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4H Shanghai Preview: Will The Privateers Take The Fight To Toyota?

Can Aston Martin win again?

It’s race week for the third time this season in the FIA WEC, and this time the ACO and FIA’s globe-trotting championship is headed to China for its annual visit to the Shanghai International Circuit, which has been a mainstay on the schedule since the WEC’s inaugural season in 2012. This time though, there is a key difference. Gone is the six-hour format, replaced, like the race at Silverstone, with a four-hour encounter as part of the championship organisers’ attempts to mix things up.

Will it make for a memorable race? We need to wait until Sunday to find out. At the very least it will shake up the strategy calls in the pits. The race in Silverstone was entertaining, with the majority of the team personnel that DSC polled after the event giving positive feedback. After season after season of six-hour races outside of Le Mans, a four-hour race was somewhat of a breath of fresh air, and the hope is that the extended eight-hour contest in Bahrain next month will have a similar effect.

Can Rebellion or Team LNT truly challenge Toyota?

The big question in LMP1, as it has been since the start of the ‘Super Season’, is whether or not the privateers can muster up any kind of challenge to Toyota. With the new ‘Success Handicap’ system slowing the Toyotas down more and more after each victory, there is a sense that Shanghai, with a shorter run time and circuit that benefits cars with the best top-end speeds, could we finally see a new team win (on track rather than after the post-race technical checks).

In Fuji last time out, we did see Rebellion’s #1 R-13 battle hard and split the Toyotas in the opening hour of the race after a mega stint from Bruno Senna, but unfortunately, the Rebellion and two LNT Ginettas faded away as the race wore on. In qualifying too, the privateers were able to go toe-to-toe with Toyota, and the thought is that in Shanghai, we could see Rebellion or Team LNT on pole.

So, how does the ‘Success Handicap’ look heading into round three? Both Toyotas, in theory, should be 2.74 seconds slower a lap than last season. Both Toyotas, each with a single victory, are equal on the table. Performance cuts for the race for the team include the amount of fuel the TS050s can use each stint and the size of the restrictor.

But the privateer cars are not untouched. The #1 Rebellion, which finished third, will be made 0.89 seconds slower as a result of a 37kg increase in the car’s minimum weight. The #5 Ginetta and #1 Rebellion will run at almost the same eight, with the #6 the lightest car in the field due to it being at the bottom of the standings.

The #6 sees the only notable driver change in the class, with Jordan King, already an FIA WEC race winner in LMP2 at Sebring earlier this year (with Jackie Chan DC Racing), joining Egor Orudzhev and Ben Hanley in the teams’ #5 Ginetta G60-LT-P1. The sister #6 Ginetta will race with an unchanged line-up from Fuji last time out: Ginetta factory drivers Charlie Robertson and Mike Simpson again set to be joined by 2003 Le Mans 24 Hours winner Guy Smith. (Chris Dyson is still due to form part of the driving crew, but his debut has been delayed due to clashes with Trans Am and later an injury).

Can Racing Team Nederland win again?

The race in LMP2 last time out in Fuji was nothing short of superb. It produced door-to-door action throughout the six hours and finished with a surprise maiden win for Racing Team Nederland at the end.

Frits van Eerd, in tough conditions, enjoyed the best performance of his LMP2 career, allowing the combination of a fast-starting Giedo van der Garde and the mercurial Nyck de Vries to steer the team to victory. It was a big reward after so much hard work in recent years from the RTN crew, its new combination of TDS Racing behind the scenes, ORECA and Michelin proving to make a huge difference.

Will RTN be as strong in China? A lot of that will depend on van Eerd’s personal performance. He wasn’t originally slated to race in China, but as DSC reported after the race at Fuji, he was so encouraged by the start to the season that he has found a way to navigate his original business commitments to make the trip. That means that Job van Uitert, who drove with the team at Silverstone, will have to wait until December to rejoin the WEC grid. There he is down to race with G-Drive Racing.

The performance of Goodyear in the battle against Michelin will also play a key part in this race. Thus far Michelin has taken two wins out of two, but in Fuji, Goodyear teams did come close to scoring the American tyre brand its first WEC win.

The surprise package in Japan was High Class Racing’s (Goodyear-shod) ORECA. Newly-crowned Super GT Champion Kenta Yamashita, in only his second LMP2 start, was rapid and Anders Fjordbach too enjoyed one of his most memorable outings. The team led for a time and looked on for a podium until Mark Patterson faded fast in the final hour.

JOTA and Jackie Chan DC Racing (run by JOTA) also came close to delivering a big win for Goodyear, initially completing the LMP2 podium behind the RTN, before JOTA’s ORECA was disqualified because in post-race scrutineering the car’s “outside neutral switch was unable to disconnect the transmission,” a breach of the technical regulations.

That handed United Autosports the final podium spot, a consolation prize after electrical gremlins cost them a shot at victory. After such strong performances in the ELMS since switching to ORECA, it feels somewhat inevitable that Richard Dean’s team will find a way to win in the WEC soon. Various mechanical issues aside, the transition from Ligier to ORECA has been an impressive one in the performance department. If Phil Hanson continues to show race-winning pace, and Filipe Albuquerque and Paul Di Resta are also in the zone then there’s every chance United will take its first WEC victory in Shanghai.

