I was struck by a revelation somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean on my flight home to California. After six days spent in the UK covering the opening round of the World Endurance Championship, one overriding memory stood out from the encounter: Paddock-wide contentment.
Fans, team members, drivers, officials, and even hardened journos seemed to have a proper grasp of the special times surrounding the WEC, and with the series in the midst of an uptick in almost every category worth tracking, the sense of satisfaction and (dare I say it) happiness that was on display throughout the facility was barely contained.
Positivity in motorsport has become a cherished find in the Internet Age; at home, time spent among the paddocks of America’s domestic racing series often comes with various assaults on one’s warmer outlooks, which made the absence of literal and figurative dark clouds overhead at Silverstone such a welcome change – and for good reasons.
The cars are amazing, and range from mental P1 Hybrids to proper door-bangers in GTE. The racing, as anyone who watched the 6 Hours of Silverstone will testify, bordered on a religious experience as each of the four classes was fraught with unrelenting battles and frequent passing. With so many racing series headed in the wrong direction, the WEC serves as a respite – a haven where the sport’s basic formula of blending man, machine, and speed into a compelling mixture has been preserved.
Those ingredients, as Silverstone’s audience confirmed, are not enough to turn the WEC into an overnight success. Cast against the FIA’s other international offerings, the WEC is in its infancy compared to Formula 1 or the World Rallying Championship, and its modest audience – an estimated 45,000 fans over three days – is a reminder of the growth that lies ahead.
Silverstone cemented what we’ve known since the WEC made its debut. The championship, as a whole, is simply incredible, and offers fans and manufacturers something they cannot find elsewhere. As a product, the WEC is loaded with attractive elements, yet its presence is known to far too few. Awareness is all that’s keeping the WEC from exploding in popularity, and like IndyCar’s Indianapolis 500, its market share will increase once folks are made aware that amazing races are held before and after the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
With a triumphant start to its fourth season, the racing’s best kept secret is ready to go primetime, and if the WEC can move Silverstone, Spa, and the other races out from the wide shadow cast by Le Mans, a new era of prosperity could emerge for sports car racing.
Lap times for the unbridled P1 cars improved by nearly 3.5 seconds in the span of one year at Silverstone. Mark Webber’s pole position lap of 1:39.721 in his Porsche 919 Hybrid would have placed the grand prix veteran 13th on last year’s weather-influenced F1 grid.
Prior to the WEC, the closest intersection between F1 and prototype lap times took place with the former World Sport Prototype Championship that saw Jaguar’s XJR-14 and Peugeot’s 905s – affectionately remembered as “F1 cars with fenders” – encroach on F1’s sovereign territory in the early 1990s. Based on how far the WEC has come with its P1-Hybrid regulations, fans are being treated to a second era of prototypes that can almost dance with premier open-wheel machines.
Although today’s P1 cars are edging towards F1-fast, the strongest offerings from Audi, Porsche, and Toyota would need to find a significant amount of time to catch today’s grand prix cars. It’s also worth remembering F1 cars tip the scales at 1520 pounds, nearly 400 pounds lighter than the minimum set for P1 hybrids. It’s far from a straight comparison between the cars; F1’s 1.6-liter engines and ERS capabilities are lower in capacity and storage/output than the maximum permitted in P1-H, yet with a vast reduction in front area and mass, any shortcomings in power are more than satisfied through aerodynamic efficiencies and lighter weight. Take 400 pounds off the 919, dial its power down to F1 levels, and you’d still have a car capable of worrying Mercedes and Ferrari in the war for outright lap time dominance.
The most violent acceleration at Silverstone belonged to Porsche and its ridiculous 8MJ hybrid system. After charging the battery-based system under braking, Porsche’s 919 deploys over 500 electric horsepower in a matter of seconds, and combined with more than 500 horsepower from its nasty 2.0-liter turbocharged V4 combustion engine, the sleek German prototype moves in violent bursts – like a comic book character teleporting from apex to apex. Television cameras showed numerous instances where an Audi R18 or Toyota TS040 driver nailed their corner exit, reached the tail of a 919, and then watched the Porsche disappear as its 8MJs left their 4-6MJ solutions in a wake of spent energy.
Webber demonstrated Porsche’s fearsome potential in the race when he motored out to an advantage of 18 seconds during a 44-lap assault on the sense. The sister 919 was missing the Warp Speed chip found in the Aussie’s Porsche, and once Webber’s car succumbed to drivetrain problems, sports car anoraks were treated to a rocketing mass of P1 machinery. Unable to break free from the pack, the differing design philosophies from Audi, Porsche, and Toyota were revealed in how the cars constructed their lap times.
