WEC Silverstone : Potent Porsche claims debut 1-2
Following the 18 month long “super season”, which concluded at The 24 hours of Le Mans in June, the WEC’s first “school year” season kicked off with the 4 hours of Silverstone last weekend. Up and down the paddock, there was plenty to think about, despite the inability to shake off the feeling we are embarking on a transition year, while waiting for the eagerly anticipated “Hypercar” top class. Mercifully, season 8 will be the final year where we will have to endure the Toyota Hybrid juggernaut, parading through every race in a strictly controlled, flying formation. Following a monotonous succession of uncontested race wins for Toyota, since the exit of works opposition from Audi and Porsche to Formula E, the ACO have been under increasing pressure to level the playing field in the now dull, LMP1 class. For the 2019/2020 season, small measures have been implemented to reign in the Toyota factory hybrids, in order to give the privateers a bit of a leg up to compete. Equal stint lengths and pit stop times, are mere baby steps to levelling the competition on paper and, as predicted, the Japanese factory were blatantly dominant at Silverstone. From trackside, the sheer grunt of the most sophisticated racing cars ever built, pulverising the valiant but defenceless privateers, was painful to watch. The form crew, aboard Toyota #7, of Conway, Lopez and Kobayashi, drew first blood in their quest for a WEC world championship, leading the majority of the race with a flawless performance. Following the heartbreak of Le Mans back in June, due to a tyre sensor blunder in the final hour, the #7 Toyota trio made a positive step towards settling that score. The #8 car, packed with F1 exiles, will be desperate to retaliate at the team’s home race at the 6 hours of Fuji in Japan. Toyota #8 new boy, Brendon Hartley, impressed on his return to the WEC. The New Zealander proved that his brief tenure in F1 had not dampened any of his resilience, calmly piloting the Toyota Hybrid in wet conditions with a faulty windscreen wiper.
Privateer LMP1 efforts, Rebellion and Ginetta, should be commended for their persistence and loyalty to the series, but with a clear manufacturer only bias in the rulebook, they are left out in the cold. However, the ACO do have another new trick up their sleeve for this WEC season, yielding a glimmer of hope for some competition in LMP1 this season. Success handicaps will be applied to cars (read Toyota Hybrid) throughout the season, based on points scored. This can be applied via weight, power reduction or limiting hybrid boost. Theoretically, the principle is sound. BTCC has proved that a ballast system can work very effectively in avoiding the dominance of any given team. Great, problem solved? Sadly, no. On arrival at Le Circuit de la Sarthe for the championship finale, success ballast measures will be binned, paving the way for yet another parade to outright victory number 3 for the Japanese squad at the 24 hours of Le Mans. It cannot be underestimated just how crucial the arrival of Hypercar in September 2020 is to spice up the battle for outright victory at the world’s greatest motor race. Until then, all we can hope for is a Conway versus Hartley, inter team showdown as the Rolex clock ticks towards 3pm local time at Le Mans on Sunday the 14th of June 2020.
LMP2, on the other hand, was an enthralling encounter. Having taken delivery of their brand new Oreca chassis, Hollands fastest grocer, Frits van Eerd and his Racing Team Nederland team mates displayed dominant pace in the early stages of the race. Giedo van der Garde took the first shift for the #29, Jumbo sponsored, Oreca-Gibson and produced one of the finest opening stints you are ever likely to see. His dry weather pace compared to those in virtually identical machines in the LMP2 class was absolutely mesmerizing, laying the foundations for team owner and co-driver, Van Eerd, to take the chequered flag in 3rd place. But, it would be a very familiar name clinching the LMP2 honours. LMP2 legend, Nicolas Lapierre, guided the Cool Racing outfit to a debut victory in the WEC at the first time of accessing. The Frenchman proved just how effective his Midas touch is to any LMP2 stable he joins.
