With two rounds of the 2014 WEC season behind us, this would be an interesting time to compare the performance of the current Porsche 911 RSR against its predecessor. As the rules of the WEC require, those cars in the GTE AM class run with the technology of the previous year’s GTE PRO car, so according to the regulations, a car running in the AM class will always be a year behind the PRO car in development terms.
With homologation of all new cars frozen for a period of two years from the year of introduction, manufacturers are given a one-off opportunity to introduce improvements to their cars in the PRO class. Because they only have one shot at it, manufacturers usually wait until they have several upgrades to implement, and then do these all at once. This opportunity does not apply to those cars running in the GTE AM class. However, just to confuse things slightly, the Le Mans 24-Hour race is different in that manufacturers and teams may homologate a special ‘low downforce’ aero package for the French race.
In addition of course, the AM cars can only have one professional driver in its two- or three-driver line-up whereas it stands to reason that the PRO cars will be driven by the manufacturers’ three best professional drivers.
One might ask then, if the basic parameters of the car remains broadly unchanged, how it is that the new GTE PRO model for say 2014 is that much better than the previous year’s GTE PRO model (this year’s GTE AM model)? Surely any new ‘tricks’ applied to the 2014 car, the engineers and designers would have known about the year before and built them into that car. But this is a world of micro-improvements, where the slightest change can shave a second or seconds off the lap time which can, over the distance of a full 6-hour race, amount to a significant difference.
Looking at the performance of the 2013 Porsche (Type 991) 911 RSR on its debut at Silverstone, you may recall that the no.92 car (Lieb/Lietz/Dumas) finished fourth in class while its sister car, no.91, finished in sixth place, and last in class. That might sound rather unimpressive for a full works team, but it is worth bearing in mind that this was the company’s first fully competitive race as such in sixteen years. Although Porsche has a mightily impressive track record – in fact the best – a lot has happened in the sport during that decade and a half, and it takes time to get back into gear, especially at that level.
At Le Mans last year, Wolfgang Hatz, Porsche board member for Research and Development (which includes motorsport) said to the author, “We had to have our own team, and so we had a lot to learn because we have got so many new people in our team, and this is for sure not an advantage because everybody had to learn their place, but we have improved.”
The fastest Silverstone race lap in 2013 by a Porsche was 2:02.225 posted by the no.91 car (Bergmeister/Pilet/Bernhard), the same car in which Pilet posted a qualifying time of 2:01.308 the previous day, good enough for 3rd place on the grid in class. By comparison, driving the no.91 car once again in 2014, Pilet recorded a qualifying time of 1:58.401 which placed him second in class on the grid, almost three seconds quicker than his own time the year before. When the race itself was red flagged on the Sunday this year due to heavy rain and bad light, the no.92 Porsche (Holzer/Makowiecki/Lietz) was declared the class winner with a fastest race lap of 2:00.963, with the no.91 car second (Pilet/Bergmeister/Tandy) having recorded a fastest race lap of 2:01.075, still more than a second faster than the quickest race lap for a Porsche in 2013.
It is all the more amazing when, looking at the above lap times, one realises that the 2013 race was run in the dry and the 2014 race was run in very difficult conditions, on a wet but drying track, and with intermittent rain. In the last hour of the race the heavens opened and eventually the race was called off after several laps behind the safety car, as with all the standing water on the track it was considered too dangerous to continue.
At Silverstone in 2013 the Porsches may have had an oversteering problem, but the next race at Spa was a big wake-up call when the top finishing Porsche came home fifth in class (no.92) while the other car posted a DNF. A manufacturer may boast the most impressive record of achievements, and they might even have the biggest budget in the paddock, but nothing can take the place of hard-earned experience in competition. This Porsche knew all along of course, but they could not skip that step, and so at Le Mans in 2013, the third race of the season, they took a big leap forward when they took the top two places in class.
The 2014 Porsches have benefited from several improvements including more precise steering response, which leads to better vehicle handling in bends at slow and moderate speeds, and this was attained by optimising the front suspension kinematics. Also new is the engine air induction system with its optimised air filter geometry, which contributes towards reducing the effects of contamination on power output. The new FT3 safety fuel tank with a lowered centre of gravity also enables improved filling under race conditions.
Having just won the 2014 opening round at Silverstone, it was during the week preceding the second round at Spa the WEC Endurance Committee decided to increase the RSR’s weight by 25kg as part of the Balance of Performance calculation.
An analysis of the 2013 Spa race times showed that Patrick Pilet, driving the no.91 car, set the fastest lap in a Porsche of 2:19.615 while lying fifth in class. All the cars in the GTE PRO class were in fact extremely close to each other on lap times, however, a comparison with the 2014 race is in this instance perhaps not so helpful, as the no.91 Porsche was the innocent victim of an accident in the 2013 race. The no.92 Porsche was then caught on the wrong side of a Safety Car session, which prevented it from pitting and thereby losing a whole lap to the class winners. But despite the disappointing set of circumstances, the no.92 car did finish fifth in class that year.
In the 2014 Spa race the no.91 Porsche of Pilet/Bergmeister finished second in class behind the no.51 Ferrari 458. Carrying an extra 25kg of ballast, the Porsche recorded a best race lap time of 2:20.000 compared with the winning Ferrari’s best time of 2:19.653. Unfortunately the no.92 car encountered steering problems, which dropped it back to sixth in class.
Hartmut Kristen, Porsche Head of Motorsport commented: “When you consider that we had to compete with 25 kilograms more than at Silverstone and in difficult weather conditions, I think we’ve done very well today. Our drivers made no mistakes, the team worked well together. I’m completely satisfied.”
Although the differences between the 2013 and 2014 Porsches are small and perhaps even seemingly imperceptible, they do combine to make the new car noticeably faster. Now if only the authorities would take their hands off and drop this idea of the Balance of Performance, and let the teams go racing. By all means set the class parameters to which all teams must adhere strictly, but don’t penalise the winners for winning by giving them a bag of cement to carry around in their car at the next race!
Next week we feature our Geneva interview with Porsche’s Head of Motorsport, Hartmut Kristen.
Written by Glen Smale