Porsche’s high energy works out
Sports car racing’s most successful marque turned the dial to full power for its sophomore year back at the highest level. In this era of mega-hybrid boost, the result was emphatic: a clean sweep at Le Mans and in the World Endurance Championship – plus three rival manufacturers gasping in its wake
Writer Gary Watkins
There’s a parallel narrative to Formula 1 in the story of the 2015 World Endurance Championship. Four manufacturers vying for top honours, with one emerging as a dominant victor; its closest rival showing the means to win on merit when circumstances allow; a former champion vanquished and relegated to the status of bit-part player; and a returning giant from the East enduring a painful and public failure.
But there the parallel between Mercedes, Ferrari, Renault and Honda in F1 and Porsche, Audi, Toyota and Nissan in the WEC stops dead. As Grand Prix racing flounders in self-doubt over its hybrid future, sports car racing continues to embrace it – and thrive. This was a classic season of endurance racing in the top prototype division – in spite of Porsche’s edge in performance – with no quarter given between world-class drivers who were always racing hard, be it for six hours or 24.
The quartet of manufacturers addressed the challenge of the WEC with entirely different solutions in 2015 – a freedom denied those who chose the path of F1. The story of each weaves a narrative compelling in its detail and leaves us intrigued as we await the next chapter.
Mission accomplished at only the second attempt
In the Silverstone opener Porsche gave Audi false hope that it might be able to scoop some or all of the end-of-season silverware in the World Endurance Championship. Audi was pretty much dominant, at least after a mid-race ding-dong between the two VW brands, but its rival was racing with one hand tied behind its back.
Whereas Audi arrived at Silverstone with a high-downforce package for its latest R18 e-tron quattro, Porsche raced an all-new 919 Hybrid with interim aerodynamics closer to the specification it would take to Le Mans in June than would be optimal for the fast sweeps of the home of the British Grand Prix. Priority number one, said the Stuttgart marque’s LMP1 technical director Alex Hitzinger, was to win Le Mans, and it was happy to sacrifice Silverstone in pursuit of that goal.
“It was purely down to avoiding any compromise on the aero kit for Le Mans; the absolute priority in 2015 was to win Le Mans,” he said. “If you do high-downforce development at the beginning of the year, it takes away from Le Mans aero development.”
Porsche and Audi were evenly matched in round two, at Spa, and Stuttgart triumphed over Ingolstadt to record its historic 17th Le Mans victory in June. But there was a theory that Audi would be back at the front when the WEC resumed after its long summer break at the Nürburgring in late August. That theory was blown out of the water by a new high-downforce version of the 919 Hybrid that over the remaining five races gave Porsche an advantage bigger than it enjoyed at Le Mans.
Hitzinger had even made a prediction of sorts that Porsche could win the remaining rounds when the team gathered at its Weissach HQ the week after its Le Mans victory.
“I knew what aero performance we would have for the second half of the season,” he recalls, “and I said there was no reason why we could not win every remaining race.”
There was, in fact, every reason why the Porsche should win every time out. The move into the 8MJ hybrid sub-class maintained its advantage in terms of grunt out of the corners – and now it had more than matched the key weapon in Audi’s armoury, downforce. The R18 was nowhere at the ’Ring or Austin, the two venues that were expected to favour it.
And Porsche did need to win all the races such was the consistent finishing of the best of the Audis. It was decided after a late problem for the no18 Porsche in Austin that the full focus of its bid for the drivers’ title would be put behind Mark Webber, Timo Bernhard and Brendon Hartley. Four wins in a row put them into the championship lead, but they snuck home by only five points after hitting throttle problems on the way to fifth in the finale.
A champion’s view
In his second WEC season, Mark Webber shared the world title with Porsche team-mates Brendon Hartley and Timo Bernhard. Here’s his take on 2015
You returned to sports cars after about 15 years away. Did it take long to cast aside Formula 1’s self-possessed ways and embrace the endurance racing ethic once again?
