The new era for the FIA World Endurance Championship is now underway, and the days of a lean top class seem long gone. In the paddock, it feels like the beginning of a truly historic period of sports car racing. The long-awaited plans for convergence have come together. The WEC paddock at Sebring, with its thriving Hypercar category featuring a variety of manufacturers all bringing very different cars, is a sight to behold.
We are now on the eve of the opening meeting. The two-day Prologue test last weekend gave us a first taste of LMDh and LMH cars running on track together, and the two rule sets running together appears to be a natural fit. It’s far less awkward than the early days of the ALMS/Grand-Am merger which saw Daytona Prototypes and LMP2 cars thrown into the same class.
The major manufacturers for the 2023 season made the most of the available track time. It wasn’t plain sailing for all of them, though, as Peugeot and Ferrari lost out on crucial mileage thanks to a combination of on-track incidents and mechanical dramas.
Toyota, perhaps unsurprisingly, looks like the team to beat at Sebring. Its tried and tested GR010 HYBRIDs ran like clockwork all weekend, and set the fastest times. Durability-wise, they would appear near-bullet proof. The upgrades to the aero appear to have made the car more agile too; visibly the 2023-spec GR010 looks at home on the Sebring bumps.
“As drivers we have all felt comfortable in the car and we’re all up to speed; it feels like we have made a nice step in terms of car balance compared to last year,” Toyota’s Brendon Hartley said after the test.
Overall, completing 2,195 miles of running was extremely encouraging for the Japanese marque, which came into the weekend feeling a little bit on the back foot due to its off-season testing program being perhaps less intense than some of the competition.
Cadillac Racing, like Toyota, heads into race week full of enthusiasm. Its single WEC full-season V-Series.R completed 218 laps and was quick too, topping the third session. Cadillac’s Alex Lynn spoke to RACER after the running and was confident about the team’s chances this season.
The Briton, who is a winner at Sebring with the DPi Cadillac, feels the new car is a significant step up on the DPi V.R. “It’s clear that Dallara was determined to right the wrongs from its previous-generation LMP2 chassis,” he said.
The WEC arm of the Ganassi LMDh operation still has work to do. One key task is getting set up at a base in Europe and another is pressing ahead with a test program, which RACER understands will include a pre-Le Mans endurance test at Portimao.
Thankfully, due to Michelin supplying the same tire to the GTP and Hypercar teams, the testing previously completed by the IMSA crew at Sebring ahead of the season provided the WEC outfit with plenty of directly relatable setup and tire data to give it a head start.
Porsche had a similar experience to Cadillac during the weekend. The car showed flashes of pace but was unable to match the Toyotas and gathered plenty of data over 433 laps. Reliability will be the key to a strong result on Friday night, and so far so good. Penske will be desperate to avoid a similar experience to the Rolex 24 At Daytona, where mechanical issues cost it a shot at a good result.
The remaining entries in Hypercar have a handful of question marks hanging over them at this stage.
For Ferrari, the pace of its 499P on its return to top-class factory racing after 50 years away, was encouraging and improved as the weekend went on. Where the team fell short is in track time — it lost lots of it on the Sunday to lengthy repairs to the No. 51 after James Calado’s Turn 1 shunt.
This left the mechanics scrambling to repair the front end and inspect the chassis for damage. The No. 51 was still being worked on when I visited the garage yesterday, but AF Corse has told RACER that it is changing over to a spare chassis as a precautionary measure.
It wasn’t a perfect Prologue for the Prancing Horse in its top-class sports car racing return as a factory effort, but from what we did see, there is reason to believe that it can be in contention for a strong result on the car’s race debut.
There was a similar amount of frustration at Peugeot Sport. Like AF Corse, it too lost a good chunk of the track time due to repairs and to mechanical woes.
Both 9X8s had on-track incidents, the No. 93 the worse of the two when Jean-Eric Vergne collided with the Vector Sport ORECA. The car then ended up losing more time with mechanical issues.
At this point the entire Peugeot Sport program is hard to read. You’d expect the team to emerge stronger having learned a lot about its car at the tail end of last season, but green shoots of progress have been hard to spot at this stage.
No. 93 driver Gustavo Menezes explained to RACER that while the team has made positive strides, it has had to take some time to adapt to the Sebring track. Until the Prologue the 9X8 hadn’t run on the bumps.
“We could always wish for more time, but in the end we started in a place that we were not happy with last week, and made big steps in the test,” he said. “Sebring is a track that’s really hard on the car, and it highlighted some of our weaknesses. The 9X8 hasn’t run on a track this aggressive, so it puts us at a small disadvantage.
“We have benefited from small improvements to the car aero wise and we’ve worked on reliability, though. It has been a while since Bahrain but we’ve done a lot of testing and it’s been a constant improvement for the car. Step by step we are getting to where we need to be.”
Then we have two smaller efforts in the class, from Glickenhaus Racing and Vanwall. The time sheets weren’t an easy read. Glickenhaus, which opted not to test its 007 at all during the off-season, is struggling for speed here.
The team has been pushing hard to work to a program and above all get up to speed with the new Michelin tires. Adjustments have also been made to its traction control system, to help the car find pace. But the reality is, the car hasn’t been upgraded, it hasn’t been tested, and the competition in the class has taken a leap forward. Even with Balance of Performance governing the class, it would be a surprise to see Glickenhaus in the mix, especially in the early stages of the season.
It’s a similar situation for Vanwall — it too has a car which is lagging behind the rival major OEMs. The positive is that in the hands of Tom Dillman, it did manage a time quicker than three of the Peugeot drivers. With 1997 F1 world champion Jacques Villeneuve at the wheel, though, it was a different story. The Canadian was far off the pace — so far off, in fact, that he was seconds off the slowest of the LMP2 drivers. He has a lot of work to do.
When looking at the class as a whole, before we get into the practice and qualifying sessions the Hypercar category looks set to be close between Toyota, Cadillac, Porsche and Ferrari, with the Peugeots, Glickenhaus and Vanwall lagging behind. This could all change though, and testing times, as ever, should be taken with a pinch of salt.
What we shouldn’t expect is a BoP change anytime soon. The formula is set for Sebring, with no changes anticipated between the Prologue and race. Beyond that, an anticipatory BoP has been made for Portimao, Spa and Le Mans.
“This is what was agreed last year — it was a long process last year discussed in several working groups. The BoP will be stable until Le Mans,” Toyota technical director Pascal Vasselon told RACER. “The only thing that may be adjusted is the so called ‘Platform BoP’ between LMDh and LMH, which could be adjusted every second race. So, it could be adjusted before Spa.”
The Platform BoP system means any changes made are to all cars of the same type (LMDh and LMH), rather than specific cars. This, in theory, should eliminate the incentive to sandbag.