At the start of the 2016 WEC season I have been asked to put on paper my WEC reflections of 2015. The problem I have, though, is that as a photographer, during the race I find myself trackside and in and out of the media centre editing shots and sending them to the agency. So I really have no idea what is going on in the race until I read the report afterwards.
I started the 2015 season with the intention of covering the Prologue at Paul Ricard as well as all of the European WEC rounds and the season finale in Bahrain, from behind the lens. But I ended up, supported and encouraged by Virtual Motorpix, writing blogs alongside just taking snaps.
If you have followed my blog articles throughout the season, you will know that I have investigated areas and asked questions that the fan in the grandstand might want to ask, given the chance. I have met some amazing people working at the top of their sport, world champions, legends of the sport and the unsung technical heroes who make the sport happen.
Working in the paddock and the pits, I have been able to get close to the action, and have taken a particular interest in three English drivers Anthony Davidson, Ollie Jarvis and Nick Tandy. All superstars in the sport, but thoroughly decent and grounded guys. During the season I have been able to gain access to each of them to varying degrees. But the real bonus for me, and something that really brought the season together, was the chance meeting in the Bahrain paddock with all three of them over a two-hour period.
I’m not sure if it was the warm sunshine or the fact that the Manufacturers Championship was decided and the Drivers Championship was almost decided, but all three were very relaxed and very happy to chat freely.
Anthony was looking forward to the Bahrain race but admitted he would be very happy to see the end of 2015. As we all know 2015 hasn’t been a good year for Toyota, not that they didn’t try, it’s just that Porsche and Audi surprised them with much better than expected performance. Toyota turned a blind eye to the performance of Porsche in 2014 and dismissed it as the Porsche was fast but not reliable. But as Anthony said, “Give me a fast car every time and we can make it reliable. It’s harder to make a reliable car fast.”
The Toyota drivers very quickly discovered that the 2015 car wasn’t going to be a winner, but it wasn’t until Spa that both Cologne and Japan were convinced. The suits are always resistant to a driver wanting more, but the telemetry and performance data didn’t support what the drivers were feeling through the seat of their pants.
So what is it like driving an LMP1 car? From the outside it looks like the car is on rails, very smooth and serene. With a wry smile Anthony replied, “It’s like trying to ride a loaded spring,” and he proceeded to stand on one foot and drive an imaginary corner explaining how you load the spring and just as it’s about to release, you back off the limit and push again fighting the down force pushing the limit of adhesion of the tyres and peeking over the cliff. He said, “We can tell when the tyre pressure is 0.50 psi off. So to be told by the guys in Cologne and Japan that there was nothing wrong with car was very frustrating. After Spa when we were told that 2015 would be the last year for the TS040, and that the TS050 was being brought forward from 2017 to 2016, there was a feeling of vindication, but also trepidation, that two years of development would have to be compressed into six months.”
Lessons have been learned in the Toyota camp, that both Porsche and Audi are incredibly fast. Porsche has so much power they can pile on the down force and have a pretty basic aero package, because with so much power you can just stick a big wing on! Audi have a more sophisticated aero package probably because they don’t have quite as much power as Porsche do.
Both teams have tweaks and developments ready to roll out, so to be competitive in 2016 the TS050 will need to be eight seconds faster round La Sarthe than the TS040 was in 2015. To the layman, that is a massive leap, and it will be fascinating to see how it all pans out.
The TS050 is going to be a completely new car, even the steering wheel is a new design! Toyota will be using a petrol engine and will be moving up to 8 Mega joules. Interestingly Anthony felt that Audi would like to move over to petrol, but the dirty diesel gate issue means they have to stay with diesel and they have announced a move to 6 Mega joules.
Is Anthony looking forward to 2016? Yes, with equal amounts of excitement and trepidation. It’s going to be a long, hard winter of testing, and he knows what’s coming.
