This weekend the FIA World Endurance Championship will make its third visit to Austin’s imposing Circuit of the Americas for the first non-European race of the 2015 season.
The 3.42 mile, 20 turn layout is one of the most technical on the calendar, and despite its short history has already played host to some of the FIA WEC’s most memorable races.
In 2013, after taking over from Sebring as the American round of the championship, Austin was the venue for an exciting race-long dice between the #2 Audi R-18 etron quattro and the #8 Toyota TS040. After plenty of to-ing and fro-ing during the pit stops, Loïc Duval made the crucial move by diving on the inside of Stéphane Sarrazin at Turn 12 to seal the win. The following year, Audi once again took victory but only after a freak thunderstorm forced the leading Toyotas off track just before halfway. As the track dried the conditions improved but it was Audi’s #2 car that prevailed.
This year’s six hour race looks set to be another close-fought affair. In LMP1, Audi heads into the weekend with its 100% win rate at COTA, but the convincing pace of the Porsche 919 Hybrids at Le Mans and the Nürburgring suggests that Audi’s recent reign in America will face a major challenge on Saturday evening.
Audi has put faith in the low-downforce configuration of its R18 e-tron quattro that worked wonders at Spa-Francorchamps, but the new high-downforce setup of the 919 Hybrids proved dominant in Germany last month, as Porsche recorded its maiden 1-2 finish in the FIA WEC.
This points to another winning weekend for Porsche, but the ACO’s tyre allocations for the COTA weekend have been restored to the pre-Le Mans standard of six sets for qualifying and the race, which could allow Audi to draw closer through its known advantage in tyre management during the six hours.
Toyota, meanwhile, continues to run in the shadows of the other manufacturer based LMP1 teams; a far cry from its competitive showings in the previous two years. The TS040 Hybrid was consistently two seconds off the pace at the Nürburgring, and without the turbocharged engine setup that the other two LMP1 manufacturers enjoy it will be difficult for the Japanese marque to achieve a now somewhat elusive podium finish.
The privateer LMP1 teams had an encouraging weekend in Germany and will head to COTA confident of improved pace thanks to the Equivalence of Technology breaks that have brought them closer to the tail end of the manufacturers.
Rebellion Racing has endured a difficult past month, following the tragic death of long-time chief mechanic Damien Lewis, so both AER-powered cars will be present and hopeful of a strong finish in memory of one of the FIA WEC paddock’s most respected members. The recent performance adjustments will allow the Swiss squad to be more competitive on a lap-by-lap basis, but the car’s ability to perform consistently well over the course of six hours is still not confirmed.
After gaining its first LMP1 privateer points with victory at the Nürburgring, Team ByKolles enters the fifth round of the championship aiming for another top result, but the reliability of the CLM PR/01 is still questionable. Nevertheless, another solid points finish will bring plenty of confidence to a team that has struggled to make an impression in 2015.
Last month KCMG staked a big claim in the LMP2 title race by securing a second successive victory with its ORECA 05 Nissan. The Chinese team now leads the class standings by 15 points, ahead of the #28 G-Drive Racing Ligier JS P2. At the start of the season the Ligiers were expected to be the dominant force (an estimation that rang true at Silverstone), but the recent performances of the metallic blue ORECA have given G-Drive a lot of work to do in the championship race.
There is one slight change to the KCMG roster this weekend, although it is unlikely to affect the team’s overall performance: Nick Tandy is on United Sportscar Championship duty with Porsche North America, and will be replaced by the equally proficient Nicolas Lapierre, who previously also stepped in for the Spa-Francorchamps and Le Mans rounds.
Particular interest will be bestowed upon the only American prototype team in FIA WEC competition – Extreme Speed Motorsports. Scott Sharp’s Ligier-backed outfit has struggled to find its mojo since switching from HPD to Onroak chassis earlier in the year, but reliability has allowed the #31 car of Jon Fogarty, Ed Brown and Johannes van Overbeek to hold fourth in the LMP2 teams’ championship with a string of mid-table finishes, however they are 40 points behind the third place #26 G-Drive crew.
