The start of the 2017 WEC season will see a complete overhaul of the LMP2 category. With regulations largely left untouched over the past few years, the ACO last year decided to introduce a new revision to the second-level prototype class. Slowly but surely, details are seeping out on the direction the LMP2 class will take moving forward. Already many people are asking themselves: Will this be a step forward for the LMP2 class?
With the rebirth of the World Endurance Championship in 2012, there was a clear definition of how the class system would function. The LMP1 category was supposed to be the hunting grounds of the works prototype teams, with a number of privateers also fighting it out for overall honours. LMP2 was the ACO and FIA’s solution to creating a class for privateer teams looking to run gentlemen drivers and young talent attempting to climb the professional ladder. It would be a cost-capped, strictly regulated class, functioning as an entry-level category for budding prototype teams.
Now that the first three years of the WEC are in the book, it’s was evidently time for the powers-that-be to take a closer look at the two prototype classes. The Endurance Committee, comprising members of both the ACO and the FIA, concluded that the current development seen with regard to privateers was not progressing as originally planned. To launch a prompt response to these concerns, the two governing bodies are looking to publish a brand-new rulebook for the LMP2 class. This includes a single engine supplier for all vehicles and a restriction on chassis manufacturers to four.
The 2015 World Endurance Season alone will see three different engine marques compete: Honda, Judd and Nissan, and a total of five different chassis manufacturers in the shape of Alpine, Dome, Ligier, Morgan and Oreca. Next season this number could rise to six with the introduction of the new BR01 from SMP Racing, which is limited to running in the European Le Mans Series in 2014, while the brand-new Honda coupé has seen its debut delayed indefinitely due to concerns about competitiveness. The “junior” prototype class has transformed into a hard-fought development category. More and more teams are showing an interest in LMP2 racing and an increasing number of experienced drivers, who would perhaps be more qualified for LMP1 racing if the demand was there, are finding seats. Whereas the LMP1 class is bereft of privateer entries, with just two team entries last season and this, LMP2 is operating practically at full capacity.
But is the change in regulations in the LMP2 category the right solution to the problem? The painful truth is no. The reason why LMP2 is enjoying such popularity, arguably at the expense of LMP1 privateer racing, is quite simply the cost cap. When the rules were launched, the cap was set at €370,000 for an open coupé and €450,000 for a closed coupé. In addition, there are fixed cost thresholds for each individual part that may not be exceeded. This attractive system means that a privateer team can launch a season-long WEC effort at a reasonable cost and, more importantly, with absolute cost security.
A similar model was originally planned in LMP1, too. The first season of the WEC saw Rebellion Racing, Strakka, JRM, Oak Racing and Pescarolo express interest in the class. But soon these privately run teams found that the costs were not within the realms of the financially viable, despite similar thresholds. While JRM and Pescarolo threw in the towel immediately, Oak Racing and Strakka switched to LMP2, where the cost burden was significantly lower. The LMP1-L sub-category, introduced in 2014, was an attempt to stop the slide in entry numbers, but this soon proved to be an insufficient solution.
Now LMP2 is set to become a kind of GP2 on steroids from 2017. In a similar manner to the single-seater junior series, a single engine supplier will be stipulated and the choice of chassis strongly limited. This change may appear sensible from the perspective of encouraging the next generation of talent into the LMP2 ranks, as the cars are more balance and, in theory, it will be easier to gain a foothold in the class, but the consequences could be fatal for LMP2 as we know it. The one key factor missing from the governing bodies’ latest plans is a viable shake-up of the LMP1 privateer regulation. The cost cap on LMP2 cars fostered the variety of chassis and engines that we can now see on the LMP2 grid, but without a logical transition for the current LMP2 teams to a potential LMP1 privateer entry, the ACO and FIA risk seeing interest in LMP2 disappear as it did in LMP1 privateering racing.
Perhaps the ACO and the FIA don’t want to endanger the new-found popularity of the LMP1 grid and want to cut LMP2 down a peg or two, but the lack of a stable LMP2 category may see the series lose considerable numbers of entries and ultimately its unique character. Part of the new regulations have yet to be finalised, and so there is hope that the situation may be resolved. One potential solution could be adapting current LMP2 rules to LMP1 privateer entries, which would ensure that teams would remain in the series but simply in the top prototype class. At the same time, a platform could be created for young drivers and the next generation of sports car talent. Without a logical transition from the current LMP2 class to LMP1, this may not just signal the death of the secondary prototype class, it could also be a major step in the wrong direction for the entire WEC.