Mark Webber predicts Porsche will be under pressure in its bid to stay on top of the World Endurance Championship. It all starts again at Silverstone in April
Writer Damien Smith
Silverstone, on a cold and grey Saturday morning. Mark Webber is soaked, but it’s sweat that’s dripping from the end of his nose rather than the dreary rain that persists outside. Here in the Porsche Experience Centre, just beyond Chapel Curve, he’s in familiar pose, crouched low on a cycle machine – and judging by the figures flashing on the screen in front of him, he’s showing a bunch of racing drivers just what it takes to stay at the top of your game. The reigning World Endurance Champion will turn 40 this year, but you’d never guess. He’s got a title to defend and there’s no hint of a lift from a man who makes it clear he’s expecting a fight if Porsche wants to retain its crown at the pinnacle of sports car racing.
Webber’s on duty today for Porsche’s ‘Get Race Fit’ seminar, working with young aces from the BRDC Superstars scheme and regulars from the Carrera Cup GB. After the intensive session this morning on the bikes, he’s due to host a Q&A to offers tips on race prep, both physical and psychological. He’s giving up a weekend to put something back, but it’s no chore for a man dedicated (and perhaps a little addicted) to staying in good nick.
“This has been going on for years, mate, we have this event every year,” he says, now showered and changed into crisp white shirt and jeans. The haunted, almost malnourished appearance of his latter Formula 1 years is thankfully no more with the lifting of those incessant weight-loss demands that came with the job at the top tier, but there’s still nothing of him. Same old Webber. He’s a genuine athlete.
“I’ve known the guys here since my days at Benetton, so I was coming here before I joined Porsche,” he says. “Now we’re rolling out more on psychological aspects, nutrition, giving the guys a one-stop shop. They’re very versatile here in understanding what different sports people need, from motocross to Formula 1.”
On the way up to Silverstone, I couldn’t help wondering: after two years back in sports cars, with all those F1 pressures an increasingly distant memory and a world title finally to his name, does Mark Webber still need this? He has nothing to prove after all, and while he’d love to win Le Mans, the thought clearly doesn’t keep him awake at night.
But as we begin to talk about the season ahead, there’s that same old look, that familiar tone of voice. Yep, he’s still hungry.
“We had a good test in Abu Dhabi – and we needed to,” he says of Porsche’s winter preparations during which the team’s latest 919 Hybrid completed more than 4000km over five days. “We’ve got a big target on our back. Audi and Toyota have launched pretty serious campaigns with their new weapons. Operationally and reliability-wise, those will be strengths for us. We need to consolidate in these areas. OK, we were strong last year, but we’ve got to go again to another level. We had a non-finish here at Silverstone last year, for example. Basically the reliability has to be bomb-proof, that’s very important – and we know you need a fast car.”
Porsche heads to the first round of the WEC, at Silverstone on April 17, on the back of an incredible 2015. The 919 was last beaten on May 2, when Audi won at Spa – how remarkable, given Team Joest’s record over the past 16 years. Le Mans fell to Porsche in conclusive fashion last June, then Webber, Timo Bernhard and Brendon Hartley went on a roll, with the Nürburgring, Austin, Fuji and Shanghai falling to the no17 entry, before the sister car of Neel Jani, Marc Lieb and Romain Dumas claimed Bahrain on a nail-biting day as Mark and co claimed their title.
But how much does last season count for, as we head back to Silverstone? This time one year ago, don’t forget, Toyota was riding high off the back of its own conclusive campaign in 2014. It would finish the season a punch-drunk third behind the mighty German duo. Such is the intensity of competition in LMP1 between the three manufacturers.
Toyota’s downfall has forced the Cologne-based team into action, with an all-new concept for its TS050 (see page 34) featuring a turbo engine in place of the old V8 and a battery-based hybrid solution instead of its previously successful super-capacitors. Audi too has responded with what is clearly an aerodynamically ambitious new R18 (why it insists on retaining the same name for each car this decade remains a point of personal irritation). The latest iteration has also abandoned its previous hybrid solution, dropping Audi’s flywheel system for lithium batteries too – it’s clearly the most efficient and effective technology available right now. Audi’s faith in its V6 diesel remains, but it moves up from 4MJ to the 6MJ energy delivery class, which should in theory put it closer to par with Porsche’s and Toyota’s 8MJ petrol-powered prototypes. We’ll soon find out.
For Webber, the balancing of performance between different concepts in sports car racing remains a point of amazement. “It blows me away,” he says. “If you look at Le Mans, the amount of variables and the parameters you have for someone to just run away with the whole thing is huge. Yet we still produce such similar lap times.
