As we’re less than 24 hours away from the start of this season’s finale in Brazil, one that may seem rather anticlimactic since we already know the names of the LMP1 world champions, we look back at what made this season such a cracker.
No BoP at the top
For those of you following GT racing, it’s inevitable that you’ve heard about Balance of Performance (BoP) at least a handful of times over the past 12 months. Be it WEC or any other important series running GT cars, either GT2 or GT3 spec, the cars are being balanced using air restrictors to limit one’s car power so that it won’t run away from all the others. Such a procedure cannot benefit everyone so it’s rather obvious that many complained about it, especially over the pond, in the newly formed TUSC, where some factory GTE team got the break that helped them grab the title.
If you’ve been following the top class of the WEC, you probably never heard these guys, be it Toyota, Porsche or Audi complain about the BoP. Why is that? Well, it’s rather straight and simple: there is no such thing. The rules in LMP1, be it hybrid or not, make it so that the man, or actually team, with the best car does actually win. This was the case with Toyota in 2014, which proved to be the better, more efficient car overall, regardless of track or conditions.
These LMP1-H cars are marvels. They are the most advanced sportscars in the world, their hybrid technology rivaling the one in place in F1 but while the ‘Queen of Motorsport’ has turned into somewhat of an economy run this year, the three marques at the top of the game in WEC race flat out for 6 or more hours straight, each pushing the limits of their hybrid energy-harvesting systems in a battle that has seen Toyota and Audi at the top, with Porsche having the speed on one fast lap but lacking some luck when it came down to winning.
Gerard Neveu, CEO of the WEC, says that the manufacturer interest in WEC’s top class, which will see a growth next year as Nissan will join with the GT-R LMP1 (currently in testing), is high just because of those all-important tech regulations which give freedom to the big names to develop their technologies, each choosing their own path, the best one winning out on track, fair and square. It’s quite old school but it’s proving to work as this third season of the WEC has shown a continuous increase in interest from fans that shift from other forms of racing to watch the spectacle of multi-class road racing.
Since Porsche left the top prototype ranks back in 1998, every sportscar racing fan has been waiting to see the light at the end of the tunnel which is, in this case, the return of the most coveted brand at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in a position that gives them a legit chance at the overall victory. They made a mission out of this return, the 919 Hybrid making its debut via a 3rd place at the opening round of the championship at Silverstone in spring. This led some to believe that Porsche might have a shot at winning the 24 Hours out of the box and indeed they were leading into the 22nd hour but their pace had never been quite there for them all weekend. Although, that being said, the retirement of the #20 came just as bitter. Mark Webber, brought by Porsche in the #20 car’s lineup of drivers straight out of Red Bull’s F1 car is another reason why the interest grew around the WEC in ’14. The Aussie, who made his first trip to Le Mans as a driver this year since 1999, came into WEC having great respect for his rivals and sportscar racing in general, acknowledging the steep learning curve he’s got ahead of him which he’s just about climbed by now during a season in which his and the team’s focus has been “to make our presence felt” as Webber points out. They sure did, as Porsche got back-to-back poles in the past two WEC rounds although things didn’t shape up just as good in the race.
Of course, as time goes on we can only expect that Porsche, who’s won at Le Mans a record 16 times over the years, will get better and coming 2015 we will have a full-on three-way fight for the title and, just maybe, a four-way fight if Nissan’s new contender proves itself as quick as the 919 did.
In the times when the action at the sharp end of the field is a bit latent fans look down the order to the GT ranks for excitement ; and they always get what they’re asking for. The GT battles this season have been some of the best which is what you’d expect when you have a class like GTE Pro where manufacturers fight it out, AF Corse coming out on top for the second year running.