“It did, because the whole thing was such a cultural shift. About two weeks after my final F1 race in Brazil, I flew to Portimão for a test and had to recalibrate. It was partly the silly stuff, like having to push a button and start the car myself – things I hadn’t done for years. And we were testing at night, too. I soon got into it, though. All racing drivers have egos, but when you’re a bit older I think you are able to look at things in a more balanced way and I soon found myself thinking about what Timo and Brendon might want from the car. The three of us gelled very quickly. It might not have reflected in our results at first, but there was a very nice chemistry between us. There’s no way an F1 mentality would work in the WEC – and that doesn’t just extend to the drivers. At Red Bull we’d be throwing fresh parts on the car every two weeks, but here the lead times have to be much longer – you can’t introduce something without it first having been properly endurance tested, or you’re never going to win Le Mans. I have to say that I’ve been very lucky, though. F1 was absolutely sensational for a time while I was there, with some exceptional drivers, and I switched while sports car racing was going through a purple patch.”
Did you feel more on top of things in 2015 than you were during the previous season?
“It’s more that I was happier with the car. I think I perhaps asked for too much from the chassis in 2014, but by the end of the season things were starting to come together – we were running away from the rest in Interlagos before we had a technical hitch and then I had my accident [he struck the wall on the uphill approach to the pit straight]. This year we’ve made massive improvements and the car has become much more driveable.”
Did you expect success to come quite so quickly?
“No! Even in the first quarter of 2015 we still weren’t fully reliable – we saw that at Silverstone and Spa. We didn’t have a particularly smooth build-up to Le Mans, either – there were flashes of speed, but they’re worth very little. You have to be bulletproof, especially when you’re racing against Audi, a team that simply doesn’t roll over. We had all the bits we wanted on the car at Le Mans – and to have two of the three run pretty much faultlessly for 48 hours… That was an amazing feeling, one of the best second places of my life. After that, we were able to bolt on a lot more performance.”
How much do you think sports car racing has evolved since last you competed?
“If you look at the Le Mans entry from 1999, it was fantastically strong with Mercedes, BMW, Nissan, Audi, Toyota and so on, plus a very high calibre of drivers. Perhaps the depth isn’t quite at that level right now, but it’s still incredibly strong and feels much better organised than it used to. I think its credibility is high in engineering terms, too. Back then the technology was fairly basic at all levels of the sport, but in the WEC we now have a clean sheet of paper: the cars are every bit as quick as they look and the races are absolutely flat out, Le Mans included.
“Despite that, at the end-of-season WEC party there was a fantastic atmosphere between all teams and competitors. The camaraderie and respect were absolute: it’s a bit how I imagine Formula 1 must have been in the 1970s. After our car had broken at Le Mans in 2014, Timo and I went to the Audi motorhome to offer our congratulations and everybody applauded us as we walked in. That
was a nice touch.”
Have any aspects of the modern WEC particularly surprised you?
“Le Mans hasn’t really changed, has it? It’s still a race with an edge – and very little run-off area in parts. It’s not Bahrain or Abu Dhabi… And then there are all those backmarkers. Everybody tries to leave, or create, space for everybody else, but there are 150-odd drivers out there and they aren’t all going to be exceptional. It’s an old-school challenge, but I enjoy it.”
One assumes you haven’t felt the slightest tinge of regret since making your Porsche announcement ahead of the 2013 British Grand Prix…
“Not at all, although I think my dad misses being in the F1 environment! Perhaps I felt it a bit when I walked into the Melbourne paddock in 2014, because I always enjoyed racing there and it remains one of the few F1 circuits where I never finished on the podium. But you have to be aware when your stint in F1 is coming to an end and I think I timed my exit perfectly.”
Are there many similarities between a current WEC car and a Red Bull RB9?
