KILBEY: The WEC needs to get real about its LMP1 problem

Image by JEP/LAT

KILBEY: The WEC needs to get real about its LMP1 problem

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KILBEY: The WEC needs to get real about its LMP1 problem

While last weekend’s 6 Hours of Silverstone wasn’t a thriller in the LMP1 class during the race, subsequent exclusions eventually created a landmark result for the FIA WEC.

Rebellion Racing’s inheritance of the win after both Toyota TS050 HYBRIDs were excluded for failing post-race scrutineering means that for the first time in WEC history, a privateer LMP1 team has taken an overall victory.

The No. 3 R-13 Gibson, driven by Gustavo Menezes, Mathias Beche and Thomas Laurent, was declared the winner after all was said and done, the trio again getting the better of their more experienced teammates in the No. 1 R-13, as well as the other five LMP1 privateer runners.

Menezes shone, as he has done all year in WEC competition. As a result, the Californian, who won the LMP2 world title in 2016 as well as the P2 class at Le Mans, became the first American to win a WEC race.

“I’m absolutely ecstatic,” said Menezes. “I haven’t felt this happy for so long. It’s my first win since COTA last year, and it feels very special. Having spent some time living in the UK during the earlier stages of my career, Silverstone is something of a ‘home’ track for me, and it’s a great feeling to take my first LMP1 victory there.

“Obviously it wasn’t the ideal way to do it, but ultimately, winning a race is winning a race no matter how it comes, and we will grab this result with both hands. All the boys at Rebellion have worked so hard to get the whole LMP1 project off the ground and to develop the car to the stage where it is now, and they really deserve this 1-2 finish. I’m immensely proud of everybody involved in the program.”

But a win for Rebellion does little to hide the fact that LMP1 is still not remotely competitive between the hybrid and non-hybrid runners.

The Equivalence of Technology parameters are still gifting Toyota with a huge performance advantage at each race. The ACO has stated that its aim is to give privateers a chance to compete for overall wins, but thus far the results have shown that even after a significant post-Le Mans EoT change, the privateers are unable to keep pace.

The problem is that at this point it’s uncomfortably easy for fans and some members of the media and paddock to put the reality of the situation down to the internal politics of the sport.

FIA President Jean Todt told RACER in a media briefing back at Spa, that from what he had seen “in this present time, in LMP1, it’s possible” for privateer teams to compete for wins and the championship. Thus far though, after the prologue and three races, we haven’t seen a sniff of it, disqualifications aside.

At Silverstone, even after that post-Le Mans EoT change designed to rectify the imbalance seen in France, the Toyotas lapped the field four times.

The WEC uses EoT to try to balance the hybrid and non-hybrid LMP1s. Image by JEP/LAT

Yes, this was in part aided by the Turn 1 mayhem costing multiple cars time, and in some cases, by unreliability elsewhere in the field, but the No. 1 Rebellion had a clean race until the team was forced to change its rear wing assembly towards the end. But by then it was already over: the Toyotas were three laps ahead after just four hours. And that was after the rulemakers quietly dropped the fuel stint lap cap for the privateers too, which at Spa and Le Mans forced them forced to pit earlier than the Toyotas at each stint.

“To be honest, when it comes to EoT, it’s a topic we don’t need to discuss because it’s so obvious to the fans, to the teams, the championship organizers,” Menezes told RACER. “It’s not the correct EoT. They have to start making good steps, because at the moment, this is baby steps in a marathon.

“While we can improve in some areas, we are at the maximum performance level we can be against the Toyotas.”

The privateers can get within a couple of seconds of the hybrids on one-lap pace, but once they get into the race, they simply can’t keep up, because they don’t have the same punch through traffic. So instead of it being a cat and mouse game between two different types of LMP1 cars, it quickly becomes a procession as, ironically, one of the main attractions of multi-class racing plays directly to the strongest suit of the Hybrid LMP1s: their astonishing ability to accelerate through traffic and out of potential trouble.

