WEC Season Review: Porsche Stands Firm to Confound Rivals


How It Panned Out – LMP1

Race winners:

6 Hours of Silverstone: #2 Porsche 919 Hybrid (Neel Jani/Marc Lieb/Romain Dumas)

6 Hours of Spa: #8 Audi R18 (Oliver Jarvis/Lucas di Grassi/Loic Duval)

24 Hours of Le Mans: #2 Porsche 919 Hybrid (Jani/Lieb/Dumas)

6 Hours of the Nurburgring: #1 Porsche 919 Hybrid (Mark Webber/Brendon Hartley/Timo Bernhard)

6 Hours of Mexico: #1 Porsche 919 Hybrid (Webber/Hartley/Bernhard)

6 Hours of COTA: #1 Porsche 919 Hybrid (Webber/Hartley/Bernhard)

6 Hours of Fuji: #6 Toyota TS050 Hybrid (Kamui Kobayashi/Mike Conway/Stephane Sarrazin)

6 Hours of Shanghai: #1 Porsche 919 Hybrid (Webber/Hartley/Bernhard)

6 Hours of Bahrain: #8 Audi R18 (Jarvis/Di Grassi/Duval)

 

‘We survived’ would be an appropriate motto for the #2 Porsche crew’s season.

Neel Jani, Marc Lieb and Romain Dumas were crowned World Endurance Champions for the first time with a fifth place finish in Bahrain, although this campaign was a distinct tale of two halves for the trio.

Victory at Silverstone (albeit the result of a penalty to the ‘winning’ Audi) and second place at Spa had the #2 car in the running from the start, while success at Le Mans elevated it to a commanding mid-season lead in the standings. However, a string of sub-par performances during the second half of the season (in part due to hybrid problems and in part due to a simple lack of pace) meant Jani, Lieb and Dumas would not see the podium again in 2016.

Such a level of inconsistency would normally play to the strengths of Audi, although this season the Joest-run squad was unable to convert its golden chance to retake the world championship.

The #8 crew of Oliver Jarvis, Lucas di Grassi and Loic Duval was Audi’s title-chaser this season. It was a coming-of-age year for the trio, who appeared to reach their peak level of cohesion since filling in the gaps made by the likes of marque legends Allan McNish and Tom Kristensen. They certainly had the pace to win more than the two they eventually did, but a series of problems (the majority of which were avoidable) meant the #8 car arrived at the Bahrain finale officially out of contention.

Audi had meteoric pace at Austin, but hybrid issues for the #8 R18 and a poorly timed safety car period working against the #7 car allowed the #1 Porsche to steal a win. In Mexico, similarly, the #8 Audi was leading convincingly when Jarvis crashed at turn one, before Andre Lotterer pitched the sister car into the wall during a front-right lockup. Again, Porsche was on hand to pick up the scraps. Those scraps turned out to be vital championship points which sealed the destiny of both the manufacturers’ and drivers’ titles.

Audi lost ground during disappointing North American tilt (Credit: Adrenal Media)

For Toyota, 2016 was about getting to grips with its new TS050 Hybrid. The Japanese manufacturer had a nightmarish 2015, so the simple fact that its car was competitive at some races this season meant a big step in the right direction had been taken. A crucial exemplification of this achievement was when the #6 car driven by Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi and Stephane Sarrazin entered the final race as the only other trio capable of winning the drivers’ championship.

They didn’t (the Toyotas were markedly slower than their rivals on that occasion), but at other times throughout the year it seemed as though the pace shown by the Toyota of old had been resurrected. At Spa, the #5 car was running comfortably in the lead when it broke down, while at Le Mans…..well, see our ‘Moments of the Year’. Toyota was the third best LMP1 manufacturer in 2016, but the steps it took from a bleak previous season made it one of the standout performers and a refreshing face at the head of the field.

2016 Takeaways: Marcel Fassler taking to the grass to make a crucial pass for the lead at Spa; Rebellion Racing arriving at Le Mans third in the world championship after problems for its hybrid rivals; Toyota getting back to winning ways at Fuji; Audi losing nailed-on victories at Austin and Mexico City; Audi bowing out with a win in its final LMP1 race

 

How It Panned Out – LMP2 and GTE

LMP2/GTE-Pro/GTE-Am winners:

6 Hours of Silverstone: RGR Sport by Morand/#71 AF Corse/#83 AF Corse

6 Hours of Spa: Signatech Alpine/#71 AF Corse/#98 Aston Martin Racing

24 Hours of Le Mans: Signatech Alpine/#66 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing/#83 AF Corse

6 Hours of the Nurburgring: Signatech Alpine/#51 AF Corse/#98 Aston Martin Racing

6 Hours of Mexico: RGR Sport by Morand/#97 Aston Martin Racing/Abu Dhabi Proton Racing

6 Hours of COTA: Signatech Alpine/#95 Aston Martin Racing/#98 Aston Martin Racing

6 Hours of Fuji: G-Drive Racing/#67 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing/#98 Aston Martin Racing

6 Hours of Shanghai: G-Drive Racing/#67 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing/#98 Aston Martin Racing

6 Hours of Bahrain: G-Drive Racing/#95 Aston Martin Racing/Abu Dhabi Proton Racing

 

In LMP2, Signatech Alpine dominated its rivals to add a world title to its European Le Mans Series crown from 2014.

Nicolas Lapierre, Gustavo Menezes and Stephane Richelmi won half the races in 2016 with their Alpine A460-Nissan, and when victory wasn’t possible they finished no lower than fourth.

That consistency, especially in a competitive field with RGR Sport, G-Drive Racing, Strakka Racing, Manor and more all vying for top honours, meant the French outfit thoroughly deserved its title.

