Friday 30 August 2019

FIA WEC 2019/2020: LMP1 season preview

Season 8 of the FIA World Endurance Championship kicks off this weekend with the 4 Hours of Silverstone.  This will be the final season for the (non) Hybrid LMP1 cars as we know them, before the arrival of the Hypercars in the 2020/2021 season.  

One of the major changes this season is the variation in length of the races.  Silverstone and Shanghai are now down to 4 hour races, while returnees Bahrain and Interlagos will be an 8 hour race into the dark and a classic 6 hour race. Bahrain wasn’t featured on teh Super season schedule, while Interlagos makes its return for the first time since 2016 after renovation works to the track.  This year’s Silverstone race is the first of the WEC’s modern era to be held over four hours, during which the leading cars can expect to complete close to 800km on the 5.901km circuit. They will be fighting to earn the Royal Automobile Club International Tourist Trophy, first awarded in 1905 and won by motorsport legends such as Tazio Nuvolaro, Stirling Moss and Graham Hill. 

LMP1 preview

Toyota arrives as favourite again, being the only Hybrid powered cars in the championship. They might face a bigger challenge though from the non-hybrid rivals Rebellion and Ginetta (Team LNT), boosted by revised regulations which enhance their performance. At Silverstone, the Toyota’s will be 94 kg heavier than the non-turbo Rebellion and 85 kg heavier than the turbo-charged Ginetta. Meanwhile, the Rebellion is permitted 61% more fuel per stint than the TS050 HYBRID, with the Ginetta’s turbo engine allowed 50% more.   

Rebellion returns with two strong driver line-ups despite losing Neel Jani and Andre Lotterer who both will focus on their Formula E season with Porsche.  Whether both cars will race in all 8 races is still to be seen though with just the #1 car really confirmed for a full season effort and the #3 likely to be entered on a race by race basis. 

Ginetta completes the grid with both of their AER powered G60-LT-P1’s which seemed to make a good impression at Barcelona after a difficult start in the first sessions of the prologue. 

The question that no one seems to ask (or is willing to ask) is whether Team LNT/Ginetta should be recognised as a factory team, and as such would have to run a hybrid system in their cars.  Given that both Ginetta and LNT are from the same stable you might say there’s an obvious link between them.  When the entries for the WEC were filed, the assumption was to find a team/client that would run the car under their own name, apparently that search turned out to nothing. Mike Simpson and Charlie Robertson are consistently being announced as factory drivers too, which might get you thinking again.  The ACO doesn’t really seem to bother however.  Not that they have much choice at the moment or the LMP1 class would have been down to 3 or 4 cars. 

Losing out SMP Racing just weeks ahead of the prologue in Barcelona, was and still remains a big hit for the championship and the LMP1 class in particular. If one team was ready to challenge Toyota this season - if the new regulations and EOT do favour the non-hybrid cars as the organisers want us to believe - it would have certainly been the Russians.  Their AER powered BR1 had seen some very impressive development over the past season and with 2 strong driver line-ups, they seemed ready to take on the challenge in LMP1.

“For us it was a difficult season,” Boris Rotenberg, founder and leader of SMP Racing, said. “We worked a lot on our BR1 prototype. As a result, we were able to show and prove to everyone that the Russian team, Russian drivers and the Russian car are capable of achieving the highest results in the most difficult world championships and in such a prestigious race as the 24 Hours of Le Mans. This is a well-deserved success of everyone who participated in this ambitious project - drivers, SMP Racing and ART GP, BR Engineering and Dallara. Our goal has always been only a victory, and we believe that we achieved this victory with the highest possible result in the given circumstances. After the final race at Le Mans we decided that SMP Racing will leave the FIA WEC. Our team will not race in 2019-2020 season”.

As expected, ByKolles is taking a sabattical from LP1 this season, switching their focus on a possible Hypercar program next season.  It might still be possible however to see them on a race by race basis, Spa and Le Mans being the most obvious. 

Rebellion Racing

Initially announced as a 2 car effort, then down to a single car, but after long negotiations, Rebellion is back with two cars in Silverstone. 

#1 Rebellion R13/Gibson

The #1 car is the only full season confirmed R13 and will see the return of Bruno Senna and Gustavo Menezes to the R13.  They will be joined by Frenchman Norman Nato.  Nato will make his debut in the LMP1 class after a succesful test at the Prologue and some impressive outings in LMP2 in the past 2 seasons.  He impressed in his debut year with Racing Engineering in the ELMS, successfully subbed for Vergne with G-drive and drove Le Mans with RLR Msport in June.  

On paper this should be the “best of the rest” in the LMP1 class, possibly the one car who might be able to get close to the Toyota’s (EOT permitting that is). 

#3 Rebellion R13/Gibson

The #3 is some kind of a last-minute addition to the LMP1 grid as it had been retracted first and then reappeared “at the end of many negotiations”.  Despite being a last-minute addition, Rebellion managed to build another strong line-up for their second car with Nathanaël Berthon, Pipo Derani and Loïc Duval. 

Derani has been fast in almost anything he’s been driving in endurance racing, as well in GTE as in LMP.  He won Sebring three times in the past 4 years and Daytona in 2016.  Loïc Duval doesn’t need much introduction either.  The Audi factory driver won Le Mans and the FIA WEC championship in 2013. Duval did a few races with TDS last season including Le Mans and currently races in DTM.  Nathanaël Berthon is no stranger to Rebellion Racing, having raced with them a few times in the WEC and at Le Mans. 