“The downforce is very evident, particularly through the quicker stuff, and I’d say the braking is pretty close. It’s nice to be competing on so many tracks I know from F1, too, because it gives me some reference points. I’m also enjoying racing on Michelins – I don’t know any driver who doesn’t. I’m back to doing stints of 20 or 30 laps within a tenth of each other – like F1 used to be, rather than having a two-second swing.”
Has the suffix Mark Webber, world champion yet sunk in?
“I’m very proud to have done it, but see it very much as a shared honour with Brendon, Timo and Porsche.”
Does it compensate the disappointment you felt at the end of 2010, when the F1 title slipped away?
“I think it helps – I didn’t pick a great year to try to win the title, did I, against drivers as accomplished as Sebastian, Fernando and Lewis? But the fact remains that I took an F1 title fight to the final race of the season and not many drivers get to do that.”
You’ve won nine Grands Prix – including Monaco twice – and now you’ve added the WEC title to your CV. What’s left on the shopping list?
“Le Mans, I guess. I’ve won one WEC title and it would be lovely to do it again, with a Le Mans victory as part of that, but if it doesn’t happen I’m not going to pound around Le Mans for 10 years in a bid to add it to my trophy cabinet. In 2015 three rookies won it for Porsche, but a guy like Bob Wollek started the race 30 times and never quite managed it. The stars have to align.”
Mark Webber was talking to Simon Arron
Extreme tenacity just wasn’t quite enough
No stone was left unturned as Audi made a bid to win back the WEC drivers’ and manufacturers’ titles it had lost to Toyota in 2014. The latest car to be called the R18 e-tron quattro was built around its predecessor’s monocoque, but apart from that it was pretty much all new. That included the front crash structure, which allowed for a massive aero update. The R18 also underwent an upgrade in the hybrid stakes, moving up one division from 2 to 4MJ while retaining its single, front-axle kinetic retrieval system.
The initial high-downforce version of the 2015 R18 that won at Silverstone was replaced by what was described as a low-drag car for Spa. Audi didn’t like it being called low-downforce and its speed through sector two in Belgium, which includes the ultra-quick Pouhon double-left, suggested there was sound reasoning to its objections.
This was the car that Audi would race at Le Mans and intended to use for the remainder of the season once the series resumed at the Nürburgring. That plan had to be abandoned after the best of the R18s finished more than a lap down in Germany. Audi reacted and came up with an aerodynamic upgrade for Fuji in October, as well as a new refuelling system that allowed it to wipe out the advantage Porsche had gained in the pits from Le Mans on.
The new package allowed it to close the deficit to the Porsche, though it was evident that a gap did indeed remain when track conditions improved at the wet-dry Fuji and Shanghai races. Porsche even had enough in hand at Fuji to invoke team orders and allow Bernhard to overhaul team-mate Neel Jani’s 30sec lead in the closing stages.
The R18 was back in the mix at the Bahrain finale and it looked, for a while at least, as though André Lotterer, Benoît Tréluyer and Marcel Fässler might steal the championship from under Porsche’s nose. But a trio that finished on the podium every time out in 2015 still needed to win the race to have a realistic chance of that. When the temperatures dropped as the race moved into the hours of darkness, the 919 shared by Jani, Romain Dumas and Marc Lieb moved clear to make it six wins in a row for Porsche. And their victory was enough to allow delayed team-mates Webber, Bernhard and Hartley to add the title for drivers to the manufacturers’ crown Porsche had sealed with a race to go in Shanghai.
It was a thrilling climax to a championship that looked to be slipping through Audi’s grasp as early as the Nürburgring. That it managed to keep the title battle open deep into the final race said a lot about the marque’s tenacity and ability to react. An incredible finishing record for Lotterer & co had something to do with it, too.
A rival’s view
In his final monthly column for Motor Sport, Audi racer Oliver Jarvis reflects on his first season as a full-time member of Audi’s prestigious WEC team
Oh wow! That’s my reaction to the new Audi R18 I’ll be driving in the 2016 FIA World Endurance Championship, which obviously includes the team’s bid for a 14th Le Mans 24 Hours victory. The R18 was publicly unveiled at the Audi Sport Finale and it looks so aggressive, especially at the front, but in the end it’s about what it does on track. I drove it for the first time at Sebring in December and let’s just say I cannot wait until the opening race at Silverstone in April. We have moved away from our flywheel system to a battery package and into the 6MJ class.
