Why Porsche could pull the plug on LMP1

Le Mans News

Rumours continue surrounding Porsche’s LMP1 commitment – Gary Watkins looks at why

Is it mission accomplished for Porsche? Has it reminded everyone that it is the manufacturer when it comes to the 24 Hours of Le Mans? Can it depart the pinnacle of sports car racing safe in the knowledge that when the man in the street thinks of the French enduro, his mind conjures up an image of a 919 Hybrid, a 962C, a 917K or whatever?

These are all questions that will no doubt be asked when the great and the good within Porsche convene some time before the end of the month. They will be meeting to decide the German car maker’s future in the LMP1 division of the World Endurance Championship against a backdrop of rumour and speculation that it is getting ready to quit. And quit sooner rather than later.

A change in the rhetoric from Porsche doesn’t bode well for those who want to see the marque in what many believe is its rightful place: the front of the field at Le Mans. When the rumours first started ahead of last month’s 24 Hours, senior management within the race team was quick to reaffirm its existing programme. Last weekend at the Nürburgring WEC round it revealed that its P1 future would be decided before the end of July. That smacks of the ground being laid for an early departure.

Porsche is clearly giving its participation in LMP1 some serious thought right now, and those thoughts include quitting before the end of an existing commitment that would take it up to the end of 2018. (An extra two seasons were added to its initial three-year race programme in the summer of 2015.) It could be gone at the end of the year, after just four years back in top-flight sports car racing. 

But does Porsche need to be in the WEC beyond the end of the current season? Probably not, because the answer to all of the questions asked above is a big fat yes. 

Porsche, absent from the front of the Le Mans grid for 15 years until the 919 Hybrid began racing in 2014, has surely achieved most, if not all, of the goals of the project. Three Le Mans wins and two pairs of drivers’ and manufacturers’ titles so far have underlined both its technical prowess and reaffirmed its sportscar racing heritage. 

That Le Mans hat-trick, completed in bizarre circumstances last month, has taken its tally of wins in the French enduro to 19. It is reasonable to assume that no manufacturer is likely to surpass that figure even if Porsche stays away for another 15 years. 

Porsche came back with a message. It wanted to shout about energy-retrieval, hybrids, batteries and the like. Perhaps it needs a new message, in the manner of Audi’s constant reinvention of its long-running prototype programme. Once it had got its feet under the table, it brought direct-injection technology to the race track, then the turbodiesel and finally hybrid technology. 

The need for a new technological calling card for the manufacturers is behind the big change in the P1 rulebook for 2020 – the introduction of zero-emissions running. Factory entries competing in the top class of the WEC will be required to complete the first kilometre after every pitstop in all-electric mode. That will go hand in hand with the rapid plug-in charging in the pits. So that’s two road-relevant technologies on which they can hang their hats.

Porsche was around the table, along with Toyota, when those rules were being formulated. So it is clearly of interest, but is it enough in an era when the technology manufacturers utilise in their racing programmes needs to reflect what’s going on in their road car ranges? Porsche, don’t forget, will launch the first of a range of electric vehicles based on its Mission E concept before the end of the decade.

Formula E appears to be of interest to Porsche, just as it is to many other manufacturers right now. The German marque has had personnel at multiple races this year, but its interest in the FIA’s electric-vehicle series dates back much further. Its technical people were asking questions about the series as long ago as 2015, or about the time it unveiled the Mission E.

Then there’s the question of Formula 1, a championship that is less about trumpeting technology than reaping the rewards of a massive TV audience. Porsche is taking a seat around the table for the discussions about a the post-2020 engine rules, so could it be the chosen brand for an F1 entry by the VW Group at some point in the future?

F1 was on agenda when Porsche made the decision in 2011 to return to what then research and development boss Wolfgang Hatz described as “big motor sport”. The architect of Porsche’s Le Mans return said at the time that there were only two options – F1 and LMP1. 

Any decision to leave LMP1 by Porsche will be made easier by the fact that it wouldn’t disappear from endurance racing. All through the years of the interregnum from 1999 to 2013 – I call it that because Porsche is undoubtedly the king of sports car racing – the German manufacturer was present at Le Mans and beyond with various racing versions of the 911.

That will continue to be the case whatever the boardroom decision about P1 this month. Porsche will race on in the GTE class of the WEC with its new rear-engined 911 RSR, and that’s not to forget the 911 GT3-R, examples of which are to be found racing somewhere in the world on probably half the weekends of the year. 

Porsche even added to its tally of overall victories in two of the world’s most important sports car enduros during the interregnum with its staple GT racer. A 911 GT3-RS pulled off a shock result at the 2003 Daytona 24 Hours when the smattering of then-new Daytona Prototypes wilted. And there was the slightly less shocking victory at the Spa 24 Hours the same season when another GT2 class 911 beat the GT1 cars on a wet Ardennes weekend. 

Racing the 911 is the bedrock of Porsche’s motor sport activity, one that doesn’t cost it a fortune given the number of 911 GT3 Cup cars it sells for the Supercup and all its one-make series around the world. But when it comes to high-end, big-figure motor sport, I’m not sure it needs to hang around year after year competing for outright victory at Le Mans. 

The days when Porsche would drag cars out of the museum (I’m thinking of the 936) or raid its parts bin to come up with a new GT car (that’s the 911 GT1) to bid for Le Mans glory are long gone. The company is a very different one today, and motor sport is equally different. 

So where does that leave Porsche and its P1 programme? I don’t know what is in the minds of the members of the Porsche board who will make the decision, but should they decide to go they can close the door without a heavy heart. It will be job done for the 919 Hybrid on all fronts.

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