It’s the start of a new racing season, but way too early for any track action to begin. So, we thought we would bring you a snapshot of our ‘Best of 2017’ images from the WEC races we attended last year. We could not get to all the races, but altogether, we made quite a few of them. Each week over the next few weeks, we will bring you another chapter in our ‘Best of 2017’ focussing each time on a different class. This week it is the turn of the top class of cars, the LMP1 race cars, both Hybrid and Private.
If you recall, back at the start of the 2017 season, Porsche announced that they were concentrating on getting their low downforce package sorted, and in effect they sacrificed the first two races in taking this line. Toyota on the other hand had their high downforce package working right from the first race at Silverstone, and the word in the paddock and amongst the media was that Porsche was perhaps taking an unnecessary risk in going this route. As expected, Toyota cantered to a comfortable win in the first two races, Silverstone and Spa, but at Le Mans they were dealt a cruel hand when all three of their cars suffered with technical problems.
In fact, the Le Mans 24 Hours was the race that showed that the high level of technical sophistication required to keep the LMP1 hybrid cars running was perhaps a step too far down this road. Two of the three Toyotas succumbed to technical difficulties while the third was involved in a preventable accident. On the Porsche 919 front, with the #1 car out in front by 13 laps, a technical fault brought that car to an abrupt halt with just a few hours of the race remaining. The team in the #2 Porsche had their work cut out to catch the then leading car which was an LMP2 car, and they made it – but not by a huge margin.
Porsche’s strategy of perfecting their low downforce package paid off in the end because the Stuttgart manufacturer added a 19th Le Mans victory to their already impressive horde of trophies. Porsche’s march towards a third World Manufacturers’ Championship was relentless as, after winning Le Mans, they won at the Nürburgring, Mexico and COTA, scoring a total of four wins in the season. Toyota on the other hand won five races, but Porsche’s points tally came from the double points allocation at Le Mans, and its six second place finishes and four third place finishes. At three races Porsche secured a one-two finish, and so this consistent trend of podium finishes through the year is what gave them the championship.
We hope that you enjoy a gentle stroll back through the ‘Best of 2017’ as viewed through the lens of our cameras…
Round 1 – Silverstone 6 Hours – 16 April
Porsche arrived at Silverstone well prepared, and during the free practice sessions they focused on setting the cars up rather than posting fast times. This seems to be their routine these days, but each to their own. The two 919s qualified in third and fourth places for the race. The first five hours of the race saw the usual swapping of positions, but in the final hour it all got a bit exciting when Brendon Hartley grabbed the lead in the #2 Porsche. He held on bravely with Sébastien Buemi in the #8 Toyota breathing down his neck, and as expected, Buemi slipped past as the pair reached the end of the Wellington Straight. So, Toyota took round 1 of the fight, but the Porsche’s had looked good despite having the less efficient low downforce package.
Round 2 – Spa 6 Hours – 6 May
At the second race of the Championship, Toyota arrived with three cars which is standard practice for those taking three cars to Le Mans. It gives the teams the opportunity to put the drivers, cars and pit crew through their paces in preparation for the big one. The weather on the first day of practice looked very ominous with black clouds hanging over parts of the circuit and surrounding area.
Toyota were clearly the pre-qualifying favourites but a few eyebrows were raised when Porsche grabbed pole from under the noses of the Toyota team. It was under clear and sunny skies that the #1 Porsche led the field up the Kemmel Straight and into the curves at Malmedy.
The two Porsche 919s both drove an almost faultless race, giving a good account of themselves for the full six hours, but both fell victim to different problems. The #2 Porsche of Hartley/Bernhard/Bamber suffered a slow puncture that forced them to pit one more time than planned, and one more than their opposition. The #1 pole-sitting car of Jani/Lotterer/Tandy fell victim to the bad timing of two Full Course Yellow incidents, which set them back. The race was won by the #8 Toyota with the #7 Toyota in second place, with the #2 Porsche and #1 Porsche in third and fourth places.
Round 3 – Le Mans 24 Hours – 17/18 June
The whole race week at Le Mans this year saw intense heat, and some even said that temperature records were broken. It certainly felt that way, and a broken air conditioner in our corner of the media centre didn’t help matters. Nevertheless, we weren’t there for a holiday, and so the work had to get done, heat wave or not. Toyota were determined to lift the 24 Hour trophy this year, and in an effort to achieve their goal, they brought along a third car to be driven by Nicolas Lapierre/Yuji Kunimoto/Jose Maria Lopez. But it was not to be!
