The FIA World Endurance Championship is arguably one of the fastest-growing motorsport series in the world, reaching more and more new fans all over the world. For newcomers to the series, the 30+ cars and long races may seem a little overwhelming. Here at WEC-magazin.com, we hope to clarify some questions you may have if you are new to the sport so that you are perfectly equipped for your first WEC races.
As motorsport fans, most of us grew up watching single-seater racing and, more specifically, Formula 1. Over the last 20 years, the likes of Senna, Schumacher and now Vettel have had motorsport fans glued to their seats. Formula 1 is undoubtedly about outright speed; the cars are the fastest in the world and drivers are expected to race at the absolute limit for two hours.
The key to the WEC is in the name – endurance. Eight of the WEC’s nine rounds are run as timed races over six hours, except the 24 Hours of Le Mans in June. This allows genuine strategy to unfold and the teams to use all of their brain and computer power to outfox their competitors. Cars on pole or quick in the early phase of the race may not be quick in later phases of the race, not least because the six-hour time span gives more scope for changing weather conditions and temperatures. Another factor is that drivers must vacate the driving seat and hand over to one of their teammates. The key to victory is fluid race strategy.
Another major feature of the WEC’s success is its rulebook. While Formula 1 appears hampered by high tyre degradation to improve the show and extremely tight technical regulations governing engines, aerodynamics and the overall concept, the sportscar rulebook is almost wide open. As a result, the two LMP1 manufacturers offer completely different answers to the question of “How to drive a car fast for a long time”. As the saying goes, variety is the spice of life, and different cars will have different strengths and weaknesses from race to race, or even hour to hour during the races themselves. Former F1 drivers now in LMP1 seats repeatedly state that they feel more confident through the corners in LMP1 prototypes than in an F1 car.
Endurance racing has always featured a “multi-class” concept, which means that different categories of cars race on the same piece of tarmac at the same time. The WEC is no different, with a total of four classes. Essentially, these can be divided into two main types, the prototypes (LMP classes) and the GT cars (GTE classes). The prototype class is primarily aimed at automotive, engine and chassis manufacturers in search of an arena to test out their latest developments and innovations. The characteristic form of these prototype racecars can be traced back to the 1970s, when greater focus was placed on technological innovation rather than similarity to road cars in terms of appearance.
The LMP category is divided into two classes: LMP1 (in which factory teams are permitted) and LMP2 (strictly for privateers). LMP1 is the top prototype class and features factory entries from Porsche and Toyota as well as one privateer entry from ByKolles Racing Team. Teams usually run two cars throughout the season, with a three-car entry at Le Mans now widespread. LMP2 is the second prototype category, in which privately owned teams can compete with a mixture of professional and semi-professional drivers. Privateer teams can purchase one of four spec chassis from Oreca, Onroak Automotive (Ligier), Dallara and Riley/Multimatic and combine them with the spec 4.2l V8 engine from Gibson.
The second major category is known as the GT category. It is home to racing cars that look largely similar to the kind of supercars you could drive on the road. In a similar vein to the prototype category, there are also two classes for “professional” and “privateer” entries. The former, GTE Pro, features the likes of Aston Martin, Ferrari, Ford and Porsche battling it out for the championship. The cars are driven by fully professional drivers. This class is the true home of the “win of Sunday, sell on Monday”, with the technical prowess and prestige of victory the focal points for all the works teams.
The GTE Am class is the final of the four and is home to privateer teams and what are known as “gentleman drivers”. Again, amateur drivers partnering with professional racing drivers has a long tradition in endurance racing, and in the GTE Am class anyone with the necessary funding and racing licences can theoretically take part. GTE Am teams are usually only permitted to run GTE cars that are at least one year old, and so usually run the works teams’ cars from the previous season.
With GT cars usually between 15 and 30 seconds slower than the LMP1 cars at the front of the grid, the multi-class concept means that the faster prototypes are forced to almost constantly overtake. The general rule of thumb is that slower cars hold their line, while the faster cars are responsible for overtaking safely. However, the constant degree of alertness and intuition required heaps the pressure on the drivers and adds an extra edge to the race.
The FIA World Endurance Championship is the true home of motorsport innovation – as endurance racing has been practically since its infancy some 100 years ago. The sole aim in those early days was to test out brand-new technologies in the toughest conditions possible – while racing. Windscreen wipers, disc brakes and headlamps, components we take for granted nowadays, were all tested at the 24 Hours of Le Mans and other endurance races in the 20th century.
Modern endurance racing is no different. Although the prototypes may not share many visual similarities to our own cars, LMP1 class is home to the absolute cutting edge of road car technology. The likes of Toyota and Porsche see the WEC as an extension of their research and development departments, and each manufacturer has their own specific concept. Current Porsche road car technology, such as the hybrid system in its 918 Spyder, was put through its paces in the 919 Hybrid LMP1 car, while Toyota successfully markets its hybrid technology on both its racing and road-going models.
Efficiency is one of the key factors in our society at the moment, and this is also an area in which the World Endurance Championship excels. LMP1 cars are given a fuel allowance for each race, which they are not permitted to exceed. This allowance has been successively cut over the years, but the LMP1 cars have still matched – or even bettered – their performance of the previous year. The spotlight is on innovation and development, with no compromise on performance. And this filters through to the cars that you and drive on the road.
