Porsche breaks the WEC?

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Decision to quit ‘P1 for Formula E has sent shock waves through racing

“Precipitous.” That was how the World Endurance Championship described Porsche’s withdrawal from the LMP1 ranks. Feelings were made clear with the use of words such as “regret” and “abruptness” in the official statement from the series in the aftermath of the German manufacturer’s bombshell.

Disappointment may be the wrong word. Betrayal is probably better. It’s not just that Porsche will be ending what has turned out to be an all-too-brief return to the top flight of sports car racing after four seasons at the end of this year. More significantly, Porsche was one of a group of manufacturers that helped come up with the broad tenets of a new set of regulations for 2020, devised to make P1 ever-more relevant in a changing automotive landscape, and then promptly decided that it would prefer to race in Formula E.

Should the new rulebook actually be put in place in 2020, the next generation of LMP1 hybrids will have to complete a kilometre without recourse to their internal combustion engines after every refuelling stop. That will go hand in hand with the introduction of rapid plug-in hybrid charging. As relevant as this may be to today’s road cars, Porsche has decided that all-electric technology is even more relevant.

Porsche’s technical bosses were around the table with the FIA and WEC promoter the Automobile Club de l’Ouest during the formulation of the next set of P1 rules, a process that started late last year after Audi announced that it was leaving P1. But motor sport departments don’t make the decisions about where a major motor manufacturer goes racing. They are made right at the top of each company, and the board of Porsche has decided that FE was the way forward for a brand that notched up its 19th outright victory in the Le Mans 24 Hours this summer.

That’s because it has announced plans to start rolling out a range of electric road cars, based on the Mission E concept unveiled in 2015, before the end of the decade. A season-six entry date in 2019, when the FE grid will expand from 20 to 24 cars, means it is calling time on the P1 programme a year before the end of an existing commitment that had been due to take it through to the end of 2018. That will allow the Porsche motor sport operation in Weissach time to gear up for its FE entry.

“Entering FE and achieving success in this category are the logical outcomes of our Mission E project,” said Porsche research and development boss Michael Steiner, the board member responsible for motor sport. “The growing freedom for in-house technology developments makes FE attractive to us.

“Porsche is working with alternative, innovative drive concepts. For us, FE is the ultimate competitive environment for driving forward the development of high-performance vehicles in areas such as environmental friendliness, efficiency and sustainability.”

HIGH-TECH OPTIONS

The WEC offers manufacturers the chance to showcase today’s technology. The lure of FE is that it provides an opportunity to shout about the future. Electrification is the buzz word in the automotive industry right now, which explains an influx of car makers into FE. That will result in an unprecedented level of manufacturer participation from the start of the 2019/20 season.

The zero-emissions element of the 2020 rulebook, which also includes a raft of cost-saving measures aimed at attracting new manufacturers, was clearly devised with one eye on FE. The rulemakers’ calculations suggest that a 2020 P1 car will be faster on electric power only, albeit for a short period, than a FE car. “We want to showcase a high level of electric performance,” says Toyota Motorsport technical director Pascal Vasselon, “because there are some series in the world that race quite slowly on electric power.”

The problem is that it wasn’t enough to persuade Porsche to stay. It is actually a compound problem, because the drive to give the P1 regulations a new technological twist looks set to rule out the entry of the third manufacturer at the table during the rule-making process, Peugeot. It has been championing a lower entry cost for the LMP1 division and it has yet to commit to the challenge of the 2020 rules, several years on from its late withdrawal from the inaugural season of the reborn WEC in 2012.

What exactly Peugeot wanted isn’t clear, except that it was looking for a major reduction in costs, one far greater than outlined during Le Mans week this summer. A spec battery and a lighter class of car with one energy-retrieval system that could race the more powerful double hybrids appear to have been on its agenda.

Peugeot Sport boss Bruno Famin, speaking earlier in the season, denied that the French manufacturer was demanding anything.

“We are not saying that if the rules are not like this, we are not coming,” he said. “But the fact is that if the cost of entry is not cut, then we are not coming.”

Famin was insistent, however, that Peugeot isn’t against hybrids. “We need hybrid cars, for sure,” he said.

Some are suggesting that Porsche’s decision sounds the death knell for LMP1 as a technological proving ground for the manufacturers. But is that right? The German marque hasn’t departed the top-flight of international sports car racing because it no longer wants to promote a message. On the contrary. It just happens that the message P1, Le Mans and the WEC are offering is not as attractive as the one presented by FE to manufacturer that has just announced a commitment to electric road cars.

MESSAGE IN A BATTLE

Manufacturers need something to shout about when they go racing. Look at every LMP1 programme, with the exception of Aston Martin’s brief foray in the premier class, since the middle of the last decade. They have all been about technology. Even Nissan, in a roundabout way, wanted to shout about its technological prowess with the front-engined GT-R NISMO LM. It was proclaiming ‘we’re an off-the-wall car maker that dares to be different’ with that ultimately unsuccessful project.

“Everyone wants to save costs, but not at the expense of emptying the technological tank,” says Toyota Motorsport boss Vasselon. “The main reason for Toyota to participate in the WEC is to develop technology and specifically hybrid technology, so it would be nearly impossible for Toyota to accept a step backwards.”

That leaves the WEC and the ACO between a rock and a hard place as it strives to keep the LMP1 division alive going forward. It almost certainly has to reduce costs beyond the level already put in place for 2020, but it also needs to allow the manufacturers a chance to trumpet a technological message. And it has to do all that at a time when Formula E appears to have become the place for forward-thinking manufacturers to compete.

HOT TOPIC WINNERS & LOSERS

Why LMP1’s current malaise could be good for GTE Pro

The big winner in the inevitable World Endurance Championship shale-up that will follow Porsche’s withdrawal from LMP1 has to be the burgeoning GTE Pro class. A drive to raise the category’s profile – from this season it offers full world championship titles to drivers and manufacturers – is already underway, but there will undoubtedly be a renewed push from the series organisers.

With only one manufacturer at the front of the field, assuming Toyota sticks to its commitment to race on in P1, the WEC can turn to GTE Pro and hang its hat on a fierce battle between a roster of factory teams that will expand to five with the arrival of BMW and its new M8 in 2018. The class will gain an extra focus from sports car fans and the world’s media next season, so the WEC needs to find new ways of enhancing the new-found importance of the division.

That process has already started. The introduction of a sprint or qualifying race the day before each of the regular six-hour WEC rounds has been agreed with the manufacturers for next year and now needs to be signed off by the FIA’s World Motor Sport Council.

It’s an important step for GTE Pro, which is drawing interest from ever more manufacturers. Getting TV producers to focus on the GTE Pro battle is one thing, but giving the class its own identity is much more important.