It’s been a day since the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and I’ve finally put my thoughts together on it. It was something else, nothing like I’ve ever seen before.
(This article originally appeared on my blog, and I’m reposting it here.)
Before the 24 Hours of Le Mans, predictions were that Toyota would walk away with the race on both pace and reliability. Predictions were that the all-new and huge LMP2 field would have failures en masse, having shown mediocre reliability in the lead-up to Le Mans. And, fears were that the GTE-Pro field would have poor balance of performance, allowing someone to run away with it.
Instead, we got a fantastic GTE battle from flag to flag (although with whining about balance of performance from a certain competitor, on both sides of the flag) - typical for GTE, but good to see that it happened again. The LMP2 field had its gremlins here and there, but problems were largely caused by driver error, not mechanical failure - a bit surprising, but not really shocking. In fact, thanks to GTE and LMP2's reliability, the only running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans that had a lower percentage of attrition was the first race in 1923.
The LMP1 field, though? Well, Toyota definitely had the pace, throughout the race, that much was true. ByKolles retiring after seven laps was par for the course, but every LMP1 had a major failure, and only two even finished. However, Toyota didn’t walk away with the race as predicted - while the #2 Porsche spent time in the garage with a front hybrid system failure early in the race, apparently knocking it out of the race, Toyota had a triple-whammy before even 12 hours had passed. The #8 Toyota suffered a similar failure to the #2 Porsche, but with a slower repair, that would ultimately knock it out of contention, finishing ninth overall. The #7 suffered a clutch failure after a safety car period (allegedly, thanks to a botched pit lane departure, caused by a thumbs up from a LMP2 driver being misinterpreted as a marshal releasing the car), forcing it to retire. Shortly afterwards, the #9 suffered a collision (the cause of which is unclear at this time), and damage sustained in the attempt to get it back to the pits ultimately forced its retirement as well. Suddenly, Toyota was entirely knocked out of contention.
It wasn’t all roses for Porsche, either, though. #2 pushed hard through the field just in case something happened, and throughout the race, there were rumors of issues with the #1 car. There was a serious concern that a LMP2 - at first the #13 Rebellion (which, amusingly, was foreshadowed in a Michel Vaillant comic book featuring Rebellion), then the #38 Jackie Chan DC Racing car - might win the race overall. And then, with a bit under 4 hours to go, the #1's oil pump gave up the ghost, ultimately promoting #38 to the overall lead of the race. #2 eventually was able to catch up, and then put #38 a lap down, but the end result involved an overall podium with two LMP2s on it (#38 and #13), and a dedicated LMP1 podium with only two teams. This result is, in a word, disastrous for the LMP1-H category, even with Porsche’s victory.
The sustainability of LMP1-H in its current form
LMP1-H has been dogged by concerns over skyrocketing budgets, which resulted in Nissan’s rushed program and its subsequent cancellation, and in the wake of Dieselgate, forced Porsche to scale down their program, and forced Audi to terminate it entirely. In addition, Peugeot has been making quite a bit of noise about budgets needing to be low to ensure their entrance to the category. And, there’s been the perennial debate over whether LMP1-L should even be allowed to challenge LMP1-H for the overall victory - without that ability, there’s little incentive to enter LMP1-L, as a team’s sponsors get less visibility than in lower classes. With that ability, the manufacturers have less incentive to enter, as they’re less likely to get a return on their investment. But now, if even LMP2 is challenging for the overall victory? Well, that just blew that whole debate wide open...
Also, many a hot take has been penned about how hybrid technology is killing motorsport in general, and LMP1 specifically, due to the massive budgets that are necessary to compete in series that require it, and the complexity and apparent unreliability that the hybrid systems introduce to the cars. Here’s the thing about LMP1-H, though: It’s only expensive because the competition has made it expensive, and the hybrid system isn’t why it’s expensive (it does absolutely add complexity, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to an expensive program, and it doesn’t necessarily translate to unreliability).
