Porsche close to a decision on F1 entry and on track for Le Mans in 2023


F1's cost cap and new engine regulations are tempting Porsche to join the grand prix paddock, says new Motorsport boss, Thomas Laudenbach



Porsche “can’t wait too long” to make a decision on its proposed Formula 1 entry – but it isn’t there yet; the company remains fully committed to Formula E and its forthcoming Gen 3 era – but only to season 10 in 2024; and the return to the Le Mans 24 Hours is on track for the year after next, even if the marque with the most wins cannot be certain that Balance of Performance will succeed in managing the competitive expectations of the long roster of rivals lining up to enter the endurance racing arena.

Those were the main take-away messages from the new boss of Porsche Motorsport, in his first session facing the media since assuming his new role in September.

Thomas Laudenbach, 53, has replaced 65-year-old Fritz Enzinger as the head of Porsche Motorsport, having spent more than 15 years at the sports car maker in a variety of roles. He also has extensive hands-on motor sport experience from his spell managing Audi’s hybrid electric powertrain department at the end of the LMP1 era.

Naturally, he’s stepping up to one of the biggest jobs in world motor sport and in Enzinger, he succeeds a man who oversaw a period of significant success at Porsche, which included a hat-trick of Le Mans wins with the 919 hybrid.


Thomas Laudenbach faces big decisions over F1 and Formula E


Now Laudenbach will lead Porsche Motorsport through what promises to be the most challenging era car manufacturers have ever faced. The Le Mans return is gearing up for 2023 with a new LMDh contender to be run by Penske, and while Porsche is sticking with Formula E when VW Group sibling Audi, plus fellow German giants BMW and Mercedes-Benz have chosen not to, fevered speculation continues that an F1 campaign is brewing as new powertrain regulations are finalised for 2026. The new boss is already spinning plates.


Formula 1: electrification is key

First, those F1 rumours. Will Porsche enter F1 in the near future?

“I can’t answer this question,” Laudenbach says with an easy smile. “It’s not a secret we are thinking about it and are talking to the FIA. We are seriously considering it but there is no decision yet. If we will be there or not I don’t know. I can’t say when we will have a decision, but we can’t wait too long if we want to race in 2025 or 2026.”


Porsche’s TAG engine powered McLaren to 25 victories and three drivers’ titles between 1983 to 1987


The decision, from higher up the food chain at the top of the VW Group parent company, swings on the final specification of the new F1 powertrain due mid-decade. “The most important thing is, if you look into the future and what car manufacturers are announcing in terms of the share of electric vehicles they are going to sell it is very important that F1 does [make] a shift towards electrification,” he says. “Yes, it is clear you cannot go forward with a battery-electric vehicle, we all know that. But there needs to be a much higher priority on the electric part of the powertrain. That is important because as an OEM if you want to show yourself in motor sport it has to be relevant to what you have on the road.

“From what I know now, the FIA has made a huge step towards that direction.”

Remarkable hybrid engines that already top 50% on efficiency, the new budget cap that is already in operation and an audience that far exceeds that of any other motor sport series begs the question why Porsche wouldn’t commit to a tilt at the pinnacle.

“A lot of things are going in the right direction concerning F1,” concedes Laudenbach “In order to control costs we would like to see more standard parts in the engine to increase the freedom of the electric part. There is a cost cap at work, so all of these factors make it far more interesting for us than in the past.”


Le Mans: Manufacturers must “play with an open book”

The schedule is “tight” for the new LMDh endurance racing contender, but nevertheless it is still on course for a first roll-out before Christmas, according to Laudenbach – who admits he misses the old high-tech LMP1 era, but is excited by the possibilities Hypercar offers.

“The technical freedom and technological development was totally different in LMP1,” he says. “Talking as an engineer I’d love to go back to LMP1, but on the other side we all know the budgets were extremely high and it was extremely hard to argue for within the company. In the end we can’t have everything, so the route now is less technical freedom but the cars will be much closer together. We’d like more technical freedom, but with the cost control I don’t think that’s possible. The thing that is important for us there are still possibilities to find advantages but there is a shift from technology to how the car is engineered at the race track. That’s the challenge now.”


Porsche faces more restrictions with its LMDh car than in the 919 LMP1 era


That lower-spec philosophy is why customer teams buying cars from the likes of Porsche should now be able to compete with the factories – just like in Group C during the 1980s – and that excites Laudenbach. “We all know to give a 919, a Toyota or Audi to a customer team, there was no way,” he says. “It was not affordable and there was no chance they could handle it. This is a great chance for top customers… to have a real chance to be somewhere in front. As an OEM you just have to struggle a little bit and they will be there.”

