International racing

A sports car superteam

Porsche announce its new driver line-up for 2017

A desire to add to his tally of Le Mans 24 Hours victories and a love of sports car racing motivated long-time Audi driver André Lotterer to make the switch to sister marque Porsche for the 2017 World Endurance Championship. 

The three-time Le Mans winner has chosen to remain in LMP1 following Audi’s withdrawal from the WEC and the prototype arena last October. He had an on-going contract with the manufacturer for which he had driven since 2010 and had the chance to move into the DTM touring car series for 2017. 

“My priority is to keep fighting for Le Mans victories and challenging for world titles and, besides that, I love sports car racing – it’s who I am,” he said. “I had the opportunity to do a full season in the WEC, so I took it. 

“I had seven great years with Audi and loved every minute. I’m thankful for them allowing me to do this, because I was still under contract. 

“Doing the DTM would have allowed me to stay at Audi, which is like a family to me, and it would have been a new challenge, somewhere to prove myself again. But I love what I’ve been doing all these years: I love sports car racing and I love driving these cars.”

Lotterer, 35, has taken one of the three vacant seats in Porsche’s two-car LMP1 squad that became available on the retirement of ex-Formula 1 driver Mark Webber and the decision to drop 2016 world champions Marc Lieb and Romain Dumas from the line-up. Nick Tandy and Earl Bamber, who won Le Mans for Porsche in 2015, have filled the other openings. 

Thirty-two-year-old Brit Tandy will line up with Lotterer and Swiss Neel Jani in the Porsche 919 Hybrid that will carry the no1 this year. Bamber will slot into Webber’s place alongside 2015 world champions Timo Bernhard and fellow New Zealander Brendon Hartley. 

The availability of Lotterer did not influence Porsche’s decision to give Lieb and Dumas new duties in 2017, according to LMP1 team principal Andreas Seidl. He would not dwell on the reasons for the decision to release two drivers who, together with Jani, won Le Mans last year in addition to the WEC title, except to say that something written by this author summed up the team’s rationale. 

That is a reference to a sentence that read: “The days of a manufacturer retaining drivers based on results rather than the stopwatch are probably over.” Porsche’s actions contrast with those of Audi in the past. It always retained championship and Le Mans-winning drivers, even when they couldn’t match the times of the marque’s stars. 

Seidl had always insisted that Tandy and Bamber were “at the front of the queue” to fill any vacancies after their 2015 Le Mans victory in a third 919 Hybrid shared with Formula 1 driver Nico Hülkenberg. They step up full-time to the LMP1 squad after a second season racing Porsche 911 RSRs in the IMSA SportsCar Championship in North America.

“This is what you dream of when you join a manufacturer like Porsche,” said Tandy, who gained his factory contract ahead of the 2013 season. “Not only am I racing an LMP1 car full-time in the WEC, but I’m racing the Porsche with the no1 on it.”

Lieb and Dumas move into new roles with Porsche. Lieb, who has an automotive engineering degree, will take a position in the manufacturer’s customer racing department in April, while Dumas joins its 12-strong roster of GT drivers, although he has yet to be allocated a fixed programme. 

Porsche has no concerns placing Lotterer and Tandy with reigning champion Jani in what is already being billed as a sports car superteam, according to Seidl. Keeping Bernhard and Hartley together was, he said, “a fixed point” when setting its line-up for 2017.

Rules freeze in LMP1

The LMP1 rule book has been frozen until the end of the 2019 WEC season. The decision delays a new cycle of regulations due to come into force in 2018 that would have increased the scope of the cars’ hybrid energy retrieval.

The freeze was agreed by remaining P1 manufacturers Porsche and Toyota, plus FIA/WEC promoter the Automobile Club de l’Ouest, in the wake of Audi’s withdrawal from the series. The organisers have made no secret of the fact that it is an attempt to keep costs under control and make the category more attractive to newcomers. 

ACO sporting director Vincent Beaumesnil described the move as “A tough decision, but a sensible one that makes sense in the current context. 

“We keep pushing on the costs and this will have a big effect by maintaining the existing rules rather than taking another step,” he said. “We always listen to the manufacturers currently involved and those that are looking for an opportunity to join.”

Porsche believes the decision will not be a deterrent to technological innovation within the WEC.

“Keeping the regulations frozen until the end of 2019 doesn’t mean that the technology will stand still,” said Seidl. “We will continue to drive for greater efficiency within the regulations as they stand.

“It was important not to take a backwards step; we need to maintain the technology and the scope to develop it further.”

The 2018 rules would have increased the number of hybrid systems allowed from two to three, which went hand in hand with a rise in the amount of hybrid power that could be deployed per lap with the addition of a 10 megajoule sub-class above the existing 8MJ top division. New chassis rules, with an onus on driver safety, were also due to come into force. 

Aerodynamic changes for this season, devised to reduce the amount of downforce of the P1 cars by up to 30 per cent, have remained in place.  

Full world status for GTE

The GTE manufacturers will fight for a full world championship title for the first time since the rebirth of the WEC in 2012. They had previously competed for a so-called World Endurance GT Cups for both drivers and manufacturers. 

The upgrade follows Ford’s arrival in the series in 2016 and the announcement that BMW will follow suit in 2018. According to WEC boss Gérard Neveu the move could also  “speed up the arrival of other manufacturers in this category”.