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Will Porsche’s Mid-Engined Gamble Pay Off?

Walliser, Estre and Christensen weigh in on GTE Pro challenge

“It was a tough decision to turn the engine around and put it ahead of the rear axle. I didn’t exactly get a standing ovation from the Porsche board when I suggested it!” So says Frank-Steffen Walliser (below), vice-president of motorsport and GT cars at Porsche, of the decision to break with 53 years of company tradition and alter the position of the engine in the new-for-2017 911 RSR GTE car.

With Ford and Ferrari’s latest creations moving the game on, and the threat from Aston and Corvette ever-present, no stone was left unturned in the search for competitive pace. “It would be easier to list what we haven’t changed,” Walliser says, “which is the Porsche badge and the doorhandles. Thanks to the regulatory freedom we have, it’s a completely new racecar. Moving the engine has freed up space for the diffuser, giving us a big boost in downforce. It looks good on the track and we’ve got feedback on the noise it makes, too.”

After Wednesday and Thursday’s qualifying sessions, it’s looking next to impossible to pick a winner in GTE Pro, with just over a second covering every car in the class’ best effort. “We’re expecting one of the toughest and closest GT races ever,” Walliser continued. “We’ve got 13 competitive cars from five brands and should have near-perfect track conditions for the tyres.”

From the driver’s perspective, the new 911 is quite different to drive. “It’s not what I was used to,” says Michael Christensen (above), who set the fastest Porsche GT time in qualifying. “The traditional 911 driving style involved a lot of trail braking to keep the front tyres loaded up, especially in slower corners. Now you can’t really do that, as it would over-rotate the tyres and create oversteer. We have to brake at a similar point to before, which quite difficult as when we were carrying the braking deep into the corners we could leave it quite late, that was a strength of the old car.

“Now we still try to brake late, but come off the brakes quite early to roll the speed through the corner, keeping the minimum speed up. That’s taken some adjustments to find the right balance and driving style. It’s ‘on the spine’ now, so I know what to do and it comes automatically, but the first few times I drove the car I had to keep reminding myself.

There are advantages to the new layout, though, including a reduced reliance on front aero. “The old car was a bit odd to drive in traffic, driving close behind others wasn’t easy,” explains Christensen. “With the new car it’s easier to stay close and take a slipstream. The old car lost a lot of front aero when you did that, this one we don’t lose so much. In fact we lose a bit of the rear aero, so the car becomes a bit more ‘alive’ at the back, which can make it faster through the quick corners but also more dangerous.

Both Christensen and his co-driver in the #92 Kevin Estre believe the field has come close to demonstrating its ultimate pace, but that there will be more to come in the race. “Definitely we’re quite close to what’s expected,” said the Dane. “In the end one lap won’t dictate it, single and especially double-stint pace will. Triple stints are a dream rather than an aim, let’s say, but never say never – it could happen.”

Stint lengths and refuelling times for the GTE Pro runners are expected to be uniform this year after the ACO moved to adjust the various car’s fuel capacities in order to equalise them. It’s a move that’s taken away some areas of strategic competition but put more focus on others, the drivers say. Christensen: “We were very strong on refuelling in the past, we developed a really good fuel cell and filling system, so that’s a potential advantage lost for us.”

Estre (above) adds: “With everyone on the same stint length and refuelling time, I think the safety car and slow zones will be the dominant factor. You can lose a lot of time if you’re on track when a slow zone happens, you can gain some time if you’re in the pits at that moment, but it’s a gamble. I think the ACO and FIA have done a good job with the fuel capacities, especially for this track.”

GTE has been virtually guaranteed to feature furious wheel-to-wheel racing of late, but will there be a focus on getting into the rhythm of stints rather than elbows-out battling in the early stages? “I think people will fight for the first lap or two to get a good track position and then it’ll settle down,” reckons Estre. “Especially given the hot weather, as I’m not sure everyone is confident how long the tyres will last, particularly in the daytime heat, with track temperatures of about 45.”

Christensen sounds a note of caution about the 911’s straight-line speed, however: “We’ve not been so strong there so far, so that could be tough for us in a battle,” he told us. “I know we’ve been strong in the corners, we just miss a bit on the straights.”

“I hope the beginning will be easy, not like a Cup race!” Estre smiles. “But it’s usually not, during night we’ll see some faster laps and maybe some more risky driving!”