The 2017 FIA World Endurance Championship kicks off at Silverstone on Easter Sunday in what is seen as a transitional year in the big class. The news over the winter was all about the withdrawal of Audi after 18 successful seasons, including five in the WEC proper. This leaves just six P1 cars on the grid at Le Mans, less than half of the 2015 count. On the face of it this can been seen as a major blow as we lose not only a very successful manufacturer, but also their marketing and promotional activities, both on- and off-track.
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Anyone who has attended a WEC race can only be impressed by the massive Audi hospitality unit, where they have entertained thousands of guests and hosted some big names from inside and outside the sport (this was THE place to spot such great drivers as Allan McNish, Tom Kristensen and Emmanuele Pirro, even after their retirements). Add to this the fact that Audi provided all the safety and medical vehicles as well as much trackside advertising. All of this has now gone and the FIA has a huge hole to fill, both commercially as well as sporting.
Peugeot will only return in 2020 at the earliest, so the FIA and ACO must ensure that both Porsche and Toyota remain in the series beyond this date if the championship is not going to wither as it did in 1992!
The major factor as in all motor sport are spiralling costs, but at least the governing bodies have made a start by getting the two manufacturers to agree to retain the same monocoques up to the 2019 season. However, more effort is needed to cut costs in other areas, especially in the labour-intensive hybrid powertrain department which is still proving to be a major drain on any team’s resources.
Porsche Team (#1/#2)
It’s all change on the driving front at Weissach for the 2017 season, gone are champions Roman Dumas (LMP2 with Signatech Alpine) and Marc Lieb (now on the pit wall) and in comes 2015 Le Mans winner Nick Tandy for his first full season in the 919 Hybrid. André Lotterer (the ONLY ex-Audi driver staying in P1) joins him with defending drivers’ champion Neel Jani in the #1 car. In the #2 are 2015 champions Timo Bernhard from Homburg in Germany and New Zealand’s Brendon Hartley, with fellow Kiwi Earl Bamber (also a Le Mans winner) replacing Mark Webber who retired from driving duties at the end of last season.
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The car itself is a sensible evolution of the 2016 919, with only 40% of the parts being carried over to the new model. It still retains the 2.0l V4 with the front axle recuperating the braking energy and using it to power an electric motor which adds 400PS to the combustion engine’s 500 at the rear.
On paper, Porsche look the strongest to take overall manufacturer honours, but their decision not to run a 3rd car at Spa and Le Mans, while Toyota will do so, might count against them. If Toyota had had a 3rd car at Le Mans last year, who knows what the result would have been?
Prediction: car #2 to take drivers’ title on speed and experience but Le Mans might be a case of Toyota’s strength in numbers counting for more.
Toyota Gazoo Racing (#7/#8/#9)
Having come oh-so-close to winning Le Mans last year, with a dramatic last lap breakdown denying the Cologne-based team a deserved victory, Toyota finally takes the plunge and commits to three cars for Spa and Le Mans (and possibly Fuji??), having seen that having a third arrow in your quiver really does pay dividends (see Porsche in 2015). This year, regular driver Stéphane Sarrazin moves to the #9 with rookie Yuji Kunimoto joining the rehabilitated Nicolas Lapierre in the cockpit. This leaves a vacancy in the #7 which has been filled by ex-Citroën WTCC driver José-Maria Lopez. The #8 crew remains unchanged from last season.
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The TS050B is another 2016 evolution, the most noticeable change being the higher nose but still retaining the 2.4l V6 and the proven Li-ion battery system, putting the car in the 8MJ class. Other changes include a 15mm-higher front splitter and narrower rear diffuser.
Prediction: having three cars with which to split strategy will always prove to be the winning formula at Le Mans. However, overall WEC honours might still prove to be a bridge too far.
ByKolles Racing (#4)
On the face of it this team doesn’t have a hope. The prologue at Monza was curtailed prematurely when the rear wing fell off, so the Austrian team withdrew the car on Saturday night. However, there are some signs of optimism if one looks closely.
First of all they have added ex Renault and Sauber F1 driver Robert Kubica to their driving strength alongside Oliver Webb (so far only two drivers have been nominated), the Pole now fully recovered from his rally accident in 2012 which stopped his F1 career. Having developed a taste for prototypes after his outing in the Renault RS01 at the Spa ELMS meeting last year, Kubica makes his debut in the big class.
Secondly, Kolles has managed to secure the ICE from the defunct Nissan GTR-LM project which was abandoned by NISMO in 2015. Insiders agree that the 3.0l V6 developed by Cosworth was the car’s strongest point, so having this in the back will at least be an improvement on the AER unit they used last year. If they can put together a strong showing in the first few races, and at least avoid being overtaken by the P2s, then might NISMO start to get a bit more serious?
Prediction: As usual a severe lack of funds is preventing this team from showing its full potential, and it has been rumoured that they might skip the overseas rounds at the end of the season. 2018 might prove to be a different story though if the team can get more sponsorship. The cancellation of the P1-L trophy won’t see them get much silverware this year.