In stark contrast to the odds-on certainty of LMP1 results in the last few years, GTE-Pro remains the ideal tonic. Factory drivers in works machines, deceiving the spectator that they are watching a touring car sprint race, rather than a tactical, tortoise and hare contest. Race length appears to make no difference to the competition of GTE-Pro, cars running a mistake free race will, in most cases, remain on the lead lap, all race long. At Silverstone, fans sampled an unfamiliar 4 hour format for the opening race of the 2019/2020 season. Needing no encouragement, this yielded a GTE-Pro race that could have been clinched by any of the 3 manufacturers competing. Ferrari showed strong pace throughout the weekend, with both of their 488 GTE machines running up the front from the green light in Friday morning practice. However, it would not be long into the race before the Maranello factories fortunes took a dramatic turn. 2019 Le Mans winner, James Calado, led the pack from pole position and had begun putting together a fine opening stint. Half way into to his anticipated stint, Calado prematurely pitted the #51 Ferrari, sparking initial speculation of an imaginative strategy call. Soon after, news fed through to the Radio Le Mans commentary team, the leading Ferrari had suffered a puncture and had been forced to pit out of sequence. In a class as tightly contested as GTE Pro, with only 4 hours till the chequered flag, such misfortune is rarely ever recovered. Calado and Ferrari Competizioni GT stablemate Allesandro Pier Guidi, begrudgingly, had to settle for 4th when a win was theirs for the taking. Ferrari’s day didn’t improve, their sister car tangling with Olly Jarvis, in the new Ginetta LMP1, slamming the #71 488 GTE into the barrier and out of the race. 2018/2019 super season champions, Porsche, rolled out a brand new evolution of their dominant 911 RSR machine. Gianmaria Bruni and Richard Lietz settled in to their new #911 office without delay and despite the loss of one of the greatest soundtracks in motorsport, delivered a debut victory for the new 911 RSR. Bruni, ever the stylish Italian, rolled into pit lane and celebrated by deploying the full might of the flat 6 motor to the rear Michelin tyres, producing a perfect burnout. Car #912 driven by world champions Michael Christensen and Kevin Estre, closely followed their Italian and Austrian colleagues home in 2nd place, signing off on a dream debut for the latest iteration of Porsche’s GT thoroughbred.
The GTE-Am class in 2019/2020, will be the swansong season for the outgoing 500 horse power musical instrument that is the Porsche 911 RSR. Although Porsches Factory team in GTE-Pro have moved on to the dull drone of the 2019 EVO specification of the RSR, GTE-Am rules dictate that cars being campaigned in the class must be one year behind the latest, equivalent machine found in GTE-Pro. So rejoice, we can bask in the aural assault of the high pitched, shriek of one the finest sounding race engines ever built, for one more season.
From trackside, and no doubt on TV too, the presence of Chip Ganassi’s Ford GT homologation specials and the gargantuan BMW M8 were sorely missed. They aren’t missed simply to boost the sheer number of cars on the grid, we were spoiled with a corker of a race between the six GTE-Pro cars, entered by three factories. However, the disappearance of the sleek silhouette of the Le Mans led Ford GT powered by the booming, almost industrial twin turbo V6 motor, has left an elephant in the room. Until the rumbling V8’s of the Pratt and Miller Corvettes, roll into pit lane at Le Mans in June 2020, fresh off the boat from their Atlantic crossing, we are stuck with a very one tune soundtrack in WEC GTE-Pro. Not long ago, a first time visitor to Le Mans could close their eyes and pick out the howl of the flat 6 Porsche, the ground shaking rumble of a Corvette, the drone of the Ford and the almost Nascar like Aston Martin V8 Vantage. This variety was the calling card for GTE Pro along with the ferocity of competition, levelled by balance of performance, ensuring parity between these wildly different machines. Trackside at Silverstone, every two minutes or so, the GTE-Pro field would fly past, flat out. Pairs of Ferraris, Porsches and Aston Martins following in a formation reminiscent of animals queuing up for Noah’s Ark. Distinguishing the audible differences between each brand though, was frankly an impossible task. As manufacturers all head down the route of a fairly predictable, turbocharged, power plant, the field becomes frustratingly homogenised. Nevertheless, provided we continue to be treated to the first class racing which we have become accustomed to in GTE-Pro, this aural homogeneity can be easily forgiven.
In all but the LMP1 class, the scene is set or another exceptional WEC season and I for one cannot wait until the premier endurance racing circus pitches up in Fuji for what is sure to be 6 hours of first class motor racing.