But LMDh and the parallel, more advanced and expensive LMH Hypercars rulebook that the likes of Ferrari and Peugeot have committed to puts the onus on Balance of Performance to create an artificial level playing field. “It’s the most crucial point,” says Laudenbach, just days after a row broke out at the Bahrain 6 Hours when Ferrari’s AF Corse team was landed with a new and significant BoP penalty that made its 488 Evo uncompetitive against the 911 RSRs in the GTE Pro class. Laudenbach acknowledges it’s a tough subject. “The tools the ACO and FIA have in place are very good and it is possible to balance. The big problem is does everyone play the game? That is a critical point. We can already see how difficult it is with two or three manufacturers, it won’t be easy with six, eight or nine.

“I have to say it sometimes makes me think about Balance of Performance in the top class. I can’t answer the question will it work or not? We have to see. The key is all the manufacturers play with an open book, that is the most important thing. What makes me hopeful is the Equivalence of Technology we had in LMP1. Many of us thought it would never work and it did. What we won’t see is one brand winning two, three or four years in a row. But all together we have to prove Balance of Performance in the top class is working.”


Will Balance of Performance rules allow LMDh cars to fight fairly with Hypercars?


The key will be managing the four-wheel-drive capabilities of the LMH runners against the two-wheel-drive LMDh contenders. “If you asked me did we have concerns, yes of course,” says Laudenbach. “Balancing two-wheel drive and four-wheel drive is not easy. But if you ask if we had enough concerns not to take part, obviously not. In all the talks we had with the FIA we found a good solution. If you control the minimum speed of where the four-wheel drive is allowed to be activated – I’m talking about acceleration out of the corner –you can really control it. It is not the best way to use a four-wheel-drive car because you want the boost as soon as you go on throttle, but it’s the best way to go that the second axle can only put power into the wheels above a certain speed.”

He’s clear on why Porsche and Audi chose LMDh over LMH. “First, LMH costs a lot more money. Secondly, we wanted to make sure we could race the same car specification in WEC and in the US.”

As for drivers, he says the factory line-up is a work in progress. But as usual with Porsche, expect a mix of in-house known quantities, fresh new talent – such as Chinese rising star Yifei Ye who has just signed a Porsche Asia deal – and “somebody from outside”. In other words, a superstar with an F1 background.


Formula E: on borrowed time?

There’s a growing sense that Porsche’s Formula E commitment might be spiked if – when? – the manufacturer commits to F1. The ‘no further than season 10’ commitment, which will end in 2024, supports that theory.


Porsche still searching for a win in Formula E


Porsche hasn’t exactly taken the electric single-seater series by storm in its two seasons so far – and surprisingly has yet to win a race. But Laudenbach is quick to dismiss suggestions that motor sport director Pascal Zurlinden’s departure last week had anything to do with the lack of big results.

“The success is not as good as we expected or wanted to have, that’s a fact,” he says. “But it had nothing to do with Pascal Zurlinden heading for a new challenge. Nevertheless if you are not as successful as you want to be we are looking at what we can improve, from a structural point of view. It’s too early to say too much, but we will have some changes. It won’t be totally different – let’s say some minor changes.”

From the archive

He also admitted the withdrawals of BMW and VW sibling Audi, plus the impending pull-out of Mercedes-Benz, did lead to hard questions on Formula E within Porsche. “The fact that three premium manufacturers have or will step out for sure makes us think, no question,” he says. “Yes, there are some weak points and we discussed that with the Formula E organisation. To mention one thing the qualifying format… from the outside it looks random. We need heroes and it’s difficult to understand when one driver is in front one weekend and then he’s in the qualifying group at the beginning next time, so he’s got no chance. The punishment if somebody is good is too hard.

“But there are some points we would like to see optimised, then we think the value of Formula E will go up. Generally speaking it is the only championship with battery electric vehicles at a certain level worldwide. I think we need such a championship. We probably need one or two more. We are committed until season 10 and we’ll see how it develops. We are happy to give our input to Formula E to develop the format and we still think it is important to push electrified racing.”

Opening up battery development, which is set to remain frozen in Gen 3 in the interests of controlling costs, remains a point of debate. “We have already had some talks and in the future we would like to see in a controlled way that the battery is open to development for the manufacturer,” says the new boss. “Leaving it free is not the way to go because if someone spends a fortune it could kill the small teams. We would open up the batteries, perhaps with a standard cell, but everything else is free. We would like to see that in a controlled way freedom for development is opened up, but I’m not blaming Formula E. It is a tricky thing to do and it’s easy to make mistakes. I think it will come.”

But the shadow over this programme lingers and Laudenbach admits: “If we have a decision on F1, which is completely open right now, it will have an influence on other programmes.”

In the meantime, he’ll just have to continue spinning those plates.