LMP1, who’s fast, who’s reliable?
By far and away the biggest storyline for this weekend, will be in LMP1. Everyone expects Toyota to be fastest, the question is therefore more, by how much? The naysayers say Toyota will walk the season, but there will be huge numbers hoping that the best of the non-hybrid privateer entries can keep them honest.
With the exception of the ByKolles CLM (which itself has seen a significant off-season upgrade), none of the remaining seven privateer-run LMP1s have been seen running outside of private testing. Six of them, are set to run this weekend, the only omission being Rebellion’s second Gibson-powered R13.
With the exception of the ByKolles CLM, none of the remaining seven privateer-run LMP1s have been seen running outside of private testing
The ByKolles, both SMP cars, and one Ginetta have tested, the DragonSpeed BR1 has had a short rollout, but neither Rebellion, nor the second Ginetta have turned a wheel.
For all in LMP1, whilst pace is the headline-setter, reliability and serviceability will be the smart observer’s priority. This is the start of what could be quite a short new-era before the next set of factory-focused prototypes emerge.
We should get some clues this weekend, as to whether Toyota Gazoo Racing, can race forward with confidence, and if so, to what degree.
LMP2 tyre wars
There’s a seven car LMP2 field this year, which has seen injection of very welcome variety, by comparison to last year, which saw the field consist of only ORECA 07 Gibsons for the season, all with Dunlop tyres.
ORECA chassis is still dominant in number terms, with five (including the A470 run by Signatech Alpine), but the WEC sees full-time entries from Dallara (Racing Team Nederland) and Ligier (Larbre Competition).
Better still, there’s competition not only in the chassis department, but also on the tyre front. DragonSpeed’s ORECA, Larbre’s Ligier and DSC believes, RTN’s Dallara are all opting for Michelin rubber.
This weekend presents Michelin’s first chance to go toe-to-toe with Dunlop, albeit on a resurfaced,
New faces in new places
This weekend at the Prologue, there’s plenty of intrigue up and down the order in driver terms, with plenty of experienced hands moving to new outfits, and brand new drivers on track to make their public WEC debut.
Pastor Maldonado for too long was the pantomime villain of Formula One, the Columbian racer finally making his sportscar racing debut with DragonSpeed in LMP2. He’ll be looking to cement this year, a reputation for speed and shed one of over-aggression.
With the remaining drivers in the Ginetta effort still to be announced, and with confirmation from Robert Kubica that he will not join the team, we’ll focus for now on the two “known knowns”.
Robertson, a member of the Ginetta family, and the inaugural LMP3 champion back in 2015 with Chris Hoy, gets his chance in the most ambitious Ginetta project yet. Diminutive, a Scotsman, LMP1, that’s got a familiar ring to it hasn’t it? Oliver Rowland meanwhile, has plowed a much more traditional furrow in motorsport thus far, but is finding as so very many do, the glass ceiling at the very top to be of bullet-proof proportions.
This pair will prove a very interesting comparison, not just to their LMP1 competitors, but against each other too. They’ve played a big part in the pre-season test programme for the G60-LT-P1, this weekend marks the beginning of the final stages of that, as the season opener edges closer.
Another man who’s F1 history was a less than happy one, is Giedo van der Garde, but since then, he’s shown off incredible pace in LMP2 in ELMS. This year he brings his talents to the world stage again, after a quiet 2017, back adding real steel to the Racing Team Nederland effort. Reports have suggested that Giedo displayed blinding pace in testing, and we’re about to see for the first time in 2018, how he stacks up with the rest of the field.
Gabriel Aubry is the latest ‘Super Silver’ to emerge from Jackie Chan DC Racing’s Asian Le Mans Series incubator
Gabriel Aubry meanwhile, is the latest ‘Super Silver’ to emerge from Jackie Chan DC Racing’s Asian Le Mans Series incubator, playing a key role in the LMP3 title win. Now he gets his chance on the world stage. The ex-Formula Renault and GP3 driver has pace, and has adapted well to the endurance racing code. This is a big step up, and with a two-day test ahead, we’ll see a bit more of what he’s capable of in longer runs.
In the sister Jackie Chan car is a trio of Malaysian drivers, which DSC readers may be familiar with after their Asian Le Mans adventures in the 2017/18 season, where they displayed race-winning form. They’ll be worth keeping an eye on; there’s little doubt that their Malaysian backers are deadly serious about this effort, and since those backers include the Sepang International Circuit, could this be part of a big to take the WEC to their home nation?
In the GTE ranks there’s interest too. One of the two new Aston factory boys this season has no WEC experience, that being Belgian ace Maxime Martin. He’ll make for an interesting comparison this season, taking on his ex-employers at BMW, who also new to the championship. He’ll want to prove a point that he’s very much mature enough to do so, in the appropriate fashion. When the season gets going though, there could be some interesting needle here.
