Hypercars for the track

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Revolutionary rule changes are set to alter the face of the WEC and Le Mans 24 Hours

Could a McLaren Senna really go up against an Aston Martin Valkyrie for outright honours at the Le Mans 24 Hours early in the next decade? Not quite. But the machines vying for honours in the World Endurance Championship from the start of the 2020/21 season will look for all the world like the most exotic hypercars on the market. 

The ‘hypercar concept’ rules outlined ahead of this year’s WEC blue riband at Le Mans in June will call for pure-bred prototypes, but crucially the regulations will allow manufacturers to style the machines in the LMP1-replacement class after their road-going machinery. Or rather demand it. It is intended, said FIA’s Endurance Commission president Richard Mille, that the cars should look like “hypercars, supercars, luxury GTs  or concept cars”.

Toyota, one of the leading players in the discussions that lead to the ‘hypercar concept’, has already given a sneak preview of what a 2020/21 Le Mans contender might look like. It revealed its GR Super Sport concept, which incorporates the latest TS050 Hybrid powertrain, at the start of the year and displayed the car to Le Mans in the summer. 

The rule makers, the FIA and Le Mans organiser and WEC promoter the Automobile Club de l’Ouest, have come up with a tag line for a category that has been in the works since last autumn. The class will put “aesthetics over aerodynamics”, they say, in an attempt to increase the appeal to the fans and, therefore, the manufacturers at a time where only one (Toyota) remains standing in LMP1. 

The means by which the competitiveness of an array of different-looking cars — machinery whose shape is not determined by the windtunnel — will be guaranteed is also at the heart of the dramatic cost savings at the base of the new regulations. The aerodynamic performance of the cars will be limited: maximum downforce and minimum drag figures will be prescribed in the regulations.

The message to participants — whether manufacturers or independents in what is a one-for-all class — is that costly aerodynamic programmes will offer no gain.

“The idea is that if you define the values then there is no reason to spend money on windtunnel development because you will get no reward,” explained Vincent Beaumesnil, sporting director of the ACO. “This will be a new process in which we will measure the  cars in the windtunnel and make full body scans of them. This way we can make sure  that the cars can go up to the point we lay down, but not go over it.”

The cost savings will be immense, according to Toyota Motorsport technical director Pascal Vasselon: “The target is aero efficiency at an achievable level, not at a level that requires 30 people over three years. It should be achievable by a team with a few good CFD [computational fluid dynamics] engineers.”

Active aerodynamics will also be allowed. This is regarded by the FIA and the ACO as a means to lower development costs and will allow them to prohibit separate bodywork configurations for the shorter WEC races, mostly held on Formula 1 tracks, and the unique demands of the Le Mans circuit.

FIA technical director Gilles Simon said that moveable aerodynamic aero parts would allow for “greater efficiency at lower cost”. He added that it was the “right time” to allow active aero on prototypes in the WEC because such systems are becoming increasingly common on high-performance road cars.

HYBRIDS RETAINED

The new class, which will initially have a five-season lifespan, will mandate hybrid technology, but at a significantly reduced level. The present P1 rules allow for two energy-retrieval systems, but the new regulations will demand a single front-axle KERS. Hybrid power output will come down from today’s 300kW (just over 400bhp) to 200kW (approximately 270bhp).

This is part of the cost-reduction strategy, which will also include the use of common control electronics for the hybrid systems. The use of a spec hybrid system to be used by manufacturers or privateers not wanting to develop their own was explored. It was abandoned in favour of an idea borrowed from Formula E. Manufacturers developing energy-retrieval technology will have to make their system — battery and all — available on a lease to other participants.

BUDGETS SLASHED

The aerodynamic limitations and the reduction in hybrid technology are not the only tenets of the new rules designed to reduce cost. Engine performance will also be capped and the cars will be significantly heavier. At 980kg they will be more than 100kg heavier than the current cars, reducing the need for expensive materials.

The ACO and the FIA believe budgets of between £20-26 million are realistic for the new category. This represents approximately 25 per cent of the £89 million that Toyota is generally reckoned to spend annually. Porsche and Audi were believed to have had recourse to significantly larger budgets.

The new breed of cars will be heavier and have less downforce than the current generation of twin-hybrid LMP1s, but lap t imes will be only marginally slower. The rule makers have a target qualifying lap of 3m20s around the eight and a half miles of the  Circuit de la Sarthe at Le Mans, which is only five seconds slower than this year’s pole position mark from Toyota.   

This will be achieved courtesy of the extra 200bhp available from their conventional internal combustion engines. The twin-turbo V6 that powers Toyota’s TS050 probably has little more than 500bhp, but the new cars will be allowed 700bhp.

COMMON RULES

The ACO has made it clear that it wants the North American IMSA SportsCar Championship to adopt its new rules in the future. IMSA officials participated in the discussions that led to them, but it has so far baulked at signing up to them.

IMSA boss Scott Atherton insisted that the £20-26 million a season budget was still some way north of that being spent by the manufacturers racing Daytona Prototype international machinery in the series. 

“What we do not want to do is to embrace a set of regulations that abandon the core elements of what has made our current platform successful,” he said. “We have spoken to several manufacturers who share our opinion that even with what has been achieved in terms of cost reduction it is not yet to a level that would enable them to participate.”

WHO’S COMING TO PLAY

That isn’t clear at the moment. Five manufacturers were actively involved in the discussions that led to the ‘hypercar concept’ — Toyota, Ferrari, Ford, Aston Martin and McLaren — and a sixth, Porsche, was present as an observer.

All are predictably saying that it is too early to make any commitment. The broad concept of the rules has been defined, but the rulebook still needs to be written. That’s a process that started at the beginning of July and needs to be completed by November. FIA stability rules mean the regulations have to be in place by January 1, 2019, so they have to be signed off by the December meeting of the FIA World Motor Sport Council.

Toyota has given the clearest indication  that it will be on the grid when the new rules come into force in the autumn of 2020, at the start of the second edition of the WEC winter series. Toyota’s motorsports boss, Hisatake Murata, asked Shigeki Tomoyama, his company’s executive vice president whose remit includes motorsport, at a press event if the GR Super Sport could be raced. The answer was in the affirmative.