It was a year of surprises in the LMP1 category of the 2017 World Endurance Championship as Porsche LMP1 Team not only secured their third consecutive Drivers’ and Manufacturers’ Championship but followed Audi Sport out of the championship. Toyota Gazoo Racing had a resurgence at the end of the season, but it was not enough to stop Brendon Hartley, Timo Bernhard and Earl Bamber from taking overall victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Drivers’ Championship.
The beginning of the year looked to be in Toyota’s favour, with Porsche opting to use their low downforce aero package for the opening rounds. With a focus on winning Le Mans as their reason behind the decision, Toyota started the year with a pace advantage, taking victory at both Silverstone and Spa. But the advantage was not as much as Toyota had hoped.
It was the third overall Le Mans win in a row for Porsche in one of the craziest races the French circuit has seen. Not one of the LMP1-Hybrids made it through the 24-hour race without some issue, meaning that for a large portion of the race the possibility of a LMP2 car taking the overall win was high. Hartely, Bernhard and Bamber came back from an hour delay in the pits to claim the lead and victory at the start of the 23rd hour.
After Le Mans, the higher downforce Grand Prix circuits were visited for the last six races. It all became a game of aero packages, with the advantage now falling to Porsche. As the German team did not homologate their high-downforce package until after Le Mans, they were able to keep developing it until the 6 Hours of Nurburgring. Following their Le Mans success with three victories in a row, Porsche pulled enough of an advantage to have the Manufacturers’ and Drivers’ Championships won for the third consecutive year with a race in hand.
Toyota made a comeback in the last few races, preventing Porsche from claiming victory at their last race in WEC, but it was not enough to forge any sort of challenge on the dominant German team. Porsche had performed too well in the beginning of the season, and Toyota had lost out on too many chances to optimise how many points they scored. The crash in the 6 Hours of Silverstone that saw Jose Maria Lopez take the #7 Toyota out of the race and both Porsche’s onto the podium, and losing two of their three entrants in the 24 Hours of Le Mans really hurt their championship challenge.
After their Le Mans victory, Porsche’s focus shifted to the #2 car, making sure that if there was a chance for victory it would be that car on the top step. There was some public disdain from Porsche’s new driver for the season Andre Lotterer and team mate Neel Jani who were not happy to have to keep giving up the top step for the sister car. In both the Nurburgring and Circuit of the America’s race the #1 had the pace advantage and the better strategy, and were forced to give up big leads to allow the sister car to win.
In the end, Toyota missed out on too many opportunities at the beginning of the season when they had a small but clear pace advantage. The amount of points Porsche gained in this period of the season and the overall Le Mans win with the next closest LMP1 challenger finishing eighth overall was ultimately what gave Porsche their thrid consecutive double championships.
This season, Toyota are the sole remaining hybrid car on the track. The FIA and ACO have said they will put steps into place to make sure the competition between the hybrid and non-hybrid privateer cars is very close. But how effective that will be remains to be seen.
The 2018 season gets underway April 25th with a 36-hour Prologue taking place this year back at Paul Ricard. This year sees the WEC take on it’s ‘super-season’, with the races spread between 2018 and 2019. Spa-Francorchamps hosts the opening round in May, where the cars will finally get back on track to provide another season of thrilling wheel-to-wheel action.