As the clock wound its way around to 15h00 at Le Mans on Sunday 18 June 2017, the possibility existed where the World Endurance Championship (WEC) could be won by a car in the lower classes. Of the five cars that had started the race on the Saturday in the top LMP1 Hybrid class, just two were left running at the end of the race. Thankfully, saving many from embarrassment, the race was won by one of these two cars, the #2 Porsche, and that was after having spent more than an hour in the garage the evening before. The winner was followed home by seven LMP2 cars with the second placed LMP1 Hybrid car, the #8 Toyota, finishing in ninth place.
In theory, the #4 ByKolles car which ran in the second class (LMP1 Private) should have been the next fastest class after the LMP1 Hybrids, but it was the only entry in its class. Unfortunately, it bowed out after completing just seven laps.
Were it not for the two chicanes down the long Mulsanne Straight, the LMP2 cars would actually be faster than the top LMP1 Hybrid cars. This is a complicated situation because the hybrid cars need the frequent breaking and subsequent acceleration zones with which to generate the additional power through their complex hybrid systems. As a result, the LMP1 Hybrid cars are extremely quick out of corners as the additional power is used to accelerate, but the speed drops off as the electrical energy is used up.
The LMP2 cars on the other hand, with their more conventional powertrain setups, get to their maximum speeds much slower by comparison but they continue to build up to that speed until their maximum velocity is reached. In this way, as two LMP1 Hybrid and LMP2 cars approach a chicane or corner, the LMP2 car will still be building its speed right up to the braking point, whereas the LMP1 Hybrid car will be gradually losing speed. This of course depends on the length of the straight just travelled, but this situation did indeed play out in reality at both Spa and Le Mans this year, where long straights were encountered. I have spoken with several journalists this year who all expressed surprise, confusion and dismay that the top LMP1 Hybrid cars are in fact not the quickest in all aspects of the sport.
If we look at the 2017 season to date, all the LMP1 Hybrid retirements across all manufacturers have been for quite different reasons on each occasion, which could lead one to deduce that different aspects of the hybrid systems are not able to withstand the rigours of endurance racing. Perhaps the innovative ambitions of the organisers are too far ahead of what is realistically possible (this point excludes mechanical failures, accidents or spins). With Audi’s withdrawal at the end of 2016 we were left with just two manufacturers in 2017. And now one of those manufacturers, Porsche, is pulling out of the World Endurance Championship a year earlier than first announced. This move has been ostensibly implemented as a corporate cost reduction exercise, but perhaps the prospect of failure on the world stage in the future was a risk the company was not prepared to take. This leaves us with just one manufacturer in the LMP1 Hybrid class for 2018, Toyota, which means that Toyota cannot help but win every round of the WEC next year, giving them the Le Mans title and the World Championship which they have sought for so long. This will hardly leave them with a great feeling of accomplishment, as the victory will be rather hollow with no opposition.
Let us take a step back in time a few decades, to the greatest racing series ever, the Group C period between 1982 and 1992. Without dragging up all of those “remember when…” comments, it was the principle that engineers built race cars with relative freedom and it was up to the manufacturers and teams to manage the fuel allocation allowed within the rules (without BoP or EoT to ‘balance the books’). The cars were fast enough to attract such crowds to the races that it even threatened the popularity of Formula 1’s claimed top spot in the sport. It was called innovation and creativeness, and the winners were the spectators, because they lapped it up, attending in their thousands to watch the spectacle.
Another series that wooed the crowds was the Group 5 silhouette era, because the cars looked like those that could be bought off the dealer’s showroom floor on the Monday, the day after the race had taken place. It’s true that the cars in the silhouette series bore little resemblance to the production models, but that didn’t matter to the spectator as he/she could identify with the cars on the track. If motor racing is all about selling tickets to the punter who walks through the gate, it sure worked back then, even if the organisers were selling a little bit of disillusionment, it didn’t matter because it was all done in the name of entertainment.
Why do manufacturers go racing? You can be sure that it is not because they want to burn money, but it is because they want to showcase their products in front of the public, and to prove the reliability of components and technology in order to improve their production road cars. To spend millions of Euros building a car to develop a certain power level and travel at a certain speed, only to have that car detuned by the regulations to travel at roughly the same speed as all the other cars in that class, makes no engineering sense at all. I have heard of one team who has deliberately stayed out of the WEC GTE class because the recipe for participation makes no financial sense.
The whole purpose of motor racing is to improve the breed, be that Ferrari, Aston Martin, Ford, Corvette or Porsche. To improve the safety, performance and efficiency of production road cars, technology is applied to the race versions of the abovementioned marques, in order to see how their product stands up under the pressure of endurance racing. If one manufacturer’s race car, say Porsche, is faster than the others in class, great, because that means they have done a good job of engineering their model to be the best it can be. This is called competition, and it is good for the market.
The result of this innovative period in motorsport, is that it is remembered as one of the most exciting in history, and there was tremendous transfer of technology from the race track to the road car. The fastest cars ever were seen during the Group C period, when the French prototype WM-P88 (#51) powered by Peugeot’s 2.8 V6 Turbo engine hit 405km/h in the 1988 Le Mans 24 Hours. The Circuit de la Sarthe had no chicanes down the Mulsanne Straight at that time, and as that team’s main priority was not to win the race but to break the speed record, the 6km straight was the place to do it. Driven by Frenchman Roger Dorchy, the prototype reached its record speed, but the #51 car, perhaps unsurprisingly, was not the most reliable and it exited the race after 59 laps. But this is a record that will stand for eternity, and it was the culmination of a great engineering effort.
It was the racing authorities who stepped in and changed the regulations regarding engine sizes for Group C, and with the stroke of the pen, one man pulled the rug out from under one of the most popular sports car racing series ever. This move denied millions of race goers the enjoyment they got from watching race cars with which they could identify. Essentially, a Balance of Performance factor was applied to Group C racing with effect from the end of ’92, in order that that class of racing could be slowed down, and another class of racing, Formula 1, could benefit and thrive.
From the 1950s to the 1980s, you would be hard-pressed to come up with the name of a manufacturer that didn’t race at Le Mans. From A-Z, most have at one time or another competed at Le Mans, with many also having participated in the world championships. In 2018, we have just one manufacturer in the top class of the World Endurance Championship…perhaps.
There is now an opportunity to start again with a clean sheet as far as LMP1 class in the World Endurance Championship is concerned, as new regulations are considered which could include fundamental changes, allowing greater freedom for manufacturers. I’m sure our readers can point out what is needed in sports car racing, to avoid a repeat of what happened at the end of the Group C era.
Written by: Glen Smale & John Mountney
Images by: Virtual Motorpix/Glen Smale & John Mountney