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8H Bahrain Sees Asia’s Farewell To The LMP1 Era

As WEC returns to Bahrain, Alex Harrison provides a retrospective on some epic battles

After 26,866 laps, over 125 hours and 39 minutes of racing, by cars from 12 teams, entered under the flags of nine nations from three continents, LMP1’s time as the top class (grandfathering aside) in Asia comes to an end in the reformatted-for-2019 8 Hours of Bahrain.

Here’s how three outright World Endurance Championship title battles have played out in the Kingdom.

Victory hard fought for

As the third WEC circuit to see all three LMP1 giants victorious, Bahrain has staged a real variety in terms of winners. No single trio was able to win twice in the six races; Toyota seeing the most success on three wins, to Audi’s two and one by Porsche.

15 drivers in total, of seven countries, have tasted success in the unique conditions. André Lotterer, Marcel Fässler, Benoît Tréluyer, Sébastien Buemi, Anthony Davidson, Stéphane Sarrazin, Alexander Wurz, Mike Conway, Marc Lieb, Romain Dumas, Neel Jani, Oliver Jarvis, Loïc Duval, Lucas di Grassi and Kazuki Nakajima. The first three Toyota drivers currently the only able to score multiple wins in Bahrain.

10 of the above were recently inducted into the FIA’s Hall of Fame, in a ceremony for endurance drivers of past and present. Six of the other seven champions who raced in Bahrain all finished 2nd or better, across their visits to Sakhir.

Champions crowned, but never easily

The 2014 race that culminated in a championship for Toyota was, until 2019/20, the last season Bahrain wasn’t the season finale. Audi had sealed both of their WEC titles in round 7 of the two seasons before, and Toyota came into the race 42 points up in the Drivers’ standings, and 29 better off in the Manufacturers’. That race sprung somewhat of a run in Bahrain, where the championship leader would encounter strife in the face of glory.

Coming into Bahrain, reigning champions Audi had experienced a season of mixed fortune. The then-recently-relocated Neuburg outfit had scored consecutive 1-2 finishes at Le Mans and COTA, before missing the podium entirely, in Fuji and Shanghai, for the first time in the WEC.

To further the struggle, Dr Ullrich’s squad started in Bahrain having faced no less than three rebuilds of their R18’s, two for the #1 and one on the #2, attributed to chassis damage sustained in Shanghai. Their weekend never really improved, the #1 missing both FP3 and qualifying, whilst the R18 was as much as 2.895 seconds a lap slower than Porsche’s best time. For the diesel-powered car, it mustered a P4-P5 finish for a second-straight race, the last time Audi would go multiple rounds in a row off the podium.

Contrastingly, 2014’s Asian leg of the season had seen a steady upturn in fortunes for Porsche, their first podium since the 919’s debut outing in Silverstone came at Fuji, by the #20, whilst Shanghai had hosted a first by the #14. All 3rd places.

Coinciding with Audi’s downturn in luck, and Bahrain’s aforementioned inconsistencies, the Weissach-based squad grasped the opportunity for success. A steady tussle took place against Toyota, with one or more of the 919s remaining in the top-3 for the duration of the 6 hours. Thought unable to jump their Japanese rivals late on, their 2-3 finish marked the greatest outing for the car to date and hosted the first of 12 double podiums for the 919 Hybrid. Neel Jani would leave the race having scored the fastest lap of the weekend, for the second race in a row. The second of seven in total for the Swiss, a class record that was only matched by Toyota’s Kamui Kobayashi at the 4 Hours of Silverstone in 2019.

A bittersweet race ensued, and despite the 11th place finish for Toyota’s #8, the end of its eight-race podium streak, their 31-point advantage over Audi’s #2 crew was enough to seal the Drivers’ title for Davidson and Buemi, with Toyota ending Audi’s stranglehold on the two championships. Victory for the sister #7 meant Toyota became the first brand to sweep the Asian races in a single season, having split the honours with Audi in the series’ first two seasons. Five wins and a full haul of championships marked quite the debut season for the TS040 Hybrid.

