INSIGHT: Exploring the divide in GTE Pro

Image by JEP/LAT

INSIGHT: Exploring the divide in GTE Pro

Le Mans/WEC

INSIGHT: Exploring the divide in GTE Pro

After the level of parity seen in GTE Pro last season, it may have come as a surprise to some to see such a clear divide in the category at Spa last week. The new ‘Automated BoP’ system worked wonders in 2017 to take the edge off the politics we’ve come to expect, and allowed the four manufacturers in the class all run on reasonably equal terms. So far this year though, it’s been a different story.

Throughout the running in the pre-season Prologue, and at Spa, Ford and Porsche have had the upper hand with their unchanged cars, while BMW, Aston Martin and AF Corse (Ferrari) are yet to match the same performance with their new kit. The latter three being within a few of seconds of Ford and Porsche may not sound like a big deal, but over the course of a six-hour race – never mind a 24-hour one – it’s the difference between the three in question being able to compete for a podium, and fighting for fifth.

So, why has this happened? Are games being played here? And what can we expect going forward? Because it wouldn’t be the first time that major manufacturers have actively tried to influence Le Mans BoP at Spa.

A cynical response to the old Balance of Performance system would be to throw around accusations of sandbagging. But now, with Auto BoP, we’re led to believe that there’s no advantage to not showing your full hand at the start of the season ahead of Le Mans, because it will have a separate BoP, and the BoP for the shorter circuits will not be revised until after Silverstone in August (although BMW and Aston are now hoping the ACO won’t wait until after the British race to make changes).

If it’s not political posturing, then is it down to the fact that there’s so much new in the class? You can argue that BMW and Aston Martin are clearly still in the process of learning the ins and outs of their new cars in a competitive environment, and that AF Corse has merely been looking to find a way to extract the potential of its new 488 ‘Evo’ package, which aims to improve the car’s aero.

But even at this stage in the life of the three aforementioned cars, the process of BoP should still allow them to go toe-to-toe with the established, more refined challengers in the field. Reliability should, we’re told, we’re told, be the main influence, and the difference between an M8 or Vantage being able to leave a race weekend with or without silverware.

In reality though, it didn’t turn out that way in the Ardennes.

Aston Martin, which was two seconds off the pace last year in Spa qualifying with ageing Vantages, was again two seconds adrift this year, with an entirely new and much-improved car.

The No.97 AMR Aston Martin Vantage shared by Alex Lynn, Maxime Martin and Jonathan Adam at Spa. Image by JEP/LAT

It’s a similar story for AF Corse, which managed a qualifying time marginally faster than its pole time in 2017 with its new ‘Evo’ kit, but ended up 1.3 seconds off the unchanged pole-winning Ford. Then in the race, Ferrari nabbed a podium, but only after the field was bunched up after a safety car in the final hour, allowing the No. 71 to pounce on the No. 91 Porsche, which was struggling with tire wear.

And for BMW, Spa played out rather like this year’s Rolex 24: the M8’s performance levels were blunted by BoP, preventing Rahal Letterman Lanigan from giving the car a memorable debut, only to be handed a more favorable hand for Sebring, and take pole.

Trackside observers noted that the M8 GTEs and Vantages didn’t appear to be pushing nearly as hard as the front-running 911 RSRs and GTs through the corners, but that’s anecdotal, so we’ll have to wait Le Mans to find out if those observations were correct.

At Spa, with a different BoP system, but much the same core issue as BMW’s in IMSA, it appeared that all three marques that arrived with new kit wrote the weekend off from the start.

“I pushed,” Aston Martin Racing’s Maxime Martin said to RACER, when asked about the car’s lack of pace in qualifying. “We tried to optimize what we have and put everything together, but we still have to do some setup work, and tire work.

“If I look at the sector times, [we’re losing time in] Sector 1 and 3, and Sector 1 is basically one corner here! It’s not on the slower speed corners. The car was a bit nervous into corners early in the week, but we’ve improved that. We have to understand the tires though, we’re coming here with Michelin, after two years with Dunlop.

“I think we have quite a good car over the longer runs, but it’s difficult to know where we will be. The pace is completely off, so we have to operate perfectly as a team. We have to just score points and see what happens at the next race.

“Porsche and Ford are really, really fast, it’s a big gain from last season, they’re 2.5 seconds quicker than last year [with identical cars], and that’s an enormous gain. I don’t know where it’s coming from.”

BMW’s Tom Blomqvist felt the same way, though Aston Martin struggled more than BMW in raw pace terms. The fastest Vantage in qualifying was over two seconds off the pole time, and in the race, was not capable of climbing the order.

No.82 BMW Team MTEK BMW M8 GTE of Antonio Felix da Costa and Tom Blomqvist/ Image by JEP/LAT

“We made some big gains so far this weekend with setup,” he explained to RACER. “But we’re nowhere near the Porsche and Fords.

“On paper, with all the work we did before this race, we knew we wouldn’t be able to match the Porsche and Fords, we weren’t expecting to match the Ferraris either, because of the BoP and other factors. We knew there would be a big delta, but we have to keep working and extract as much performance from our car.

“We’re losing time everywhere, but mostly in the middle sector where there’s more corners. We really need to push to eke out lap times.”

On the other side of the fence, Ford’s Billy Johnson, who won Saturday’s race, stressed that we must look in the history books for answers.

“If you look at history, and how the new Auto BoP works, there are definitely strategies you can play in terms of getting concessions and gaining performance for later in the season,” he said. “In the past, the game has been played to help a manufacturer at Le Mans.

“You can’t look at this race with a narrow focus, and tunnel vision. You can’t look at Spa, and decide Le Mans BoP on who was fast and who was slow in the season-opener. It’s the nature of the beast; part of the strategy to win a championship, so I don’t think we saw 100% effort from everybody.”

All this means that once again, we’re left trying to read into the mixed signals in the paddock – the lack of confidence from some, and a degree of cynicism from others.

After last year, when the BoP debate fizzled out early on and allowed us to focus on the actual racing rather than political game-playing, the race we saw at Spa comes as a disappointment.

The coming month is therefore critical. The organizers and rule makers must proceed with caution to ensure that the most important GTE race of the year at Le Mans doesn’t leave a sour taste for those watching, as it did back in 2016. This year it’s especially important for GTE Pro to put on a show, as the LMP1 class’s odds of producing a classic race at arguably the lowest they’ve been in the last decade.

What we should be doing is looking ahead to the titanic battle between 17 cars from six factory teams at this year’s Le Mans 24 Hours in GTE Pro with anticipation. Yet with Spa now in the rear-view mirror, there’s an unhealthy level of eagerness to see what the next BoP table will look like instead.

Right now, there’s no way of knowing who to believe…

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