Bridging the Performance Gap

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Results don’t suggest a shift in the WEC’s balance of power, but things are changing

Toyota gave the World Endurance Championship a present in the run-up to the Fuji round in October. It agreed to a double performance hit for its TS050 Hybrids in the interests of igniting some kind of competition at the sharp end of the grid. Yet a glance at the results of the Japanese round of the WEC suggests that it wasn’t so much an unwanted gift as one that wasn’t much use to anyone. 

The best of the privateer LMP1s, the Rebellion-Gibson R-13 shared by André Lotterer, Bruno Senna and Neel Jani, was still four laps in arrears of the two Toyotas after six hours of racing. That was the same margin between the top independent and the TS050s at Silverstone back in August, prior to the Japanese cars’ exclusion in post-race scrutineering for a technical infringement.

Yet there were signs that the efforts of the rule makers to ensure that the 2018/19 WEC superseason doesn’t continue as a Toyota-dominated ‘boreathon’ might be turning the corner. There were moments at the Fuji Speedway — but admittedly only moments — when the privateers suggested that they might be able at least to keep the TS050s honest. 

TOYOTA’S GIFT

The WEC knew it had a problem on its hands when Porsche dropped its bombshell, in July 2017, that it would be leaving the LMP1 division of the WEC for the brave new world of Formula E. Part of the rescue plan to keep the championship alive was a promise of lap-time parity for the privateers to ensure that Toyota didn’t waltz into the distance. 

The problem for the WEC is that it made a promise it couldn’t keep. It ran counter to FIA stability rules, which meant that the unanimous agreement of the participants was required for any rule changes. Most pertinently that meant Toyota’s agreement. 

Toyota did make concessions that gave the privateers rule breaks – grandly titled the Equivalence of Technology, the term carried over from the days when the rule makers were trying to balance turbodiesel Audis with their petrol-powered rivals and cars of different hybrid outputs. But what it didn’t do was agree to slow the TS050s. Until Fuji, that is. 

Toyota acquiesced to a 26kg hike in the minimum weight of the TS050s, which was actually only a 20kg hit because the cars were marginally overweight. And it also agreed to wipe another advantage. The original EoT allowed its cars to go two laps further than the opposition between refuelling stops in the six-hour WEC races. 

The clamour for Toyota to make concessions inevitably grew after its domination at Silverstone, despite a new EoT designed to bring the privateers closer. 

“We came to the conclusion that we could not continue as at Silverstone,” said Toyota technical director Pascal Vasselon ahead of Fuji. “We clearly needed to provide a better spectacle.”

Vasselon was, however, at pains to point out that the pre-Fuji changes do not apply to the Le Mans 24 Hours, the blue riband round of the WEC. Toyota believes that the Silverstone EoT, which removed a notional lap time advantage of 0.25 per cent in its favour, will allow the privateers to be competitive when the WEC returns to Le Mans next June for the superseason finale. That’s because the power that its hybrid systems can unleash is significantly less per kilometre around the eight and a half miles of the Circuit de la Sarthe than at the regular WEC tracks by regulation.

DID CHANGES WORK?

The privateers were closer in Japan for the fourth round of the 2018/19 WEC. The third-placed Rebellion was four laps down again, though on a shorter circuit, and would have been closer to the Toyotas had it been under any kind of pressure from any of the other privateers. Its sister car, driven by Gustavo Menezes, Thomas Laurent and Mathias Beche, who were awarded the Silverstone win, was already out of the race and the SMP Racing squad encountered a series of technical problems with its AER-engined BR Engineering BR1s. 

Rebellion admitted that it had moved closer to the pace at Fuji. “Closer, but not close enough,” was how team principal Bart Hayden described it.

Toyota, meanwhile, claimed that there was evidence from qualifying and the race that suggested the privateers might be ready to start hassling the Toyotas soon under the present EoT. 

Jenson Button kept pace with the winning Toyota during one stint in Japan

Vasselon suggested the 0.8sec margin between the pole-winning Toyota and the Rebellion that qualified third in the hands of Lotterer and Jani was covered by the advantages that come with being able to run its hybrid contender in a qualification mode not available to the privateers. He also pointed to the pace of Jenson Button in the best of the SMP Racing entries after it had dropped back as a result of alternator problems. 

“Jenson comes out of the pits in front of our no7 car [the winning Toyota driven by Kamui Kobayashi, Mike Conway and José Maria López] and gentlemanly let it past before staying right behind for a complete stint,” said Vasselon. “Not one or two laps, but a complete stint. He did a full stint in touch with our car.

“This shows that the potential is there, but apparently it is difficult for the privateers to put everything together over the full race. All the ingredients are there; I would say we now have a very good EoT.”

WHAT’S NEXT?

The privateers are angling for a couple of tweaks to the EoT ahead of the Shanghai WEC round in mid-November. The per-lap fuel allocation they were given for Fuji meant the drivers of the Rebellions and the BREs were having to lift and coast to hit the numbers and avoid penalties. 

This, claim the independent teams, ran contrary to a post-Le Mans agreement that they wouldn’t have to take what are known as fuel cuts. They estimate that these are worth between three and four tenths a lap. 

Toyota still has an advantage in the pits in the time it takes for the fuel to go into the car, down from the five seconds at the start of the season to just two. The privateers want it removed and argue that the deficit here is exacerbated by the Toyota’s ability to leave the pits on electric power. There’s no cranking of engines and finding the biting point of the clutch in the Japanese hybrids.

The privateers are making gains, thanks to the EoT regulations and in terms of natural development of what are for the most part new cars, but they firmly argue that they are still going to require a bit of help under the EoT if they to make a fight of it. 

And that’s going to require another act of charity from Toyota.

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