Porsche was in a class of its own in a straight line – while accelerating, but with more ERS power to harvest than its rivals, the 919’s required more time in the braking zones to charge its battery. At 4MJ, the lowest among the three P1 manufacturers at Silverstone, Audi compensated for its reduced acceleration profile by recovering ground under braking. With less to harvest, the R18 drivers stayed on the throttle longer, braked later, and used the rattling torque from their turbodiesel V6s to keep the Porsche’s close until the 919’s 8MJ ERS system did its dragster impression. From straight to straight, and lap to lap, it was like watching a bow stretch and recoil. Porsche’s creation is P1’s one-lap wonder, and in a league of its own in clean air.
Clutter the braking zones with slower cars, however, and feeding that hungry 8MJ system becomes a problem. If there’s a weakness in Porsche’s 2015 championship plans – other than questionable reliability – it’s the ability to consistently harvest and deploy all 8MJs on every lap. With less time required for harvesting its 4MJ system, Audi’s middle-of-the-road approach to ERS assistance was the most efficient at Silverstone and could serve as the best compromise at tracks where flowing, uninterrupted speed is hard to find. With P2 and GTE cars to dodge throughout Silverstone’s 20 turns, Audi drivers had instant acceleration on tap at all times and set five of the six fastest sector times in the race.
As Audi Sport technical director Ralf Juttner told me after qualifying, “I don’t think it will be a surprise for anyone if Porsche wins eight points for eight poles this year. In the races, I think we will have something more to show them.” With Silverstone providing an incredibly small sample size to use, Juttner’s view on the season ahead could be worth keeping in mind during the other seven rounds.
It’s hard to say how the race would have played out if Webber’s 919 lasted beyond quarter-distance, but with P1’s sole outlier removed from the equation, the five remaining P1 entries waged what my father would have called a “knockdown, drag-out fight.” It certainly thrilled those who witnessed what took on the feel of a six-hour qualifying session.
Traffic, rather than engines or ERS units, was the great equalizer as picks were set, and in other instances, congestion led to ambitious lines and overtaking maneuvers. One can only hope the 6 Hours of Silverstone serves as the template for 24 hours of action at Le Mans in June.
Of the surprises at Silverstone, Toyota’s lack of ultimate pace was obvious – especially after the Japanese marque dominated the 2014 season. Plagued by persistent understeer, Toyota’s Anthony Davidson and the rest of the TS040 drivers were able to stay in the fight, yet rarely looked capable of bothering Audi or Porsche in an extended run between fuel stops.
One Porsche had the field covered, albeit temporarily, and the other, while plenty fast, was incapable of dispatching the alarmingly quick and consistent Audis. Toyota also had flashes of speed, but the track itself – instead of anything contained within the TS040 chassis – governed their outright potential.
Removed from Silverstone’s relatively flat layout, the next round in Spa – where steeper elevation changes and increased camber feeds higher amounts of energy into the tires – should help the TS040s to come to life. Whether they’ll be able to match the 919s or R18s is unknown, but the separation exposed during Round 1 should be greatly reduced.
Three manufacturers, each with more than 1000 horsepower to unleash through the Belgian forest…it should be a magical experience.
The P2 category was the only class on Sunday that had the makings of a predictable finish. The pair of G-Drive Ligiers locked out the front row in qualifying and came home with six laps in hand over the eventual third place Strakka Racing Dome S103. Tequila Patron ESM’s post-race DQ from P3 was the latest in a year-long string of unfortunate outcomes for the Florida-based outfit.
KCMG’s new ORECA 05 chassis was promising, lapping within a few hundredths of the fastest laps turned by G-Drive in the hands of Nick Tandy. G-Drive could have more serious competition once ESM gets a handle on its Ligiers, but for now, the comely orange and black coupes appear to have the P2 class under control.
A double pole for Aston Martin Racing turned into a win in GTE-Am (RIGHT: the winning #98 of Paul Dalla Lana, Pedro Lamy and Mathias Lauda leads its stablemate) and an admittedly disappointing turn in GTE-Pro where the British marque’s 1-2-3 in qualifying became a 4-5-6 by the time the checkered flag waved. AF Corse, the WEC’s most adept team at spoiling the fortunes of the full-blown factory programs, continued its championship-winning form from 2014 as the irrepressible Gimmi Bruni and Toni Vilander snatched GTE-Pro honors for Ferrari as Porsche Team Manthey faltered. For all the money and resources Porsche dedicates to GTE-Pro, there’s something slightly amusing about a less-invested marque owning the class.
