Rebellion Racing became the first ever privateer LMP1 team to set pole for an FIA WEC race today in Shanghai, and the first team to take pole in a non-hybrid LMP1 car since the inaugural FIA WEC race at Sebring 2012. It’s a landmark result for the Swiss-flagged team and its Gibson-powered R-13, but the speed shown in qualifying won’t necessarily translate into a victory.
The new ‘success handicap’ system, which ACO sporting director Vincent Beaumesnil told RACER at the preseason Prologue test “is expected to produce different winners over the course of the season,” is having an undeniable effect on the two Toyota TS050 HYBRIDs’ level of performance, after a win apiece for the No. 7 and No. 8 to open the season. But is it enough to nullify the hybrid-powered P1’s inherent advantage through traffic during the race?
Over a single lap, the LMP1 privateer cars have proven time and time again to be quick when the conditions are right. The SMP Racing BR1 was strong last year at Le Mans, the No. 6 Team LNT Ginetta looked set to split the Toyotas during qualifying at Fuji and the Rebellion R-13 took pole by over a second in Shanghai. The pace of the Toyotas looked significantly off this afternoon — the faster of the two, the No. 7, was 1.3 off pole and just 1.4s ahead of the LMP2 polesitter.
But, throw slower traffic into the mix and a lengthy stint, and even with the previous artificial advantage Toyota had in the pits now gone, the TS050 HYBRIDs will be able to pull away every time. This is because, in simple terms (the car’s superior development program and the team’s budget aside), the hybrid boost that the cars produce gives them punch through traffic that the non-hybrid cars cannot match, which is a huge advantage during a race.
Down the lengthy straights in China at the Shanghai International Circuit, the Toyotas are significantly slower when it comes to top-end speed — around 13km/h (8mph) down through the speed traps compared to their privateer rivals. What they lose down the straights, though, they gain back and more through the corners.
The four-wheel-drive Toyotas are also kinder on their tires, giving them an advantage towards the end of a stint, which multiplies during lengthy races. The only saving grace here for Rebellion and LNT is that it’s another four-hour race rather than a six-, eight-, 10 or 24 hour race.
Toyota is well aware of all this, and predicted (correctly) that a privateer car would snatch pole on Friday, although the Japanese team fully expects to have the edge in the race. If it does, then there is reason to believe it can go on to win every race going forward this season, as currently the two Toyotas’ are pegged back as far as they can be by the success handicap regulations. The maximum handicap has been achieved by a combination of a 40% reduction in hybrid power, 7.5% drop in fuel energy and a 28kg minimum weight increase to the car.
What do the P1 privateer drivers think? None of them are under any illusion that Toyota will just roll over tomorrow. The expectation is that it will, at the very least, be a close one.
“I’m happy with that (qualifying performance), though if we re-did it there is probably another half a second in there. I think everyone would say that though,” Menezes told RACER.
“When we’re all struggling with the success handicap it’s going to bring our pace down. The LMP2 cars are so close this year it’s crazy, but I guess it’s down to the tire manufacturers, who have done a great job to step up the performance this season. In the race, over the course of a stint, we’ll pull away.
“Ginetta, although they didn’t have the maximum qualifying pace, we know they have a lot of torque and power. It’s difficult to race with them when they’re ahead of us. We need to stay ahead at the start and create a barrier to the Toyotas.
“They (Toyota) don’t have the one-lap pace, though they have less tire deg with all-wheel drive, so I think for the fans that this will be the first time in a long time that we see an interesting battle in the LMP1 class. You never know with Toyota, but I believe they’re giving all they’ve got. For the first time in a long time they’re seeing what it feels like to be on the other side of the fence. It’s not fun for them, but we’re enjoying it!”
Menezes’ teammate in the No. 1 Rebellion, Bruno Senna, echoed his thoughts, although he knows that if the team should have a big result tomorrow, the pendulum will swing back the other way in Bahrain next month.
“After a lot of races in a tough position, the regulations have come our way, finally,” Senna said. “This track is the best case scenario for us — it suits our car — but we want to be on pole every race. It would be nice if they could find a formula that works, to make the cars run together rather than have one team disappearing. We want to go racing.
“Maybe tomorrow we will win, that’s the best case for us; we just want a good race. We know that when we come to the next race in Bahrain, that Ginetta could be very strong if it goes our way tomorrow, and we will be very weak.”
In the Team LNT camp, a front-row grid spot is a mark of real progress for the British team, which only has two races under its belt with the G60-LT-P1s. No. 6 driver Charlie Robertson told RACER he too feels Toyota will still provide stiff competition, despite its cars being pegged back.
“We will celebrate these moments,” he explained, “but none of us are under any illusions that taking steps forward in this company is a massively tough thing to do.
“We know that Toyota are more than capable of producing a race pace that’s going to be tough to beat, with or without the success handicap. Nobody here has any doubt whatsoever that they are going to be the team to beat here — and for that matter everywhere else.”