Friday’s announcement that Porsche will be pulling the plug on its factory LMP1 program at the end of the season has sent shockwaves through the industry, not only as the latest domino to fall in the rapidly-changing motorsports landscape, but also casting questions over the future of the FIA World Endurance Championship’s top class.
Once a flourishing category with involvement from four manufacturers, the WEC is set to be left with only Toyota next year, but only if the Japanese manufacturer maintains its full-season commitment, which is currently through 2019.
With no other LMP1 manufacturers in the immediate pipeline, and a direction from the FIA and ACO not likely to be announced for another five weeks at the next round in Mexico, it leaves more questions than answers for the short-term, in what’s undoubtedly become the most turbulent time yet for the globe-trotting championship.
What got us to this point of potentially seeing the LMP1 Hybrid concept become extinct overnight?
Rewind the clock to 2015 and a total of 14 LMP1 cars were on the grid for the 24 Hours of Le Mans, all but three of them coming from the then-factory outfits run by Porsche, Audi, Toyota and Nissan.
While Nissan’s ill-fated GT-R LM NISMO program lasted all of one race, the WEC enjoyed a titanic three-way manufacturer fight for much of the season, in what will be looked back as the heyday of hybrid prototype racing.
Three months after Porsche’s first victory at Le Mans with its 919 Hybrid, driven by Nick Tandy, Earl Bamber and Nico Hulkenberg, VW’s dieselgate scandal hit, which ultimately set off a trickle-down effect that resulted in reduced two-car efforts for both Porsche and Audi at Le Mans the following year and Audi’s shock exit altogether at the end of 2016.
A total of six LMP1 cars, including the sole Privateer entry from ByKolles, were on the grid at Le Mans this year, with Porsche barely able to eek out the overall win, over an LMP2 car, after every top-level prototype faced problems in the race.
Amid week-long speculation of Porsche’s potential end-of-season withdrawal, one year early from its contract, it made for a nightmare Le Mans event for series boss Gerard Neveu and ACO President Pierre Fillon, who were left scrambling to assemble a “Plan B” should they face a second loss from the VW Group.
Six weeks later, the WEC’s worst nightmare came true, leaving the once-prospering World Championship with a large hole to fill, and at the top level.
With Peugeot, the ACO’s hopeful savior, unlikely to enter under the proposed 2020 regulations, which calls for a continuation of the hybrid regulations but with new plug-in technology, it leaves the championship with no other manufacturer in the pipeline that could replace Porsche and Audi, at least under the current ruleset.
Neveu, Fillon, as well as FIA Endurance Committee President Sir Lindsay Owen-Jones, now face the difficult task of figuring out what’s next for the championship, not only to ensure its short-term survival, but to best position it for the future.
It will undoubtedly result in a quantum shift in its current philosophy, with a move away from the costly hybrid technology, which ultimately drove out two-thirds of the LMP1 grid, as well as the majority of privateer entrants, which was solidly represented prior to the introduction of hybrid regulations in 2014.
A short-term solution could be to allow IMSA’s flourishing DPi formula into the top class, alongside an expected increased entry of LMP1 non-hybrid cars next year, although it’s unlikely that any of the existing DPi manufacturers would commit to a full-season WEC program, at least in 2018.
With the help of a calendar adjustment from IMSA, the likes of Penske-Honda, Joest-Mazda, Wayne Taylor Racing’s Cadillac and the the customer Nissan effort from Tequila Patron ESM could all be swayed to take part in the 24 Hours of Le Mans and would keep mainstream manufacturers in the spotlight at the French endurance classic.
However, with all four efforts being run on U.S. manufacturer dollars, it would not solve the WEC’s issue for the remainder of its season.
It could instead be forced to survive on its crop of European-based LMP1 Privateers, with new cars from Dallara/BR Engineering and Ginetta planned for next year, along with the potential of Perrinn’s new project, which has reportedly sold two cars.
Despite likely being a slim field at the sharp end of the grid, with little to no OEM involvement, it would serve as a stop-gap measure prior to a potential increased manufacturer presence the following year, whether through a DPi-like formula or something entirely different altogether.
Upstaged LMP2 cars, potentially with all-pro driver lineups, could also fill the gap in the short-term, although may not be as desirable due to its largely spec nature, particularly after ORECA’s dominant run at Le Mans and all cars running the same Gibson-tuned V8 powerplant.
The WEC’s growing level of GTE manufacturer involvement, however, could save the day on multiple fronts.
With four manufacturers already registered, and a fifth in BMW arriving next year, GTE could take center stage, in fulfilling the FIA’s manufacturer requirement to retain the championship’s world status.
While a knee-jerk decision to eliminate all prototypes and quickly evolve the championship into a GT-only series would not likely be the ideal solution, putting a larger focus on the manufacturers that have remained, and prospered in the WEC, is vital for the future.
The likely introduction of GTE qualifying races, which has been in the works since the start of this year, would be a good first step, but the perception of prototypes, albeit privateer-run entries, winning overall, would still dilute the overall message.
No doubt, it will be tough times ahead for the WEC, as it attempts to find its new identity, and rather quickly, in order to ensure its survival in the ever-changing sport.
Whether Porsche’s withdrawal will act as the final domino remains to be seen, but it has no doubt sent an impactful message to the sport, in that a change is needed at the top level, and quickly.