Variety isn’t simply restricted to the top prototype class, either, it permeates the entire WEC grid. From the eerie screech of hybrid-powered LMP1 cars harvesting power in the braking zone to the bone-shaking rumble of the Corvette C7.R, there’s something for everyone. Unlike most other racing series, it’s actually possible to close your eyes in the grandstands and pick out each individual car that races past you by engine tone alone.
GTE is also home to a number of different OEMs (original equipment manufacturers). Although the cars have practically no chance of winning races outright, overall class victories do bring a certain amount of prestige to a brand, which OEMs integrate into their marketing. Aston Martin, Ferrari and Porsche all run specially designed versions of their most popular road cars, delivering in excess of 600 horsepower.
Endurance racing, and the World Endurance Championship in particular, is a unique form of motorsport, in which a group of drivers form a team to race a single car. In the WEC’s six-hour races, cars are usually split between three drivers, or sometimes two drivers, who proceed to complete so-called “stints”. A stint is the time the car spends on the racetrack between pit stops, and in most cases lasts for as long as it takes for the car to use a full tank of fuel. Stint lengths vary from class to class, but are usually between 45 minutes and 1 hour.
Stint lengths and driver changes add yet another strategic element to WEC races, as teams do not necessarily have to change drivers and tyres at each pit stop. Indeed, at the 24 Hours of Le Mans it is customary for the top drivers to complete four or even five stints in succession, which equates to some 3 hours in the car.
All drivers are graded from Platinum to Bronze depending on a variety of factors such as experience, age and achievements. In the LMP2 and GTE Am classes, in which gentleman drivers are combined with professional drivers on the same team, this ensures that a level playing field is created across the board and teams cannot simply put together an all-professional driver Team.
In their quest to win the world titles on offer in each of the classes, teams look to take on the world’s top driving talent. Factory LMP1 teams employ a whole series of former F1 drivers, including Anthony Davidson and Sébastien Buemi, while other household names in the motorsport world such as Bruno Senna and Pedro Lamy can be found further down the grid in the LMP2 and GTE classes.
Sportscar and endurance racing has always been somewhat of a fall-back for Formula 1 drivers, who were perhaps not given the opportunities they deserved. 2013 WEC World Champions and multiple Le Mans winners Tom Kristensen and Allan McNish are testament to that. However, the lack of opportunities in the current Formula 1 paddock, or rather the funding required to race at the pinnacle of motorsport, means that a great deal of young, talented drivers are making the step over to endurance racing. There is a genuine staircase of talent in place: Starting in LMP2, drivers can gather experience in prototypes before moving on to LMP1 racing if they are good enough. Current factory LMP1 drivers Brendon Hartley and Mike Conway all attracted the attention of the works teams through their performances in LMP2, while the likes of Alex Lynn, Will Stevens and Antonio Giovinazzi are attempting to the follow suit at the moment.
In contrast to other forms of motorsport, the WEC is a series in which consistent and focussed drivers are richly rewarded. The spotlight isn’t always on outright speed – although it certainly can be at times – rather on maintaining an optimum average over the course of several hours. Drivers who can find a balance between tyre wear, fuel consumption and speed will really excel.
The 2017 season kicks off in Silverstone in April, before the teams make the short hop over to Belgium to the formidable Spa-Francorchamps circuit. Spa is traditionally seen as a warm-up for the Le Mans 24 Hours, with factory teams Toyota and Porsche choosing to run additional cars.
Following the six-hour blast through the Ardennes, teams will make their way to the Pays de la Loire region in Western France in preparation for the Le Mans 24 Hours, round three, on 17th June. To enable teams to gather precious data on the temporary Le Mans track, a special Test Day is set to be held on 4th June, consisting of two four-hour sessions. This test session also gives rookie drivers a chance to complete the mandatory ten laps around the Circuit de la Sarthe before they are able to race.
At 3:00pm on Saturday 13th June, the French tricolore will drop on a 56-car field for the gruelling race of speed and endurance. Round three of the WEC will also mark the competitive debuts of a number of 2015 teams, including the Rebellion R-One LMP1s and the works Nissan GT-R LM NISMO team.
The WEC then takes something of a summer break, before the teams and drivers descend on the famous Nürburgring circuit in Germany for a six-hour race around the GP circuit. The Six Hours of the Nürburgring marks the season’s final European race, before the cars are jetted around the world to the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez in Mexico City, the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, Fuji in Japan, Shanghai and finally Bahrain.
Last season treated fans to race after race of breathtaking wheel-to-wheel battles both at the front of the field and further down the order. Expect this to continue throughout this season, too. Many teams’ focus in the run-up to Le Mans is firmly on the big 24-hour race, which may see teams deploy nefarious tactics to conceal the true pace of their machinery. Teams, especially in LMP1, are known to experiment with low-drag Le Mans set-ups at Silverstone and Spa, despite the tracks not being entirely suited to such components.
It’s the dawn of a new era in LMP2, with the previously open formula now limited to just four chassis manufacturers (Dallara, Onroak (Ligier), Oreca and Riley/Multimatic) and one engine supplier (Gibson). It remains to be seen who will make the best of our the formula’s potential, but with a major step-up in speed promised by the 4.2l V8 Gibson engine, we could be seeing some of the fastest LMP2 cars to grace the FIA WEC stage.
Elsewhere down the field the GTE battle will continue in earnest in 2017, with Ferrari and Ford set to reprise their now-infamous 2016 battle at Le Mans with Aston Martin Racing waiting in the wings. Porsche are also back with a works team, too, after their sabbatical last year. 2018 sees the arrival of BMW to the already mouthwatering battle in GTE Pro, so things will only get better!