This weekend’s FIA WEC pre-season Prologue test at Sebring marks the dawn of what promises to be another true ‘Golden Age’ for international sportscar racing. There are so many storylines heading into this season, but clearly, the category with the most talking points is Hypercar, with its group of manufacturers all set to fight for World Championship honours and in June, victory at the Centenary edition of the Le Mans 24 Hours.
The testing at Sebring this weekend marks the start of this year-long journey, with 11 cars entered in the top class, all eager to hit the track with their machinery ahead of what will almost certainly be a tricky 1000 miles on the Friday of the ‘Super Sebring’ double-header next week.
As a category, Hypercar has a fresh look to it, with four new manufacturers on the entry, two of which are bringing a taste of IMSA’s LMDh ruleset to the FIA WEC for the first time. Thus, it will be fascinating to see how the LMH and LMDh cars look on track together for the very first time and an idea of how effective the Balance of Performance process can be at this very early stage.
Clearly, it will be too early to tell just how this field will fare in terms of performance parity, after just one two-day test, and on a circuit as unique as Sebring International Raceway, but the ACO and FIA know that all eyes will be on the class, at what is a hugely important race meeting for the sport.
The pressure is clearly on the ACO’s technical team to get the formula right though. If the 1000-miles turns into a sprint rather than a race of attrition and the teams in play all feel they have a chance to bank a strong haul of points to start the season, it will be mission accomplished, at least for the time being…
Cadillac and Porsche are the two brands bringing LMDh-rules machinery to the party here, the cars that have already raced in IMSA’s parallel new GTP class, with a single Cadillac Racing V-Series.R for the Ganassi-run effort and a pair of Penske-run Porsche 963s. All three cars are in for the full season, with both brands opting for dual programmes in IMSA and the FIA WEC, making the most of the long-awaited top-class convergence agreement.
When Cadillac and Porsche both debuted their cars at Daytona back in January as part of the Rolex 24 Hours, neither party came away totally satisfied. Porsche’s 963 debut was marred by a combination of on-track incidents as well as issues with the battery and gearbox, while Cadillac couldn’t quite squeeze enough performance out of its GTPs to match and better the winning MSR Acura. Across the board though, the GTP field, it must be said, fared better in the race than many even from within the IMSA paddock expected and predicted. There are grounds for optimism then that these cars can go the distance and challenge on the gruelling Sebring circuit.
In the Cadillac camp, the WEC effort is being run out of Europe, though team manager Stephen Mitas admitted to the media last week that the team’s new facility isn’t quite ready yet. The car’s appearance at Daytona and at this Prologue test has therefore been used as the foundation for its pre-season preparations and formed an important part of the opening chapters of an ambitious programme.
“It’s been a challenging timeline,” he told RACER and other select media. “The facility is coming along. We’ll be ready for the European season. The facility has been used by someone else previously, so it has seen some race cars before. We’ll probably christen it in April and give more details at that stage.”
Beyond Sebring, once its new base is operational, its European testing programme will then ramp up.
“We’ve been lucky that the car has been testing and testing very successfully in the U.S.,” he explained. “So reliability-wise we’re quite confident. Our target is to get a Le Mans-style race sim done before Le Mans and we’re in the process of confirming test dates.”
Porsche, like Cadillac, knows it has plenty still to learn about its new car. The German marque expects its 963 to be capable, after its comprehensive testing programme. But durability let it down at Daytona. Will Sebring’s bumps play a role here?
“We are around 40,000 kilometres in our test programme in Europe and the US. We are in the process of building customer cars alongside this, which will be delivered (to JOTA and Proton) at the end of April,” technical project lead Christian Eifrig told RACER.
As the only brand in the WEC with customer cars set to race this year, Porsche said to RACER that it has included its customers in the process, to ensure they get some input in the direction of the car and feel up to speed so they can hit the ground running when they make their debuts later in the season.
“Our customers are in contact with us and we share thoughts, and ideas and try to improve the car together,” Eifrig explained. “We used this to create the most efficient end product that is reliable enough and easy to work on. It needs to be easy to use by drivers, mechanics and engineers.”
Compared to the GTP class in IMSA, the competition for both teams looks very different in the FIA WEC, with Le Mans Hypercar runners aplenty to race against for wins. And on the Hypercar side, there’s plenty to talk about too, even for the returning teams.
