PUSHES ITS OWN BOUND­ARIES Favourite has made a step for­ward.

Motor Sport News - - Le Mans Preview - By Edd Straw

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. ■

Photos: LAT

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

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