I’m delighted that I’ll be driving alongside Loïc [Duval] and Lucas [di Grassi] for a second consecutive year. That continuity is hugely important and I think everyone within the team could see the progress we made throughout the year. So now it’s up to the three of us to continue the momentum into 2016.
Audi and sister brand Porsche have agreed to compete at Le Mans with only two cars, so I feel very sorry for my erstwhile team-mates Filipe Albuquerque, Marco Bonanomi and René Rast, who did an incredible job in 2015. It just goes to show how quickly things in motor sport can change – often due to things completely beyond a driver’s control. I remember in 2008 when the financial crisis hit. I was at the Essen Motor Show, where Audi’s racing boss Dr Wolfgang Ullrich informed us all that he could not guarantee any of us drives at that time – even though we were under contract for the following season. Fortunately, despite a significant reduction in the programme, a solution was found. A few months later Peugeot announced it was pulling out of the WEC, with many drivers and team personnel already en route to Sebring for a test. This can be a very tough business and it’s important to relish every moment.
I’d like to congratulate Porsche for clinching both WEC titles in 2015. Heading into the final Bahrain race, anybody who thought it was merely a formality was quickly reminded of one of the key aspects of all motor sport – reliability. It certainly kept things interesting, but in the end I’m glad it wasn’t the deciding factor in the championship. It’s always best that championships are won and lost on the track.
For our no8 car, Bahrain really summed up the entire 2015 season. We led the race for the majority of the opening three hours, but suffered a mechanical problem that forced us into the pits for a lengthy repair. We had the pace to win the race – it was so disappointing. It would have been close with Porsche no18, but we had a very good car and our strategy proved very effective as tyre degradation was so high. To come away without so much as a podium was tough to accept, but luck really hasn’t been on our side this year. Our car suffered a number of little niggles throughout the campaign, but when you face tough competition you have no option but to push everything to its absolute limit and in some cases this can cause setbacks.
Leaving Bahrain there was naturally a sense of disappointment within Audi. We don’t like not winning. That’s not arrogance, it’s just the passion and desire that has resulted in the team being so successful over the years. The final result shouldn’t take anything away from what an incredible job Audi did in 2015, and maybe even more importantly what a fantastic year it’s been for sports car racing and the WEC. My team-mates André Lotterer, Benoît Tréluyer and Marcel Fässler won the first two races and remained in title contention until the season’s final couple of hours.
For me personally, Silverstone 2015 will go down as one of the most exciting races I’ve ever watched and really set the tone for the whole campaign. The early wins were crucial, not just for the championship but also as a reward and confirmation of the incredible amount of hard work that Audi had put in during the previous winter. It was only really at the Nürburgring, when Porsche made a big step forward with its aerodynamics, that the difference in hybrid power started to play a crucial role. From a pure EoT [Equivalency of Technology] point of view, we shouldn’t have even been in the fight with our 4MJ diesel engine as on paper we were a second slower than Porsche. The fact we were often much closer is testament to what a good car we had, but in the end we were not able to overcome the hybrid deficit.
In many respects the biggest positive to be taken away from the Bahrain race was the fact that we had once again managed to close the gap to Porsche and were capable of fighting for victory. We continued to develop and push the limits of our design to the very last race and the progress we had made was evident for all to see. I think the most surprising aspect of the year was last year’s champion Toyota playing no part in the title fight. It must have been quite a shock to them to see the progress both Audi and Porsche had made, but I fully expect them to come back strongly in 2016.
It definitely wasn’t the year I’d anticipated when I joined Audi’s full WEC line-up. That’s not to say I’m disappointed with my performances, it’s just that the results haven’t been what we had expected.