One of the bugbears of the LMP2 paddock in 2016 was the FIA’s driver rating system, with some teams benefiting from so-called ‘super silvers’: i.e., silver-rated drivers who are not amateur racers. This, to an extent, was what set Signatech Alpine apart from its rivals, with American youngster Menezes often lapping among the top 10% of drivers in class despite his lowly ranking. Still, that is not to take anything away from Alpine’s effort this season, which often saw its drivers having to go toe-to-toe with its rivals in order to gain victories. See Lapierre’s daring round-the-outside sweep on ESM driver Pipo Derani to seal the win at Spa in May as a prime example.

GTE-Pro saw Aston Martin Racing defeat Ferrari, Porsche and the new factory-blessed entry from Ford to seal both the manufacturers’ and drivers’ crowns. Nicki Thiim and Marco Sorensen

 

2016 Takeaways: Will Stevens v. Filipe Albuquerque for the win in Fuji (the former won); Ferrari’s blinding start to the season in GTE-Pro; Aston Martin switching from Michelin to Dunlop tyres – it clearly worked!; Bruno Senna’s epic first stint for RGR Sport in Mexico; Pedro Lamy grabs Am pole in Bahrain to keep championship hopes alive….only for engine trouble to hit during the race

Alpine made the LMP2 category its own (Credit: Adrenal Media)

Race of the Year – 6 Hours of Fuji

It was the closest racing finish in WEC history, and perhaps even the most exciting race since the series began four years ago.

In an epic conclusion, Kamui Kobayashi driving the #6 Toyota held off the charging #8 Audi of Loic Duval to claim a popular home victory for the Japanese manufacturer, winning by a scant 1.4 second margin.

What made Toyota’s victory possible – aside from its renewed pace at the low-downforce Fuji Speedway – was its shrewdness in the pits. During the penultimate round of stops the team opted to short-fuel the #6 car to bring it out ahead of the #1 Porsche in second, while at the final service the mechanics refrained from fixing a fresh set of tyres which brought Kobayashi out ahead of Duval for the run to the flag. Although the winning Toyota didn’t do much on-track overtaking, its agility on the pit lane ensured it had the measure of the #8 Audi….just.

Honourable mentions: An epic 24 Hours of Le Mans (see below); Audi defeats falling rivals before Silverstone disqualification; Toyota squanders Spa lead as #8 Audi pounces

Toyota out-smarted its rivals during Fuji classic (Credit: Adrenal Media)

Moment(s) of the Year

Two iconic moments take the biscuit in this category: one for its influence on the world championship and the other for its impact on motor racing in general.

The first is Porsche’s snatch and grab victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, which eventually dictated who would end the year as the world champions.

Neel Jani, Marc Lieb and Romain Dumas were unspectacular during the second half of the season, chalking up myriad fourth and fifth place finishes in the #2 919 Hybrid. It’s no secret that their fortuitous double points haul at the French enduro was crucial to their overall success.

The retirement at the start of the last lap of the #5 Toyota – driven at the time by Kazuki Nakajima – was a tragic sight following a perfect run by the team. Nakajima and team-mates Anthony Davidson and Sebastien Buemi had defeated their rivals during the night, but in the end it was a turbo issue from within that pushed the victory out of grasp. All the preparation, all the work and all the sweat of an exhausting week-long event unravelled in the most public of ways, with Porsche steaming through as benefactor. Even Le Mans, one of the least predictable races on the planet, couldn’t foresee such an epic and dramatic conclusion.

Toyota did everything but win Le Mans (Credit: Toyota Gazoo Racing)

The second moment of the year came on October 26, when a press release was distributed to the global media by Audi.

In it, the German manufacturer announced that it would be ceasing its LMP1 activities at the end of the 2016 season, with the focus shifting to its growing involvement in Formula E.

Shock was the primary emotion felt throughout the WEC community: how could Audi, the bastion of endurance racing for almost two decades, decide to throw in the towel? The announcement was, of course, charged by the bosses at Volkswagen Auto Group following pressure on the company for the diesel emissions scandal in its road cars. Nevertheless, the loss of Audi from endurance racing was an unfathomable concept for many, with myriad questions emerging about how the WEC would cope without one of its key stakeholders. How would Toyota and Porsche respond? Will LMP1 stay competitive? What will become of the former Audi drivers? The answers to those questions lie in 2017.

Honourable mentions: Mark Webber calls time on his professional racing career; Brendon Hartley’s spectacular crash at Silverstone; RGR Sport winning in front of home crowd in Mexico City

Audi signed off with an emotional victory in Bahrain (Credit: Craig Robertson/Speed Chills)

What’s Coming in 2017

The WEC is now an established motor racing entity, sporting its own large fan base and unique appeal. In 2017 the challenge will be to consolidate what has already been achieved, taking into account the loss of Audi from the LMP1 ranks.

In terms of the competition, expect Toyota to come back with a more competitive package to take the fight closer to Porsche. The TS050 was impressive during its debut season, although Toyota is still working to re-attain the 2014 level of pace that delivered its last world championship. More details on the updated LMP1 hybrids will be released soon, with both already in the early stages of testing for next season.

LMP2 promises to be a key category in 2017. The awaited spec regulations (whether you like them or not) should provide even closer racing than before, with Dallara, Ligier, ORECA and Riley-Multimatic all building extremely competitive packages capable of raising the power bar to around 500 horsepower. A realignment of the FIA driver rankings should make better sense of the ‘true’ silver drivers (with a number of super silvers now promoted to the gold rating), while the addition of new teams including LMP1 privateer champion Rebellion Racing should add more teams to the ‘potential winners’ pot.

All the indications point to another bumper year for the WEC in 2017.