Proof of this can be found in the lap times at Silverstone. In qualifying (with no cars to pass), Jenson Button set the fastest LMP1 privateer lap of the weekend in SMP Racing’s No. 11 BR1: a 1m38.305s, quicker than the fastest lap set by a Porsche 919 Hybrid in 2017 (1m38.424s). That, coupled with the fact that the Toyota being run this year is the same car, bar a few developments, as last year (its best qualifying lap was a 1m36.7s this year and last), highlights the fact that the TS050 HYBRID’s race superiority owes much to the car’s inherent advantage in traffic.

“It’s almost like we’re LMP2 cars,” Menezes continued. “The R-13 is mega to drive, but frustrating, when you see two cars potentially five, six, seven laps ahead of us at the end of the race.

“After the first couple of laps, we’re already thinking about getting lapped. The ACO acknowledges that the EoT has to be improved, and I just hope that something is done sooner rather than later. We all love being in the championship, and want healthy, strong racing.”

The issue here is the ongoing motivation for the current LMP1 privateers, and for anyone perhaps considering following their lead, because that motivation is currently in very short supply.

EoT has become almost a taboo subject now for many involved, but it has to be questioned at this point. Is the task of balancing the Toyotas with the rest just too hard – or even impossible? Or is there another angle here that isn’t public-facing?

And there’s no easy answer, which is a shame because it has detracted from what should be a David vs Goliath-type affair in which Toyota needs to use its efficiency advantage to counteract the higher top speeds of the privateers.

The Toyota is nimble at picking through traffic. Image by JEP/LAT

There has been positivity in the class with the addition of Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button among others helping spread the word of sports car racing to mainstream audiences, but the on-track product for new fans or potential new fans is nowhere near as entertaining as it was just two or three years ago.

To keep those new fans, and the core fanbase, happily coming back for more, a rethink is required. And so is transparency.

What are the options? IMSA, in its quest to make its prototype grid both competitive and full of happy teams, has opted to split its DPi and LMP2 runners into separate classes for next year. Is that the answer here?

Despite the parallels, the answer is not really, because there is no credible cavalry on the way either in the factory ranks or, if things don’t change very soon, amongst the privateer ranks either, until the 2020/ 21 season at the earliest at the earliest. And that would leave the grid for the remainder of this season, and for the 2019/20 season that follows, beholden to the current rulebook.

If the FIA WEC retains the approach that the current rulebook is what we’ve got for this season and the next, then there’s a stark choice to be faced – take drastic action on Equivalence of Technology, or watch the premier class melt away as privateer LMP1 teams increasingly question the value of their hefty investment.

At present Toyota holds all of the cards. It has the fastest, quickest-accelerating, most fuel efficient, most highly-developed, serviceable and reliable car in the class – and the evidence so far points to a position that it is unwilling to give up any of those advantages unless in extremis.

So there are no simple solutions, particularly because according to several sources in the LMP1 non-Hybrid field, the cars are currently at or approaching the upper level of their current abilities, although further equalizing the time spent in the pits would make at least a minor contribution.

Aside from the blunt instrument of adding significant weight to the Toyotas, and/ or heavily restricting the amount of hybrid punch they can deploy, there seems little that can be done to make a fundamental difference.

While Toyota will resist major change, there surely comes a point where crushing superiority becomes difficult to defend publicly. Having the scope to reduce performance and efficiency while still remaining competitive is a narrative worth examining from the point of view of both the championship and their most loyal top-class partners.

That’s particularly important because this is a situation that is set to remain for two full-season lengths. The next generation of top-class prototypes are not currently debut before summer 2020, and that is 13 races away – including a pair of Le Mans 24 Hours.

While nothing is likely to happen before Toyota’s home race at Fuji Speedway in October, transparency around the issue is needed sooner rather than later. Toyota needs to be competitive, and the privateers need to feel as if they are at least on the same planet.

Whatever happens, there are simple, relevant and marketable messages to be had. If a change does come, and Toyota still wins, it will have done so using around half the fuel of the current non-hybrid LMP1s over the same distance.

Toyota has been a hugely valuable part of the appeal of the FIA WEC in recent years. It would be truly disappointing to see that appeal tarnished by two years of unopposed and predictable victories.

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