New rules shake-up could see LMP1 cars with road car styling
Full-house racing prototypes that could have more than a passing resemblance to a McLaren P1 or perhaps a Porsche 918 Spyder are likely to be fighting for outright honours at the Le Mans 24 Hours within four years. That’s the direction the regulations for the World Endurance Championship are heading as the rule makers strive to come up with a replacement for the current breed of high-tech LMP1 hybrids.
The idea of prototypes being styled after a manufacturer’s top-of-the-range sports car has emerged from a series of round-table meetings of interested parties organised by the FIA and the WEC promoter the Automobile Club de l’Ouest, the organisations that write the rules for the series. It has been conceived as part of a drive to make the top division of the WEC more attractive for the big car makers in the wake of the withdrawal of Audi last year and Porsche this year.
There has been no formal confirmation of the plan from either the FIA or the ACO, though Vincent Beaumesnil, sporting director of the Le Mans organiser, has described it as “one of the options”. But the brands involved in the discussions are beginning to talk about them. The ideas are undoubtedly gaining traction and the likelihood is that rules allowing — or more likely demanding — manufacturers to style their cars will be put in place for the beginning of the 2020/21 WEC winter season.
“At the moment an LMP1 is a kind of generic prototype and you have to paint it to put your mark on it,” said Toyota Motorsport GmbH technical director Pascal Vasselon, who stressed that this vision for the future of LMP1 would result in the cars remaining “real prototypes” incorporating hybrid technology, though at a lower level than at present.
“The idea could be to go towards bodywork that is clearly closer to real cars — it could interest manufacturers who at the moment are not interested in a generic LMP. When you start talking about sports car-looking prototypes, then it seems there is a lot of interest.
“There is a positive momentum at the moment. There is some convergence and some principles now are set that appear to be satisfying for nearly everyone. But, as usual, the devil will be in the detail.”
The starting point for the discussions was the idea of allowing manufacturers to race hypercars such as the Adrian Newey-designed Valkyrie. This was quickly abandoned on grounds of both cost and complexity. The rule makers are wary of a repeat of the events of the late-1990s that resulted in a line of ever more extreme GT1 cars, culminating in Toyota’s GT-One.
Vasselon explained that there was now “no objective for the cars to be homologated for the road.”
“The category has to stay for real prototypes and to stay away from Balance of Performance [the means used to equalise cars in the GTE class],” he added. “It is very clear we cannot have BoP in the top category.”
At least one participant in the discussions has likened the ideas to the Daytona Prototype international category in the IMSA SportsCar Championship in North America. Car makers can take a chassis built by one of the four licensed LMP2 constructors, fit their own engine and then style the front and rear bodywork, as well as the sidepods. “A DPi on steroids” was the term he used to describe the kind of car the WEC might end up with.
The idea of some kind of spec monocoque being at the heart of the new regulations appears unlikely. The DPi machinery that raced with Cadillac, Mazda and Nissan badges in 2017, which will be joined by the Acuras fielded by Penske in 2018, are LMP2 chassis to their core. They retain everything from their donor car bar key sections of bodywork and their engine.
The new rules, should they go through, would borrow as much from the WEC’s GTE category as from DPi. The idea of performance windows, introduced when a new breed of GTE car came on stream for 2016, would be used to match the aerodynamics of cars not designed entirely according to windtunnel and computer data. The message is that a manufacturer wouldn’t be penalised by styling a car after a particular model.
Toyota is clearly interested in the new regulations at a time when it is about to launch a range of road cars using the Gazoo Racing under which all its competition programmes are run. Shigeki Tomoyama, the overall boss of motor sport at Toyota, has intimated that the company is ready to make a long-term commitment to the WEC.
“We will probably continue to be racing in a new top-flight class which they are looking to create,” he said at the Tokyo motor show in October. “We are looking to stay – and only with the goal of winning.”
McLaren has also stuck its head above the parapet. The British supercar builder has been talking up its interest in returning to Le Mans, scene of its 1995 outright victory with the F1 GTR, since Zak Brown took over as executive director of the wider group late in 2016. Brown has now admitted that McLaren is in favour of the direction in which the rules appear to be going.
“We like lots of what they are saying,” he said. “With the budgets and the level of technology they are talking, it’s heading in a direction that means there is a strong interest on our part.”
Aston Martin has also been making positive noises about the rules. “If we could race something that was inspired by Valkyrie, for example, that would be amazing,” said Aston boss Andy Palmer.
Porsche has been a participant in all the meetings, despite calling time on its ultra-successful P1 programme for next season. Porsche GT boss Frank-Steffen Walliser said that the company was always ready to “discuss and listen”.
The WEC was hoping to put in place a broad framework for the 2020/21 regulations in time for the early December meeting of the FIA’s World Motor Sport Council. This now appears unlikely because the next rules meeting is scheduled for after the next world council.
More likely is a short paragraph talking about the drive to reduce budgets, maintain technical innovation and ensure close competition between factories and privateers. Any announcement about a new breed of Le Mans prototypes that would capture the imagination of both manufacturers and the fans should follow some time in early 2018.