“We’re all on different compounds of tyres, too and no one knows what we’re on – and no one cares. The Michelins are phenomenal and the racing is good. We don’t need to explain all that stuff. It is bizarre. In WEC rounds, after six hours we’re all still together.”
As is usually the case with a technically innovative motor racing series, ruling bodies tend to be peg back performance as speeds increase with competition. That’s the case in 2016, with a couple of key restrictions coming into play, which should be a factor in the balance of power between the trio. Energy per lap has been reduced by 10MJ, which represents a 7.5 per cent decrease, while fuel flow has been brought down by the same amount. At Le Mans, there will be a hybrid power delivery restriction for the first time of 300kW, with the intention of controlling ever-decreasing lap times. Who will manage it best?
“The new regs should make it interesting,” says Webber. “They’ve tried to up the lap times at Le Mans, which is fair enough. They were getting really quick around there and I think they’ve got the number right – about [an extra] four seconds, which sounds a lot, but that’s about a second and a half on a normal track. It’s still a number you won’t notice in the stands.
“It’ll be hard work getting that speed back, mainly because of power. We’ll have less fuel flow to the engine and a little less fuel as well. But that will all be invisible. The FIA and ACO obviously are getting in there and keeping an eye on speeds. We’re doing 360kph [223mph] five times a lap around Le Mans. When we get this juggernaut going we can find a lot of performance. If they leave us alone for three years you’re going to have a very, very fast sports car, especially with all the hybrid power we can produce.”
The perception, as it has been in F1 for Mercedes, is that the gap to Porsche will close thanks to the lead team’s diminishing returns in the third season of a maturing set of regulations. The Merc example suggests we shouldn’t hang too much hope on this aspect, but Webber reckons it could be a factor in the WEC. “A lot of the low-hanging fruit has been grabbed,” he says. “We’ll see… With a stable regulation from an aerodynamic and chassis perspective, we’re not going to be doing an all-new 919 at this stage. We’re finding some good stuff, definitely – the Toyota scenario [dropping from pace-setter to third in class in a matter of months] is not in our thoughts. We had the fastest car last year by quite a big chunk.
“You definitely don’t dismiss Toyota,” he adds. “They’re coming off the back of the hardest year of us all and they have a lot to prove. We don’t know, mate, how they’re going, but it’ll be fascinating how big a step they’ve made. When you have a painful year like that you can cut your losses quite early in a season and say ‘you know what, let’s go to ’16’. And they could well have done that. We’ll know very quickly how good a job they’ve done.
I assume very good.”
In stark contrast to F1, the sports car racing world has fully embraced the hybrid era, its incredible technological advances being championed rather than denigrated. It helps that the racing spectacle has been so fabulous, of course, which emphatically can’t be said of F1.
“I was a sceptic,” admits Webber. “But then I did my first full lap at a test in Portimão and when the four-wheel drive [from the front axle energy recovery] kicked in it was unbelievable. I’ve driven a lot of cars in my time, but the acceleration is unbelievable. Also there’s something stealthy about seeing an LMP1 car driving down the pitlane in silence. And I love noise. But with the futuristic look of an LMP1, does it make sense to have that stealth element? You expect F1 to be noisy.
“It’s tough to answer why we’ve embraced it and F1 hasn’t. The manufacturers probably explain it a little better. Is it more road relevant? Should we be trying to save fuel in an F1 race? For Le Mans, it makes sense to everyone that we should save fuel. But here at Silverstone for F1? I’m not so sure.”
One parallel to F1 Webber does acknowledge is the need to curb spiralling costs, particularly when global manufacturers are involved. In February, Peugeot Sport boss Bruno Famin told Motor Sport that there is a desire for the French company to return to Le Mans, but it won’t do so until the price of competing is brought down. There are restrictions on the number of engines and testing here too, but is that enough?
“Yeah, I think it’s something they’ll definitely keep an eye on,” says Webber. “For LMP1, what happened with the VW Group [the emissions scandal] might have been a blessing, to keep things in check, although we still have phenomenal resources. We want others to come, whether it be BMW or Peugeot. It would be phenomenal.”
Webber points out that in the multi-billion dollar business of building road cars, a multi-million dollar racing programme can be good value. In this context, with a like-minded, racing-friendly board of directors on side, he’s bang on. “When you look at the technology we’ve used, a lot of it is in-house; it’s our IP and we want to keep it for ourselves for our future road cars,” he says. “From that perspective it’s cheap. Very cheap, in terms of what we can do for transfer of technology to future road cars. That’s how they justify it.”
In our interview Famin wondered how Audi and Porsche can find any return when sports car budgets rival those in upper midfield F1. It sounds as though Webber’s offered an answer.
But right now, the bigger-picture stuff is background noise for Webber and his team-mates. Full focus is required for the job at hand. “The gloves are off,” he says with a smile.