Porsche grabbed the headlines at the official Paul Ricard test last week, but was this a deliberate ploy to unsettle its rivals? Sam Smith examines its 2015 challenge.
Delivering an accurate summary of the first group FIA World Endurance Championship test is not the work of a moment. It featured just as much psychology in the pit and paddock as it did genuine test results over the two days and 17-hours of running last Friday and Saturday.
The key point though is that Audi, Porsche and Toyota had already completed most of their serious data gathering, qualifying and race sim testing before they even arrived at ‘The Prologue’ last week.
All three manufacturers have been around the block enough to know that true raw speed and accurate race pace are generally only shown at the first race. Ally to this the fact that fuel flow amount was not officially regulated, and then perhaps a true accuracy was never really reflected on the timing screens at Ricard.
Record pole lap at Le Mans likely
If conditions are favourable, it is highly likely that Stephane Sarrazin’s 3m18.513s lap he set in the first qualifying session in 2008 with his Peugeot 908 HDi will be beaten handsomely this summer.
Neel Jani’s best lap of 1m37.220s in the #18 Porsche 919 Hybrid at Paul Ricard last week eclipsed the previous best from 2014 by a huge 4.069s. It is too simplified to calculate an approximate sum for how much quicker the cars will be this year, especially at Le Mans.
The reason for this are the different characteristics of Ricard compared to Le Mans. The deployment of stored energy at La Sarthe is vastly different to that at Ricard, despite the length of the main straights at each circuit.
Whatever, the pace was still impressive and even at conservative estimates we could easily see qualifying laps in the 3m14-3m15s bracket at Le Mans this June. Some even talk of 3m12s!
This of course will be the headline grabber on Thursday evening at La Sarthe. However, of much more importance will be the stint lengths and average times. This is where the race will be won, if unlike 2014, we get improved reliability over the full 24 Hours
In 2014 Porsche started its return to the senior class of endurance competition with the best time at the Prologue. Brendon Hartley set a 1m41.289s but then came Silverstone, where although Porsche scored a debut podium, it was very evident they still had a significant gap to plug.
If the test results last week are to be taken at face value, the boot if very much on the other foot this time around, and particularly on one lap speed.
Quiet confidence at Porsche
Neel Jani smashed Hartley’s previous best out of sight with that 1m37.220s early on in the Friday evening session. The time was 1.838s quicker than that of the competition (to the #1 Toyota) during the two days. Black on white, it looks terrifying for the opposition. But as ever in testing, the reality is probably more subtle than that.
So, if you can’t tell accurately on the track, can you tell by body language and a feeling for what the protagonists have at their disposal? There was an air of solid confidence down in the Porsche Team pit as Team Principal Andreas Seidl had a hitherto previously unseen glint in his eye during the two days.
“I would say we have a car that is around 80-90% new,” said Seidl. “The two main targets were the weight of the car and also the speed performance over an entire race. We are happy with the way the first tests have gone.
“We know too that the competition has moved on so we have had a big push. We have kept and delivered on every milestone we have put in place with the development. With the experience we gained last year we are positive about the package we have.”
Race pace also impressive
Race simulation pace was also good for Porsche with both cars able to lap consistently in the mid-1m41s bracket. The team confirmed to Motorsport.com that they had undertaken a 30-hour endurance test at the circuit the week before the Prologue. However, it is believed that this was not non-stop.
Timo Bernhard was, as ever in fine form and doing his best to talk down the significance of the times posted on Friday.
“The power is good and the testing we have done has been on the whole positive. But of course when you come to a test like this with your competitors in the next garage you do not show everything,” stated the German.
“The car is more agile for sure and generally reacts better for the driver now. Also some of the small things have really helped like driver ergonomics in the cockpit. All these things and the knowledge from last year have combined to make a better package for 2015.”
Improved tyre wear is key for Porsche
Porsche has been working hard on tyre management over the winter after suffering for most of their debut year with degradation over stints. With the increase in power it is even more imperative for them to improve on wear during stints.
Motorsport.com discovered that the team learned a massive amount from last season’s Interlagos finale when a new surface ensured minimal degradation. The subsequent tire data was used effectively for initial development on the new 919 Hybrid in order to enhance the durability in the more weight efficient 2015 spec 919 Hybrid.
From a vehicle dynamic point of view Porsche has done a lot of work both on test (shaker)-rigs with track relay simulation and on circuit itself. The team is believed to have run an innovative and highly advanced FRIC suspension system last season and a further development of that is thought to be on the current iteration of the 919 Hybrid.
So nothing is black and white as we head in to the 2015 WEC season next weekend at Silverstone. The feeling in the paddock is that it will be very close and that all three of the season entered manufacturers have individual positive and technical traits that could see each win races and for the title battle to go right down to the wire.
2015 to be closest season yet
As Porsche board member for R&D, Wolfgang Hatz somewhat cryptically said last week: “We want to be able to win in 2015. It goes beyond a purely emotional level when we say: If Porsche competes at Le Mans, we compete with a certain claim.”
So Porsche indeed look mighty over one lap. Audi are impressive over a longer stint but will likely have one less lap of fuel at Le Mans.
Toyota? They kept their powder very dry at Le Mans. Rumours circulated they had done a 1m36s in private testing at Ricard. Whether accurate or not they had a confident air around them last week as they kick start their title defence.
Do not miss the long battles ahead, let alone the war that is expected at Le Mans.