WEC vs F1

by Andrew Frankel on 13th April 2015

What did you think of the race on Sunday? If you found it anything other than utterly spellbinding from flag to flag, it is possible you and I were tuned into different channels.

Actually I watched both the Chinese Grand Prix and the opening round of the World Endurance Championship at Silverstone and whether you tune in because you like to see close racing or variety in the sound, shape and technology of the competitors, the sports cars beat the open wheelers hollow.

History tells us endurance racing is a poor spectator sport because the cars have to be managed rather than thrashed to the finish, after a while it’s hard to tell who’s on which lap and that one team, be it Ford, Ferrari, Porsche or Audi, will be dominant and drone round to an unchallenged victory. And sometimes that’s the problem with history: it necessarily resides in the past.

Some 201 laps were completed at Silverstone yesterday, and for 199 of them you’d have needed to be Nostradamus to predict the winner with any accuracy. Only when the Audi of Marcel Fässler emerged from a late stop/go penalty two laps from the end still clinging to his slender lead was it clear which way this race was going to go.

Even so, at the flag there were fewer than 5sec between the Audi and the second placed Porsche, with the lead Toyota less than 10sec further back, and without a single safety car period to artificially bunch up the pack.

That in itself would be grounds enough to suspect the WEC has its house in rather better order than F1 right now, but in fact it was only the start. Some of this has been said before, but it bears repeating: In F1 there is a rule book that is so proscriptive one frustrated engineer told me he’d left for the endurance racing world because “over 90 per cent of the car designs itself.” In the WEC there are cars with four, six and eight cylinders, normal aspiration and forced induction, diesel and petrol power and hybrid systems powered by flywheel, batteries and super capacitors.

And that’s just the difference between the Audis, Porsches and Toyotas. Now add in the other categories, not just the LMP2 cars but the GTE classes too, where thundering Astons, howling Porsches and shrieking Ferraris seem also to have arrived at remarkably similar levels of competitiveness. And yes, it is wonderful to see cars you actually recognise going around.

It’s not as if F1 cars are that much faster than LMP1 cars anymore either. Mark Webber and Brendon Hartley’s 1min 39.7sec pole time would have put them mid-grid for last year’s British Grand Prix held on exactly the same track configuration – yet these are cars designed to last over 24 hours rather than fewer than two. But of course, because they are out there with the GTE cars there is an entire other dimension for the drivers to wrestle with and the fans to enjoy.

Watching the LMP1 cars being flung through the Becketts complex in the closest competition while also dodging around the GTE cars showed driving skill of a kind you rarely if ever see in F1. The F1 drivers have it of course, but just don’t have the environment in which to show it. The track is also far busier, with almost half as many cars again starting in Silverstone as in China.

But there’s one more thing, less easy to define, but to me perhaps the most compelling reason to feel good about sports car racing relative to F1 at the moment: people seem to be enjoying themselves. If you saw it you might never forget the fight between Neel Jani’s Porsche 919 and Marcel Fässler’s Audi R18 as lap after lap the Audi’s superior grip allowed Fässler to overtake Jani going into corners only for the apparently nuclear-powered Porsche to retake the lead on the straight.

Yet, in the pits, what was Audi Motorsport boss Dr Wolfgang Ulrich doing? Was he hunched, scowling over his screen, monitoring and controlling the situation second by second? He was not. He was watching the telly, gasping and giggling with the rest of us as two world class drivers put on a show that for its quality and duration beats anything I have seen in F1 in both the recent and not so recent past.

So the opening round of the World Endurance Championship at Silverstone pretty much ruined Sunday. The grass went uncut, the dogs went unwalked. My children were shooed away and my only sadness lay in my decision that because I am away for the next three weekends on the trot, not to go to Silverstone and be there myself.

And all this without the joker in the pack that is Nissan with its brave, weird, front drive, 1000bhp contender that was meant to be at Silverstone but will now make its debut at Le Mans in June.

I know none of this will give endurance racing the profile it deserves. But it is on Motors TV and if Sunday’s race is any guide at all, the WEC seems likely to be the best thing on four wheels on television all year.

 

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