2017 Season Preview: LMP1

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2017 marks some­what of a step into the unknown for the FIA World Endurance Cham­pi­onship, and par­tic­u­lar­ly the LMP1 class. The loss of Audi, a gen­uine stal­wart of the pro­to­type scene, after almost 20 years in the top-class pro­to­type cat­e­go­ry seemed to have caught the ACO and FIA off guard, even though the writ­ing had arguably been on the wall since the VW diesel­gate scan­dal hit the head­lines in late 2015.

The Audi-shaped void has not been filled as of yet, although there are rum­blings that Peu­geot and per­haps even oth­er man­u­fac­tur­ers are tak­ing a close look at their bal­ance sheets to see if there’s any space for a LMP1 pro­gramme. With the rules set in stone until 2020, the next three sea­sons of the FIA WEC could be a key indi­ca­tor of its future.

We are left with two fac­to­ry efforts, from reign­ing World Man­u­fac­tur­ers’ Cham­pi­ons Porsche and 2014 title-win­ners Toy­ota. In terms of pri­va­teer involve­ment, peren­ni­al pri­va­teer cham­pi­ons Rebel­lion Rac­ing have switched down to LMP2 for 2017, leav­ing ByKolles Rac­ing Team as the only pri­vate­ly entered car to take on the works entries. The lack of engage­ment in LMP1 pri­va­teer has real­ly come to bear for the 2017 sea­son, but hope is on the hori­zon for 2018 with pri­va­teer LMP1 chas­sis on the way SMP Rac­ing and Ginet­ta.

Porsche go head to head against Toy­ota in 2017, with ByKolles Rac­ing the sole pri­va­teer entry. Reg­u­la­tion changes see the num­ber of tyres avail­able to each team for each race week­end, which will force dri­vers to dou­ble-stint more often than not. This may play into the hands of Toy­ota, whose TS030, TS040 and TS050 have always been com­par­a­tive­ly light on tyre wear.

Porsche Team

Porsche 919 Hybrid
2-litre V4 tur­bocharged petrol engine with lithi­um-ion bat­tery hybrid sys­tem

#1 – Neel Jani, André Lot­ter­er, Nick Tandy
#2 – Bren­don Hart­ley, Timo Bern­hard, Earl Bam­ber

Porsche Team return to the FIA WEC in 2017 with a ful­ly revised 919 Hybrid and a com­plete­ly new dri­ver line-up and are on the look­out for their third man­u­fac­tur­ers’ world title in suc­ces­sion. The new 919 Hybrid has two sep­a­rate hybrid sys­tems, recov­er­ing ener­gy from the brak­ing process and from exhaust gas­es. Bud­get cuts fol­low­ing diesel­gate mean that Porsche will once again only enter two cars at Le Mans.

It’s all change in the Porsche dri­ver line-up after the depar­ture of reign­ing World Endurance Dri­vers’ Cham­pi­ons Marc Lieb and Romain Dumas and the retire­ment of Aussie Mark Web­ber. Audi refugee André Lot­ter­er joins Neel Jani in the #1 machine along­side 2015 Le Mans win­ner Nick Tandy, while Timo Bern­hard and Bren­don Hart­ley reprise their suc­cess­ful part­ner­ship in the #2 car and are joined by anoth­er 2015 Le Mans win­ner, Earl Bam­ber. In fact, Hart­ley is the only dri­ver not to win Le Mans in Porsche’s 2017 dri­ver line-up.

What can Porsche deliv­er in 2017? It will be hard to top 2016, with a clean sweep of man­u­fac­tur­ers’ and dri­vers’ cham­pi­onships as well as the Ger­man marque’s 18th Le Mans vic­to­ry. The dri­ver line-up offers out­stand­ing expe­ri­ence and con­sis­ten­cy, and may just give the team the edge on Toy­ota if the cars offer equal per­for­mance.

ByKolles Racing

Nis­san 3.0-litre V6 twin tur­bo

#4 – Oliv­er Webb, James Rossiter, Dominik Krai­hamer

2016 was a tough year for ByKolles Rac­ing after a promis­ing sec­ond half to the 2015 sea­son. Repeat­ed issues with the car’s engine, the 2.4-litre V6 AER it shared with fel­low LMP1 com­peti­tors Rebel­lion Rac­ing, saw reli­a­bil­i­ty become a stick­ing point, often tak­ing the CLM P1/01 out of con­tention or out of the race alto­geth­er.

For 2017 the team has switched to the Nis­san V6 engine for­mer­ly installed in the front of the ill-fat­ed NISMO GTR-LM, which should give the team a con­sid­er­able boost in pow­er. How­ev­er, with LMP2s set to improve marked­ly year on year, ByKolles may find itself bat­tling more with the Ore­cas than it does with the fac­to­ry P1s. Rebellion’s depar­ture to LMP2 mean that ByKolles are the sole pri­va­teer entry in the LMP1 cat­e­go­ry. Still, with only four fac­to­ry cars for the major­i­ty of the sea­son, there is cer­tain­ly poten­tial for over­all podi­ums should any issues befall the Porsches and Toy­otas.

The car only man­aged six laps at the recent Pro­logue in Mon­za, so any hopes of bet­ter reli­a­bil­i­ty may be in vain. For­mer F1 star Robert Kubi­ca had been set to join Oliv­er Webb for the 2017 sea­son, but the Pole pulled out of his full-sea­son dri­ve at the last minute. For­mer Rebel­lion Rac­ing dri­ver Dominik Krai­hamer takes his place along­side James Rossiter.

Toyota Gazoo Racing

Toy­ota TS050
2.4-litre V6 petrol engine with lithi­um-ion bat­tery hybrid sys­tem

#7 – Mike Con­way, Kamui Kobayashi, José María López
#8 – Sébastien Bue­mi, Antho­ny David­son, Kazu­ki Naka­ji­ma
#9 – Stéphane Sar­razin, Nico­las Lapierre, Yuji Kuni­mo­to (Spa and Le Mans only)

The Toy­ota TS050 is also a sto­ry of evo­lu­tion rather than evo­lu­tion, with the Cologne-based team refin­ing and opti­mis­ing all of the exist­ing model’s com­po­nents in prepa­ra­tion for the 2017 sea­son. The big news at Toy­ota is the addi­tion of a third car for rounds two and three at Spa-Fran­cor­champs and Le Mans. Evi­dent­ly the heart­break of last year’s last-lap stop­page at the Cir­cuit de la Sarthe has loos­ened the purse-strings some­what.

Three-time FIA World Tour­ing Car Cham­pi­on José María Lopez joins the #7 crew, replac­ing Stéphane Sar­razin, who will anchor the team’s third car at Spa and Le Mans. Nico­las Lapierre makes a return to the Toy­ota works team after a rather uncer­e­mo­ni­ous exit in 2014; his two years in LMP2 yield­ed two Le Mans vic­to­ries for KCMG and Sig­nat­e­ch-Alpine as well as a LMP2 teams and dri­vers title for the lat­ter last year.

Bue­mi, David­son and Naka­ji­ma offer one of the strongest dri­ver line-ups, on paper at least, in the field, but were trumped last year by an excel­lent show­ing by LMP2 grad­u­ate Mike Con­way, Kamui Kobayashi and Sar­razin, who end­ed up fin­ish­ing third in the title. Le Mans is the tar­get more than ever for 2017, and with Toy­ota now two years into their TS050 pro­gramme, the Porsche 919 Hybrid some­what aged in com­par­i­son and Audi gone, they may nev­er have a bet­ter chance.

Images © WEC-Mag­a­zin / Wal­ter Schruff
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