WEC - looking towards 2017

As the 2016 season comes to a close, attention is being drawn to the next year’s season of endurance racing.

A new-rule LMP2 car is brought in to try and bring the LMP1 and LMP2 classes closes together whilst the paddock loses Mark Webber from the LMP1 Porsche team and Audi’s future in endurance racing is rumoured to be under threat. With all this happening as the 2016 Championship battle is closer than ever, it is hard to know exactly what will be certain in the 2017 World Endurance Championship.

LMP2 takes on a big regulation change for 2017, with the aim for the class to be more cost effective for teams. Rebellion Racing drop from LMP1 to LMP2 next season, and cost could be one of the leading reasons behind this. Other LMP2 teams are yet to be confirmed, though current Championship leaders Signatech Alpine are keen to carry on in the category.

Rather than purchasing engines, LMP2 teams will lease them, and they will only have one engine to choose from. Gibson Technology got the deal to create the sole engine for LMP2 runners next season: a 4.2-litre V8 without direct-injection, producing 600bhp, branded the Gibson GK428. This engine will be mandatory for all competitors in the World Endurance Championship and European Le Mans and will also be allowed to run in the IMSA SportsCar Championship, competing alongside engines manufactured by manufacturers under Daytona Prototype International rules.

LMP2 runners will also have the selection of four chassis in which to run next year: ORECA, Onroak/Ligier, Dallara and Riley/Multimatic. The first batch of engines was supplied to the chassis companies in mid-August, with the second batch going to them at the end of October. Teams running in the LMP2 class for next season should receive their chassis and engines in December.

LMP1 looks to have a mix up in the next couple of years, starting next year with the departure of Mark Webber. After only three years in the World Endurance Championship, Mark Webber will retire from professional racing. His final race will be the 2016 6 Hours of Bahrain. An exact reason as to why Webber is retiring from racing has not been announced. Porsche have stated that Webber had no need to retire as he is still fast, fit, and his bond with his teammates – Timo Bernhard and Brendon Hartley – is very strong.

Webber has always had a soft spot for Porsches and claims that he has “arrived where [he]I belong.” The Australian will stay on at Porsche as a Porsche Representative having competed in 26 World Endurance races, with his highlight finish being second place in the 2015 24 Hours of Le Mans. Webber, Bernhard and Hartley scored Porsche’s first win, since their return to Endurance racing in 2014, at the 2015 6 Hours of Nürburgring.

Webber’s departure opens up a seat on the LMP1 Porsche team. Porsche have already been rumoured to have a mix around of their LMP1 drivers for the 2017 season, but Webber’s departure opens an opportunity for works driver’s Nick Tandy and Earl Bamber. Both drivers won the 24 Hours of Le Mans in the #19 Porsche in 2015, so both have good credentials for taking the seat. Who Porsche will choose to fill the empty seat and be teamed with Bernhard and Hartley is unknown but they do have a few options. They ran both Mitch Evans and Juan Pablo Montoya in the Rookie Test at the end of last season and also have this end of season’s Rookie Test to run some other people in the current-Champion LMP1 car.

Come 2018 the LMP1 grid could be a bit smaller. Rumours have come out recently throwing concern over Audi’s future in the discipline. The Volkswagen Group have had to make serious cost cuts in their motorsport budget after the “dieselgate” disaster that hit in 2015. It saw both Audi and Porsche only running two cars at this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans instead of the three it usually enters. Due to this need to cost-cut, it could be the case that Volkswagen removes the 13-time Le Mans winning Audi Team’s World Endurance campaign.

There are a few factors that would see this as a logical move for Volkswagen. On the one hand, they fund both the Porsche and Audi programmes in World Endurance Racing, meaning that they are technically competing against themselves. This means that they are guaranteed to lose with at least one team. Audi also run a diesel engine, and for Volkswagen to be seen actively promoting the diesel engine after the 2015 debacle will not help people to forget about all the issues surrounding this matter.

If Audi does drop out of World Endurance Racing in 2018 it is also likely that they will not run as they do in DTM (Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters). Volkswagen are looking to completely redesign their Audi DTM programme over the next few years anyway, so this could be seen as a sign of preparations to step back from World Endurance racing with Audi.

It would make sense for Audi to head in the direction of Formula E if they do not compete in the World Endurance Championship. It would see Volkswagen stepping away from diesel engines completely and focusing more on the development of electrical power. With Volkswagen putting out a statement that they wish to release up to 25 new electric cars by 2025, the move to Formula E is a very sensible one. They would be able to use Audi’s racing budget and the development budget for electric cars to aid Audi’s development on the Formula E grid and also to develop the power units and designs for their “25 or more” electrical cars in the next nine years. Formula E would also allow Volkswagen to put a team up against their rival companies (Jaguar, Mercedes, BMW, etc.) rather than competing against an in-house company.

A lot of change is due to come in the next six months, making the build-up to the 2017 season as exciting as ever. But with two races still remaining in the 2016 season the race for the Championship is still on. The question of whether Porsche can defend from Audi and hold onto the Constructor’s Championship for the second year in a row is the question on everyone’s lips. But the real thing to think about is if Audi do manage to win will this change anything for their future plans? Could winning the 2016 World Endurance Championship secure their participation in the class of motorsport for the forthcoming years?