Wednesday 12 April 2017

FIA WEC 2017: 6 Hours of Silverstone - LMP1 & LMP2 preview

The FIA World Endurance championship kicks off at Silverstone this weekend. In LMP1, 2017 will be known as year one in the post-Audi era, now leaving Porsche and Toyota to battle for the championship and victory in the 24 hours of Le Mans in June. 

The loss of Audi and the move from Rebellion to LMP2 means we'll only see 5 LMP1's in this years championship. Except for the 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps and Le Mans where Toyota will field a third TS050 Hybrid. 2017 will be a transitional year as next year Ginetta will step into the LMP1 privateer class with a new chassis and SMP Racing is preparing its own LMP1 non-hybrid car in conjunction with Dallara. If all goes well, the LMP1 grid might even get into double figures in 2018.

With the current LMP1 rules frozen until the end of 2019, chances of a new manufacturer stepping into the FIA WEC are very slim, if not non existent. The earliest we'll see a new entrant in the top class will be 2020.

To further reduce the costs in LMP1, the regulations for 2017 have been tweaked in several categories.  The most important adjustments are the reduction of aero kits from three to two, the reduced amount of tyres which will be available for the teams during a race weekend and an increase in testing & wind tunnel development. Both the increase in aero kits and tyre usage will have their effect from Silverstone on. As from this season, teams in LMP1 will have less sets of tyres available in all sessions: 3 sets in Free Practice (instead of 4) and 4 sets for qualifying and the race. This will require very sensible tyre management and the need to double stint tyres during the race. Race tactics will definitely be different from the first race of the season on.

Porsche defends its title with a highly revised 919 Hybrid, both technical and aerodynamical. 60 to 70 percent of the car's components are new developments. The power plant is still the turbo powered petrol V4 engine, combined with two separate hybrid systems. Porsche is defending its drivers and constructor's world championship title and will be eager to score their 19th victory in the 24 hours of Le Mans in June. 

The German team has announced they will race their 919 Hybrids in low downforce trim at Silverstone, meaning they will have significantly less downforce than the fast bends of the track realistically demand. Just two aero kits are available for the whole season, so Porsche has opted to test and further develop their low drag Le Mans kit at Silverstone and Spa next month. 

Quite a few driver changes at Porsche this season, as reported earlier. Neel Jani defends his title in the #1 919 Hybrid & will be joined by 2015 Le Mans winner Nick Tandy and André Lotterer, who is the only ex-Audi driver remaining in LMP1. 2015 champions Timo Bernhard and Brendon Hartley remain in the #2 car, and will be joined by another Le Mans winner of 2015: New Zealander Earl Bamber who replaces Mark Webber.

Challengers Toyota Gazoo Racing also arrive in Silverstone with an updated version of the TS050 Hybrid. The heavily modified TS050 not only features some major aero upgrades but also a completely new engine and an upgraded hybrid powertrain. The 2017 car is powered by a 2.4 litre V6 turbo-charged petrol engine combined with an 8 MJ hybrid system. A new, further developed power train and the optimised hybrid system should give the TS050 maximum power of 735 kW/1000 hp.

Toyota has 1 goal this season: win the 24 hours of Le Mans after last year's heartbraking finish. More than 35.000 kilometers of testing have been done over the winter with the new car, and - for the forst time - a third TS050 will be fielded at Spa and Le Mans.

Unlike Porsche, Toyota will race their high downforce package at Silverstone and will continue to do so in Spa next month. Their low drag aero package will make its debut at Spa on the third car that will be fielded there in preparation of Le Mans. Toyota running a completely different high downforce trim compared to Porsche might give them a big advantage in the race this weekend. 

On the drivers side, there are ni big shake-ups at Toyota. One new face in the full season entries is José Maria Lopez in the #7, replacing Stéphane Sarrazin who will be the leading driver in the third car for Spa and Le Mans. Lopez joins Mike Conway and Kamui Kobayashi. The crew of the #8 car is unchanged with Sébastien Buemi, Anthony Davidson and Kazuki Nakajima on driving duties. Stéphane Sarrazin's teammates for Spa and Le Mans are "comeback-kid" Nicolas Lapierre (who was fastest overall at Monza) and Yuji Kumimoto.  

ByKolles is the only privateer team remaining in the LMP1 class, now Rebellion has moved into LMP2. The team announced major aero upgrades to the CLMP1/01, and most importantly the introduction of the Nismo 3.5 litre engine of the GTR LM. High expectations for the Austrian team but a disastrous prologue at Monza has tempered the enthousiasm. Only Oliver Webb came out for a few laps during the night session, and lost a part of his rear wing.

On top of that, Robert Kubica, who was announced as a full season driver, decided to pull back from his racing program with ByKolles on Tuesday. "After the Prologue, I have decided to interrupt my racing program with the ByKolles team in LMP1. Therefore, I will not take part in the upcoming WEC Silverstone opening round and in the other WEC races. It has been a hard decision to step down and so lose the opportunity to join such a challenging and competitive Championship, but I hope this will not be a definitive goodbye".

