The second round of the World Endurance Championship took place last weekend at the formidable Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium. In what was the last round before June’s Le Mans 24 hours; teams sought to prepare themselves in combat one last time before the WEC’s summer endurance epic. This meant an increase in ranks from 2 to 3 cars for both Porsche and Audi LMP1 teams but more importantly it saw the arrival of Audi’s new low drag bodywork; a revised aerodynamics kit aimed at increased speed on the long straights of Le Mans. The team would run the new kit on cars #7 and #8 with #9 running the standard trim for comparison
After a hotly contested season opener at Silverstone, it was anyone’s guess as to how it would all unfold. Qualifying saw a dominant performance from Porsche as they filled the top 3 places on the grid, although in the race itself drama hit the Porsche 919’s early on with Nick Tandy in the #19 tangling with the Porsche 911 RSR of Kevin Estre. The #17 of Webber, Hartley and Bernhard was hit firstly with a stop/go penalty and then lost a lap to the leaders thanks to suspension issues but it fought back to a well-deserved 3rd place at the end. With last year’s champions Toyota seemingly unable to stick with its German rivals it was left to the Silverstone victors in the #7 Audi to chase down the remaining Porsche. At the finish it was Messrs Treluyer, Lotterer and Fassler in the Audi R18 that took their second successive victory of the year coming home only 13 seconds clear of the #18 Porsche of Neel Jani, Marc Lieb and Romain Dumas.
Reflecting on the weekend it is clear that Audi go to their adopted, French back yard in La Sarthe with a sense of quiet confidence. They lacked the straight line speed at Silverstone and the revised ‘low drag’ aero seems to have at least levelled the playing fields a touch. The one lap pace of the Porsche 919 Hybrid is frighteningly quick and watching it lap Spa you tend to think of it more as a projectile, rather than a racing car. Being Le Mans, you can never discount anyone, including Toyota. While they haven’t seen the increase in pace experienced by Audi and Porsche, it would be silly to rule them out. Then, as if all that wasn’t a tantalising enough prospect for you, remember there’s also long awaited arrival of Nissan’s 1250bhp FWD engineering marvel; the GT-R LM NISMO. Le Mans 2015 has the makings of a vintage year and one in which many a speed/distance records could fall.
It is the jaw dropping performance of this latest breed of top level sportscars and the quite wondrous and varied ways that each team achieves this speed that has the little kid inside of me beaming with excitement. It’s that sweet-spot in a sport where the regulations are conducive not only to the benefit of the participants and their own gains but also to that of the fans. The roster of manufacturer led teams has grown and with it a genuine excitement as some of the greatest automotive minds are let off the engineering leash to create the most interesting and technologically advance race-cars on the planet.
To anyone that might be put off by the words ‘Hybrid’ or ‘Energy recovery’; don’t be. With the development of a formula for what is a truly pioneering form of motorsport comes the resultant fact that endurance races are no longer last man standing marathons; they are quite astonishing sprint races. 6 hours to go as fast as you, your teammates and your car can go… first one across the line wins. That is the kind of motor sport that gets the fan in me excited and indeed it seemed to be a shared feeling across fans and participants at the opening 2 rounds; a sense that the motor racing planets have aligned to create something remarkably special. Long may it continue.