I was surprised by the difference between preparing only for Le Mans and mounting a full-season assault. While Le Mans is still the biggest and most important motor race in the world, it’s a completely different experience to that of tackling the balance of the WEC season. The biggest difference for me was arriving at tracks I didn’t know and – with three drivers sharing – there is sometimes very little seat time in which to learn. Due to tyre restrictions, it can happen that you end up learning the track on old rubber. It’s important to get a feel for the circuit and build up sufficient self-belief so that you’ll immediately be on the pace when you venture out on new or fresh tyres.
The WEC is a tough championship, but I really enjoyed the challenge and feel I made huge progress as the season progressed.
A step forward, but nowhere near far enough
Toyota made a giant step forward with an updated version of the TS040 Hybrid that had scooped both championships in 2014. Normally a team would be pleased to pitch up at the first race following a title-winning season and improve its best race lap from 12 months before by more than two seconds. Not Toyota in 2015.
The team was well and truly leap-frogged in the face of a new car from Porsche and a massive upgrade from Audi. There was some cause for hope at the Silverstone series opener, with third place for Anthony Davidson, Sébastien Buemi and Kazuki Nakajima, but after a disastrous showing at Spa the writing was on the wall. The Japanese manufacturer would announce in Le Mans week that it was bringing forward plans to introduce a new engine to replace its 3.7-litre normally aspirated petrol V8 from 2017 to 2016.
Toyota lost out to its rivals under acceleration. It hadn’t been able to make the jump from the 6MJ to the 8MJ class like fellow petrol-powered contender Porsche, while Audi’s move into the 4MJ division with the latest R18 e-tron quattro turbodiesel effectively put it on a par with the Japanese car under the Equivalence of Technology regulations. That the Audi outgunned it brought the need for a new conventional powerplant into sharp focus.
The drivers of the two TS040s ended up being bit players in the WEC. Only once did one of the cars outqualify another factory LMP1 entry, first time out at Silverstone, and only when Porsches or Audis hit problems were they ever likely to finish higher than fifth and sixth. That’s exactly where the two Toyotas finished in three of the final five races.
With its rivals running extra cars at Le Mans, it could finish no better than sixth. Alex Wurz, Stéphane Sarrazin and Mike Conway had a trouble-free run, yet were still eight laps behind after 24 hours. The qualifying deficit to Porsche’s record-breaking pole time had been more than six seconds.
There was the odd high over the second half of the season: Nakajima’s opening stint in the rain on home ground in Fuji briefly gave Porsche and Audi something to think about, while Toyota finally bagged its second piece of silverware of 2015 in Bahrain. Wurz brought the curtain down on his racing career with a third position with regular team-mates Sarrazin and Conway on a day that one Porsche, one Audi and its own sister car were delayed for various reasons.
There were some developments for the TS040 over the second half of the campaign, but Toyota Motorsport technical boss Pascal Vasselon had admitted before the end of the season that the primary focus was to prepare for 2016 and the arrival of the new TS050.
Innovative approach proves largely fruitless
Nissan’s return to the pinnacle of sports car racing stretched to one race at Le Mans, at least for the time being. The radical front-engined and front-wheel-drive GT-R LM NISMO was withdrawn from the first two rounds of the WEC after chassis revisions were required because the car failed its crash test. And when it did finally make its debut, it raced without the much-vaunted Torotrak mechanical energy-retrieval system that was conceived to put the car in the 8MJ class.
Short on grunt out of the corners, as well as test miles, the GT-R LM was woefully off the pace and only just delivered on Nissan motor sport boss Darren Cox’s promise that it would outqualify the best of the LMP2 contenders. Not only was the car 20sec off the pace, it was unreliable. Despite a conservative approach from the US-based Nissan Motorsports squad, it managed to make the finish with only one of its three entries, Michael Krumm, Harry Tincknell and Alex Buncombe ending up unclassified after spending almost one third of the race in the pits.