Kubica was at the Prologue in Monza but didn't turn any laps in the ByKolles. This morning, James Rossiter and Dominik Kraihamer have been announced as replacement drivers for Kubica. 

A whole new LMP2 class this season with new cars and a new spec engine. Four manufacturers have been appointed to build a new chassis: Oreca (F), Ligier (F), Dallara (I) and Riley-Multimatic (USA). Gibson Technologies provides the new 4.2 litre engine, with a power output of 600 hp. That's easily 100 hp more than last year's Nissan engine in the class. The prologue at Monza already showed the sheer power and speed of the new LMP2 cars, with a recorded top speed of 314 km/h. Looking at the data from the prologue in Italy two weeks ago, it seems like the top speeds of LMP1 and LMP2 aren't that far apart from each other, which could lead into some interesting racing at Le Mans.

Despite the choice between four available chassis, all teams in the FIA WEC have opted for the Oreca 07/Gibson.   Oreca was also the only manufacturer to offer an upgrade kit for the Oreca 05, saving on the cost of a completely new car. The European Le Mans Series however have a very varied field in LMP2 with all European constructors present on the startgrid. Several teams who have been active in the FIA WEC are known to be holding back for an investment in a new car until it gets clear which car has the best "package". As in LMP1, 2017 might be a year of transistion, with a boosted entry next season. 

Last years champions Signatech Alpine Racing will be leading the LMP2 class into the 2017 championship. Although being on the full season entry list with two cars, just one car will be present for the opening round in Silverstone this weekend. 2 of last year's champions will driver the #36 rebadged Oreca Alpine A470 in it's typical -  striking -  blue livery. Nicolas Lapierre and Gustavo Menezes return to the French team and will be joined by Britain's Matt Rao who has been racing in LMP2 with Manor last season. 

Lapierre is heading into a very busy 2017. Not only will he drive the World Endurance Championship with Signatech Alpine; he also returns to Toyota for the 24 hours of Le Mans in their third car and will contest the European Le Mans Series with Dragonspeed in an Oreca 07. 

A new face in the FIA WEC is another French team: TDS Racing. After several successful seasons in the European Le Mans Series, TDS Racing now takes its first steps in the World Endurance Championship. Their #28 Oreca 07 is being fielded for last year's FIA WEC GTE-Am champions: François Perrodo and Emmanuel Collard. They will be joined by Matthieu Vaxivière. Vaxivière is a very talented young driver, with lots of experience in single seater racing (Formula Renault 3.5 and Formula V8 3.5 last season). 

Roman Rusinov and G-Drive Racing are also back in the FIA WEC, although Rusinov threatened to leave the championship at the end of last season when his driver ranking went up to Gold. Unlike last year, when Jota Sport ran the G-Drive cars in both the FIA WEC and ELMS, now TDS Racing will run the orange colored Russian Oreca. Rusinov leads the driver trio and is joined by TDS regular Pierre Thiriet & Alex Lynn. Lynn is a former GP3 champion & development driver for the Williams F1 team. Up until now, Lynn is also the only driver who has been racing both the new LMP2 and a DPI prototype.

Picture courtesy of John Stevens/

Manor returns for its second season the FIA World Endurance Championship, again with two Oreca's. John Booth and Graeme Lowdon's team will race under the Chines CEFC Manor TRS Racing flag this season, following a sponsor deal with a Chinese energy company. Another notable sponsor on the Manor cars is SMP Racing, who bring Vitaly Petrov into the team. Petrov will race the #25 together with Mexican Robeerto Gonzalez and Simon Trummer. The #24 will be driven by Britain Tor Graves and Swiss Jonathan Hirschi and another former F1 driver: Frenchman Jean-Eric Vergne.  

Swiss team Rebellion Racing leaves the top class in endurance racing and now steps into the LMP2 class with two Vaillante liveried Oreca's. Rebellion has an exquisite driver line up for their return to the class, and will surely be one of the contenders for this years title. 

The #13 will be driven by Matthias Beche (his fifth season with the team), Nelson Piquet Jr and David Henemeier Hansson. Piquet Jr drove with the team last year in Silverstone, Spa and Le Mans. Henemeier Hansson returns to prototype racing after a season with the Abu Dhabi Proton Porsche in the GTE-Am class last season. In the #31 Nicolas Prost (in his ninth year at Rebellion) will be joined by Bruno Senna who drove with RGR Sport last season and Frenchman Julien Canal, coming over from Greaves Motorsport in the European Le Mans Series.  

Jackie Chan Racing, which ran one car in the FIA WEC last year in collaboration with Alpine, will have 2 cars under its own flag on the grid in Silverstone. Jota Sport will run both cars with a rather psychedelic livery. Behind the wheel of the #37 are David Cheng, Alex Brundle and Tristan Gommendy and The #38 will be driven by Ho Pin Tung, former Audi driver Oliver Jarvis and Thomas Laurent. Again two strong driver line-ups with Brundle and Jarvis leading the way. 

Useful links for the weekend:

Kristof Vermeulen.