2013 FIA World Endurance Championship: Preview

Toyota and Audi face off at the front of the WEC pack (Photo Credit: FIA WEC)

The FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC) was always going to live or die by the number of manufacturers who pledged their support for the series by entering teams. For that reason when Peugeot pulled the plug on their endurance racing program in the build-up to 2012’s first race it looked like the series was about to still-born.

A little over a year later and the WEC prepares to start its second season, with manufacturer presence set to be at all time high for this weekend’s Six Hours of Silverstone.

In many ways if you’re looking for a preview of what to expect from 2013 you need look no further than the 2012 campaign, with the many of the key players from the inaugural season set to return for 2013. Of course, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read this preview.

You could crudely split the 2012 season in half – looking at the overall championship at least – and title the first half of the season ‘Audi’ and the second half ‘Toyota’. Forced into the series early by Peugeot’s unexpected exit the Japanese manufacturer stunned the Audi Sport Team Joest squad by winning three of the last four races in the eight race season. By virtue of the Toyota’s late entry and slow start to the season Audi still won the title, with Andre Lotterer, Benoit Treluyer and Marcel Fassler beating Audi stablemates Allan McNish and Tom Kristensen to the drivers’ title.

Both Toyota and Audi have been developing their cars over the off-season. Toyota shedding the compromises they were forced to make as a development car was pushed to become a competition machine while Audi – somewhat shockingly for a team that has been at the top of endurance racing for so long – are outwardly playing catch-up, with the 2013 version of the R18 e-tron quattro sporting the same rear wing widening wheelarch extensions that Toyota attached to the their TS030 Hybrid following the 24 Hours of Le Mans last year.

Both teams have tested their 2013 machinery extensively, Audi having also raced the new-spec e-tron quattro at the 12 Hours of Sebring, though the new car driven by McNish, Kristensen and Lucas di Grassi was beaten by the 2012 design despite both Audis running faultlessly.

For the full 2013 season Audi will run a pair of e-tron quattro – a third will be added for Le Mans – while Toyota step up to a two car squad for the full season, retaining the same drivers as they began with in 2012, meaning Sebastien Buemi, Stephane Sarrazin and Anthony Davidson get a full season in the #8 car after their dramatic one-off drive at Le Mans last season.

Thus Silverstone will be the first time that the two team, both with new cars have faced each other in competition on numerical level pegging, with the balance of power this weekend likely to set the tone for the first half of the season, though the destination of the championship depends largely on results at Le Mans, the 24 hour race offering double points in the WEC standings while demanding an entirely different car package to the regular circuits and six hour races that make up the rest of the season.

Many of the same stories – the increase in manufacturer presence, the swing in the class at mid-season in 2012 – can be applied to the LMGTE Pro class.

Ferrari – through the AF Corse team – dominated the first half of the championship in 2012, their advantage made headline grabbingly concrete when Toni Vilander, Giancarlo Fisichella and Gimmi Bruni won the 24 Hours of Le Mans after starting from the rear of the field after the car was heavily damaged in practice.

The Italian team won five of the first six races the two man team of Fisichella and Bruni accounting for three consecutive wins with victories at Silverstone, Interlagos and Bahrain. Then, however, Ferrari’s advantage was removed – the 458 Italia no longer able to save fuel to the extent that they could complete a race on one fewer pitstop. With the playing field now significantly more level the final two races were split between Porsche and Aston Martin.

All three marques return for 2013. AF Corse continue as Ferrari’s representatives with a pair of cars with a star-studded driver stable with new addition Kamui Kobayashi in the second car while Fisichella and Bruni are given the lead car in the team.

After fielding single car teams in 2012 – almost guaranteeing AF Corse the class title – Porsche and Aston Martin both bring their own two car challenge to the 2013 WEC. For both the step up to this season is significant.

After entrusting their previous representation to customer teams – all be it customer teams with works assistance in the form of drivers from their factory pool – Porsche takes its top GT team in house under the stewardship of Olaf Manthey, the man best known for helming Porsche’s exploits on the Nurburgring Nordschliefe.

The two Porsches, with three drivers each are filled by Porsche works drivers including Romain Dumas and Timo Bernhard returning to Porsche after an extended loan period to Audi for their LMP1 program.

Dumas joins Marc Lieb and Richard Lietz – the duo established as Porsche’s best driving line-up in Europe. Bernhard combines Joerg Bergmeister and Patrick Pilet.

Aston Martin Racing jump from one car to four full season entries in the WEC, two in the LMGTE Pro class, two more in the LMGTE Am category. With the expansion come new names to the team. For Silverstone Bruno Senna slots into a seat that will be occupied by Peter Dumbreck for much of the season alongside Aston regulars Darren Turner and Stefan Mucke. When Dumbreck is present Senna will move to the other pro car at Silverstone shared between Paul Dalla Lana, Pedro Lamy and Fred Makowiecki.

The Pro they will drive car is a heavily revised version of the V8 Vantage that arguably ended the 2012 season as the best car in the class. With the Am class using the 2012 cars ‘locked’ in the specifications they finished the season in that arguably makes the pair of Aston entries in that class early favourites.

Defending champions in the class- Larbre Competition – scale back to a single Corvette for 2013. The trio of Gianluca Roda, Christian Reid and Paolo Ruberti who ended last season second for Felbermayr-Proton remains intact for another season, with IMSA Performance Matmut fielding the other Porsche in the class, though Raymond Narac’s team is without Pilet, his regular co-driver promoted to the Pro ranks.

Ferrari will be represented by three teams. AF Corse enter a single full season car while Krohn Racing also return. New to the class – and to racing as a whole this season – at Enzo Potolicchio’s 8 Star Motorsport, with Potolicchio driving with Rui Aguas and Philipp Peter in the unmistakable orange Ferrari.

Venezuelan Potolicchio branches out with his own team after being part of the LMP2 winning Starworks Motorsport team last season.

For all that the WEC seems angled towards manufacturer involvement it was the LMP2 class – the category aimed specifically at privateer teams and Pro-Am line-ups that gave the WEC its biggest class and some of the best racing of the inaugural season.

The American Starworks teams won at Sebring on debut, then at Le Mans on the first time of asking, wrapping up the class title with a race still to spare. Sadly – though not surprisingly – lack of funding has ended their title defence before it ever began. The question is who will succeed them.

DeltaADR ran them closest last season, but the team from 2012 is split up, the team taking on the running of the G-Drive ORECA-Nissan. John Martin, their star driver of 2012, moves into the Russian flagged team to join Roman Rusinov and Indycar refugee Mike Conway in G-Drive’s #26 with the #25 Delta-ADR will be driven by Tor Graves, Antonio Pizzonia and James Walker to start the season.

Their main opposition in LMP2 will likely come from OAK Racing, who start the season with three cars in the class boasting possibly the strongest team of drivers in the class. However, Pecom Racing (Luis PerezCompanc with Nicolas Minassian and Pierre Kaffer at Silverstone) and Greaves Motorsport should be capable of making a four way fight for class honours through the season.

Privateer interest continues in LMP1, though increasingly in the shadow of the manufacturer showdown certain to dominate the class. After JRM’s exit from prototype racing the teams’ battle in LMP1 has become a one-on-one battle between Rebellion Racing and Strakka Racing.

Largely by the luxury of having two cars Rebellion won the title last season, though Strakka were the only privateer to get a trip to the overall podium with third in Bahrain. With Toyota and Audi both with two cars a privateer appearance in the top three looks even less likely this season with manufacturer dominance set to only increase.