The strategy when racing in GT is quite simple, as Darren Turner tells us: “In basic terms, it really is all about driving flat-out for every lap, then stopping for fuel at the end of each hour”. The Aston-Martin Racing veteran has had a tough year in 2014, missing out on the title after an engine failure in China sent himself and team-mate Stefan Mucke into retirement. That being said, Turner is one of the best in the GT world, all of the GTE-Pro lineups boasting overwhelming amounts of talent that, in fairness, rivals the high-profile LMP1. This coupled with the aforementioned BoP that keeps things close make for very close racing. And I mean very close racing! To reach these end results, the ACO had to mingle with each car’s performance and, in AMR’s case, they didn’t get the best of it. Actually, they got their tank decreased in capacity which pushes them to gamble on strategy every time they go out while Porsche got a smaller air restrictor, just to make things fair.
GTE-Am has seen the Danish crewed #95 Vantage at the top on a bunch of occasions, Heinemeier-Hansson and Poulsen coming home from Bahrain with the title in the pocket. This doesn’t mean that the racing the amateur Grand-Touring class has been less exciting, just that the drivers made the difference.
You can’t have great racing if you pick and choose the single most boring tracks out there. You need tracks that make for good racing and most of those featured on the WEC calendar run on those lines. You have Silverstone, albeit distorted from the more pure form we know and love from a decade ago, Spa-Francorchamps and Le Mans in the first half of the year. Then you’ve got COTA, Fuji and Interlagos to top it all off. The WEC’s choice to blend some traditional venues with some other rounds held at newer tracks paid off, fans flooding both the well-known tracks and those that have welcomed endurance racing only recently. Oh, and since I’ve mentioned fans, they numbered at Le Mans more than 230 thousands. F1 can only dream of such numbers, even at their flagship event.
Of course, one may argue, and could well do so, that Le Mans is the biggest race in the world and that it’s a normal consequence of that. But it’s more than that. People will come for a good reason to do so, and the more laid back and open style of the WEC is appealing to fans more so than the open-wheel formula that ended in Abu Dhabi. One can marvel at Toyota’s speed and the lack of roar coming from it’s nearly 1000hp engine seen and heard live on TV, but seeing all that up close and personal is something different. And the people that run the WEC, headed by Mr. Neveu, know that all too well.
Circuit de la Sarthe – Le Mans
You can’t forget Le Mans. The center-piece of the championship, a thing some argue as being bad for the overall image of it, is still one of the main reasons why people follow WEC. Audi’s been focusing on this race since they first arrived there back in ’99, their focus paying off in the shape of 13 winner’s trophies. They won there this year too, a one-two victory to be exact, and one of only two times thus far that Audi has brought it’s new R18 E-Tron Quattro in the winner’s circle. Both were courtesy of the the #2 car which fell short of winning the title after only finishing 5th in Shanghai. The champions of 2013 (and LM winners), of whom we have had two on the grid this year, Tom Kristensen and Loic Duval, have seen better days. Their luck seems to have turned this year and things progressed in the wrong direction, starting with Duval’s big shunt in practice at La Sarthe & finishing off with the trials and tribulations of Bahrain where the chassis has been changed no less than 3 times prior to race day. That’s quite a record, not one that you’d be proud of anyway.
What’s to be expected from next year?
As we all wait for the last race of 2014 we’re already looking forward towards next year. What we can assure you is that the WEC keeps on getting better and better and more and more people are getting aware of that.
Nissan will join the mix in LMP1 which will be again united: no more LMP1-H and L to distinguish between the hybrid works cars and the more down to Earth privateer entries. In LMP2 we should see many more entries following the apparent draught in full season entries this year. First of all, Strakka will debut their new Dome prototype which has seen even more delays which make it impossible for the Brits to race their new car in Brazil. Also, the new HPD 04b will be present, at least two of them being already confirmed under the ESM banner. Also we should see more Ligier and the omnipresent ORECAs.
While we will lose Interlagos we in turn get the Nurburgring! The German round will fill in as the Brazilian race track gets updated.
The GT ranks will probably remain unchanged as Corvette Racing, which got a taste of WEC at COTA, will probably not take on a full-season program. We might though see another Corvette team run in GT in ’15 but not in GTE-Pro. Salleslagh Racing looks to race their C6.R in GTE-Am and although the car’s already old it’s a good piece of news for the fans of American power.