The drivers of the #1 Porsche, Neel Jani/Andre Lotterer/Nick Tandy, must have also been bitterly disappointed when their car simply glided to a halt on Sunday morning. This car had been circulating at a consistently fast pace, but after 318 laps it stopped out on the circuit, 50 laps less than the winning car. Their team mates in the #2 Porsche pulled out all the stops to haul in the leading car, an LMP2 competitor, but it was a job they did well as the Bernhard/Bamber/Hartley trio took the chequered flag at 15h00. The ByKolles team was never in the running as they only completed seven laps.
Round 4 – Nürburgring 6 Hours – 16 July
The WEC circus moved to the Nürburgring in western Germany for round 4 of the series. Despite just the single victory at Le Mans, Porsche now led the Championship with 111 points, 24.5 points ahead of Toyota’s 86.5 points. After winning the Le Mans 24 Hours, Porsche busied themselves with testing their new high downforce aero package at Barcelona, and this proved to be very effective. The test was conducted by the #2 squad of Bernhard/Hartley/Bamber while the #1 squad was not involved in the Spanish exercise.
The #7 Toyota led the field away followed by the #2 and #1 Porsche 919s, and these three stayed the top three cars for the first hour, after which the two Porsches forced the Toyota back to third place. While the order for the two Porsches remained with the #1 car leading the #2 car for the next four hours, this order switched in the final hour. This is the way that the cars stayed, with the #2 Porsche taking the chequered flag, followed by the #1 Porsche and the #7 Toyota in second and third places.
Round 6 – 6 Hours of the COTA – 16 September
By the time the race moved to Houston in Texas, Porsche had notched up another 1-2 finish in Mexico, and the Championship while far from over, was beginning to lean Porsche’s way. In Texas, Porsche again dominated qualifying by occupying in the top two spots with Toyota having to pick up third and fourth. This marked the 18th pole position for the Porsche 919 since its debut in 2014.
In previous years, the race started at 17h00 and ended at 23h00 which meant half the race took place after dark in cooler temperatures. This year however, the race was rescheduled to start at noon and finish at 18h00 which meant that the full six hours was in the blistering heat. Due to this excessive heat, the maximum consecutive time for a driver at the wheel was limited by regulation to just 80 minutes. It was thus clear before the start that no double stints would be possible in the race.
During the race, there were no incidents of any significance that affected the Porsche LMP1 cars, and the positions at the front were determined by pit stops and tyre changes. Although Jani/Lotterer/Tandy found themselves leading the race with four laps to go, they let their sister car through as the #2 trio of Bernhard/Bamber/Hartley were better placed in the championship. On lap nine Neel Jani set the fastest race lap of 1:47.149 minutes. This gave Porsche it’s 17th race win since its debut back in 2014. The #8 Toyota finished third with the #7 car in fourth place.
Round 9 – Bahrain 6 Hours – 18 November
Porsche arrived at the final race of the season in Bahrain as the World Champions, this having been achieved at the penultimate race in Shanghai. However, this in no way detracted from the action on the track, as all the drivers and teams are competitive right down to the final flag of the last race.
Nick Tandy had a throttle problem in the #1 Porsche which dropped him back from second to fourth place, but the team were able to talk him through a ‘fix’ while on the move, thereby avoiding an unnecessary pit stop. This time it was the turn of the #7 Toyota to pit for repairs sustained in an accident, which allowed the #2 Porsche to finish second with the #1 Porsche coming home in third place. The #8 Toyota gave the Japanese manufacture its fifth race win of the season, while the #7 Toyota returned to the race and finished fourth.
The ByKolles team had opted to withdraw from the WEC mid-season, their last race being at the Nürburgring, as they felt that their chances of success would be better served preparing their car properly for the 2018 season. This they have now done, and the team concluded their 2017 tests with a three-day programme at the Circuito de Almeria in southern Spain, from 18th to 20th of December. We can look forward to their much-improved performance in 2018.
Although the new season will be without Porsche in LMP1, Toyota will be there, and if the ACO/WEC’s promises come good then 2018 should be full of interest in the top class with several new LMP1 teams planned. There is no doubt though, that the year-long duel between the two big guns, Porsche and Toyota, provided the fans with many hours of enjoyment as the two big guns battled through heat, cold, rain and wind in an effort to secure the World Manufacturers’ Championship. In all honesty, Porsche will be missed in LMP1, as the company has made the World Championship and the Le Mans 24 Hour race its own over the years.
Check back here next week for our write-up on the LMP2 class…
Written by: Glen Smale
Images by: Virtual Motorpix/Glen Smale & John Mountney