Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Sweating the Assets in São Paulo

I wrote earlier this week on dailysportscar.com about the World Endurance Championship race in Brazil, but I concentrated on the GTE-Pro class in that article, and I do not propose to repeat here what I have said there. Instead, I want to look a little more closely at the race for the overall lead in Brazil, which, let’s be fair, was less than enthralling.

There were really just two turning points, each of which accounted for one of the leading contenders, leaving just the no. 1 Audi R18 e-tron quattro of Marcel Fässler, André Lotterer and Benoît Tréluyer to take the win.

The first of these turning points happened after just 35 minutes as Stéphane Sarrazin found himself on the outside of Dominik Kraimhamer’s mishandling Lotus and the two of them skittered off into the barriers at the Senna ‘S’ at some speed, inflicting damage to both cars from which neither could continue.

There followed 58 minutes behind the Safety Car, while the cars were moved and the barriers were repaired. Ten minutes after the green flag was waved, the Safety Car was out again, as Toni Vilander’s fiery Ferrari was dealt with, but as we went green for the second time, there was the prospect of more than four hours’ racing to settle the dispute between the two Audis.

Initially, this was between André Lotterer and Tom Kristensen, in the no. 1 and no 2 cars respectively, and as they completed the green flag lap, following that second Safety Car period, Lotterer (making the most of the traffic) was ahead by 5.643 seconds. At this point, he had sufficient fuel aboard for one more lap than Kristensen, so already the odds were looking stacked against the 2013 Le Mans winners.

In fact, it was Lotterer who pitted first, by which time he had extended his lead to 10.457 seconds. Both he and Kristensen took on fuel only, and were in the pit lane for 54.845s and 54.839s respectively. Both Leena Gade and Kyle Wilson-Clarke had taken a risk by going for a double stint on the tyres, but the logic was sound, since 9 out of the 37 laps (8 out of 35 in Lotterer’s case) had been done behind the Safety Car, and in addition, the reduced pace enabled them (independently) to look to the end of the race and count backwards. Stints of 45 minutes, meant that, anytime from half-distance onward, the finish would be reachable in three more stops.

Marginally quicker, but using commensurately more fuel, it was Lotterer who again stopped first, just over three minutes before half-distance. Kristensen stayed out three laps longer, but was by this time 18.498s in arrears. The changeover to Duval was achieved three seconds more quickly than Lotterer’s handover to Tréluyer, but Benoît’s pace in no. 2 was quicker than that of his compatriot, and the margin crept up to over 20 seconds as the second turning point of the race occurred.

Tréluyer had already pitted and taken on fresh tyres as Duval, now leading the race, came in for the equivalent pit stop at the end of his 142nd lap. Brad Kettler, operating the ‘stop’ board, saw four green lights, and sent the car on its way. Unknown to the team at the time, the right rear wheel had been misaligned, and although the nut torqued up perfectly, the wheel wobbled off as Loïc reached the pit exit. Bizarrely, it then bounced off the right hand guard rail and landed back on the rear deck of the R18. A slow lap back to the pits to have a new wheel fitted and two penalties then put the no. 1 car three laps down and the remaining two hours of the race became largely academic for the LMP1 cars.

As far as the championship is concerned, the no. 2 crew still holds the upper hand. Whether the Toyota has a role to play in stealing points from one or other of the Audis remains to be seen. In the first 25 laps of the race, Allan McNish, in the lead, averaged 1m 23.031s, compared to Marcel Fässler at 1m 23.308s, and Stéphane Sarrazin at 1m 23.580s.

What we don’t know is how long the Toyota would have been able to go between stops, and what its tyre situation was. I believe Toyota was planning 36 lap stints. That would have left it needing a splash of fuel to complete the final ten minutes of the race. But only a short Safety Car period would have bunched the field and, crucially, enabled it to complete the race on six stops.

The same pieces will be there for the next round, at the curiously-named 'Circuit of the Americas', in Austin, Texas. But how those pieces fit together could be very different. Expect the Audis to be doing 23 laps, the Toyotas 24 or 25. And hopefully, with all that space, there'll be no need for Safety Cars this time.

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