Preview: Porsche at Le Mans 2016
Le Mans 24-Hour weekend has arrived, here’s everything you need to know about Porsche’s chances in the 84th running of the endurance classic…
Endurance racing’s big weekend is already underway in France, and much is expected of last year’s victors: Porsche – the most successful manufacturer in the history of the race. The Le Mans 24-Hour also forms the third round of the FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC), and this year Porsche’s two WEC entries will not be supported by a third car to replicate 12-months ago at La Sarthe. That means regular Porsche works drivers (and current WEC championship leaders) Romain Dumas, Neel Jani and Marc Lieb will crew the No2 entry, reigning WEC world champions Timo Bernhard, Brendon Hartley and Mark Webber will drive in the sister car (No1). So far this season the Bernhard, Hartley and Webber car has been unlucky, but will the double WEC points on offer at Le Mans turn things around for their championship? More importantly: can Porsche secure overall Le Mans victory with just two cars entered for 2016?
The Prototype Drivers:
This year marks Porsche’s third crack at Le Mans following its return to top-level endurance racing with the technologically advanced 919 Hybrid. Last year it took a one-two result with Earl Bamber, Nico Hülkenberg and Nick Tandy clinching victory. With no third car entered for 2016, the result of cut backs born out of the VW crisis, Bamber and Tandy will be driving a 911 while Hülkenberg returns to his day job in Formula One. That leaves Dumas, Jani, Lieb, Bernhard, Hartley and Webber tasked with Prototype driving duties. All are now seasoned Porsche drivers, and both crews have proved they can work effectively together. Between them the six have participated in the Le Mans race a total of 49 times.
The 919 Hybrid:
The overall concept of the 919 Hybrid might be three years old now, but that does not mean it has remained stagnant as Porsche is constantly developing its Prototype challenger. The car is powered by a two-litre V4 turbocharged petrol engine but also features two energy recovery systems reaping brake energy from the front axle, and exhaust energy, which it stores in lithium-ion batteries. Working in unison the combustion and electric power sources provide the car with almost 1000hp, and in low drag Le Mans trim it is capable of reaching a top speed of more than 200mph. Naturally Porsche is guarded about some of the finer details of the car, but it did recently share the complexities of the 919 Hybrid’s steering wheel, which in itself is a technological marvel.
Porsche’s Chances – LMP1:
Porsche’s results with the 919 Hybrid in the WEC series so far this season mean it’s tricky to gauge precisely where it’s at in relation to its rivals. A victory in the opening WEC round at Silverstone was the result of Audi’s disqualification not Porsche’s outright pace, but if it hadn’t been for an accident with a backmarker the No1 entry may well have been in the running anyway, while the No2 car lost time with a puncture and finished second on the road (subsequently promoted to first by post-race scrutineers). In the second race at Spa in Belgium Porsche trialed a new aerodynamic package designed for Le Mans and showed improved form in qualifying by locking out the front row. In the race though a tyre failure spoilt the No1 car’s chances, while the No2 machine suffered reliability problems with its complex hybrid system. The top Porsche finished second but it was two laps down on the winning Audi. And that brings us to Le Mans, which is an entirely different ball game. Porsche certainly seems to have improved its single lap pace and looks to have the edge over the Audis, and during testing Porsche’s long runs also looked pretty impressive. However, Le Mans is not just about outright pace, and Porsche will be hoping costly reliability issues, such as those that befell the No2 car at Spa, do not happen in France.
The 911 RSR:
Seven 911 RSRs will tackle Le Mans this year. The RSR received various modifications for 2016, in particular its aerodynamics were tweaked with the rear wing moved further rearwards, the addition of a new rear diffuser and larger front lip spoiler and deeper side sills. All this serves to provide improved levels of downforce and attempts to negate a perceived deficit to the 911’s rivals born from its engine layout and power output. Its results so far this season mark it out as competitive, but everyone will be taking the challenge presented by the Fords, Aston Martins and Ferraris very seriously.
The GTE Drivers:
Two factory 911 RSRs start at Le Mans this year shared by six works drivers competing in the GTE-Pro class. The No91 car will be driven by Briton Tandy, Kévin Estre, and reigning IMSA GT champion, Patrick Pilet. In the sister car, No92, is Bamber, Frédéric Makowiecki and Le Mans veteran Jörg Bergmeister. But there’s also a customer car in the shape of Dempsey Proton Racing’s 911 RSR, it will be driven by Porsche works drivers Richard Lietz and Michael Christensen, with former Supercup champion Philipp Eng supporting. In the GTE-Am class, further customer teams racing RSRs include Abu Dhabi Proton Racing with Patrick Long and KCMG with Wolf Henzler. Gulf Racing and Proton Competition will also field cars.
Porsche’s Chances – GTE:
Porsche will hope to put the demons of the Nürburgring 24-hours at the end of May behind it, for there the works supported Manthey Racing squad struggled with the GT3 R in appalling weather conditions in an event often viewed as a dry run for Le Mans. Instead Porsche will hope that the promising season the RSR has enjoyed in the IMSA series to date will bode well for Le Mans. From the first four races of the IMSA season, Porsche chalked-up one victory and three further podiums, and following the most recent round at Laguna Seca Porsche now trails Corvette by just three points in the Manufacturers standings. The immediate preparations for Le Mans might not have gone to plan, but Porsche knows it has a strong car on its hands and it is sure to be in the fight for class victory. We know one thing for sure: never discount Nick Tandy.
Qualifying for Le Mans (there are three sessions in total) has already taken place. The 919 Hybrids took a front row lock-out headed by the No2 car, it’s Porsche’s 18th pole position in total at Le Mans. Both LMP1 entries have so far shown good speed and would appear, at this stage, to have the legs on their rivals. Further back the GT boys struggled to set representative times in traffic and start eighth (Bamber/Bergmeister/Makowiecki) and 10th (Pilet/Estre/Tandy). Reading between the lines, they’re not quite so happy with the raw pace of the RSR. The two official Porsche GTE-Pro entries sit around four-seconds off the pace setting Ford GTs.
The Le Mans 24-Hours starts at 15:00 local time, 14:00 GMT on Saturday. There are numerous ways to follow the great race, but for all the Porsche specific action keep an eye on our Twitter feed for highlights, and bookmark this page for more in-depth coverage, including a full race report, coming soon.