How sports cars thrive while F1 flounders


We lead the latest edition of Motor Sport on a season review of the 2015 World Endurance Championship*, a campaign in which Porsche asserted itself in a manner that has echoes of eras past. The intricacies of modern aerodynamics and safety-led design rules on chassis dimensions were always going to mean the 919 Hybrid wouldn’t hold a candle to the 917 and 956 on looks alone. But in terms of achievement, at Le Mans and beyond, it’s well on the way to classic status.

Sports car racing’s finest journalist, Gary Watkins, explains how Porsche gained the upper hand on Audi – no mean feat given the vast experience accrued by the team from Ingolstadt since 1999, against a Weissach squad that was all new from its debut in the series at the start of 2014.

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He also examines how Toyota slumped from champion to also-ran in a matter of one winter, despite finding significant gains with its TS040 Hybrid. When commissioning him, I suggested to Gary that it had been ‘outspent’ by the VW siblings, but he fired back that this was an oversimplification and unfair on Porsche’s engineering brilliance – and that of Audi too. Little can be explained away in such black and white terms in modern international motor racing.

The ambition and competitive drive of the three teams at the top of LMP1 delivered a fantastic season of sports car racing. Perhaps Porsche’s clear performance edge after Le Mans should mean the 2015 WEC falls just short of genuine all-time ‘classic’ status, but how crack trio André Lotterer, Benoit Treluyer and Marcel Fassler kept the title battle alive to a nail-biting Bahrain finale deserves to be remembered.

Porsche’s anointed trio of champions – Brendon Hartley, Timo Bernhard and Mark Webber, the last of whom speaks to Simon Arron in our issue – only just made it past the post with their fifth place in the desert, and the Audi crew’s relentless attack could so easily have paid off. Webber and co have much to thank Neel Jani, Romain Dumas and Marc Lieb for in the other 919. The “respect and camaraderie” Webber speaks of between team-mates and rival crews is why team championships somehow mean more in sports car racing than they do in Formula 1.

Speaking of Grand Prix racing, comparisons between the codes are hard to avoid when looking back on 2015. I’m not about to declare which one was best – you’ll have your own opinions on that, based on your definitions of what ‘best’ means. But it’s hard to deny that sports car racing thrives while fully embracing the dual concepts of open-formula hybrids and the ‘Equivalence of Technology’ that allows them to race on (reasonably) balanced terms.

Meanwhile, F1 flounders in self-doubt about its own heavily restricted hybrid formula, to the point where it could potentially be sitting on the verge of a civil war between that uneasy alliance formed by Jean Todt and Bernie Ecclestone on one side, and the manufacturers on the other. Discussions and directives on ‘cheaper’ hybrid engines are due to come to a head in January.

In the wake of F1’s muddle and sports car racing’s relative calm, I always find myself referring back to a media briefing offered by Mercedes in January 2013, during which it explained at its Brixworth plant what to expect from the incredible V6 turbos that were being developed. Powertrain boss Andy Cowell was genuinely excited to explain the possibilities, and that emotion has since been justified by the phenomenal gains in efficiency of fuel use F1 has been able to showcase (and then famously denigrate, of course).

When Cowell finished and asked for questions, I couldn’t help but raise the sports car example in contrast to what he’d laid out for us. Why couldn’t F1 open its regs to varying fuels and differing engine sizes, as the endurance manufacturers had done? “Too political,” he fired back, dismissively, and moved on.

I was puzzled. Since then I’ve assumed he meant “too political for F1”, given how the WEC has progressed with remarkably little public rancour between Porsche, Audi and Toyota. The codes share a similar rule-making process, led by the manufacturers, endorsed by a commission and then approved by the FIA’s World Motor Sport Council. Why does it work for one and not the other? I genuinely don’t know.

Perhaps the stakes are higher in F1. Perhaps it’s the trenchant management styles of the leading players, that one-upmanship bickering is second nature. Maybe any type of balance of performance is too much for ‘purist’ (ha!) Grand Prix people to accept – although they might have to, if the FIA and Ecclestone get their way in January. Is it all of these and more?

I bet you have a view. I’d be delighted to hear it. In the meantime, we look forward to another cracking season of sports car racing – and can only wonder what’s in store for F1.

* US copies of the February issue of Motor Sport feature an alternative cover, focusing on our celebration of the Porsche 935, in which Simon, Gary and Rob Widdows speak to key figures associated with the outlandish racers that represented the ultimate iterations of the road-going 911. It’s a bit of a feast for fans of old-school sports car racing.

I should just assure everyone, the magazine inside the covers is identical whichever side of the Atlantic you live on, but it was felt the 935 story was more pertinent to the American market. Whether that’s the case or not is something else I don’t know – and never will, given that we can never know how the 919 image would have performed in the US or how the glorious JLP-3 935 would have gone down in the rest of the world! Ah well. Such are the decisions made in publishing boardrooms.

Sometimes I wish our business was a science. Then again, every team manager in every form of motor racing has probably had the same thought.

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