At Martin’s old marque, there’s slew of new drivers, racing its new car. This is a whole new crop of factory drivers to the FIA WEC, the Bavarian brand mixing and matching between its IMSA and WEC programmes. Expect to see some new WEC heroes emerging.
The man who was Toyota’s first driver signing back in 2011, Alex Wurz, will be back in harness this weekend, together with Toyota’s newly appointed test and reserve driver Anthony Davidson. With Messrs Alonso, Kobayashi and Nakajima otherwise engaged, it’s all hands to the pump at Toyota.
Stephane Sarrazin, a more recent Toyota factory driver than Wurz, will be present in SMP Racing’s LMP1 effort, and it’ll probably give us the best available yardstick for the real world performance of the new-breed privateer teams against hybrid opposition.
Multiple WEC champion Gianmaria Bruni returns to the WEC at Paul Ricard this weekend too, for his first meeting as a Porsche factory driver in the series. For many, the sight of him in white is still an eye-opener, for him though, its business as usual. In the south of France, he’ll be trying to hit the ground running in a season where Porsche will be looking for only the second time, to wrestle the manufacturers title from the grip of Bruni’s ex-employer.
By far the biggest name in GTE Am, is ex-F1 star Giancarlo Fisichella, who is back in the WEC for the first time this year since 2013, a season when last minute re-shuffle in the Ferrari pro line-ups saw him miss out on the title. His speed and motivation are going to be a storyline for the season.
Multiple WEC champion Gianmaria Bruni returns to the WEC at Paul Ricard this weekend, for his first meeting as a Porsche factory driver in the series
GTE Pro’s new cars
The addition of BMW for the new season, the handsome M8 GTE, brings the class to a beautifully rounded 10 cars. The twin-turbo V8-powered BMW showed great pace at Sebring, racing in IMSA, after the marque made clear its displeasure with the Balance of Performance it was dealt in the car’s debut run at Daytona.
Let’s not forget that it’s not just the car that BMW is debuting, but in endurance racing at least, Team MTEK steps up too. The ex-DTM squad, will be relishing the competition to come, having spent much of the last 12 months in active off-track preparation for the WEC campaign.
The class’ other big newcomer is the Aston Martin Vantage GTE, the AMG twin-turbo V8-powered car is a stunning looking thing, and whilst die-hard Aston fans will miss the trademark rumble of the outgoing car in the Pro class, they’ll forgive that omission if AMR’s new baby produces the results on track.
There’s no change from Porsche, and Ford too arrives with an unchanged package, having opted to forgo the evo-pack that it tested more than once last year. Ferrari though, arrives with an evo version of the already successful, WEC World Championship-winning 488 GTE.
Whilst recent BoP testing took away some of the front-end bite of the new Ferrari, the 2018 version is unlikely to be any slower than the near all-conquering 2017 edition.
You can expect the GTE Pro cars more than most to be utilising the opportunity that the 30-hour test at Ricard presents. The auto BoP system should mean there’s little to hide, the continued politics of factory racing means that those observing from afar this week should disregard what we see in terms of pace, and instead look at the milage achieved. As what we get in the performance of these cars, may not reflect what we see when we go racing at Spa.
GTE Am’s new look
Talk of the GTE Am class fading away as prototype numbers increased, has not come to pass, thanks to demand and fiscal reality, what we have is very healthy.
A full-season entry of nine cars, is the biggest in WEC history thus far, which with each of the marques involved having real strength in depth these years.
Aston Martin, returns as defending champion, but will take on all comers, not with the brand-new Vantage GTE and instead with the grand old lady, entering its 14th season of competition.
The good news for fans, is that it means one more year of the glorious V8, better news still, that there are two of them, with TF Sport completing a rapid rise through the endurance racing ranks. Tom Ferrier’s outfit has come from a title win in the Michelin Le Mans Cup two years ago via second in the ELMS, and a debut at Le Mans last season, to a full-season WEC berth.
A full-season entry of nine cars, is the biggest in WEC history thus far
They’ll be up against a trio of 2017-spec Ferrari 488 GTEs, the returning Spirit of Race and Clearwater efforts, joined by an all-new team (also handled by AF Corse), MR Racing. Whilst Clearwater’s line-up is unchanged, Miguel Molina moves from the Spirit of Race effort to MR Racing, and is replaced in the #54 car, by none other than F1 star Giancarlo Fisichella.
Ferraris has its fans, but for many this week, the trackside attraction will be the debut in GTE Am of the mid-engined Porsche 911 RSR, completely with its now trademark straight-six exhaust scream.
And even better news, is that there are set to be four in the class, Dempsey Proton Racing and Gulf Racing UK return with a pair and single car respectively, joined by the most successful single-make Porsche team in history, Project 1, completing a class that could well dole out real entertainment through the year.