The news emanating from the press conference in Mexico City was hardly unexpected. The announcement in July that Porsche would leave the WEC at the end of the season caused huge waves in the upper levels of the FIA and ACO, especially as the Stuttgart team had earlier said they were committed up to the end of 2018. Coming less than a year after Audi’s departure, the organisers were facing a barren season with just one manufacturer hybrid programme, which might not even cover the whole championship. Therefore, a radical re-think of both technical regulations and calendar were required. In the few weeks between the Porsche announcement and the Mexico press conference, the ACO came up with some major changes.
The shift from a summer to winter calendar has been well-discussed in other fora elsewhere, but the technical regulations for 2018/19 and beyond deserve some more analysis:
Briefly the changes to the regulations are as follows:
The hybrid concepts announced at Le Mans will now not be implemented as stated
Instead, there will be now only one category with one podium.
Both hybrid and conventional drivetrains will be permitted
An equivalence of technology (EoT) will be implemented to balance both types of powertrain
No change to chassis regulations (only LMP1 chassis will be eligible)
Clearly the scrapping of separate hybrid & non-hybrid classes was needed, as the proposed Ginetta and SMP efforts for 2018 would only amount to 6 cars. If as rumoured Toyota only contest a limited season then we could have a potential victory for a P2 car at some races, something which the organisers would be hard-pressed to explain….
The goal of these new regulations is twofold:
Retain the current teams and chassis which have been announced for 2018/19
Reduce costs of the hybrid systems to encourage more manufacturer entries (this is obviously aimed at Peugeot who have repeatedly said that their participation is dependent on lower costs for hybrid technology)
The most obvious point (or lack of) was a complete omission of any reference to the IMSA DPi class, which is proving very popular on the other side of the Atlantic. Briefly, the DPi rules allow a manufacturer to buy an off-the-shelf P2 chassis from one of the four licensed constructors and add their own bodywork and engine. This has proved to be a very successful idea, with Corvette, Nissan and Mazda already with cars and Acura (Honda) set to join next year. Other names rumoured are Alfa Romeo, Lamborghini, Mercedes and McLaren.
However, for the WEC the DPi concept as it stands would not fit in for next year as this would undoubtedly annoy the P1-L teams who have committed to 2018. P2 chassis with manufacturer engines would need to be balanced with the current global P2 cars with specification Gibson V8s, which would end up with one class or the other feeling disadvantaged.
With all things, however, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. For the next two seasons, we might have a full Toyota effort (Gérard Neveu has stated that in order to enter the Le Mans 24 Hours, Toyota will have to commit to a full season in 2018-19) plus whatever private LMP1s can afford to join in. So far only ByKolles-Nissan, Manor (with Ginetta-Mecachrome) and SMP (Dallara-TBA) have said they will return. Even allowing for two cars per team there will only be 6-8 cars in the top class. Rebellion are also interested but they are committed to P2 for the next few seasons. Therefore, the technical changes announced by the ACO can only be regarded as a transition to 2020/21, much like the calendar itself.
If Peugeot do return then this won’t be before 2020, but beyond that date, things are looking much rosier. First of all, the basic concept of hybrid has not been dropped, but the ACO has realised that the costs (up to $200 million per season) were totally unjustifiable in the face of competition from other series. Keeping hybrid, albeit in a simplified form, will surely attract more manufacturers keen to develop and sell their cars. If the expected announcement from Peugeot comes in the next few weeks, then could this prompt a re-think at Toyota? The Cologne team are using the WEC campaign mainly for testing road car technology, not just trying to beat a rival on the track, but the chance of a good scrap with an old rival from the 1990s might prove to be irresistible.
Secondly, the current DPi regulations end in that year, which leaves the door open for an alignment between IMSA and ACO rules from 2021 onwards. IMSA have stated that they are not averse to adjusting the DPi rules to reflect manufacturer interest, and would it be such a major leap of faith to substitute a P1 chassis for a P2? (After all, the P1 Rebellion R-1 was identical to a P2 ORECA 05).
Thirdly there is a hidden benefit. The current hybrid cars are too complex for them to be run by anyone other than a full factory effort, so if a manufacturer pulls out then there are no customer teams to pick up the slack and use the previous season’s machinery. Joest, for example, was not able to run an Audi R18 this year even as a semi-works team. The new hybrid formula should be simpler, and therefore require fewer engineers to run it. If this is the case then a solid private team could run one or two ex-factory cars, much as we saw in the 1980s.
If all of this comes to pass then I am sure we can look forward to a fully aligned global series by 2021 where the cars from one will be able to run in the other, much like in the halcyon days of Group C. Hybrid manufacturer entries supported by some quality private teams? IMSA Acuras against WEC Peugeots? A season with Le Mans, Sebring and Spa? We can dare but dream…