Today was a huge day for the future of international sports car racing.
At its annual conference in the Le Mans paddock, the ACO confirmed the adoption of its ‘Hypercar Prototype’ rules which will take over as the top class in the FIA WEC from the 2020/21 season onward. Then, it left it up to the factories to announce programs.
How many are in right now? Two.
Unsurprisingly Toyota Gazoo Racing has bought in and confirmed its program. The Japanese manufacturer has been clear for a long time now that should the rules include the chance to develop its own hybrid system, and race at a sensible cost, that it would carry on racing. And so it is, with a hybrid-powered, prototype version of the GR Super Sports Concept, that Toyota will continue its longstanding WEC program which has been active since 2012.
“We have been involved with the regulation process for a long time and initially, in fact until February, the prototype route was the only one,” said Toyota Gazoo Racing’s technical director Pascal Vasselon at the conference. “So we have been moving forward in this direction very logically and then logically we have been working with what we have.
“We have passed several deadlines already (because the rules took longer than expected to be finalized), so according to our usual development schedule we are late. The car will be running somewhere in the middle of next year — it will be a very short gap before the first race.”
It’s going to be tough to get a program together for Year 1, but Toyota has proven in the past that it can deliver the goods on a short time frame.
How many cars will Toyota bring? There’s no clear answer yet, though two is the most likely outcome.
Will it supply its cars to customers? Program boss Rob Luepen told RACER the brand hasn’t considered it yet, as it has only had the final set of regulations for just over two weeks. He did say a third car for the 2021 running of the Le Mans 24 Hours could be possible, however.
Who will Toyota be racing? Aston Martin. The British marque has been bold and green-lit a program to race a non-hybrid V12-powered Valkyrie, based on the extreme road car designed by Red Bull racing’s aero guru Adrian Newey, with input from Aston Martin design chief Marek Reichmann.
The car, RACER believes, will be built by Multimatic with Swiss concern AF Racing — already active in GT3 and DTM racing — forming part of the commercial package to support the program.
Aston Martin — which last attempted to race in an ACO top class back in 2011 and since then has been racing in GTE, a program that won’t be affected by this effort — will run “at least two” cars in season one and bring back a manufacturer battle at the top of the FIA WEC, after two seasons of Toyota racing against privateer teams in LMP1.
“We have always said that we would one day bring Aston Martin back to Le Mans with the intention of going for the outright win when the time was right — now is that time,” Aston Martin Lagonda President and Group CEO Andy Palmer said. “David Brown came here (Le Mans) in 1959 with a car and a team of drivers capable of winning. We intend to do the same in 2021.
“The Aston Martin Valkyrie is primed for such a challenge and sits perfectly within the ACO’s new ‘hypercar’ rule framework. Bringing to bear all of our previous experience and knowledge of competing at the top levels of motorsport, we embark on this most ambitious project with the necessary ingredients for success. What could be more evocative than the wail of an Aston Martin V12 leading the charge into the night on the Mulsanne straight?”
Who else will join? For season one it isn’t yet clear, though both Glickenhaus and ByKolles have publicly announced that they are working on bringing privateer entries to the category. Beyond that, there’s clearly the potential for the likes of Rebellion Racing and SMP Racing, who are currently racing in LMP1, to join in. But manufacturers are being targeted — and heavily — for Year 2 of this concept.
“We expect more than two manufacturers,” FIA WEC CEO Gerard Neveu told RACER. “You never think for Year 1, you think that for the first year it’s reasonable two will be ready. But many more should come for the following season. Maybe more Year 1? That’s not my job — I have to manage the championship. I’ve just released the grid for season eight, I don’t know the grid for season nine yet!”
What prospective manufacturers will be eager to see is whether or not the FIA and ACO can balance such a variety of technologies. There will be hybrid-powered prototypes racing against non-hybrid road car-based entries from factories off the bat, so Balance of Performance (in a similar fashion to GTE Pro) will need to be managed carefully to prevent one factory from dominating and putting off potential newcomers.
Both Toyota’s Rob Leupen and Neveu are bullish about the effectiveness of BoP at the top in the WEC going forward. It’s being lauded as a positive, and will replace the current Equivalence of Technology system which has failed to produce good racing between hybrid and non-hybrid prototypes during the ‘Super Season’.
“I’m as confident as I was confident for the BoP in GTE,” Neveu continued. “Who can complain about that? When we introduced the current BoP two years ago, people were skeptical for that. Then I see the qualifying times at Le Mans this year. That’s my comment.
“I think it will be a huge task, but we have established clear rules. There is a job to do, but they did well with GTE, balancing very different cars. I’m confident it will be as good as in GTE.”
“The minimum time for the Hypercars (at Le Mans) is 3m30s, that’s the mandatory target” – Gerard Neveu
Other things must be considered too, which is that the performance window for the new ‘Hypecar Prototypes’ is similar to that of the current LMP2s. Ensuring that the new top class beat LMP2s on pace — and that LMP2 teams are content with being slowed — is another issue to navigate.
Again, Neveu is confident, and almost shrugged it off as a potential pitfall.
“The minimum time for the Hypercars (at Le Mans) is 3m30s, that’s the mandatory target,” he said. “We feel comfortable that we should be a little bit quicker at the end. We will see how it goes. We have to see the car running in the winter to work it out. If we have to reduce LMP2s by 50 horsepower, for example, it won’t be difficult and it won’t change the structure of the grid. It will be what we have now.
“What we have to be careful is what exactly the performance level is for Le Mans Hypercar Prototypes.”
ORECA head Hugues de Chaunac also believes that slowing down LMP2 cars won’t pose a problem. “They are new regulations, teams will have to accept this,” he told RACER.
One thing is for sure, though: the blistering pace from the current LMP1 pack will not return anytime soon at La Sarthe. This could be seen as a disappointment, but if it creates good, hard racing, then doubters will be hard to find.
Some key players in the IMSA camp, including the sanctioning body’s president Scott Atherton and Mazda Motorsports boss John Doonan, were also on hand for the ACO’s press conference. IMSA’s DPi formula was considered for the FIA WEC during the negotiations, potentially creating a global formula for prototype racing, but it didn’t happen. Thus, Atherton and Doonan are both left in a rather odd position.
“We heard a lot about it (Hypercar) over recent months,” said Doonan. “From a Mazda standpoint we’re committed to the championship in IMSA, and DPi. We’re very committed to the DPi project currently and as IMSA discusses, DPi 2.0.
“Unfortunately, resources are resources — I couldn’t commit anything to the top category (in the WEC). Mazda has a huge history at Le Mans, you never know what will happen in the new handful of years. But now we continue to work with our IMSA project.”
Atherton, meanwhile, stressed that despite the split in rulesets between the WEC and IMSA, the dialogue and relationship between the two sanctioning bodies “has never been stronger.”
So, here we go. We have one more FIA WEC season to run before ‘Hypercar Prototype’ takes over at the top of the shop, and two factories that are now left with a huge task in getting their programs ready for the start of the 2020/21 season.
Will this be a success? While there has been a significant amount of positivity injected into this formula in the past 24 hours, the jury is still out. But Neveu, and everyone with a hand in making the FIA WEC a success, is desperate for this to work.
“The idea is to make the fans, the people, happy about this sport,” said Neveu. “We have a huge community behind us and our job is to make them happy. There’s no better way to do that than to produce a spectacular race in each category. The only thing people want is a battle — fighting and a story. We have to make this work.”