2017 Season Preview: LMP1

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 (c) WEC-Magazin / Walter Schruff
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