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Looking To The LMP1 Future, What Needs To Happen & Who Might Come?

The challenges of the next generation

With the wraps now taken off the second of three new LMP1 cars set to race in 2018, ACO rulemakers can breathe a sigh of relief, the immediate recovery plan after the departures of first Audi and then Porsche from the LMP1 scene has worked. The grid for the 2018/19 FIA WEC looks set to be of convincing quality with terms of note in both the LMP and GT classes and an increased grid very much in prospect.

So what next? The plan now is very much focused on the next cycle of LMP1 regulations with some interesting, and potentially very tough, calls to be made.

The signals are that the next generation of cars, due to hit the tracks for the 2020/ 2021 FIA WEC, designed to attract factory interest, money and activation back to the WEC and Le Mans may very well be taking a look back at a past successful era.

The signals are that the next generation of cars may very well be taking a look back at a past successful era

Talk of prototype cars with brand styling cues has had social media buzzing, the Mercedes CLR mentioned as an example of the potential visual direction for the future, but there is not a little confusion and uncertainty about just what might emerge from the machinations and discussions between rulemakers and potentially interested manufacturers, with some critical decisions to be made.

First things first, the hints that the future LMP1 cars will have styling relevance at the very least to road going cars has met with a near unanimous thumbs up both from the industry, and from the fan base, with the sole proviso that those privateers currently investing very heavily in brand new machinery are very interested indeed in ensuring that their new machines will have an assured competitive life well into the next ruleset.  Whatever the decision on future regulations it seems that the rulemakers have learned a sharp lesson – DO NOT ignore the potential for, and the needs of, the privateers!

Beyond that there are three buzzwords in play, Technology, Relevance and Global, and the three are just as likely to be seen in combination with each other in several versions!

First though who is currently showing interest and with what priorities?

Happily it seems that there is current interest amongst both mainstream, and premium/‘boutique’ manufacturers, a happy place to be in as far as it goes!

Amongst the mainstream auto-makers, Toyota are privately making it clear that they are in the endurance racing game for the long-term if the ruleset continues to support their R&D priorities. 

There are some signs too that the corporate centre is beginning to move towards an outlook of activating their racing investment more than is the case at present. Relevant concept cars and corporate messaging is a very good thing in that regard though we are leagues away from the ‘whole company’ adoption of the race programme as a pillar of advertising messaging that was seen at the peak of Audi’s efforts.

At the moment though it seems certain that Toyota have a substantial chip in the 2020 rulemaking game, and their continued loyalty to the WEC will only have strengthened their hand.

Technology then is at the core for the Japanese giant, and the relevance of that tech to their current and near future bread and butter cars, as well as halo concepts, is going to be THE determining factor for them.

At the moment it seems certain that Toyota have a substantial chip in the 2020 rulemaking game

Ford are looking for the next big thing in their global motorsport programme with the current Ford GT programme currently only committed until the end of 2019, and the revised cycle of WEC calendar seeing a possibility that in global terms the WEC programme at least may only have a single (albeit longer) season to run.

The tech is important to Ford too, the rapid electrification of the global automotive ‘fleet’ is not lost on them, but potentially more important still is the global relevance of the regulations.

The current strength of the IMSA package is far from lost on Ford and they are pushing for whatever comes next to be both relevant and global, they are pretty clear on this – if they are to come to the premier class then they want the opportunity to race both in the WEC, and IMSA, with basically the same car, for overall wins in both.

And there’s the rub. The FIA and ACO want the technological innovation but also the cost control, IMSA, after a brief dalliance with a potentially hybrid future, seem now set on extending some form of their current, and currently successful, DPi concept. To attract the brands requiring a global programme including a season in North America a solution needs to be found to that enigma or the sanctioning bodies might both lose out!

