When the world’s most prominent racing manufacturers come together for a season in the World Endurance Championship, there is never any doubt as to the quality of the competition. Audi, Porsche, Toyota and Nissan made 2015 one of the most intriguing LMP1 seasons to date, while in GTE-Pro and GTE-Am fans were treated to an irresistible medley of machinery from Porsche, Ferrari, Aston Martin and Corvette. Once again the GT classes were a highlight, producing some of the closest racing all year.
After eight rounds Richard Leitz was crowned World Endurance Cup champion for the first time, recording three victories aboard the #91 Porsche 911 RSR to hold off AF Corse pair Gianmaria Bruni and Toni Vilander. However his feat could not be mentioned without recognising the work of team-mate Michael Christensen, who formed a formidable pairing with Lietz for seven of the eight rounds.
The 2015 Pro season started as many had envisaged, with an intense multi-car battle at Silverstone featuring all three badges. Bruni and Vilander began their world title defence with victory aboard the #51 Ferrari, beating the Porsche of Christensen and Lietz by 10 seconds, while the best of the Aston Martins finished fourth.
Spa returned another fantastic Pro race, although this time it was the #99 Aston Martin of Fernando Rees, Richie Stanaway and Alex MacDowall that won after the Bruni/Vilander Ferrari was reprimanded for a pit lane infringement. This closed up the manufacturers’ points race, with Aston now leading Ferrari by a point and Porsche by two, setting up the perfect scenario for Le Mans.
Corvette Reigns at Le Mans
However, neither of the WEC manufacturers were able to take the spoils in France. Instead it was the American interloper – Corvette Racing – that overcame the full-season entries to win its first Le Mans since 2011.
Corvette’s two car entry was halved before the start of the race, after Jan Magnussen suffered a heavy practice crash at the Porsche Curves. But despite the loss of the #64 car the #63 C7.R of Oliver Gavin, Tommy Milner and Jordan Taylor made up for the disappointment by holding off the two AF Corse Ferraris to record the C7.R’s first 24 hour race triumph.
The Le Mans double-pointer was a damaging race for Porsche in terms of the standings, with the 911 RSRs struggling for outright pace on the 8.5 mile Circuit de la Sarthe. Lietz and Christensen finished seventh with Jorg Bergmeister, while Makowiecki and Pilet’s fire-induced retirement cost them dearly in the class order.
Ferrari’s WEC points victory (coming from the SMP Racing Am squad) lifted the prancing horse to the top of the manufacturers’ standings, while Porsche, aided by an Am podium for Dempsey Racing, dropped to 45 points behind. Aston Martin also suffered, as the #99 car slipped to fourth in the teams’ order, while the British marque fell 61 points adrift of Ferrari in the manufacturer’s’ race.
Porsche Takes Hold, Aston Struggles
The post-Le Mans break galvanised the Porsche Manthey squad, which returned to its home event at the Nurburgring confident of turning the tides. They did so in style, replicating the LMP1 division’s one-two finish to move Lietz to the top of the drivers’ standings. The Nurburgring race was also a huge turning point for Bruni and Vilander, whose hopes of defending their title were dealt a significant blow when a mechanical issue struck the #51 Ferrari early on.
While Porsche and Ferrari continued to race at the head of the GTE field, Aston Martin struggled for pace in the second half of the season following Balance of Performance (BoP) adjustments administered by the Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO). The Vantages were significantly off the pace from rounds four to seven, which formed part of the reasoning for the #99 crew’s withdrawal from the 6 Hours of Shanghai.
At the front of the class, victories for Lietz and Christensen at Austin and Shanghai bookmarked a Vilander/Bruni win at the rain-affected Fuji round, setting up an interesting championship conclusion for the 6 Hours of Bahrain.
At the season finale it was the #92 Makowiecki/Pilet Porsche that took the lead early on, running unopposed for much of the race, to take its first and only win of the season. Vilander and Bruni did all they could to finish second, but the reliability of the Porsche 911s – confirmed by Lietz and Christensen’s fifth place result – meant that the Ferrari duo would fall just short of the title. Darren Turner and Johnny Adam finished third for Aston Martin, which benefited from the restoration of its pre-BoP setup.
GTE-Am: SMP Racing wins Ferrari Points Chase
SMP Racing won its second consecutive World Endurance Championship title, although this year it was the GTE-Am squad’s turn for success after last year’s LMP2 triumph.
The Russian team was a title contender from the opening round, with its strong lineup of Aleksey Basov, Victor Shaitar and AF Corse’s Andrea Bertolini. Driving a Ferrari 458 Italia, the trio registered podiums in the first five rounds, including three wins at Le Mans, the Nurburgring and Austin. The Le Mans victory was perhaps the most emphatic of these, as SMP not only beat the GTE-Am field but also finished as the highest World Endurance Championship GTE entry outright, only losing to the works Corvette.
AF Corse’s #83 entry featuring Francois Perrodo, Rui Aguas and Emmanuel Collard was also a frequent visitor to the Am podium, finishing in the top three at every circuit except Bahrain. However, the team’s first victory only came at the tail end of the streak in Shanghai, which was not enough to stop the SMP crew, especially after its double point haul at Le Mans.
Quiet top five finishes for both Ferraris at the final round ended the season 165-148 in SMP Racing’s favour.
Aston Martin Racing, specifically Pedro Lamy, Mathias Lauda and Paul Dalla Lana in the #98 car, were also competitive at the start of the year. Two classy victories at Silverstone and Spa put the team in good stead, but they were dealt an agonising blow at Le Mans when Dalla Lana crashed the Gulf-liveried machine 45 minutes from the chequered flag.
Despite Aston Martin’s evident pace deficit after Le Mans the Am squad continued to produce podium worthy displays, and returned to the top spot in Bahrain following a flawless performance by Lamy, Lauda and Dalla Lana. Third place in the championship was celebrated, but would not be a true reflection of the title winning potential of the #98 lineup.
Elsewhere in GTE-Am there were pockets of brilliance during the season by each team, but ultimately the top three was never in doubt. Dempsey Proton Racing reached a new high with a second place finish at Le Mans, while Pat Long’s charge through the Pro field at Austin will be remembered by many. Abu Dhabi Proton Racing finished the year fifth in class, aided by two podiums in Bahrain and the United States, while the #96 Aston Martin and Larbre Corvette were unlucky not to gain any top three finishes.
What to look for in 2016
Next season will be a landmark one not just for the World Endurance Championship, but for GT racing in general. The latest offering of GTE machinery will take to the track in 2016, including Ford’s all-new 2016 racer and Ferrari’s 488 which replaces the 458 model. While Porsche is planning to scale down its factory effort next year, the German marque will still have a presence in the Pro category as Proton Racing steps up from the Am ranks, giving all four manufacturers the chance to compete against each other on the world championship stage.
The class itself will also become quicker, following the release of the 2016 technical regulations by the ACO. Horsepower increases and weight reductions will reduce Le Mans lap times by around two seconds, bringing all cars closer to each other in terms of performance. Therefore fans can expect to see an even tighter contest in 2016, in which new and grandfathered cars will go head to head. The stakes will be raised even higher by the addition of Ford, setting the scene for what promises to be one of the class’ most important seasons to date.