The biggest new name here is Ferrari, returning to top-class sportscar competition as a factory for the first time in 50 years with the 499P.
The AF Corse run team has tested the new car at multiple venues, including Sebring, and heads to Florida fresh from a final pre-Prologue run at Portimao with both cars. In Portugal, the team focused on the car’s reliability, with both cars running and all drivers present.
“Starting testing last July, from my perspective, from white paper, is quite late,” Mauro Barbieri, performance, simulations and technical regulations manager for the Ferrari Hypercar programme admitted when asked about the team’s development programme ahead of Sebring. “But that being said we have done our best to test and develop the car. The primary target has been reliability, we don’t want to lose time in the garage for repairs.
“I think we are at around 20,000 kilometres now, and within that, we have done a few endurance tests. There are limitations on test days for the 2023 season, and we have to cope with that. We will definitely still spend a few days to come to perform more endurance tests.”
Like the incoming major OEMs, the two major factory programmes returning from last year, from Toyota and Peugeot, will also be keen to get as much mileage as possible in during the Prologue.
Peugeot’s 9X8s lacked outright pace and reliability during the French team’s partial season campaign after Le Mans in 2022, meaning the time spent putting both cars through their paces on the bumps this weekend before qualifying and the race will be extremely valuable.
Peugeot Sport is fully focused on improvement and has spent time testing during the off-season, upgrading the 9X8 for what will be its first full FIA WEC season. This will also be Peugeot’s first-ever trip to Sebring in the World Championship, more than a decade on from its planned outing at the Floridian airbase for the inaugural FIA WEC race back in 2012, before its 908 Hybrid4 programme was killed days before the season began.
“In 2023, although the basic concept of the car will not change, we intend to make use of the jokers authorised by the regulations to introduce a number of evolutions,” explained Peugeot Sport’s technical director Olivier Jansonnie after the team’s recent test at Aragon.
“Our plan has been simply to focus on reliability, performance and long-distance testing. Sebring is a very specific circuit and you can’t necessarily apply what you learn there to your preparations for the 24 Hours of Le Mans. That said, the race’s duration and the characteristics of the track will likely place the emphasis on durability and reliability.
“In parallel to our race programme, we also have a busy test schedule planned ahead of Le Mans.”
Like Peugeot, Toyota has updated its challenger, the GR010 HYBRID set to sport a significantly different new aero kit for Sebring and beyond. The car certainly looks more aggressive and purposeful with its updated look, but the proof will come when the racing gets underway. The Japanese brand has a clear target on its back, after winning Le Mans five years in a row, its programme is very much the benchmark, and the rest of the competition will be eager to beat it.
“From a testing point of view, we have managed two endurance tests so far. Sebring will be the first time we will see the reliability of the car with our improvements,” John Litjens, Toyota’s project leader says.
On the opposite end of the scale, Glickenhaus and to a greater extent Vanwall, head to Sebring with many many questions yet to be answered.
The US-flagged Glickenhaus team has not run its 007 LMH since the race at Monza last season (though the Le Mans-bound customer car has been out on track at Sebring over the winter). This will make Sebring a challenge for what will be Glickenhaus’ second appearance in the WEC on home soil. It will be vital for the team to get as much mileage completed as possible if it is to head into race week confident. It appears though that matching its achievements from last season, which included at Le Mans podium, will be quite a task.
“We know more or less the weaknesses and strengths of our package,” said Stefano Rapisarda, commenting on the team’s season ahead. “From our perspective, the pressure is understanding the new (Michelin) tyres for the season that we haven’t tested and seeing how the other teams stack up.”
It’s the same at Vanwall (the team formerly known as ByKolles). It’s hard to know what to expect, as it is one of only two cars in the field that doesn’t have any racing laps under its belt and doesn’t have the resources of the major OEMs in this field.
The Vandervell 680 has adopted a near-identical powertrain to the same outfit’s previous LMP1 effort, featuring a 4.5-litre Gibson engine. It remains to be seen how fast and reliable this package will be at Sebring and over the course of the season.
The FIA WEC Prologue is set to take place on March 11th-12th ahead of the opening race of the season on March 17th.