Want proof? Look at the tightly cost-capped Formula E series, which is using state-of-the-art electric technology on the cheap, through a spec chassis and aero, restricted development, and a requirement to sell to customer teams. Look at apr racing’s Super GT campaign, using a JAF GT300-specification Toyota Prius, where they’ve seen success on a shoestring budget, using used components handed down from higher-tier Toyota racing programs, and road car parts. Hybrid and electric technology can be done cheaply if your series is set up to handle it smartly.
Conversely, you don’t need hybrids and electrics to have spiraling costs destroy your series - just look at the unsustainable war that happened in GT1, with manufacturers creating what were effectively LMP cars, and building a couple of road models as homologation specials (with the Toyota GT-One being the height of the ridiculous situation in GT1 - they simply built what we’d now call an LMP1, made two road cars, and claimed that the fuel tank was the required luggage compartment). The spiraling costs are the fault of the manufacturers fighting for the win. The incredibly high attrition is the fault of the manufacturers choosing performance over reliability or serviceability (note that it’s not always been this way - Audi, for instance, successfully assaulted Le Mans on a program of rapid serviceability, with tactics like their infamous 4-5 minute gearbox change, which got them the first and second steps on the 2000 podium).
Additionally, people opposing the usage of hybrid technology in motorsport, I’d argue, forget why manufacturers participate in motorsport. The first reason is simply advertising - the “win on Sunday, sell on Monday” mantra that’s existed for decades. And, having a successful hybrid race car can help market an manufacturer’s advanced technology products. The second reason is to facilitate research and development of future road car technologies. I can point to a few different specific technologies that Audi, for instance, tested in LMP1 before bringing them to the customer. There’s also a couple examples here and there of technologies developed for the Toyota LMP1 program, that are headed towards production.
Also, the FIA and ACO see value in being able to market the high efficiency and advanced technology of their sport. Sure, NASCAR gets away with 1980s technology at the newest, and no road relevance whatsoever, but NASCAR is aimed at a different target market... and for that matter, NASCAR is struggling with dwindling viewership and attendance, and is resorting to ridiculous gimmicks to try to retain viewers.
So, the current state of LMP1-H isn’t sustainable in the long term. (In the short term, Toyota has confirmed that they’ll be back, and although rumors are swirling that Porsche will pull out for 2018, Porsche has denied those rumors.) And, if one manufacturer pulls out, the entire World Endurance Championship loses its world championship status. However, that doesn’t mean that the concept is unsustainable, only that the situation is. There are ways that the ACO could fix this - take some examples from Formula E, for example - but let’s take a look at what they’ve proposed for 2020.
The 2020 regulations
Of course, the ACO’s proposed 2020 LMP1-H regulations are even less popular among the crowd that hates hybrids in motorsport - after all, even though the eight megajoule per lap hybrid energy and two hybrid system limits are being maintained, the addition of the plug-in hybrid functionality, and along with it, a requirement to do an electric-only kilometer at race pace after leaving the pits, and somehow cross the line under only electric power, is seen as horrendously gimmicky and pandering to greenies with no benefit whatsoever.
As far as the 2020 regulations, I’ll be the first to admit that the mandatory electric modes are a bit gimmicky. In a hybrid road car, or a blended plug-in hybrid, if you’re asking for full performance, you’re going to be running the engine, end of story. The stored hybrid energy can help increase performance without increasing fuel usage, but the engine would usually only be off if you’ve either commanded a reduced performance electric-only mode, or you’re driving with reduced power demand.
However, dismissing them as only gimmicky misunderstands the reason for manufacturers to support that technology, as I’ve mentioned above. Remember, the manufacturers are heavily involved in creating the rulebook, and given Porsche’s happiness with the plug-in hybrid portions of the regulations, and their road car plug-in ambitions, I wouldn’t be surprised if they were actually the ones that pushed for that. In addition, in the road car market, plug-in hybrid customers seem to prefer operating in a non-blended mode as long as possible, even if performance is reduced as a result, so that capability does have road relevance. And, as the class electrifies further, it’ll already have the electric hardware necessary to handle longer running without the engine. I could see, in a few years, a return to the ZEOD RC’s goal of one race pace lap under electric power, then start the engine
One thing that isn’t yet clear is how the 8 MJ/lap limit relates to the mandatory electric periods. I’m reading the rules as restricting energy recovery to 8 MJ/lap (whereas the current rules restrict energy release to 8 MJ/lap), but this is more of a press release than an actual rulebook. I hope that my reading is correct, otherwise outlaps and final laps will be seriously hurt on pace by having to save hybrid power for those stages, rather than use it in the most efficient manner.
