Looking Ahead - LMP1 at the 6 Hours of Spa
With the start of the inaugural FIA World Endurance Championship Super Season just around the corner, we look at what to expect from the top class in the season opener.
It’s been a long off-season, but by the end of next week, we’ll be one race down in the 2018/19 Super Season. As we count down the days to the start of the 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps, we’ll be introducing each class and walking you through their entries and lineups. Part one covers the World Endurance Championship’s top category - LMP1.
Top of the heap
For a while, it looked as if LMP1 was on its last legs, but a healthy injection of new privateer entries has secured the category’s place at the top (at least for now.) The revitalised class consists of hybrid and non-hybrid closed-cockpit cars, but only privateers may enter a non-hybrid. Formerly, hybrid and non-hybrids had separate classes, but now a set of Equivalence of Technology (EoT) rules has been written to allow the two to compete in the same category. All competitors have opted to run on Michelin rubber, so while a tyre war won’t affect the outcome, how each car looks after their Michelins just might.
Last team standing
The only manufacturer left racing in LMP1 this year is Japanese giant Toyota. The Gazoo Racing team has been a part of the World Endurance Championship since its inception in 2012. Following a swathe of bad luck, the team are hoping to capitalise on being the only manufacturer and take an elusive Le Mans 24 Hours victory. However, according to the newly written EoT rules:
“As the only hybrid-powered car in the LMP1 field, Toyota’s TS050 HYBRID is only permitted to use 35.2kg of fuel per stint, compared to the 52.9kg of its privateer opponents. In the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the Toyota can only use a maximum of 124.9MJ of energy a lap compared to the 210.9MJ of its opponents.”
On board this season’s TS050 hybrid is a stellar lineup of drivers that further confirms Toyota’s determination this season. In the #7 car, regulars Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi are joined by returning Argentinian driver Jose Maria Lopez. The sister car, #8 has Sébastien Buemi and Kazuki Nakajima alongside the man grabbing all the headlines - Fernando Alonso. The 6 Hours of Spa marks the Spaniard’s first race in the World Endurance Championship, and all eyes will be on him to see how he fares.
Back on the main stage
The remaining eight cars in the class are entered by privateer teams from around the world. Swiss team Rebellion, now partnered with TVR, are returning to LMP1 following a brief foray into LMP2 and have a pair of Gibson-powered R13’s in a somewhat striking zebra-striped livery (wait until you see the accompanying race suits.)
Piloting the #1 chassis are two former Porsche LMP1 drivers, Neel Jani and Andre Lotterer who both bring plenty of skill and experience to the team. Their teammate is Brazilian Bruno Senna, who helped win the team the LMP2 championship last year and who will no doubt be looking to repeat that success in the LMP1. An equally strong lineup is in charge of the sister car - Mathias Beche, Thomas Laurent and Gustavo Menezes team up in the #3.
The ever-determined ByKolles are back having ended last season early, withdrawing the car after the 6 Hours of the Nurburgring. Familiar faces Ollie Webb and Dominik Kraihamer are still with the team, being joined this year by Frenchman Tom Dillman. The team has been testing the new car rigorously, completing several endurance tests, putting plenty of development into improving reliability and new aero-kits - they’re not taking any chances. The car looks to have improved, and so long as it doesn’t have too many issues on track, the semi-derogatory hashtags shouldn’t have to be used.
What’s in a name?
From China comes a team whose name is so complicated, everyone will probably refer to them as the ‘M’ in their name - CEFC TRSM Racing or Manor. Graeme Lowden’s team has bought themselves a couple of Ginetta G60-LT-P1 chassis and are joining the big boy's table. The team has two seasons of experience in the World Endurance Championship in LMP2, but this is their first time joining the top class. And they have an exciting, almost entirely British lineup to contest this season for them. In the #5 car sits Ginetta factory driver Charlie Robertson, ex-GP2 and IndyLights driver Dean Stoneman and the rather speedy Frenchman, Leo Roussel.
The #6 is in the hands of two Olivers and an Alex - that’s Oliver Rowland, Williams Martini Racing’s Junior Driver, Oliver Turvey, full-time Formula E driver with NIO Formula E Team and Alex Brundle, whose skill is well known within the endurance paddocks. Based on talent alone, we are expecting great things from Manor, but it will be interesting to watch how the Ginetta compares to the other privateer chassis as well as the Toyota in a race setting.
From Russia with love
Another familiar name making the jump to LMP1 is Russian outfit SMP Racing - the team has been a staple in the LMP2 field, having competed in the World Endurance Championship and the European Le Mans Series. Their chassis of choice is the BR Engineering BR1, developed in partnership with Dallara and powered by a twin-turbo V6 AER engine.
Running a two-car program, SMP have opted to employ just five drivers for the 6 Hours of Spa. In the #17 car, Russian drivers Egor Orudzhev and Matevos Isaakyan are being joined by Toyota veteran Stephane Sarrazin who brings a vast amount of LMP1 experience with him. The #11 will be running a reduced lineup at Spa, featuring Russian stars Mikael Aleshin of Indycar fame, and former Formula One driver Vitaly Petrov. The #11 will gain its third full-season driver at this year’s Le Mans 24 Hours, and he’s something of a celebrity - 2009 Formula One World Champion Jenson Button. Another F1 champion turned LMP1 rookie; Button becomes the 23rd F1 driver to join the 2018 24 Hours of Le Mans grid.
Enter the Dragon
The final car on the LMP1 grid belongs to 2017 ELMS champions, Dragonspeed. Customers of BR Engineering, they too have a BR1 chassis, only this one is powered by a 4.5L V8 Gibson engine, based on the highly successful Gibson LMP2 engine. In charge of this new challenger for Spa is a Swede, bronze ranked driver Henrik Hedman, a Brit, Ben Hanley who graduates from Dragonspeed’s LMP2 squad and a Brazilian, Pietro Fittipaldi, grandson of the great Emerson Fittipaldi. However Fittipaldi isn’t a permanent fixture in the team, he is subbing for Dutchman Renger van der Zande who is away on IMSA duties - Fittipaldi will also take over from van der Zande at the 6 Hours of Fuji following the somewhat controversial calendar change.
The BR1 entry forms half of the Dragonspeed program with the American team also entering an LMP2.
What to expect
For this season, LMP1 could be a bit of a wildcard. There are a lot of new variables in the form of new drivers, cars, and teams in the class. While there is no doubt that the category could provide some excellent racing, we are in the hands of the rule makers as we hope they get the Equivalence of Technology regulations right. We are fully anticipating the Toyotas to run away at the front unless the EoT is bang on and does provide parity between hybrids and non-hybrids. Expect the class to evolve over the course of the season and hope that the new privateer chassis can give the action the class has become known for. LMP1 is by no means dead, but it’s starting to look like a rather different beast. Whether or not that’s a good thing remains to be seen.
For a full outline of what comprises the LMP1 category, visit the FIA WEC website. Free practice kicks off on Thursday, May 3rd at 12.00 local time. You’ll be able to follow timing via the FIA WEC website or app, and you can listen live with the fantastic team over at Radiolemans.
This article was originally published on Overtake Motorsport.
Shared with permission from the author.
Cover Image: Toyota Gazoo Racing