only win, but deliver 1-2’s at both 24-hour and 6-hour events. These events are held on circuits, Circuit de La Sarthe, Le Mans and Grand Prix Strecke, Nurburgring with very different requirements, which necessarily require revisions to the cars (see the excellent article by Stefan Ruitenberg analysing the Porsche aero amendments post-Le Mans).
In 2014 we saw Porsche return to the top category and whilst serious in their intent, the challenges provided by the incumbents Audi Sport & Toyota Motorsport Group proved not inconsiderable. We would expect there were some very interesting meetings at Weissach and a number of people were told to try harder. Given endurance motorsport runs to the very core of Porsche, their 2015 efforts should not really have surprised. But beyond the aero and technical enhancements, how did the programme change?
Typically we have been conditioned to treat the FIA WEC Spa 6-hour race as a preamble to Le Mans. Teams running three cars bring their addition, obviously running a low downforce configuration and collecting data that will be useful for the team in terms of an initial set-up for the great race. We have seen Audi Sport test at Sebring and elsewhere, but it has been Spa when a Le Mans spec car has emerged.
There are two key objectives at this level of competition. 1) Compete in the championship and win 2) Win the showcase event, Le Mans, which takes place mid-season (indeed it is round3 of the WEC). One further factor is that the Equivalence of Technology (setting of fuel flow and capacity for particular levels of recovered energy and traditional fuels are adjusted). For 2015 Porsche have modified previously received and understood wisdom, and when thinking it through it makes considerable sense.
It is apparent that the Porsche 919 Hybrid up until the end of Le Mans was specific to the task of winning Le Mans. It appears to have been deemed reasonable to accept its limitations at both Silverstone and Spa. At both rounds of which it was hugely fast in a straight-line and startled many in the way it accelerated to that peak performance. The team seemed un-phased by the tyre degradation experienced, it being noted as a function of running 8mJs of Energy Recovery (and Deployment), but with low downforce comes higher lateral loads and tyre scrubbing leading to the same degradation. It was a waiting game, and hence in our conversation with Oliver Jarvis (#8 Audi) he noted that the tyre usage issue had seemingly been resolved at Le Mans (most likely due to the circuit configuration suiting the set-up) and apparently not resurfaced at the Nurburgring (where a substantial number of enhancements emerged).
After a suitable Le-Mans celebration Porsche returned to its development plan. In the period between Le Mans and the 6-hours of Nurburgring beyond the Toyota organised test on the GP-Strecke, Porsche held a private test at Barcelona’s Circuit de Catalunya. Reports from the test are sketchy, but Mark Webber was present and allegedly commented that it was a good step forward. Neel Jani (also present) was apparently more explicit stating that he had neck pain from the cornering forces that he had not experienced since his Formula One roles with Toro Rosso and Red Bull Racing! Clearly for such experienced drivers to be so complementary the step change between a Le Mans spec car and a WEC short circuit configuration had been successfully achieved.
Simply, Toyota had been out-developed over the winter, and now Audi Sport is faced with a similar result mid-season. Thoughts of both may well be turning to 2016.
However, development is not the whole story, and much of what remains endorses the practice of studying your enemy (or competition) to find answers to what you need to do to improve your own game. The very 2014 tag-line Audi Sport chose to utilise ‘Welcome Challenges’ has the under tone of by being pushed we raise our own game, lets hope so.
Le Mans demonstrated that Porsche had achieved similar serviceability to Audi, the ability to resolve issues swiftly and with minimal loss of time. At the Nurburgring we saw Porsche ‘out-Audi’, Audi. They not only had superior pace but also in terms of their decision-making when faced with challenges were swift and sound. For example, the damage on the nose of the #17 was considered, a strategy identified to make the fuel window, and the nose replaced at that opportune time. The issue which delayed the #18 919 Hybrid is somewhat more open to interpretation and perhaps speculation…
Working with Averages
Now to be clear we known from Wolfgang Hatz (Board Member with responsibility for the LMP1 Programme) that the #18 suffered an engine sensor issue, that is understood to be a Porsche component not related to the FIA provided Fuel Flow Meter. However, the consequences meant that the Nurburgring penalties were served by the #18 car for exceeding the permitted fuel flow/consumption, and these penalties dropped the car well behind. As testament to its legal pace it was able to recover a second place and secure the best desired outcome for any two car team, a 1-2.
Fuel metering (and especially its monitoring) is very much an area held close to Race Control. It was noted in two pieces relating to the winning car at Le Mans by Paul Truswell, one on his blog Trussers & the other on DailySportsCar.com that it may not be a totally level playing field. The calculations are made based on averages over a number of laps. Events on track, and indeed actions by the driver, team or car can influence the results obviously and that correctly managed could result in an advantage. Have Porsche found a method to exploit such moments?
On a more sinister note rumours have been rife in Formula One (which also utilises the same fuel metering) that fuel can be cleverly(!) stored after the meter (eg. when off throttle) and then to provide an added (somewhat illegal) boost…
As with the Audi Sports damaged FIA seals at Le Mans we may never know the full story, but when finding a tenth here and there costs huge sums of money, when operating on the limits of performance it is not inconceivable that lines may be bent, twisted and occasionally stepped over.
In summary, Porsche has out-flanked its opposition and placed sister company Audi on the back foot for the remainder of the season. We will see in just two weeks at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas whether Audi have an answer or are settling for the status quo and turning their attention to next year. As with the perennial question ‘is a glass being half full or half empty?’, are rules there to be obeyed or flexed ?? It is possible that at this level whether it be Audi, Porsche or Toyota, flexibility may well be highly desirable.