Elsewhere in the class, Cool Racing will be looking to rediscover its Silverstone form after a disappointing run with Alexandre Coigny part of the line-up in Fuji. For Signatech Alpine it’s much the same story, its A470 finished second in Silverstone, then sixth in Japan. Cetilar Racing on the other hand, is forced to hope that a clean race brings with it a strong finish, the Dallara package still tough to extract results from.

Another win for Aston?

For Aston Martin Racing, a win in China would mean two wins on the bounce and two wins in two years at the Jiading-based circuit. In the six-hour WEC race at Shanghai last year, AMR scored its first win with the Vantage in the treacherous conditions.

This year, the Vantage AMR GTE looks like a more refined package, a year of data collecting and tyre development helping the car mature. Aston Martin has been hard at work preparing for this weekend, DSC reported that it conducted a tyre test at Portimao using a converted GT3 Vantage after the ELMS finale.

Can the British marque turn its form into another win? That will depend on the strength of the attack from AF Corse and Porsche. BoP wise little has changed between these two rounds, though Aston Martin has been handed a 1-litre reduction in the fuel tank capacity of its cars.

AF Corse has the most to prove here in terms of its title race credentials at this early stage. Its 488 GTEs have failed to find the podium in either race to start the season. And while that isn’t an issue yet, it would be a boost for either of the team’s crews, James Calado and Alessandro Pier Guidi in the #51 and Miguel Molina and Davide Rigon in the #71, if they left with silverware.

Despite not having a win to their name, Michael Christensen and Kevin Estre have the lead in the points race after finishing second in both races so far in the #92 Porsche. A first victory of the season here could give them a healthy lead into the 2020 portion of the season if they manage another strong finish in Bahrain.

But the sister (#91) car of Gainmaria Bruni and Richard Lietz could be strong too, looking to score a second victory for the 911 RSR 19 this season and put the sixth-place finish last time out behind them.

What role will ballast play in Am?

We’re into round three of the season which means success ballast in GTE Am should begin to make a tangible difference in the performance of the front runners.

The title race leaders, Francois Perrodo, Emmanuel Collard and Nicklas Nielsen, in the #83 AF Corse Ferrari, will run the heaviest, the car with a total minimum weight of 1310kg, 30kg heavier than the second heaviest car in the class. A win at Silverstone and second-place finish in Fuji has put them 10 points clear at the top.

Thus far Collard and Perrodo have returned to their title-winning form from 2016, and along with Nielsen have been the only crew to have remained consistent through the opening races.

And second in the ballast table is TF Sport’s crew, still fresh from scoring the team its maiden WEC victory in Fuji. Salih Yoluc, Charlie Eastwood and Jonny Adam can consider themselves early contenders for the title if they can manage another strong finish this week.

Behind them in the points standings has been the MR Racing trio of Olivier Beretta, Kei Cozzolino and Motoaki Ishikawa, who look poised for a second podium finish if they keep it clean here. Cozzolino, who was a stand out in Fuji, should fare well in Shanghai after he was part of Car Guy Racing’s Asian Le Mans campaign last winter which won every race, including the round in Shanghai.

The #57 Project 1 Porsche should also be considered a favourite here. Last time out Jeroen Bleekemolen, Felipe Fraga and Ben Keating took pole but had their laps deleted after qualifying, started at the back and fought their way to third.

A big result here will do much to lift the spirits of Jeroen Bleekemolen and Ben Keating after a challenging start to the season, which included a race-destroying penalty before the start of the season opener at Silverstone. There they had to start from pit lane, a lap down after their 911 RSR wasn’t able to take part in qualifying due to mechanical issues.

Team regular Fraga has a clash with Brazillian Stock Car so won’t be able to race alongside Keating and Bleekemolen. Instead, Larry ten Voorde will drive in his place, the Dutchman a Porsche Carrera Cup regular who sits third in the Germany standings and second in Super Cup.

Matt Campbell, Ricccardo Pera and Christian Reid in the #77 Dempsey Proton Porsche and Ross Gunn, Darren Turner and Paul Dalla Lana in the #98 Aston Martin are sleeping giants in the class of sorts. The former has two fifth-place finishes, but is certainly capable of winning big in this company, while the #98 had a strong second-place finish at Silverstone before an incident at the start of the Fuji race cost them a strong finish.

In the #88 Proton Porsche, there are two TBAs alongside Thomas Preining after Satoshi Hoshino and Adrien de Leener were present in Japan. It remains to be seen whether or not drivers have been signed up for this weekend.

The #78 Proton Porsche meanwhile, is an addition to the GTE Am class. Philippe Prette, Louis Prette and Vincent Abril, as they did with Proton at Le Mans this year, are teaming up for an additional GTE Am outing, making the entry list total to 31 cars.

The 4 Hours of Shanghai will run on Sunday, from 12:00 local time.