McLaren have been making noises about LMP1, or rather about an effort capable of winning Le Mans overall, for quite some time

Other companies including Renault, BMW and Hyundai are known to have expressed interest though to what degree of seriousness is not currently clear

Amongst the more ‘boutique’ manufacturers Ferrari are known to have attended recent discussion groups but with no intel whatsoever emerging about any potential interest in a programme – Others though are being somewhat more communicative!

McLaren have been making noises about LMP1, or rather about an effort capable of winning Le Mans overall, for quite some time, this writer had a long and involved conversation with the now long-departed Martin Whitmarsh as long ago as 2010 where the then McLaren CEO was clear that the brand would be very interested indeed in coming back to the scene of their 1995 triumph with a racing version of a current McLaren road car, but only if the car could race for an overall win.

Part of that view still remains in play at Woking, though the expectation is that we’ll see details of a GTE programme in the coming months, most likely to coincide with the Silver Jubilee of that 1995 win, for the 2020/ 21 season, most likely based on the recently announced McLaren Senna hypercar.

That though wouldn’t tick the ‘overall win’ box and some of the language emerging from significant sources at McLaren, and from some ACO sources too, indicates that McLaren are taking a VERY close interest in the development of the 2020 LMP1 regulations.

One senior source offered to DSC the nugget that they had, out of courtesy, attended an initial working group meeting at the invitation of the ACO but that the out-turn of that had been a rapid acceleration of interest back at base, with a rather higher-powered presence at the next meeting!

McLaren have also, perhaps unwittingly, made it clear that they have considered, at least in outline, a number of different potential scenarios emerging from the new regulations.

Finding a solution to getting the tech that some interested parties want on board, but finding a solution to getting the parallel IMSA programme for others is the big winning ticket

In the fringes of their recent ‘Motorsport Day’, the event at which the new McLaren 720S GT3 was announced, McLaren Automotive CEO Mike Flewitt offered a brief analysis of options to the DSC Editor of any potential future LMP1 (or similar) programme – that if what emerged was based on a road car it would sit within the newly constituted McLaren Motorsport arm of McLaren Automotive, abut that if it emerged as a pure bred race car then it would almost certainly be housed within McLaren Racing, the part of the group that looks after the Formula One programme.

The potential for a joint WEC/IMSA-relevant end-product is something that McLaren too have made clear would be a near ‘must-have’.

Aston Martin have, of course, more recent LMP1 history than most, and have learned the lessons the hard way of what level of commitment of time and resource is required to make it work.

Their position on new regulations is rather different to McLaren. CEO Andy Palmer has made several key changes internally to change not only the model line-up, but also the way in which programmes are managed, and he’s overseen a rapid roll-out of a number of halo models, principally emerging from the ‘Skunk Works’ overseen by David King, the man also now responsible for the oversight of Aston Martin’s motorsport programmes.

Beyond the Aston Martin Vulcan and the emerging line of AMR branded extreme versions of the current road car crop the jewel in the crown is the Valkyrie hypercar, designed by aero genius Adrian Newey, the Valkyrie is very much the current apple of the Palmer eye. If the opportunity came up to race that car there’s little doubt that Dr Palmer would move heaven and earth to take it.

And there, in a nutshell is the problem.

After a period of technology and performance balancing of unparalleled complexity with the multiple hybrid solutions and petrol and diesel powertrains in recent years the rule makers will, if at all possible, be looking to reduce the burden for the next generation. It is certainly unlikely to find the potential for balancing pure bred racing prototypes with race-modified hypercars a bridge too far – even if programmes emerge that request or require regulations and balancing between emergent alternative power sources.

Even that set of choices though may be complicated very considerably by some potentially conflicting priorities amongst the possible takers for 2020 regulations, and might also tweak the antennae of the ACO.

Finding a solution to getting the tech that some interested parties want on board, but finding a solution to getting the parallel IMSA programme for others is the big winning ticket that could secure grids in depth of high quality for both – or could see some choosing between the two, a prospect that the ACO would see with some alarm as being a potential threat to the continued health of the FIA WEC.

This is a far from simple process!