Each of the four LMP1 manufacturers entered the 2015 FIA World Endurance Championship with a point to prove.
For Porsche, the Le Mans heartbreak of the previous year was the key motivator, while endurance titan Audi had the aim of restoring its status at the top of the pecking order following an unusually bleak 2014 season.
World champions Toyota were also expected to thrive, with the continuation of the TS040 Hybrid poised to defend the drivers’ and manufacturers’ titles. Add the arrival of Nissan’s groundbreaking GTR-LM NISMO prototype to the mix and the 2015 season had just about everything that sportscar fans across the world had been wanting from the WEC’s top category.
After eight dramatic rounds of racing Mark Webber, Brendon Hartley and Timo Bernhard emerged as drivers’ champions, sealing the title at the final event in Bahrain. Audi’s #7 trio of Marcel Fässler, André Lotterer and Benoît Tréluyer finished just five points adrift in the standings after maintaining a 100% podium record, although this could do little to deny Porsche of a silverware sweep that included the drivers’, teams’ and manufacturers’ honours.
Audi’s Early Advantage
The season didn’t start as smoothly as Porsche had hoped, however, as Audi won the opening two rounds at Silverstone and Spa.
At the former it was a mechanical issue that halted the progress of the leading #17 Porsche, while Audi’s high downforce R-18s answered for the straight line speed of the remaining #18 919 Hybrid. The race was remembered by many for the spectacular multi-lap duel between Audi’s Marcel Fässler and Porsche’s Neel Jani in the middle portion of the race, as both Swiss drivers jostled for the lead. Ultimately the #7 Audi of Fässler, Lotterer and Tréluyer prevailed, despite the #18 crew’s best efforts, to give Dr Wolfgang Ullrich’s team an early leg-up in the championship.
Spa’s six hour event confirmed the competitiveness of the Audis, as the #7 car once again took overall spoils. Running together for much of the final two hours, Tréluyer held off a fierce charge from Jani in the #18 car to win by 13 seconds.
Arguably one of Porsche’s greatest victories, the one-two result at Le Mans dramatically shaped the rest of the World Endurance Championship season. After a titanic struggle against Audi it was the third Porsche entry, driven by Le Mans rookies Nico Hülkenberg, Nick Tandy and first time winner Earl Bamber, that came out on top in front of a 260,000 strong crowd. The #17 Porsche came second to close the gap between it and the #7 Audi in the standings, despite receiving a lengthy penalty during the night.
Le Mans also signaled the (belated) arrival of Nissan on the LMP1 scene, utilising its three revolutionary front-engined, FWD GTR-LM NISMOs, although both were unclassified after 24 hours. After a troublesome start to the year with the new two megajoule hybrid system, it was announced that Le Mans would be the only race appearance of Nissan’s LMP1 fleet in 2015.
Toyota also admitted that it was off the pace at Circuit de la Sarthe, with the lead #1 car finishing eight laps behind the winner. The TS040s would continue to run in the shadows of the other manufacturers during the season, only reaching the podium on two occasions at Silverstone at Bahrain.
Porsche Seizes Control
The lengthy post-Le Mans break did little to disrupt the momentum of Porsche, as the German manufacturer made a successful homecoming at the 6 Hours of the Nurburgring. Mark Webber, Brendon Hartley and Timo Bernhard’s dominant win set the tone for the rest of the season, which saw the #17 trio take victories at Austin, Fuji and Shanghai. Audi opted to use its low-downforce configuration for the rest of the campaign after Le Mans, but Porsche’s sheer pace advantage with the eight megajoule hybrid system – capable of producing an extra 400 hp – made 919 success almost a formality.
Fuji marked a turnaround in the points race as Webber, Hartley and Bernhard took control with their third win of the year, while at Shanghai Porsche sealed its first World Endurance Championship manufacturers’ title with a fourth one-two finish of the year in tough conditions.
Webber, Hartley, Bernhard crowned champions
The LMP1 drivers’ championship was expected to go the way of the #17 crew after their mid-season hot streak, but the necessary finish at the Bahrain decider didn’t come easily. An early throttle issue sent the #17 car tumbling down the order, but a brilliant recovery drive from all three drivers restored the team’s position to fifth. Aided by problems to the #8 Audi, Webber, Hartley and Bernhard were able to secure the championship, while the sister car held off the #7 Audi to win its first race of the season.
Bahrain also marked the final race appearance of Alex Wurz, who announced his retirement from motorsport in November. The Austrian was given a fitting farewell, claiming Toyota’s second podium of the year alongside Mike Conway and Stéphane Sarrazin. Wurz will continue to play an ambassadorial role within the team next year.
What to look for in 2016
Few can deny Webber, Hartley and Bernhard of being deserved world champions. In a highly competitive Porsche lineup this trio, which raced together last year, emerged as the superior crew and effectively led the team’s charge to multiple silverware. For Porsche, it was the year that had been dreamed about ever since its last Le Mans win in 1998.
But, in the spirit of the World Endurance Championship, one year of success is never enough. Next year Audi will return with an all-new six megajoule solution bearing the R-18 e-tron quattro name, while Toyota has also opted to change tack with plans for a TS050 hybrid now in development. With Nissan’s new hybrid system on the way, and a privateer expansion anticipated, 2016 is set to be the season in which sportscar racing’s biggest series gets a whole lot bigger.