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. With this FIA WEC Beginner’s Guide 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.
Compared to Formula 1, the WEC is a different world. Besides playing host to cars with four wheels and a steering wheel, the two world championships have little in common. Grids in the WEC often exceed thirty cars in four separate categories, rising to sixty for Le Mans, with works entries from the likes of Toyota in LMP1 and Aston Martin, BMW, Ferrari, Ford and Porsche in LMGTE Pro and privately entered teams across all four classes.
The key to the WEC is in the name – endurance. Six of the WEC’s eight rounds in this year’s 2018/19 Super Season are run as timed races over six hours. 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. In the top prototype category, works teams must combine their combustion engines with a hybrid system, while privateers rely solely on normally aspirated engines to keep costs down.
This level of freedom allows a wide performance window, from smaller engines putting out 460 hp to experimental hybrid power units generating in excess of 1,000 hp. Manufacturers are free to try out their latest innovations, almost always with a focus on their road-going models. Racing has long since been considered the ultimate test environment, with components taken to their absolute limits before trickling down into the kind of cars seen on the road. Road-relevance has become one of the key tenets of the FIA WEC concept, particularly in the top-level LMP1 category, and is a permanent fixture of the rulebook.
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 cars from Japanese manufacturer Toyota as well as a whole host of privateer entries. 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 4.2-litre 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, BMW, 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” vision, 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 GTE cars usually anything between 15 and 45 seconds slower per lap 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, the LMP1 class is home to the absolute cutting edge of road-car technology. The likes of Audi, Peugeot, Porsche and Nissan in the past, and Toyota in the present, 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 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 Toyota TS050 Hybrid harvesting power in the braking zone to the visceral scream of the Porsche 911 RSR, 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) as well as private teams. Although the cars have practically no chance of winning races outright, overall class victories do bring a large amount of prestige to a brand, which OEMs integrate into their marketing activities. Aston Martin, BMW, Ferrari, Ford 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 aims to create a level playing field across the board and prevents teams from simply putting 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. This season sees the addition to two major names in the WEC paddock, with three Formula 1 World Drivers’ Championships between them: Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button, who will be racing for Toyota and SMP Racing respectively in LMP1. Elsewhere on the grid there may also be one or two familiar names for fans of other series.
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 Toyota driver Mike Conway and Ford works driver Harry Tincknell, for instance, attracted the attention of the works teams through their performances in LMP2.
In contrast to other forms of motorsport, the WEC is a series in which consistent and focused 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.