In the immediate aftermath of the two-day WEC prologue test at Spa Francorchamps that saw three of the four track sessions topped not by the brand new Toyota GR010 Hybrid or (grandfathered LMP1) Alpine A480 ‘Hypercars, but instead, the newly performance docked LMP2s, Toyota offered an online ‘Zoom’ call with Technical Director Pascal Vasselon to take questions on the events of the past couple of days, and on what may lie ahead.
The LMP2s, it should be noted, were running in the ‘new’ 2021 FIA WEC spec, announced just at the beginning of the month with no prior warning to the teams, the cars now weighing 950kg, up 20 kg from last season, with their Gibson GK428 V8s dialled back to 536 hp (down from 600 hp) and, for the WEC only, the cars were also mandated to run with the cost-capped, previously Le Mans only, low downforce (and low drag) aero package.
By way of contrast, the Toyotas ran with 520 kw (just under 700 hp) and at 1040 kg with the single, full season (in fact full five-year homologation) aero kit, the Alpine with just over 600 hp from its LMP1 spec Gibson GL458, and at 930 kg, up from a base weight under 820 at the start of last season with Rebellion. The A480 will run this season with the low-downforce body kit developed for the Rebellion R13.
The call was attended by DSC’s Editor and by Daniel Lloyd of Sportscar 365, both of whom have been on-site throughout the test, and by Racecar Engineering Ed Andrew Cotton, and Autosport’s Gary Watkins who are imminent arrivals.
There were questions, of course, about Toyota’s performance, and, as things would turn out, about their reliability too! And about what could, and should, be done, from Toyota’s perspective both immediately and in an ongoing timeframe.
Are you surprised by the lap times that you’ve seen in the test, particularly from the LMP2s and from the Alpine or is it something that you expected pre regs?
“The performance of the LMP2s is is partly a surprise yes!
Where did you expect them to be with the new package that LMP2 has been dealt?
“It’s not really a question for me to answer because I have very little data about LMP2. We know roughly what has been done, but we don’t have the tools to estimate precisely the impact.”
Now that you know the impacts, what are your options between now and the race?
“From our side, things are quite clear. We have our programme, at the moment I can say we are doing quite badly reliability-wise, we have to get on top of it, especially on car #7.
“And for the rest, we are reasonably happy about where we are. From the side of our performance, there is no surprise. We are where we were expecting to be in the simulator, in the offline simulation – there is no surprise.”
Was this your real pace? Is this what we expect from race week?
“This is where we have to be considering the weight of the cars, the aero figures which are mandatory. The power we are running. It is where the car is homologated, we are in the performance window. We are running the power that is allocated to us and we are running at our design weight. That’s why I am afraid there is no loophole there.
“We were expecting roughly one second performance loss per kilometre of track (compared to the LMP1 times). So we were expecting five seconds on the normal length, five kilometre track, another 10 seconds at Le Mans which has slightly different sensitivity coefficients.
“Here (at Spa) we have seven kilometres, so we are expecting a seven second deficit going back to the LMP1 pace. This is where we are, even a bit better.”
Does it matter that you’re not quicker than the P2s? Or is it that bad for the championship? To have P2s dicing with you at the lead at the beginning of a new era?
“I think I can only say that it cannot be good, obviously. But you have the things you have in your control and some others which are not in your control. It is not what was the intention when we had to review the stratification of this new category. So I can confirm things did not go as expected.”
What do you hope to see from the organisers in the next few days? Do you think there’s anything that they can change to make the situation better between you and the LMP2s?
“It’s a question for the ACO and FIA, I cannot answer all these questions.”
What is within the capability of your programme to change? If the answer comes back, there’s a limited amount that can be done with LMP2?
Are you, for instance, able to run with more power?
“The answer would be no, because there may be a possibility to run with more power, but we did not validate this level of power. So, what is validated at the moment is 520 kilowatts in the rules. I cannot say we could not do more, we could probably do more. But then we would be in unknown territory, so it’s not something we would apply in the short-term.”
And what about weight?
“There is no way to go lower. It’s one of the most difficult things to change on a car when you want to reduce the weight. It was one of the most costly items.”
“What do you expect to see in a six-hour race on Saturday. How do your simulations that you’ve managed to run yesterday and today predict the result will be?
“Honestly we did not look at that. We are looking at our programme, we are looking at what is in our hands. We have already quite a lot to do to get reliability under control.
“(Our) performance, as I told you, we are reasonably happy with. Still, there are some setup adjustments to be done but we are hopefully in the ballpark. This is the only thing we can focus on.”
On power, the rules say 500 kilowatts, the peak power is 520 in the BoP chart, can you just explain what that’s all about?
“What was communicated initially was 500 kilowatts. This is the power which will be used in Le Mans. It appeared quite quickly on the simulation work done by the FIA and ACO that the gap to the LMP2s would be more critical on the (other) WEC tracks and this is why on the WEC tracks, very early, it was decided to go for 520 kilowatts.
“Most of the computation has been done around the 500 kilowatts at Le Mans but it was planned from the beginning to run 520 kilowatts at the WEC tracks somehow anticipating what we see today, but obviously that anticipation has not been good enough.”
You said that you have one new car here, and one test car that you’ve done all the testing with. Can you tell us which is which?
“The new car is the one that has had the problems, there is no mystery there. Statistically, you will always face more issues with a new car, and the new car is #7. We have been chasing gremlins, hydraulic and electrical gremlins.”
In the past, we saw Toyota and other manufacturers sometimes run low downforce at Spa. You yourselves split your strategies a few years ago. Do you think that the fact that the LMP2s are running low downforce, do you think the characteristics of Spa brings them closer to you or not?
Because if you look at the middle sector, they’re quicker than you. But then they’re probably closer to you in Sector one, and particularly in Sector three than they would be otherwise?
“It could be that Spa is an outlier in terms of the impact of low downforce LMP2s. It was expected that this move to the low downforce package would increase the gap. It could be that has not happened as much as expected.
“We were always running the low downforce package here but it was clearly to prepare for Le Mans. But if you remember well last year when we were running some success handicap here. I think it was FP1, or FP2, one of our cars was already behind some LMP2s.
We had already a kind of similar situation last year. Our lap time last year was around 2:03 and during one of the sessions, car #8 was behind LMP2s. So last year was already a bit special in Spa, the LMP2 cars were very close to us when we were running with success handicap.”
Has #8 had many reliability problems in the last few days?
“We did not have reliability problems on #8 and I think we are getting on top of what has happened on #7 with some tricky things with looms, and we are getting on top of it hopefully!”
How would you quantify and explain where you’re losing time to those P2 cars in that middle sector? What is the differentiation between the two packages? Why are you very significantly slower?
“I think you have a huge weight difference and downforce difference as well. But I’m not really on top of two characteristics except those which are published. There is a huge weight difference.
Will you be seeking directly a change in that balance between your car and the LMP2s?
“I would think that there is no choice?”
So that’s a “Yes” that Toyota will be seeking that?
“I don’t think it was a target to have this kind of stratification between the categories. But again, I can give you Toyota’s opinion. It’s a question to ask the ACO and FIA . But is it what we were expecting in terms of stratification? The answer is no!
“This issue quantitively was anticipated. As soon as the Hypercar category was being designed with some clear targets in terms of cost, cost to be competitive and so on. Several parameters have been steered towards less performance to make the category more affordable.
“Immediately, it was acknowledged that this would require an adjustment of the other categories.
So qualitatively, we cannot be surprised that the problem exists.
“Where it needs adjustment, it’s quantitatively but it’s not a drama, it’s a bit trial and error, but that’s it, it’s not a drama!”
I guess the further question that comes is that the changes for LMP2 have come very late. We had the ELMS meeting in the wake of a back to back test between a P2 and the Alpine, you tested at Paul Ricard back to back with Racing Team Nederland. At this point in proceedings, is it safe for them to make a (further) substantial change to LMP2?