Elsewhere in LMP2, Team SARD-Morand experienced a successful weekend at the Nürburgring despite the threat of financial turmoil putting an end to its #43 entry. British driver Archie Hamilton returns to race at COTA, while Oliver Webb and Pierre Ragues maintain their places in the strong driver line-up.
Strakka Racing’s Nürburgring weekend didn’t go as planned, with the Gibson 015S Nissan only reaching a fifth place finish. Nevertheless, the team’s introduction of the British-designed car has been at short notice, and once fully developed we can expect to see it fighting for wins at the end of the year. A podium at COTA is still firmly within reach.
The GTE-Pro class was shaken up last time out as the championship defending #51 Ferrari 458 Italia of Gianmaria Bruni and Toni Vilander had a nightmare weekend in the Eifel Mountains. The car’s retirement and a convincing 1-2 finish for Porsche Team Manthey has brought the German squad’s #91 car within four points of the table-topping #71 AF Corse Ferrari. The #51 crew now sits third in the standings with a two point deficit to the #91 Porsche.
However, the COTA record books are in favour of the third manufacturer – Aston Martin – which has won twice at the circuit already but has struggled for results in 2015. There is a notable driver change in the #97 V8 Vantage that currently props up the teams’ standings, as British GT regular Jonny Adam replaces one of few ever-presents in the FIA WEC, Stefan Mucke, who is on Blancpain Endurance Series duty at the Nürburgring.
Can Aston’s record at COTA turn its season around? They’ll be hoping for it. The British marque is third out of three in the manufacturer’s standings and after a disappointing 4-5 finish for the #97 and #99 machines at the Nürburgring a case of history repeating itself would be warmly welcomed.
In GTE-Am, SMP Racing has emerged as the team to beat after two near-perfect runs at Le Mans and the Nurburgring which gave the Russian squad a healthy 25 point leg up in the teams’ table. The #72 Ferrari 458 Italia has been predominant this year, but a hat-trick of race wins will not come about easily this weekend:
AF Corse’s #83 entry is one of the strongest in the class, and despite not winning a race sits second in the standings thanks to a quartet of podium finishes. Expect another high-scoring run from the Aguas/Collard/Perrodo combination at COTA on Saturday.
Meanwhile, Aston Martin’s record in the Am class at COTA is just as impressive as its Pro history. Two wins from two once again indicates that AMR will be on top form in Austin, and the #98 car should run in the top three on Saturday evening if reliability holds sway.
The only driver change of note in the category will take place in the #96 Aston, as Benny Simonsen (brother of the late Allan Simonsen) steps in for Roald Goethe, who is tied with business commitments. Benny’s last FIA WEC appearance was a GTE-Am one-off at Bahrain International Circuit in 2012, driving a JWA-Avila Porsche 997.
Earl Bamber, who won Le Mans and then helped Abu Dhabi Proton Racing to a top six finish at the Nürburgring, returns to the #88 Porsche 911 RSR this weekend. The Porsches have been consistent this year but haven’t been able to match the pace of the Am Ferraris and #98 Aston, but a podium finish is still a realistic target and something that both the Proton entries will be looking for on Saturday evening.
The same objective applies to the Larbre Compétition Corvette C7.R, although its shortcomings have largely been the result of war wounds rather than insufficient pace. The home idol will undoubtedly get a warm reception from the locals, and it will become even popular if a podium finish is to be achieved.
The 6 Hours of Circuit of the Americas runs in conjunction with the Tudor United Sportscar Championship for one of the FIA WEC’s ‘super endurance’ weekends. ‘Lone Star Le Mans’ was a popular addition last year, and another healthy crowd is to be expected at this year’s race.
Timings for the race will be a little more complicated for European viewers thanks to the race’s late evening setting.
Practice will take place on Thursday, September 17 at 14:45 and 20:00 and on Friday, September 18 at 10:30 (20:45, 02:00 and 16:30 UK).
The two quickfire qualifying sessions are scheduled for 17:45 and 18:15 on the Friday. (23:45 and 00:15 UK)
Meanwhile, the race will get underway at 17:00 local time, which translates as 23:00 in the UK.