WEC: What next for LMP1?

Source: Autosport.com

The 2017 Le Mans 24 Hours was a thriller and there is no doubt that sportscar racing as a whole is healthy and competitive at the moment.

However, if we look at the most exciting moments – the last-ditch battle between Corvette and AMR for GTEPro honours, the heroics of the Jackie Chan DC Racing team and their four-hour stint in the lead – the big guns of the LMP1 class were conspicuous by their underachieving.

The #2 Porsche was superbly driven and richly deserved its win, but the biggest talking point was the retirement of the two Toyota prototypes in quick succession. One Toyota battled on, but there were only just enough LMP1 crews for a full podium.

Attrition played its part, but the blue-riband class was only contested by seven cars from three teams, one of which was the new ByKolles squad. They dropped out after only a few laps.

This is in stark contrast to ten years ago. In 2007, fifteen LMP1 cars made the start, representing ten different teams and seven manufacturers. Nine finished, including the all-conquering Audi R10.

Audi’s departure from the WEC scene in 2016 has obviously affected LMP1 grid, but what has happened to the other manufacturers?

Peugeot’s 908 looked capable of beating the Audi drivers. In 2011, the #9 car of Sebastien Bourdais, Pedro Lamy and Simon Pagenaud was pushed into second place by only thirteen seconds. The other two 908s followed in third and fourth.

However, on-track performances did not translate into financial gain, and their sportscar programme was quickly abandoned at the start of 2012. The Nissan team was aborted before it even got going; the much-vaunted GT-R LM Nismo raced only once, and never even made it to La Sarthe.

Long-term prototype specialists Lola went bust in 2012. Although their LMP2 chassis was taken on by Multimatic and Haas, their LMP1 cars disappeared from the grid in 2010. Pescarolo Sport, a customer team run by the former Grand Prix driver of the same name, followed Lola into administration in 2013.

Dome, the Japanese manufacturer they had been working with, has not produced a top-level sportscar since 2013. Courage Racing is another name that has vanished from the Le Mans grid, but having been bought out by ORECA, they remain in spirit.

This year, the ORECA 07 was the LMP2 car of choice. ORECA provided the other two overall podium-finishing teams, including the Jackie Chan team. Twenty of the forty-nine finishers were LMP2 cars. This is in stark contrast to ten years ago, when LMP2 was very much the poor relation.

LMP2 has been given a power boost for the 2017 season, with lap times up to eleven seconds faster than in 2016. This formula clearly works. It is appealing to manufacturers and produces good close racing.

The GT classes were also well represented with high quality racing, so where is it going wrong for LMP1?

Sportscar racing has suffered this way before. Prototypes almost vanished from international competition in the mid-1990s after the implosion of Group C. In its heyday, Group C racers like the Sauber-Mercedes C9 and Jaguar XJR-14 reached Formula One speeds and provided spectacular racing. That said, it was not sustainable; spiralling costs led to dwindling grids and predictable racing. Changes had to be made.

A few years later, the same thing happened with GT racing. The GT1 class was initially popular but proved too costly to maintain. The FIA reacted by putting the smaller, more affordable GT2 class as the top category in the FIA GT Championship.

Is this the answer for the WEC? As a championship, it has proved quite effective in uniting several competing sportscar series and attracting top-class drivers. Its co-opting of the Le Mans 24 Hours is undoubtedly the jewel in its crown.