“It really depends on what you do of course. There are things that are just not possible. Like for example, adding a huge amount of weight and being outside the range of the crash test homologation is just not feasible. But I think you have many other possibilities.
“But again, you were asking me questions which I just cannot answer but in principle, for sure there are things to do, which would be safe.”
I guess I need to press you on that Pascal. In your mind, what would those things be?
“I don’t know. It’s not in my hands. Toyota is not making the LMP2 regulations.
“Just what I want to bring forward here is that the necessity to make LMP2 slower was known. It was a sporting decision. We are discussing now how much. and then the first try is maybe not hitting the target. For me at this moment in time. It’s not a drama. We have time to adjust it.”
So would Toyota consider it to be embarrassing if the hybrid car was beaten by an LMP2 in the first race?
“What do you think?
“It’s a bit stating the obvious. It’s clearly not the target to have LMP2 running faster than the Hypercars.
“I’m trying to bring forward that there was a clear will to correct that. It’s just a correction that has to be reviewed.
“The principle is nothing new. It was known from the beginning that adjustment had to be made. So here, we are not questioning what the target is. The target is to have the Hypercars as the fastest category, this is clear and, to my knowledge, it’s not questioned.”
Can that be done for this coming race? Is that really possible?
“It’s not for me to say that? It’s not for me to elaborate on this.”
Did you run a qualifying run? Is this your fastest pace?
“We’ve done one low fuel run towards the end of the session. Yes.” (this was acknowledged as the Sebastien Buemi run late in the final session that saw the #8 top the session, but still fall short of the fastest LMP2 time of the Prologue.
It remains to be seen what, if anything, will be done in the wake of the results of the Prologue, whether the rule makers, with access to a huge amount of data, can, or will choose to, re-adjust the balance between the classes, always assuming that these same rule makers do not find that the Hypercar teams were attempting to moderate their own performance with a view to influencing the hand of the ‘stratification’ process (perish the thought!)
It should be further added that the current state of affairs with LMP2 is already the second shot at that process and that the teams – including the newly introduced Pro-Am class with several true ‘gentleman’ Bronze-rated drivers – have had only these past two days to adapt to an already very different spec of LMP2, the current specification announced just four weeks ago after most teams had completed their winter testing schedules. It would be fair to reflect too that they will respond with deep unhappiness to any further significant ‘adjustment’ between now and the cars hitting the track again in Free Practice on Thursday!
For the purposes of clarity, the single major area of supposedly ‘safe’ adjustment that remains is a further power cut for the LMP2s, the LMP2s are already at the very edge of their homologated weight for crash-worthiness – but that too introduces safety-related matters in terms of traffic management, the ability of the Prototypes to get by a GTE car quickly and safely, the Prologue already saw a significant accident in those circumstances that left two cars requiring replacement, there appears to be little, if any, notion of a commensurate adjustment for the GTEs!
If everything that Pascal Vasselon says is absolutely correct, and Toyota have indeed shown their true pace, then there has been a significant miscalculation over the ‘stratification’ between the classes, but there remains a significant degree of doubt over whether we have indeed seen the true pace of the Hypercars – and recent history tells us that factory teams have seldom hesitated to act single-mindedly in defence of their own interests.
None of this is a surprise to seasoned observers of the machinations involved with a Balance of Performance process – thigh in this instance the unusual, but not unique, the challenge is to overlay that process on an already well-established existing class structure.
With a very high degree of technical challenge on the horizon, with Peugeot and Ferrari still to come in the LMH sub-category of Hypercar, and with multiple further manufacturers in the wings having declared, or being set to declare, with the parallel LMDH ruleset, this is a critical moment for the rule makers, who, it should be added, are also in need of retaining the confidence and future involvement of the LMP2 teams for the coming few years at the very least!
It’s going to be a very interesting few days!