INDYCAR CHAMPION POWER PRAISES WEC
Reigning Verizon IndyCar Series champion Will Power drives for one of the best teams in all of motor racing, and has no plans to leave Roger Penske’s legendary program. But the native of Toowoomba, Australia, says he’s a big fan of the World Endurance Championship, its P1 prototypes, and would love an opportunity to add his name to the entry list in the future.
“I love those cars and that series,” Power said as he prepared for last weekend’s race in New Orleans. “They’ve got so much power and technology, and I’d love to race in P1 if I had the chance. Every driver wants as much power as they can get – with all the hybrid systems and everything else that goes into those cars, I bet it would be an amazing experience to drive one.”
• Racer/team owner/actor Patrick Dempsey was late in his arrival at Silverstone due to acting commitments in Hollywood, and while his early pace was expected to be compromised by a lack of track familiarity in the No. 88 Dempsey-Proton Porsche 911 RSR (ABOVE), the American was still searching for speed through his final stint in the race. Observing from the outside of the Maggots and Becketts complex – Silverstone’s judge and jury for driver aptitude – Dempsey routinely coasted through the scarier bits and waited for the cornering to finish before applying significant amounts of throttle. Some of Dempsey’s performance deficit could be blamed on missing all of the pre-event preparations – track walks and such – but in the absence of comfort and experience, a racer’s instinct to push boundaries should have filled some of the void. Hopefully, that aspect of Dempsey’s capabilities, along with a stronger finish in the GTE-Am class, will appear at Spa.
• The top speeds at Silverstone belonged to Porsche. Marc Lieb hit 302.5kph/187.9mph, and was mirrored by teammate Mark Webber’s 300.8kph/186.9mph. The fastest non-919 went to Toyota’s Kazuki Nakajima, whose 284.2kph/176.6mph top speed was a full 11.3mph shy of Lieb’s peak velocity. Like a step chart from 8MJ to 6MJ to 4MJ, Audi was third among P1 Hybrids at 279.1kph/173.4mph. In P2, the race-winning high-downforce Ligiers were in the bottom half of the trap speeds, while Strakka’s Dome and KCMG’s ORECA led the class with top speeds 2.5kph/1.5mph over the dominant French coupes. Across GTE-Pro and Am, top speeds were tightly controlled as the best of 244.3kph/151.8mph by SMP Racing’s Ferrari F458 (ABOVE RIGHT) was marginally faster than the slowest 241.4kph/149.9mph posted by Abu Dhabi-Proton Racing’s Porsche 911 RSR.
• The best race lap turned by the lone P1-Light from Team ByKolles was slower than all but one P2 car. The team’s twin-turbo V6 AER engine produced a wonderfully angry tune, but the CLM P1/01 chassis was a vision of crossed elbows in the corners. Prone to snap oversteer, even F1 veterans Vitantonio Liuzzi and Christian Klien looked clumsy behind the wheel. If the team was searching for positives after Silverstone, it could be found in the fact that their performances can only improve at Spa and beyond.
• Silverstone ELMS race winner Jon Lancaster surrounded himself with controversy after bashing his way to victory on Saturday. After receiving a tongue lashing in the post-race press conference from Tristan Gommendy (click here to watch), whose race-leading Ligier was hit and spun when Lancaster’s right-front corner struck Gommendy’s left-rear, Lancaster told JOTA Sport driver Filipe Albuquerque and myself that Gommendy had hit him from behind… We were left asking if, among different international standards like the metric and imperial measurement systems, the terms “front” and “rear” held opposite meanings in the ELMS.
• The WEC’s use of automated yellows worked to perfection. Instead of dispatching a pace car and wasting laps on gathering and sorting the field, or collecting the field and running through pit stops as IMSA is fond of doing, the WEC left the field to circulate on their own at pace car speeds, then gave a countdown to going green. The durations of the cautions, under race director Eduardo Freitas’ watch, lasted as long as it took to solve the problem. By treating cautions as temporary issues instead of laborious intermissions, a purity of competition was maintained. F1 has received rave reviews from the driver-managed caution system, and after witnessing it in action at a six-hour sports car event, there’s no question it needs to be adopted Stateside.
Marshall Pruett’s Silverstone photo galleries: