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Racing lines: WEC’s rules confusion is a threat to its credibility

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Toyota must produce a road-going version of its GR Super Sport

Mystifying ‘Balance of Performance’ handicapping which slows tech-rich teams risks making results valueless

Is the 24 Hours of Le Mans in crisis? It’s certainly in a tangle. In the long term, more manufacturers could take on the great race, thanks to enticing new car regulations, plus a welcome and long-awaited accord with the American IMSA sports car series. But in the short term, top-class entries are at a record-equalling low for LMP1’s supposed ‘big goodbye’ this June, and the new hypercar category, due to take a bow in 2021, might well be a one-horse race. It’s all a little underwhelming and rather confusing.

Some clarity might be forthcoming this weekend when the World Endurance Championship (WEC) and IMSA race on the same bill at Sebring in Florida. The WEC races first over 1000 miles on Friday, then on Saturday the Americans take over for the Sebring 12 Hours, one of endurance racing’s ‘big three’ alongside Le Mans and the 24 Hours of Daytona. There’s also a promise of more details on the WECIMSA accord, which is due to take effect in 2021/22.

The foggy future needs demisting. In short, here’s the state of play. Le Mans has been working on a new hypercar-based class, LMH, to replace the LMP1 hybrids, which have become too expensive to build and run. Toyota is the last manufacturer standing this year, and it’s on course for a Le Mans hat-trick in June with a two-car entry as LMP1 bids farewell (at least as the headline class). Rebellion’s pair of non-hybrid Gibson cars has bloodied Toyota’s nose in WEC races, winning twice – but only because of synthetic ‘Balance of Performance’ handicapping.

Can Rebellion pull off a major coup at the big one? Yes, if the BoP is strongly in its favour – in which case its victory would be devalued anyway. If Toyota must race with two hands tied behind its back, is it really a race at all? Le Mans’ credibility this year rests on the BoP being fair to both the high-tech works team and the privately funded, lower-tech ‘indies’ from Rebellion and Ginetta.

After this, the WEC hypercars are set to make their debut at Silverstone on 5 September, then race at Le Mans for the first time in 2021. Toyota is building a purebred prototype racer that will be turned into a road car to meet the new LMH rules, but no other major car maker currently fancies taking that route. Others prefer to turn their existing road-going hypercars into racing cars – which is far from the same thing. This was Aston Martin’s choice with the Valkyrie.

The two LMH strands were to be pulled together using BoP to make them equal in performance, but now Aston Martin has frozen its plans to race the Valkyrie. The reason given was the confusion created by the deal to invite IMSA racers to join the party in the WEC from autumn 2021 – although it also follows in the wake of Lawrence Stroll’s buy-in to the beleaguered car maker and his plans to take it back into Formula 1 as a works entry with the team currently called Racing Point, which he has owned since 2018.

So, other than privateer creations from the likes of Scuderia Cameron Glickenhaus, Toyota might well be left with an open goal at Le Mans next year. Then again, that has arguably been the case in LMP1 for the past three years since first Audi and then Porsche withdrew.

The Franco-American Alliance

So, what about this IMSA deal? The US has tended to take a lower-tech and more cost-effective approach to endurance racing, and that will continue with its new LMDh (Le Mans Daytona Hybrid) hypercar class, due to be launched next year. As the catchy name hints, these new prototypes, based on next-generation LMP2 cars, will feature a rear-axle energy retrieval system to bring IMSA closer into line with the marketing needs of modern car makers and allow entrants to style them to look like road-going hypercars. Now a deal has been struck for them to race against the LMH hypercars in the WEC and at Le Mans – although it’s not yet clear whether the LMH class will be allowed to race at Daytona and Sebring in return. That’s a possible point of clarity for this weekend.

The agreement between WEC and IMSA has been welcomed as the first step towards a long-awaited single – and surely sensible –global rulebook for sports car racing, which might (or might not) be drawn up later this decade. But for now, BoP will be used to equalise the two codes, as well as the two strands of the LMH category (still with us?).

Purists turn their nose up at artificially playing with performance, especially when it’s so convoluted, but realists point out that it’s the only way to lure in more manufacturers, given that they all have different agendas, model types and attitudes to motorsport. Take Peugeot: it has already announced an intention to return to Le Mans in 2022 and initially planned to do so with some form of LMH hypercar. But it might now choose an LMDh programme instead, once it has some clarity on how the rules will converge, which is the most cost-effective and, presumably, which is the most likely to result in a shot at victory. Announcements at ‘Super Sebring’ this weekend could be crucial to its decision and those of others who might like to join.

You may well wonder what happened to the days when people just built the fastest cars they could to a given set of rules and went racing. If only it could still be so simple.

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