There was evidence to suggest great chunks of time could be gained should Nissan be able to restore the original concept of the car, which called for energy retrieved at the front wheels to be deployed through the skinny rears. The system never made it off the bench in its original format, so through early testing the car both retrieved and deployed via the front axle and was homologated in the 2MJ class. With less braking provided by the hybrid system, Nissan was forced to move to larger diameter front wheels to incorporate bigger conventional brakes, while concerns over the suspension meant the drivers were instructed to stay off the kerbs at Le Mans.
Nissan stepped back from the WEC after a post-Le Mans test and then withdrew from the remainder of the season after a second test in Austin in September. By this stage work had already began on development of a revised hybrid system with a new and so-far-undisclosed partner, which is understood to have resulted in significant changes to the concept, though not the architecture of the car, and is likely to involve rear-axle retrieval.
The withdrawal was accompanied by the announcement of a new boss for the GT-R LM programme. Mike Carcamo, a former trackside support engineer in CART and IndyCar, moved over from Nissan Mexico and was given the team principal role to allow design chief Ben Bowlby to focus on matters technical.
That news was, in turn, followed by the departure of Cox, the architect of the GT-R LM programme and Nissan’s experimental Le Mans racers before it. Nissan is still officially going to be racing in the WEC in 2016, but the decision to return will surely not be set in stone until the revised car hits the test track.
Star performers of 2015
Was Jani the fastest driver in a Porsche LMP1 car? His employers certainly thought that he was quickest in the no18 919 Hybrid he again shared with Romain Dumas and Marc Lieb. When Porsche realised that it would need to bring team orders into play to win the title with Webber and his co-drivers, it left the Swiss driver on the sidelines during the two-driver aggregate qualifying sessions. There’s a point for pole position in the WEC and the drivers of the no17 car needed every one they could get if they were going to catch the Audi trio at the top of the championship table. Jani, it should be pointed out, had qualified his 919 at all but one of the first five race prior to Porsche’s strategic call on team orders. Those races included Le Mans – which retains a traditional qualifying format – and an amazing 3min 16.887sec pole lap. Jani’s season was about much more than one headline-grabbing lap of Le Mans, though. He was undoubtedly Porsche’s most consistent performer over the season.
Sébastien Buemi/Anthony Davidson/Kazuki Nakajima
Toyota’s lead trio might just have been the best driver combination in the 2015 World Endurance Championship. That’s despite never remotely looking like winning a race aboard their TS040 Hybrid. They were certainly the most consistent combination in an LMP1 car over the course of the season, which given that none of them are slouches backs up the first statement. Just look at their lap times from Le Mans. The average time across the 50 best laps set by each of them was within two and a half tenths. And that’s on a circuit measuring 8.47 miles that takes more than three minutes to complete! That has to bode well for next year and the arrival of the all-new turbocharged Toyota TS050.
Porsche 919 Hybrid
The name was the same, but the championship-winning 919 was a new car. The concept was unchanged from the 2014 original, but every facet of a machine that had got better and better through Porsche’s comeback season was subject to a refresh. Even the engine changed capacity. Porsche LMP1 boss Alex Hitzinger pointed out the new design group assembled for the marque’s return to top-line sports car racing couldn’t be expected to get it right at the first attempt. What emerged from that process was a car less prone to understeer, a car that looked after its tyres at least as well as the opposition and a car that uniquely ran in the highest hybrid sub-class. That meant the championships were Porsche’s to lose, and the in-house factory team and its drivers were more than good enough to deliver on that potential.
It was business as usual for the best sports car driver of his generation. Lotterer performed at the same ultra-high level race in, race out as we have come to expect over the years and had a big part to play in keeping Audi in the championship hunt for so long. And, as usual, he came away from Le Mans with fastest race lap. It was the third season in a row and the fourth time in five years that he had lapped its 8.47 miles quicker than anyone else.
