As the season dawns, what chance do the independents have against Toyota?
Toyota now stands alone as the only manufacturer competing for outright honours in the World Endurance Championship, in the wake of the withdrawals of first Audi and then Porsche. But a new challenge has arrived with a wave of privateers, encouraged by new rules to make them more competitive. But are the newcomers genuine contenders who can do more than pick up the pieces should the Japanese manufacturer’s cars hit trouble?
That was the intention of the WEC and the championship’s rule makers, the FIA and the Automobile Club de l’Ouest at Le Mans, when they promised lap-time parity between the non-hybrid independent machinery and the hybrid Toyotas. It was part of a raft of changes revealed as organisers attempted to shore up the WEC in the wake of Porsche’s withdrawal. The creation of the 2018/19 superseason, incorporating two editions of the Le Mans 24 Hours, as a lead-in to a winter-series format with the French enduro as the championship finale, was the other big news.
But will the promised parity be in place when the WEC superseason kicks off on May 5? No, it won’t.
The word “proximity” was used by one designer from a privateer constructor to describe the balance between the hybrid and non-hybrid cars.
FIA statutes include certain stability rules. Porsche’s bombshell and the relaunch of the WEC came after the cut-off at which the rules for 2018 could be changed without the agreement of all participants. That put Toyota in a strong negotiating position.
It knew it had to give ground for the good — or rather survival — of the championship. “There is,” as Toyota Motorsport GmbH technical director Pascal Vasselon points out, “no point having two cars running much faster and much longer.
“The starting point was that after Porsche’s withdrawal we had no competition. We understood that the non-hybrid cars have to be close. We have agreed that for them to be closer, but not at the same level.”
No one will go on the record with the margin that Toyota has been given under the Equivalence of Technology, the means by which performance of LMP1 cars is controlled, but it appears the negotiations settled on a figure of half a second a lap measured around the eight and a half miles of Le Mans.
The Toyota TS050 HYBRIDs will also have an advantage on the fuel, both in the time it takes for it to go into the car in the pits and the number of laps they can complete between stops. A Toyota should refuel five seconds quicker than a privateer P1 and go one lap longer per stint than its rivals.
It is here that Toyota has given up the most. It has agreed to a massive cut in its fuel allocation, measured in kilograms per hour, which will reduce its stint length from a potential 14 to 11.
The ‘indies’ know the challenge they face in trying to take on a factory team with a well-proven car going into its third season of competition.
“We’re fighting for third place unless something happens to the Toyotas,” says Briton Oliver Webb, who will again drive the ByKolles team’s ENSO CLM-Nissan P1/01. “We’ve got to be realistic that we are not going to beat the Toyotas under normal circumstances.”
Alex Brundle, a regular in the LMP2 WEC ranks who has now graduated to P1 to drive a Ginetta-Mecachrome G60-LT-P1 for the Manor team, has a similar view: “The focus has to be on the other privateers, at least for now. For us it has to be about being there or thereabouts at the head of the queue in case something goes wrong for Toyota.”
LMP1 privateers accept that they are unlikely to win unless Toyota trips. Those poised to profit include ByKolles and, right, the SMP-run BR1s
That said, the privateers all showed form at the official pre-season WEC test at Paul Ricard at the start of April. Interpreting the times was difficult because Toyota, as was its right, chose not to respect the EoT published for the so-called ‘prologue’. It ran with more power from both its conventional V6 twin-turbo and its hybrid systems in order to stress a new cooling system it has introduced for the coming season.
The SMP Racing squad came out top among the privateers with its Dallara-built BR Engineering BR1 chassis powered by an AER turbo engine. Rebellion Racing was impressively just one hundredth behind with its brand new Gibson-engined R-13, which had completed just five laps going into the Ricard test.
ByKolles, a perennial underachiever in the WEC, proved that it had made progress, too. Its ENSO CLM was within eight tenths of the privateer pace.
The privateers racked up some decent mileage, too. Should Toyota trip up, their goal of being ready to pick up the pieces looks to be attainable.
AND THE BIG ONE
Toyota knows that the Le Mans 24 Hours is its race to lose. That explains a dramatic rethink in how it has gone about its preparations for a race it has somehow failed to win during its long history at the pinnacle of world sports car racing.
It hasn’t just been pounding relentlessly around the test track to prove the reliability of the latest version of the TS050. It has also been throwing the kind of curveball that scuppered its Le Mans victory chances in 2014, 2016 and 2017 into the mix. “Fake problems” is how Vasselon has described them.
“We did not need as much mileage as the year before, so we have sacrificed mileage to train the team to handle fake problems,” he explained. “The target was to learn to handle the unexpected and it worked quite well. The exceptional is now not so exceptional.”
As many as 25 weird and wonderful scenarios have been concocted by Toyota’s engineers. These have included simple things like cutting radio communication with the driver during the stint to sending the car out of the pits to complete a lap with a wheel missing!
But Vasselon points out that dealing with the unexpected in the controlled conditions of a test is quite different to overcoming issues in the heat of the battle. Nor should we forget that a modern P1 hybrid is an ultra-complicated piece of machinery with much more to go wrong than a more conventional car.
“Our cars are so complex,” says Toyota stalwart Sébastien Buemi, who missed out on Le Mans victory six minutes from the chequered flag in 2016 with a fractured pipe in the engine ancillaries. “We have electric motors at the front and rear, differentials at the front and rear, a battery and all the complicated electronics.
“We have a car that is a tiny bit quicker than our rivals according to the regulations, but so many times more complicated. That means a lot more chance of having a problem.”
That might well provide the narrative of the 2018/19 WEC superseason.