How quickly things can change, however, 2015’s season was Toyota’s to forget, with the reigning series champions unable to match their two German rivals’ pace in the TS040’s last season, and by the time Bahrain rolled around, both cars were out of the title hunt. For Audi however, an improvement on 2014’s 4th-place best in Bahrain proved to not be enough. Though becoming the first LMP car in WEC history to score a 100% podium rate over the season (something only matched in 2018/19 by LMP2’s #36 Signatech Alpine), the #7 R18 missed out on the Drivers’ title by a mere five points. This outcome remains the only single-figure points gap between 1st and 2nd in the overall title race, in WEC history.

Up to Bahrain, Porsche’s sophomore season had provided a record-equalling run for the Stuttgart side, their five-win streak matching Audi’s series-best from early 2013. They would go one better, however, with 2014’s season-finale winning crew of Jani, Lieb and Dumas taking their 2nd victory together. The trip to the top step meant Porsche matched Toyota’s record from the previous year in winning all three races on the Asian continent.

In oddly similar fashion to the #8 Toyota of 2014, a mechanical issue halted the world champions elect’s charge for a win in Bahrain. In total, Porsche’s #17 would spend 19:17 minutes in the pits, and ultimately finish 5th, ending their six-race podium run for their lowest points-scoring finish of the season.

Compared to their rivals of a year previous, the nearly-20 minutes of pit time was under half of that Toyota #8 suffered 12 months prior, whilst their 10-point haul did prove decisive in the title scrap. Then-race engineer for the #17, Kyle Wilson-Clarke’s emphatic post-Le Mans 2017 radio message on never giving up would have been as fitting when sealing the brand’s first WEC title, as it was following their most recent French triumph.

After his toughest season in the Toyota camp, mainstay Alex Wurz saw the podium in his final race. It was only the second time the Austrian had rounded out the podium, following five wins and as many 2nd place finishes. The two-time 24 Hours of Le Mans winner exited the series with 79% finish rate from 28 starts. Toyota’s rare-for-2015 podium bookended the season the way it started, with a single spot apiece for the three brands.

2016 staged one of the more intriguing season-finales in WEC history, in part due to the astonishing run of non-podiums by the champions. For the #2 Porsche 919 Hybrid, a top-five or better guaranteed the title for the car, and that is what they got. Though the car of Lieb, Dumas and Jani doesn’t hold the record for lowest single-season win tally by WEC champions, their three podiums is a record low, as too by a big margin is their 33% podium count.

An emotional finale for Audi took place, in another season of what-could’ve-been. Whereas 2015 had seen distinct advantages between the R18 e-tron Quattro and 919 Hybrid, corner speed versus straight-line speed, the 2016 R18 largely possessed greater single-lap speed over the 919, and Audi had snapped Porsche’s record-breaking pole position run to start the season. With the five that followed earning them their biggest single-season haul.

A season of misfortune, save Spa in part, had prematurely decided their season, however, 1 point (for pole) at Silverstone, an extra-time podium at Le Mans, wheel bearing failure in Mexico, hybrid failure in Fuji, combined with friendly-fire in Shanghai confirmed Audi would not bid farewell holding any titles in 2016. Nevertheless, the aforementioned pole position stood them in good stead in Bahrain, and leap at the opportunity they did. 137 laps, or 68% of the race, would be led by the #8 of Jarvis, di Grassi and Duval, to deny 2012 champions Lotterer, Tréluyer and Fassler a win in 2016. The only WEC season in which Audi Sport Team Joest’s legendary crew failed to win a race, in their final outings together.

Though Toyota’s TS050 Hybrid was more than 4.5 km/h faster against the nearest hybrid rival and coupled with less time in the pits than both German teams, outright pace proved an issue, meaning their three-year run of Bahrain podiums ended. Regardless, the season finale would mark only the second time Toyota, Porsche and Audi had won in that order over a three-race span, and the first in a single season, repeating what had been first recorded from Shanghai 2014 through Silverstone 2015.

Much like the previous running at Bahrain International Circuit, 2016 too marked the final outing for a big name in the LMP1 field, Mark Webber. The ex-F1 man bowed out with a 32% win rate (8), from 25 starts, including victories on three continents, seven further podiums, one fastest lap and one World Championship.