The 28-year-old got his big break in sports cars with the OAK-run G-Drive squad and made the most of it. It wasn’t just that he won the LMP2 title, it was the manner of the triumph that suggested Bird has a big future in endurance racing. He never had an off-day and never made a mistake. Sometimes it seemed like he was trying to win the title single-handed, such were the inconsistencies of team-mates Roman Rusinov and Julien Canal.
Tandy would make this list on his Le Mans-winning exploits with Porsche alone, but the Brit also had the chance to showcase his talents in the WEC on a regular basis during a part-season in LMP2 with Chinese entrant KCMG. This extra-curricular activity provided an indication of Porsche’s long-term plans for Tandy, given that his main programme was racing the 911 RSR GT Le Mans car in the United SportsCar Championship in 2015. The Le Mans winner only triumphed once aboard the KCMG ORECA-Nissan 05 he shared with Richard Bradley and Matt Howson, but he might have ended up with more class victories to go with a string of starring performances and fastest laps. He surely proved beyond doubt that he will be a worthy member of the LMP1 squad if and when he is promoted from the GT ranks. You could argue that he’d done that at Le Mans, and in the course of just one stint. His quadruple stint during the night aboard the victorious 919 Hybrid was amazing. The man himself even describes it as “a magical time”. It felt like he could do anything in the car, he reckoned. And it showed on the stopwatch.
Philippe Dumas & Bruno Corbe
There were many reasons why OAK Racing/G-Drive prevailed over KCMG in the LMP2 title fight. One of them was the combined brains of team manager Dumas and engineer Corbe on the pitwall. A speculative pitstop strategy in Austin, a race their lead Ligier JSP2 was going to lose all things being equal, allowed Bird, Rusinov and Canal to score an important victory at a time when it looked as though momentum was turning in KCMG’s direction. The G-Drive trio sealed the championship in style in Bahrain with a fourth class win of the season courtesy of an adventurous tyre strategy that left KCMG reeling.
The faces in the Audi garage after the Nürburgring said it all after the trouncing at the hands of Porsche. It was bad enough that it was the first race of the reborn WEC in Germany but, worse still, a crushing defeat by more than a lap came with the realisation that the advantage that the R18 e-tron quattro had enjoyed at Silverstone had disappeared. Now Porsche and the latest high-downforce version of the 919 had the upper hand on the F1 venues that made up the second half of the season. The writing appeared to be on the wall for Audi’s championship hopes. Yet its promise to keep on fighting wasn’t empty, even though back home it was flat out developing a radical 2016 LMP1 contender. It solved an overheating problem that afflicted its cars at the ‘Ring, came with an updated aero package for Fuji and took the battle down to the wire. The German manufacturer came ever so close to stealing the drivers’ title with Lotterer, Tréluyer and Fässler, but made a fight of it and should be applauded for that.
Ferrari factory driver Bruni proved time and again in 2015 that is he is the world’s best GT driver, even if he wasn’t able to hang onto the WEC crown. Two poor results as a result of technical problems left Bruni, Toni Vilander and AF Corse with too much to do over the remaining three rounds. Their title aspirations weren’t aided by arch-rival Porsche’s upturn in form courtesy of intensive post-Le Mans tyre development. Bruni’s efforts weren’t in vain, however. There was interest from Ford ahead of its WEC entry, but more significantly Porsche came knocking on his door with a big-money offer. Suffice to say the Italian is now remunerated to a level his talents deserve.
Mark Webber & Brendon Hartley
The two newcomers to Porsche in 2014 made giant steps forward in their second season alongside established hand Timo Bernhard. Webber came alive as a sports car driver with the arrival of the high-downforce 919 Hybrid at the Nürburgring in August and put in some starring performances before the end of the season. He had, by his own admission, struggled with the understeering original version that was anathema to what he’d grown accustomed to over a dozen seasons in Formula 1. Hartley, meanwhile, was able to eradicate the mistakes that had marred his game in 2014 and early ’15. That immediately made him one of the championship’s best drivers, given his blinding speed. Both were worthy world champions.