At this point it’s still unclear if we’ll see this car for the whole season or at select rounds.  The team keeps on working to have two cars on the grid of every round in the WEC although priority will be given to Spa-Francorchamps and Le Mans.  

Team LNT/Ginetta

Ginetta makes its “return” to the LMP1 class after the Manor debacle at the start of the superseason last year which ended at Le Mans 2018.  Since then, the British team broke its contract with Mecachrome and now uses the AER engines which have also been used by SMP Racing last season.  A change for the better as it seems, given the laptimes and top speeds both Ginetta’s set at last months prologue in Barcelona.  We’ll have to see how viable Ginetta’s two car entry will be over the season. Apart from Charlie Robertson and Mike Simpson, all other drivers have only been confirmed for the race in Silverstone.  

Team LNT has set up a unique partnership with some of the biggest online fan communities, featuring their logo’s on the back of the cars. The team will offer the chance for a number of race-going fans to win ‘Orange Ticket’ access, entirely free of charge at every one of the races for the season.  They’ll be welcomed by Team LNT for a guided tour of the garage and car, with goody bags, and even the chance of a mug of Yorkshire tea whilst they watch the team going through their paces.  The WEC subreddit (r/WEC), Sportscarworldwide group and the FIA World Endurance Championship fans page on facebook are Ginetta’s “partners” this season.  

#5 Ginetta G60-LT-P1/AER

The #5 crew is being lead by Charlie Robertson, who won the inaugural LMP3 championship with LNT/Ginetta in 2015, at the side of Sir Chris Hoy.  Robertson has a long history with Ginetta, from his days as a junior driver, and was heavily involved in the development of the G60.  In Silverstone he will be joined by Russian driver Egor Orudhzev and Ben Hanley. 

Orudhzev raced with SMP Racing in the LMP1 class last season with the AER powered BR1 chassis.  He has the most experience with the engine of all drivers and played a key role in the development last season.  SMP and AER made impressive progress over the season, being the quickest non hybrid team around by Spa and Le Mans.  Ben Hanley arrives with the back-up of Dragonspeed, also having raced in a BR1 prototype last season with the Gibson engine. Their season didn’t go as well as planned though, with the big crash of Fittipaldi at the Raidillon and technical gremlins over the rest of the season.  Both Orudhzev and Hanley are fast though, it will be interesting to see how they match up to the experienced Rebellion crews. 

#6 Ginetta G60-LT-P1/AER

Ginetta’s second factory driver Michael Simpson leads the line-up of the second G60-LT-P1.  He will be joined by Chris Dyson and Guy Smith.  Dyson is linked to the Ginetta effort through their engine supplier and is one of the most experienced racers on the grid. The two time ALMS champion makes his comeback to prototype racing for the first time since 2014.  He is currently also racing in the American Trans Am Championship.

Dyson won’t be able to race in the season opener in Silverstone this weekend, due to a wrist injury he suffered at the Trans Am race at Road America last weekend.  With Jarvis as a replacement driver, the team gets a lot of LMP1 experience from the former Audi factory driver who now races with Team Joest in the IMSA championship. 

Guy Smith “retired” from racing last season after the first two races with Bentley in the Blancpain GT Endurance series.  He tested the Ginetta in Barcelona last month, the first time he drove a P1 again since 2013 in the American Le Mans Series. Smith won Le Mans in 2003 and the ALMS championship together with Dyson back in 2011. Being given the opportunity to race with Dyson again in the final season of the current LMP1 machinery was an opportunity too good to be missed for the 44 year old. 

Toyota Gazoo Racing

It’s year 1 after the Alonso era for the Japanese manufacturer who remains the only team with a Hybrid car in the FIA WEC. They won all races bar Silverstone last season, where failing the post-race technical checks due to floor damage after hitting the kerbs saw both cars excluded, handing over victory to Rebellion Racing.  Will it be a different story this year ? Probably not.  Despite all EOT adjustment and promises 

The final version of the TS050 Hybrid has seen some serious development over the short summer break, especially at the front of the car with a completely redesigned nose section and mirrors that are now fully incorporated in the chassis.  The 2019-2020 car has changed little mechanically and uses the same monocoque design introduced in 2016. The new high downforce configuration was shown for the first time at the prologue. 

#7 Toyota TS050 Hybrid

Home favourite Mike Conway leads the #7 TS050 HYBRID line-up alongside Kamui Kobayashi and José María López. Silverstone was the only race which TOYOTA GAZOO Racing did not win last season; following a one-two victory both cars were excluded after failing post-race technical checks due to floor damage after hitting kerbs. That disappointment means the team is even more determined to earn another victory at the historic English circuit, where it won six-hour races in 2014 and 2017.

“Silverstone is a special place for me, not only as my home race but because the track itself is really cool, with fast and flowing corners. When you put together a fast lap there, it is very rewarding because it is so quick. It’s a really fun track, although traffic can be difficult there and you have to get your timing right. There’s always a big crowd and I have family and friends supporting me, so I would love to finally win my home race; I’ve been close a few times but I hope this is the year.” Said Mike Conway.

#8 Toyota TS050 Hybrid

World Champions Sébastien Buemi and Kazuki Nakajima are joined by Brendon Hartley, who will make his Toyota Gazoo Racing debut at Silverstone this weekend.  Hartley made himself familiar with the car in Barcelona, stating that it’s a surprisingly different car from his previous cars in the WEC. “There’s always a lot to learn with a new car but I’m happy with the progress and I feel up to speed. It was helpful to adjust to driving with traffic again and it also felt good to work together with my new team; the engineers, the mechanics and the other drivers have all been very welcoming.