Thursday, July 27, 2017

LMP1 needs a rethink following Porsche's departure

Porsche is about to leave the LMP1 class of the FIA World Endurance Championship and the 24 Hours of Le Mans, leaving Toyota as the only factory team in the class. Porsche will be the third major manufacturer in three years to leave the class; of the four manufacturers in 2015, Nissan ended its short-lived program after the first year, Audi ended its 18-year Le Mans involvement in 2016, and now Porsche is set to leave the LMP1 class in the fourth season of the program.

There are multiple privateer LMP1 projects so the 2018 grid may well have more cars than six this year at Le Mans. Another thing is if the privateer teams with more limited resources can challenge the only remaining factory team of Toyota. Also, privateer teams don't bring the publicity that a major manufacturer like Porsche or Audi did.

DPi machines from the IMSA WeatherTeach SportsCar Championship could be a way to get more manufacturers in the prototype classes at Le Mans. Cadillac, Nissan, and Mazda are already involved in the DPi class and Acura will join next year. However, DPis can't match the pace of the hybrid-engined factory LMP1 cars. Besides, the DPi class relies on the Balance of Performance. That's fine for IMSA where you don't want an expensive development war, though I prefer the top class of Le Mans is be free from BoP.

What the LMP1 class needs is competitive privateer entries but also factory teams. I'm not a fan of two-tier rules where the cash-strapped privateers have more open rules to be able to challenge the factory teams with bigger resources. Instead I'd like to see rules where it's affordable for privateers to build a winning LMP1 car or to buy one from a factory team and run independently.

The planned LMP1 hybrid rules for 2020 are very much opposite of what I'm hoping for. The hybrid technology will be even more advanced, featuring plug-in recharging during pit stops and running the first kilometer after the stop with electric power. As car manufacturers aim for better fuel efficiency and develop hybrid and electric vehicles, hybrid technology helps to attract manufacturers.

Still, expensive hybrid technology may also drive manufacturers away from the LMP1 class and prevent privateers from having success. LMP1 needs to be open for hybrid technology but it must not be mandatory.

The idea of hybrid technology is to improve the efficiency of the cars. My idea of LMP1 rules would be a maximum amount of fuel, hybrid technology allowed but not required. Set the minimum weight for a car without any hybrid systems; hybrid systems would add to the weight of the car but also to the fuel efficiency. As a result, we might see a manufacturer with an advanced hybrid system, another manufacturer with a less advanced hybrid system but also a lighter and more reliable car, and a light car with no hybrid system.

It would be up to the manufacturer to decide how much it wants to concentrate on the development of hybrid systems and how much it wants to concentrate on the development of a fuel-efficient internal combustion engine. It would be the most efficient technology winning, not the favored technology.

To make LMP1 more affordable, I think the rules in certain areas should be restrictive. In areas with road relevance, like engines, the rules must be open enough to attract manufacturers. But spending on areas with little road relevance doesn't make much sense. Limiting bodywork sets to one per season instead of current two is a welcome change in the planned 2020 rules. Advanced race car aerodynamics don't have that much relevance with most road cars, furthermore advanced aerodynamics only tend to hurt on-track racing.

No ruleset removes the issue of factory teams having more money than privateers. Yet if the rules made it harder to make gains in performance by overspending, privateers would be better able to challenge the factory teams of automotive giants. Making LMP1 less expensive would also attract more manufacturers. If privateers could build competitive chassis, a manufacturer might choose to supply (hybrid) engines to two privateer teams rather than run an own factory team.

To make privateers able to succeed in LMP1, I'd also like to see customer cars. The current LMP1 hybrid cars require factory support, having prevented privateer-run Audi R18s after Audi's departure. I'd like to see a rule where a manufacturer must sell a car of a previous generation to a potential customer at a maximum price. Five million dollars would be a good price for a car that would no longer have any use outside exhibitions, and the price should include the factory support needed. Customer cars would help to bring hybrid technology into privateer racing.

In short, the level of hybrid technology should not be determined in the rules, instead let the manufacturers choose it themselves based on their budgets. With a given amount of fuel, it's the most efficient car that wins, regardless of if it has advanced hybrid technology or no hybrid technology at all.

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