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The quest to catch Porsche

All-new Audis and Toyotas to chase WEC titles in 2016 | By Gary Watkins

Porsche built an all-new car for last season and came away with all the big prizes in the World Endurance Championship. For the coming season, it is rivals Audi and Toyota who are starting with the clean sheet of paper and the reigning champion is updating its LMP1 prototype. The question is whether the performance advantage enjoyed by the second-generation Porsche 919 Hybrid is going to be reduced or completely overturned in the same way that the Toyota TS040 Hybrid went from championship winner to also-ran over the course of last winter.

Audi and Toyota will gain by regulation for 2016 in the same way as Porsche did last season. It moved up from the six megajoule hybrid sub-class to the 8MJ division with the introduction of the second car to carry the 919 Hybrid monicker. The manufacturers now trying to dethrone Porsche are each making a 2MJ jump, Audi from four to six and Toyota from six to eight.

Porsche LMP1 technical director Alex Hitzinger knows that the fight is going to intensify over the nine races set to make up this year’s WEC. “Both will make a performance step because moving up by 2MJ is a second a lap at the Le Mans 24 Hours,” he says. 

Refinement from Porsche

Hitzinger is confident that Porsche will make a significant step. “We know there are big gains to be made with our package,” he explains. “We have a reliable car now and can really concentrate on performance development over the winter.”

A significant upgrade, a step on the way to the 2016-spec 919, was already testing little more than three weeks after the end of the season. Porsche put 6000km on a car incorporating the 2016 engine and hybrid systems, as well as new front suspension, at the Motorland Aragon circuit in northern Spain in early December.

Porsche knows how much it can gain ahead of the start of the new campaign in April. But Hitzinger says he cannot be confident because “you never know what the others are going to achieve”.

Audi’s radical contender

First to reveal its 2016 contender was Audi, which showed the seventh car to carry the R18 type number just one week after the Bahrain season finale. But then it didn’t have a choice. It had scheduled a test at Sebring – the traditional proving ground for all Audi prototypes – in early December and the Florida airfield circuit allows for no privacy. No component has been carried over from the 2015 Audi to its successor. Or at least Christopher Reinke, head of LMP at Audi Sport, says he can’t think of one.

There is clearly some radical aero thinking employed in the new car, witness the raised nose. But the most significant step is the move up in megajoule class. “One thing is for sure is that we needed to do that to be back in the game,” Reinke says. “It is very important because it puts another weapon in our hands.”

The move from 4MJ to 6MJ is doubly significant for Audi. The jump should equate its turbodiesel P1 with the 8MJ petrol-powered cars from Porsche and Toyota under the Equivalence of Technology that underpins the rules introduced at the start of 2014.

Audi has abandoned the flywheel energy-storage system of previous R18 hybrids in favour of a lithium-ion battery pack, but it has yet to explain the secrets of the latest car’s recovery systems. The truth is that there probably aren’t any: the Audi almost certainly retains the single, front-axle KERS system of its predecessor. The reasons why it abandoned the turbo-driven secondary system of the 2014 R18 before the start of the season still stand and the heavier weight of a diesel powerplant militates against the use of rear KERS.

Toyota’s turbo plan

The realisation that it was nowhere – as early as round two, at Spa in 2015 –forced Toyota to bring forward its plans to develop a new engine. Originally set to appear in 2017, the new unit will come on stream at the same time as the Japanese team switches to batteries from the super-capacitor storage system it has employed since 2012.

The exact specification of the engine has yet to be revealed. Toyota Motorsport talks openly about it being a turbo, but officially the Japanese manufacturer will only say what it is not – a 3.7-litre normally aspirated V8, which happens to be the 2014-15 configuration of its petrol powerplant. It can be taken as read, however, that it is a small-capacity turbo unit with the same V4 architecture used by Porsche.

The switch to a turbocharged engine doesn’t mean Toyota will be changing its hybrid concept. It will continue with a twin KERS set-up retrieving from the front and rear axles rather than using the exhaust gases from the engine, à la Porsche, for its secondary system. TMG technical boss Pascal Vasselon argues that Toyota’s simulations suggest that this remains the most efficient route.

The concept of the 2016 challenger was set in stone before a new rule was introduced. Power from hybrid systems will be limited to 300kW at Le Mans next year and, almost certainly, at all WEC circuits the season after. Toyota argues that its concept is unfairly penalised because it deploys retrieved power at two axles rather than the one of its competitors.

The late decision to bring forward development of the new engine has given Toyota a tight schedule with, says Vasselon, “no room for delays”. But he insists that the marque remains on schedule and will give the new TS050 a shakedown some time in the new year. That will put Toyota behind its competitors, but then it has always run its new car after its rivals.

The influence of cost cuts

New measures aimed to reduce costs could have an influence on the championship battle in the WEC, though Hitzinger suggests that their effect will be initially minimal. A limit on the number of aerodynamic configurations that can be used over a season will be set at three for 2016 and two from 2017. This will go hand in hand with limitations on the time each manufacturer can spend in the wind tunnel. A maximum of 1200 hours this year will be reduced to 800 in 2017.

The idea of the new measures is to prevent the aerodynamic space race that raged between Porsche and Audi over the course of 2015. That battle remains in full swing for the moment.