THE USUAL SUSPECTS
The times they are certainly a-changing. Bennett ponders Porsche’s move from the World Endurance Championship to Formula E, and why by 2040 we’ll be enjoying our fossil fuel-powered machines recreationally, plus front-engined Porsches on the up
Steve Bennett has his say
So the shock news from Porsche isn't so much that it's quitting the World Endurance Championship, from the end of this season, but more thats it's going to enter the Formula E Championship from 2019.
Without wishing to sound too smug, we predicted that 2017 would be Porsche's last in the WEC. Why? Well, the LMP1 class for hugely expensive hybrid prototypes is dying on its wheels and Audi had already started scribbling on the wall of its demise, by pulling out at the end of the 2016 season, leaving Porsche with just Toyota to play with.
Audi's decision was no great surprise. Since 1999, it had pretty much dominated WEC and Le Mans, introducing new tech like its FSI (direct fuel injection) engines and, of course, diesel. It was the diesel that spelt the end, hastened by the VW 'dieselgate' scandal, in which Audi was equally complicit. Now, racing a diesel powered LMP1 car didn't seem quite so green, hybrid assisted or not. Audi jumped and ran straight to Formula E, with a semi-works effort, with long time Audi tuners ABT. And Audi isn't alone. Mercedes has just announced that it will leave the DTM (German Touring Cars) championship in favour of Formula E, alongside just about every other major manufacturer (Jaguar, Honda, Renault, Toyota, Ford) it would appear. Call it motorsport virtue signalling.
Of course this is very much as sign of the times. Motorsport is marketing as far as manufacturers are concerned and they will stick around as long as it suits them, although in the case of Porsche a lack of competition is a pretty valid excuse to get out, albeit a pretty convenient one, too. It's highly unlikely that Toyota will hang about either. After all what's the point. Sure there are new LMP1 regs around the corner, designed to encourage increased manufacturer involvement, but it's all a bit late now. Formula E is the new big thing, it's fully green and it's a damn sight cheaper than developing a hugely complex hybrid power train.
So what does Porsche leave behind as a legacy from its four years back at the cuttingedge coal face of WEC, Le Mans and LMP1? Well, three further Le Mans victories and two overall WEC wins. That's not bad going, plus the V4 turbo, hybrid 919 was a pretty interesting piece of kit that resonated with Porsche's hybrid road car ambitions. In the great pantheon of Porsche's endurance heroes, it's no 917, but it was/is still a proper Porsche factory racer.
But hybrid is no longer the big new thing. Porsche is paving the way for the Mission E
PORSCHE TO ENTER FORMULA E? SHOULD HAVE SEEN THAT ONE COMING
concept and Formula E fits in with that strategy. For the time being, it's the future. And what exactly is Formula E? Well, it's effectively a spec single seater formula, where the chassis is pretty much identical, but the electric power trains are free, or at least free within a set of regs. Instigated by the FIA just three years ago, Formula E was looking distinctly shaky, until Renault and Jaguar climbed on board, which prompted a stampede from fellow manufacturers that didn't want to get left behind.
The cars are pure electric. They rely on battery power, but there's no means of topping up the batteries by converting braking energy etc. So, halfway through a race, drivers pit to change cars. Races take place almost entirely on city centre tracks all over the world, which is clever, because there's a captive audience. It's easy to jump through the various planning hoops, too, because there's no noise or emissions to get hung up about. Having said that, the British round, which was held in Battersea Park, was scuppered by a protest from local residents, leaving the UK currently without a race. Why not go to a purpose built track, like Silverstone? Well that defeats the object of taking Formula E to the people. Or to put it another way, how many folk would actually go out of their way to watch silent racing cars, that are not actually that fast? Not many, and the organisers and manufacturers know that.
Sounds like I'm moaning doesn't it? Well, yes and no. I'm all for different forms of motorsport, but when it comes to the really big stuff, which relies on manufacturers getting involved, I'm less than enthusiastic. It's all super-duper when they're in spend, spend, spend mode, but soon the objectives will be met and they will move on to the next big thing, which right now is the manufacturers’ race to distance themselves from polluting fossil fuels. Formula E is the perfect, fairly low-cost platform.
The problem, though, is that Formula E's massive manufacturer take up rate could be its undoing in the long run. Right now it’s early days and manufacturers will give the series and its works teams a chance to find their feet. It's when they need to start winning that it becomes an issue, because eight into one podium does not go and eventually CEOS will start to look at the bottom line and pull the plug, or the next big thing will come along, like autonomous racing, or some such, and the whole process will start again. Sorry to sound negative, but history will back me up on this one time and time again.
So how will Porsche fair in Formula E come 2019? Pretty well I should think. It mastered LMP1 pretty quickly, which is rather more complex than developing an electric motor, which is not exactly cutting-edge. After all Porsche mastered electric tech with the Ferdinand Porsche designed Lohner of 117years ago, and that was actually a hybrid!
And, is Porsche's involvement in Formula E something to get excited about? Hmm, not for me I'm afraid. For all the above reasons it smacks too much of simply getting on the bandwagon. LMP1 is a busted flush, what else can we do that will look good and meet our marketing aims? Maybe I'll be proved wrong, but electric racing cars? I mean it's just a giant Scalextric really.
Porsche’s return to sports car racing can only be considered a qualified success, with two WEC titles and three Le Mans wins in four years. The right time to leave then? Yes, but would they if it wasn’t for Audi jumping first and Formula E serving Porsche’s marketing aims rather better?
STEVEBENNETT Editor, 911& Porscheworld