I was interested to find out what he thought about Brendon Hartley and our own Nick Tandy. Anthony confessed to not knowing much about Brendon before he joined the Porsche LMP1 program but felt he was an inspired choice making the transition from LMP2 to LMP1 with ease. It’s not an easy transition. Turning to Nick, Anthony was amazed that Nick had adapted to LMP1 from GTE. The way the guys describe driving GTE and LMP1 it seems to me it’s like moving from analogue to digital. I asked Anthony if he felt that the ‘wrong’ Porsche won Le Mans in 2015, he just smiled.
Walking back through the paddock I bumped into Nick Tandy looking just as cool and relaxed as the first time I met him in the spring sunshine at Paul Ricard. Nick has had a stellar season winning almost everything he touched, and enjoying every moment of it.
Nick isn’t as corporate as some of the other guys and will tell you how it really is, before getting back on the corporate line, and our discussions in Bahrain were no different. Whilst Nick has been at the top of his game all year, there is an underlying frustration that it could have been better. And without being paranoid, he just hasn’t had the ‘rub of the green’. I asked Nick what his plans were for 2016 and in the same way as he answered my question about how he expected to do at Le Mans 2015, he said with a grin, “We’ll do ok, we’ll be alright.” The news coming out of the dirty diesel gate issue at that time means that he might be on Plan B for 2016. But I have no doubt, whatever he does, he will excel at it.
Returning to the media centre, who should I bump into but Ollie Jarvis! Quickly we fell into conversation about this and that, and the things that might have been. It’s clear that the 2015 season had been a battle between Porsche and Audi, with a strong influence of strategy and team orders, without which the championship might have been very different. I asked Ollie how he felt about that, as I felt that he was often on the wrong side of the team orders. Ollie accepts that team orders are an essential part of the championship and the team result is important. Of course he wants to win every race but if he finishes 4th for example because of team orders, that is easier to accept than finishing 4th because the car wouldn’t go any faster.
I commented that despite the #8 Audi not being in contention for world driver championship that weekend, it was clear that they were pushing hard in practice as evidenced by some serious tail out action coming out of turn 4, something I hadn’t seen all season. Ollie assured me that this wasn’t planned and unlike LMP2 and GTE cars where you can hang the back out and drift the corner, you can’t in an LMP1 car. Generally when it starts going, it isn’t coming back! LMP1 has a very narrow transition from hero to zero, whereas GTE and LMP2 is more forgiving. The same can be said about braking.
I asked Ollie about how the LMP1 car appears to be able to take any line round a corner and can just dispose of GTE and LMP2 cars with ease. To a certain extent that’s true, but that’s mainly the 4-wheel drive of the Hybrid, and whilst it looks smooth and easy from the inside, the car is ‘squirming and squirrelling’ out of the corner, searching for grip before catapulting the car down the straight. When attacking a corner cleanly, there is an optimum line which is determined by eye and seat of the pants and as with Anthony, Ollie explained the way they explore the track to find the limit before cascading off into the abyss. I mentioned to Ollie that I had noticed that GTE cars braked later and deeper into corners compared to the LMP1 and wondered if that had any impact on how he tackled corners when there was a GTE car around. “Sure we brake and all of a sudden you see an Aston or Ferrari piling down the outside and cutting across our line, and if only they would stay out of the way by braking earlier, they would have a cleaner and faster line around the corner without the risk of tripping each other up.”
On the whole Ollie was satisfied with the 2015 season. Obviously he would have wanted to do better but he was happy that under the circumstances the team had performed well. Yes, there had been bad luck and misfortune, and team orders, but that’s motorsport and there’s always next year.
I said at the beginning of this piece that this chance meeting with these three young men at the top of their game pulled the whole season together. WEC is a travelling family made up of committed individuals and once you are in the paddock you feel part of that family. Everyone respects that everyone else has a job to do and they let them get on with it, but unlike other families, the WEC family does have time for each other.
I have really enjoyed the 2015 season, I have learned so much, and already I am preparing and counting down for the Prologue in March 2016! Having read my WEC reflections of 2015, you might enjoy reading some of my other rantings: http://bit.ly/23vxzuF
For more images by John click here
Written by: John Mountney