As far as the cost reduction measures - reduction to one body kit (with active aero to offset the impact of that, and improve efficiency), reductions in private testing, reductions in staff, reductions in components (an example being two gearboxes for the entire season), restricted development after 2020 - some are good, some are bad.
The reduction to one body kit with active aero, I’m OK with. Active aero can vastly reduce energy consumption of LMP1, which has long been a goal of both the ACO and the manufacturers. And, road cars are using various forms of it en masse - many high-end sports cars have adaptive downforce, and many economy cars have adaptive cooling.
Similarly, the reductions in private testing are fine (with a caveat that I’ll get into), especially as there are public test sessions planned to offset this. The reductions in staff should reduce costs as well, and may force teams to design cars to be serviced by fewer staff.
However, the restrictions in component usage and in development worry me a lot. It only takes one look at Formula 1 to see how disastrously wrong that can go, with hundred-place grid penalties having been commonplace, and without the ability to actually solve reliability issues. That kind of thing, where a single failure can cause a manufacturer to be guaranteed a terrible result for the remainder of the season, and a bad design can have echoes that continue several years later (due to preventing a redesign of another suboptimal component), can ruin a championship. Even Formula E, which tightly restricts what can be developed, can have ruined seasons as a result of a poor design decision that can’t be adequately tested - just look at NextEV in Season 2.
Now, a development restriction program can absolutely prevent someone from massively out-spending to crush the competition, but it needs to be very carefully managed to ensure that someone can come back from a bad decision. I’d argue that one way to do this would be to look at championship points, and if a manufacturer is doing poorly, grant them additional design changes. That would increase costs for the manufacturers that are granted those changes, but it also means that they can recover from a poor design, rather than suffer with it for years, and eventually pull out from the championship.
One thing that can also help is to remove certain elements from manufacturer development entirely, although this can be quite controversial. Formula E, for instance, uses a spec body, spec aero, and spec battery, restricting manufacturer development to the motor, gearbox inverter, cooling system, and rear suspension (due to the gearbox changes). IMSA’s DPi concept also does this quite well, using cars based on LMP2 cars (which are tightly controlled by the ACO), but with manufacturer-supplied powertrains (either homologated for 2016 IMSA prototype racing, or for FIA GT3 racing). Manufacturer development is restricted to the powertrain, and certain regions of the bodywork are required to be customized for manufacturer visual identity, without a performance gain. Especially in the DPi case, the manufacturers can focus on the stuff that they can easily market (looks and powertrain), and leave things like the monocoque (which is much harder to market) to the specification, and I feel that a “DPi-H” of sorts may help with costs significantly.
Also, I feel that increased involvement of privateers could go a long way towards sustainability in LMP1. I don’t mean LMP1-L or LMP2 competing against LMP1-H, though - manufacturers hate to be beaten by a low-tech cheap privateer car, and that’s why LMP1-L is perpetually slower than LMP1-H. What I mean is customer cars, something that has a very long tradition in Le Mans (customer LMP1 having been a thing as recently as 2011, when Oreca ran a customer 2010-specification Peugeot 908 HDi FAP), and something that Formula E requires. Ever since the hybrid era began, though, no team has sold a car to any customers, citing excessive complexity in the hybrid system. There’s no reason that that has to be the case, though (see above, with my example of apr racing having basically constructed their own hybrid GT300 car from leftover Toyota parts), and mandating that manufacturers sell customer cars with a price cap may actually be a sustainable route, that also allows manufacturers to save face if a privateer manages to win - at least it was with their car, and not a
Formula Oreca LMP2.