24-Hour Le Mans 2015: Too close to call?
There’s not much you can do with fewer than five seconds to play with. You might be able to do up a button, bend down and pick something up from the floor or get in your car and, if you’re quick, do up your seat belt too. I mention this because that is the gap – it was 4.61sec to be precise – that existed between Porsche and victory in the opening round of the 2015 World Endurance Championship. Put another way, compared to the winning Audi, the 2015 Porsche 919 lost just two one hundredths of a second for each of the 201 laps they completed. It takes ten times that long to blink.
“Last year we couldn’t afford to experiment but now we have the information to allow us to be more ambitious”
For those watching pre-season testing, where the Porsches were fastest in every session at Paul Ricard, or qualifying for Silverstone where the two 919s locked out the front row, the fact that the surviving Porsche of Neel Jani, Romain Dumas and Marc Lieb didn’t simply streak off into the distance may have seemed a trifle perplexing, but here you must remember two things. First, the pole sitting car of Mark Webber, Brendon Hartley and Timo Bernhard did indeed build up a healthy lead before being sidelined with transmission issues and second that this is long distance racing, where pace over a single lap rarely equates precisely to pace over six hours.
So let’s rewind a few weeks and transfer to the Bahrain International Circuit where we find among others, Webber, Dumas and a cheesed-off Porsche racing team. This is part of the endless grind of pre-season testing and it’s not going well. It’s not that the car is slow, or that bits keep falling off it, or its drivers keep crashing. On the contrary, all the Porsche-supplied elements are working perfectly. What’s not playing its part is the weather, which is ironic because it’s guaranteed climatic conditions that brought Porsche to this part of the world to begin with. And yet out here in the desert it’s not rain that’s causing the problem, it’s the wind. All top flight racing cars are affected by the wind. I’ve driven an Indy car that had two top gears, one for each of Brickyard’s main straights. Even back in the early 1960s, the top F1 teams would turn up to Goodwood with different gear sets selected for whether the wind was blowing up or down the straight and at what speed. In Bahrain however, the wind is causing a different problem: it’s blowing sand across the circuit which means there’s no grip, the tyres are struggling to get up to working temperature yet to add injury to insult, are still being ruined because the car is sliding so much the tyres are graining. And for the purpose of this test, it all adds up to one thing: unreliable data.
Data. That is what it’s all about. You and I may wonder at the speed the 919 can carry through any given corner because you and I need not concern ourselves for an instant how it got that way. Back in Bahrain duff data is causing Porsche’s technical chief Alex Hitzinger all sorts of problems: “The sand affects the tyres, the tyres affect the car and the car has weird handling. This may be the tyres causing this, in fact we have no reason to think anything else, but we don’t know for sure. So we can’t rely on the data…” He takes me over to where army of data analysts stare with increasingly furrowed brows at their computers. I count 75 computer screens and those are just those I can see, and everyone of them is displaying charts, graphs, graphics and readouts not one of which makes the slightest sense to me. But then the Porsche 919 is a staggeringly complex car and every single component on it, save obvious items like wheels and tyres, is designed by Porsche. If you want an idea of how complicated it is, consider that even as recently as ten years ago, a gearbox for this kind of car would have been supplied by a single manufacturer. Now while Porsche designs it, over 20 different hand-picked companies build the components that go into it.
So just how different is this car? Visually it seems to have hardly changed at all, so clearly Porsche has not felt the need to pander to those who rightly said the 919 had fallen out of the Silverstone? It is far too simplistic to look at it in such binary terms. It’s true the 919 looked to have a lot more power than the Audi, but then last year Porsche gained a straight line advantage by running the car in a low downforce configuration, and given how the Audi was able to swarm over the Porsche in quick curves at Silverstone, it would seem the same is true in 2015. As for the Toyota, it was known to have 1000hp last year and struggled to show its true pace at Silverstone because the peculiarities of the circuit – specifically its lack of extended braking zones – and its super capacitor hybrid system meant it had more trouble recuperating power than either the Porsche with its batteries or the Audi with its mechanical flywheel system.
So how much progress has Porsche made, and what does this likely mean for its chances at Le Mans in June? The first part of the question is easy to answer: at Silverstone in 2014 the fastest lap by a Porsche in qualifying took 1min 43.1sec This year it took 1min 39.5sec, a quite staggering improvement of 3.6sec per lap. But we also know the opposition has not had its feet up by the fire over the winter and Audi’s strength at Silverstone – where in the race both of its cars lapped 1.4sec quicker than anything else out there – was somewhat sobering. But in qualifying it was just 2.2sec quicker here than last year, while the Toyota had improved by just 1.9sec.
The truth is no-one knows what’s going to happen at Le Mans and which team will hold the advantage in qualifying and then as the race progresses. On the evidence of Silverstone you might say Audi might be less competitive on a track like Le Mans requiring less downforce and more power, but then it appears to have some time up its sleeve. And don’t forget it was usually the slowest hybrid LMP car at Le Mans last year and still won. Toyota should be far stronger too because the track will suit their car, and bearing in mind how much faster it was than anything else in France last year, that’s a fairly sobering thought. There’s also the spectre of the new, weird, front-wheel drive Nissan LMP1 car which some reckon to have 1200hp, though as Le Mans will be its first race of any kind, victory must surely be a remote possibility.
And then there’s Porsche. On the negative side, it might not have as much power as a Toyota, nor as much grip as an Audi. It failed to capitalise on its raw pace at Silverstone and over a race distance was merely competitive rather than in a class of its own. On the positive side, the 919 still appears to be the most improved car of them all and the new wind tunnel should only accelerate that rate of improvement. Le Mans will suit the Porsche better than Silverstone and there will be three cars out there fighting for victory, not just two as there were last year. Remember too that while the 919s were unclassified at Le Mans in 2014, Mark Webber was actually leading the race with two hours to go and in a seriously sick car that even when healthy would not see which way the 2015 car went.
Put all that into the mix, then add the fact that the only thing that can be predicted about Le Mans is that it will be unpredictable and what emerges is a race that’s too close to call. Porsche will be desperate to win – Mark Webber told me the team would gladly sacrifice every round of the WEC if it meant winning Le Mans – but every other team will feel the same. I do have a good feeling about the race but that’s based on nothing other than having seen the extraordinary levels of dedication, passion and skill shown by the team in Bahrain. I’ve not hung out with Audi or Toyota at all.
So under such circumstances, the only thing we can do is get in our cars, drive to France and will the Porsches over the line in June. I’ll be there for sure, and I hope to see you too!