A strong field of LMP1 cars is in prospect for the 2018/19 FIA World Endurance Championship season, and proposed future rules for the top flight have made manufacturers excited again. Where did it all go right?
Four months ago, when Porsche announced the end of its highly successful LMP1 project, it seemed like the class was living on borrowed time.
Already, the sight of two LMP2 cars on the overall podium in the Le Mans 24 Hours – and the narrow margin by which Porsche actually secured its 19th victory at La Sarthe – had looked to put LMP1 on shaky ground indeed well before the Weissach marque announced its intention to leave.
How is it, then, that the WEC looks to be on course for the healthiest full-time LMP1 grid in its short history in 2018/19?
The simple answer is that the news of Porsche’s exit has forced the series to take stock, and make some vital changes to secure both its short-term and long-term future.
Even before that, Ginetta and SMP Racing had already announced plans to field cars in LMP1-L (before the subcategory was axed and merged with its LMP1-H sibling), which would have resulted in a field of six or seven cars in the top class minus the pair of 919 Hybrids.
But now, that figure could be as high as 11, thanks to Manor, DragonSpeed and now Rebellion all taking the step up from LMP2 as they eye a potential opportunity to thrive in the top class.
That’s partly down to the performance balancing the WEC’s rulemakers, the FIA and the Automobile Club de l’Ouest, are implementing in order to keep the fight between Toyota and the privateers interesting.
And the fact that the 2018/19 ‘superseason’ – implemented post-‘Porschexit’ – features not one but two editions of Le Mans provides these teams with two bites of a tantalisingly juicy cherry, especially given Toyota’s less-than-stellar recent reliability record in the French endurance classic.
It’s all the more attractive a proposition given that, from the 2020/21 season onwards, a new breed of LMP1s designed to look more like high-performance road cars is set to arrive, potentially along with a fresh influx of manufacturers.
Toyota technical director Pascal Vasselon suggested last month in Bahrain that, based on current discussions, there could well be “more than two” manufacturers involved in the top class when the new regulations take effect.
In other words, a shift towards road car-style designs could well herald the return of WEC’s 2014-16 golden age, defined by the superb three-way fights between Toyota, Audi and Porsche.
“If we can capture the imagination of fans and manufacturers, that’s a great thing,” Toyota driver Anthony Davidson told Motorsport.com.
“As long as the speed remains and they look impressive in terms of cornering speed and agility, I don’t see any down side to it at all.
“It’s the one advantage that sportscars have [over other forms of motorsport], that they have the potential to look like road cars. That should be thought about when going down the route of trying to make these cars a bit sexier in the future.
“To make a car that’s unique and reflects a cool-looking sportscar, it’s the reason that GTE is so successful and LMP1 has only one manufacturer left.”
This week, Toyota offered a glimpse of what a 2020/21 LMP1 car could look like, as it teased its GR Super Sport concept – a design that appears to be heavily influenced by the TS050 Hybrid.
We won’t see the car in its full glory until early next year, but the design is something of a throwback to the late 1990s, when Toyota’s GT-One took on a range of equally exotic, awe-inspiring machines that were theoretically based on road cars, but clearly bred purely to race.
That was the high-water mark for manufacturer involvement in Le Mans in recent times, but the trouble back then was that there was no championship built around the French endurance classic, and the investment made by the manufacturers wasn’t sustainable.
F1 picked up much of the slack when Toyota, along with the likes of BMW, Nissan and Mercedes all pulled the plug, paving the way for years of Audi domination.
Things are different this time around, with the WEC providing a valuable global platform for those manufacturers eyeing up success at La Sarthe.
And the rude health of the championship’s GTE division, which will boast no fewer than five works teams next year with BMW’s arrival, proves that appetite remains as strong as ever.
Perhaps the biggest irony of all is that Porsche, the manufacturer whose sudden departure prompted this rethink, will field an expanded fleet of 911 RSRs in the GTE Pro division at Le Mans – and has been one of the participants in recent discussions about the 2020/21 rules.
Should the Weissach marque come back with a latter-day equivalent of the 911 GT1, sportscar racing fans will surely look back at 2017 as the year when sportscar racing rediscovered the path to success.