PUSHES ITS OWN BOUNDARIES Favourite has made a step forward.
Porsche heads into the 2016 Le Mans 24 Hours as the favourite to take what would be its 18th win in the endurance classic.
After all, it dominated last year’s race, it has only failed to win one World Endurance Championship round in the past year and has had the fastest car in the opening two rounds of the championship over a single lap. But many in the team are quick to downplay the tag of favourite. It’s easy to write that off as a refusal to tempt fate, but it’s a legitimate position.
The Silverstone and Spa WEC rounds have hardly been slam-dunks for Porsche, which hasn’t actually won either on the road – its victory in the opener only came after the winning Audi was excluded for illegal plank wear. Audi and Toyota have redoubled their efforts with new cars, primarily as a result of being ground into the dust by Porsche last year, and the cracks have started to appear in Stuttgart’s finest. So Le Mans is beautifully set up as a race between evolution and revolution. Porsche representing the former, upstarts Toyota and Audi the latter.
But evolution doesn’t mean it has stood still. The monocoque of the Porsche 919 Hybrid remains unchanged, but there have been plenty of upgrades, so this is no tired, tried and tested package. The car could be described as long in the tooth, but all of this also comes on top of major revisions ahead of last season that turned it into the dominant force.
“There have been updates on the aerodynamics, the suspension, the weight and the hybrid system,” says team principal Andreas Seidl. “We have improved the engine in terms of combustion, gas exchange and frictional losses. We have made a reasonable step from last year.”
Porsche has had to cut back from three to two cars for Le Mans, meaning last year’s winning trio of Earl Bamber, Nico Hulkenberg and Nick Tandy are absent from its LMP1 ranks (Hulkenberg won’t be at Le Mans, while the other two are in the works Porsches in GTE Pro ( see page six). Having two bullets in the chamber rather than three isn’t ideal, especially given the winning crew last year managed to get the tyres working overnight far better than the sister machines. But it is at least on equal terms with both Toyotas, which has always run two cars since its return in 2012, and Audi, which has also cut back. Driver Neel Jani shrugs off the disadvantage. He says: “Porsche has a good enough structure to have two or three cars, it doesn’t matter.”
Generally, the #1 car of Mark Webber, Timo Bernhard and Brendon Hartley has been to the fore in recent times, winning last year’s title and leading both at Silverstone and Spa early on before hitting trouble. But the #2 machine of Neel Jani, the real ace card in Porsche’s line up, Romain Dumas and Marc Lieb has also been rapid and leads the 2016 points. It is a measure of how unpredictable the season has been that second in the standings is one of the privateer Rebellion crews. The Porsche trio only leads because they limped home second at Spa after hybrid power was compromised in the early laps in an attritional race.
So the picture is inconclusive. The car is certainly improved and Porsche has worked to tackle the understeer troubles it has historically faced with the 919 Hybrid. Not that this is especially helpful at Le Mans, but the reduction of energy permitted per lap by 7.5 per cent means regulations have also fed into upsetting the competitive order.
There’s no indication that any of the three teams will be at any advantage in terms of range. Last year, each managed 13-lap stints under green-flag conditions and it’s likely to be a similar story this year even with the reduction in the permitted fuel. Tyre management is also not the weakness it was a couple of years ago for the Porsche. And while the Porsche is likely, although not a dead cert, to be the fastest it won’t be by a massive margin, especially given it’s yet to be seen how the fuel regulations might affect the pace balance-of-power. So the biggest variable is reliability.
Porsche’s massive stride forward in pace from 2014 to ’15 has forced Audi and Toyota to go aggressive. In turn, Porsche is trying to screw every last iota of performance out of its package to stay ahead. The result? Reliability is not guaranteed. In fact, only once in four attempts in WEC this year has one of the Porsches run cleanly – not that mechanical problems can be blamed for Hartley’s brain fade while lapping Mike Wainwright’s GTE Am Aston Martin at Silverstone that put the #1 car out.
“Spa was a crazy race with reliability issues,” says Jani. “Le Mans will be very, very interesting because of this. It is never easy. ”
Inevitably, Porsche look to downplay the question marks over reliability, but the picture is clear to see. Audi driver Lucas di Grassi suspects this will be the story of the race.
“You have to take risks, you have to be aggressive and you have to push technology forward,” says di Grassi. “You take risks for performance, but now it’s so stretched in technology that people are having reliability problems – not just us, but Toyota, Porsche, everyone.
“That’s going to be the story at Le Mans. It could be like 2013 when one car was in the lead, then it was in the pits, then another.”
So unusual have the reliability problems been that not only is the battle between the manufacturers hard to call, but some have even tipped the privateers for a shock victory. After all, Rebellion has finished third and fourth in the opening two WEC rounds! But that remains a fanciful scenario.
On paper, this should be Porsche’s race to lose. For all its reliability problems, it should be the strongest, it has the most mature car, a team that’s on the money operationally and a record of success none of its rivals have come close to matching over the past 18 months. ■
Porsche has gone for an evolutionary approach
Porsche has been fast but fragile 2015’s WEC title-winning cre w Stuttgart marque won ’15 Le Mans