By the time the series last visited Bahrain, in 2017, the championship was already sealed, Porsche taking its hattrick in Shanghai. That fact by no means denied onlookers of an eventful race, however. A dominant front-row lockout in qualifying for the German team had marked their 20th pole position in the class, the first to that milestone.

Their plan to run away was interrupted due to a novel incident within the first 15 minutes which saw a marker cone lodged under the front of #2 919 Hybrid, forcing a nose change. Though dropping it down the order early on, the car would prove resurgent and ultimately claim its 8th podium from nine races, to set a record 89% podium rate by the outright WEC champions.

That occurrence somewhat defined the WEC’s last LMP1 outing featuring two Hybrid manufacturers, scrappy battles throughout playing into the hands of the only car which could keep its nose clean.

A coming together by Kobayashi and GTE Pro’s #92 Porsche just before the half distance mark proved damaging, retirement for the victim and a near six-minute pitstop for the #7 TS050 Hybrid, ironically threw the overall podium spots back in Porsche’s favour.

Just one hour after the #7’s incident was another LMP-GTE coming together, this time into the first corner, with Tandy’s #1 against Gulf Racing’s GTE Am 911 RSR. The puncture to the #1, however, proved more damaging for Porsche, as it saw the car drop from the lead and rescind the position to Toyota’s #8, which it held until the flag (pictured top). A fraught and almost unlucky finale for Porsche meant the 919 took 2nd and 3rd in its final competitive outing. The 30th race in a row a 919 had finished in the top three.

Aforementioned victory by Toyota’s #8 of Sébastien Buemi, Anthony Davidson and Kazuki Nakajima meant the brand swept the Asian segment, the first by a single LMP1 crew, for their 5th win of the season. The Japanese team repeated their 2014 achievements on the continent; the third time in a four-year span one team had won all three races, after Porsche in 2015.

Though not retiring completely, the race saw Briton Davidson step back from LMP1, his place inherited for 2018/19 by Fernando Alonso, whilst teammates Buemi and Nakajima would repeat their 2017 escapades to win a further five races. Davidson was victorious in LMP2 with Jota Sport, last time out in the 4 Hours of Shanghai.

The racing has been constant

The first two trips to Bahrain threw up some surprises in the top class. Strakka Racing rounded out the podium in 2012, behind the two Audi’s following Toyota’s lone-TS030 retiring.

2013 would too prove attritional; one Hybrid apiece finishing for the two giants meant G-Drive Racing of LMP2 acquired its first and only overall podium. That particular round saw nine of the field’s 28 starters retire, or 32% in all. To date the most at any non-24 Hours of Le Mans round.

Since this point, however, only one of the 30 LMP1 entrants in Bahrain has failed to finish, Lotus’ CLM P1/01 in 2014, which was forced out on lap 1 due to gearbox issues.

2015 would see the most LMP1 laps covered in the Kingdom, at 1,709, with Porsche, Toyota, Audi and Rebellion’s two-entries all combining for more than 360 each, and byKolles on half of that.

Though no titles can be decided in Bahrain this time out, the class heads into the race with nothing a certainty. All five of the full-season entrants have reached every chequered flag this season so far. Shanghai saw Toyota’s stranglehold on the series broken, beaten on the road for the first time since September 2017. In no small part due to the sheer speed of the non-Hybrids, Team LNT’s G60-LT-P1s as much as 25 km/h faster than the TS050s in China. For the English outfit, they will continue aiming for that maiden podium, no doubt confident off the back of their best 4-5 finish in the previous round.

Just three points split Toyota’s #8 and #7 crews in the Drivers’ standings, only the fifth time in series history the top two cars overall have been split by that tally or less, though this is the first time Le Mans has not been visited by this point of the season.

For Rebellion, the Swiss outfit is currently enjoying their best run of form since this stage of 2018/19, after a second-straight season win at round 3. They will hope to go one better than last year, as a DNF in Fuji by the #3 followed their Silverstone success.