Friday, 29 November 2013

Bahrain Preview - All about the tyres…

Having been caught out with my predictions recently, I decided that it would be best to wait until qualifying was done and dusted before trying to suggest how the final round of the 2013 World Endurance Championship would pan out.

With the LMP1 titles just about sorted out, we’re into the realms of a “stand-alone” race again in Bahrain – focus for both Audi and Toyota is now firmly on the 2014 development projects and an end-of-term feeling pervades the operational teams from both camps now.

It is clear that most, if not all, of the performance advantage that Audi enjoyed in the first five rounds of the championship has now been eroded by developments at Toyota. From what we’ve seen thus far in Bahrain, lap times have improved by around four seconds since last year’s race: I suspect that hybrid control system developments, rather than improvements in the hybrid motors themselves, are responsible.

But as Toyota and Audi have come closer together in lap times, so their respective fuel ranges have also converged. In Shanghai, Toyota could manage only one lap more on its 76-litre tank of petrol than Audi could on its 58-litre tank of diesel. My projection is showing that we’ll be getting 24 lap stints from Audi, and 26 laps from Toyota in Bahrain. The two-lap difference (on what is only a marginally shorter circuit) is purely due to the lap length suiting Toyota slightly better than Shanghai did.

In any event, if the race average lap times are between 1m 44s and 1m 45s, as I expect, then Audi will again be facing an 8-stop strategy, unless there is a safety car period, whereas Toyota will be able to run on 7 pit stops.

So Audi is going to have to be clever – or lucky – to win this one. But it seemed that way in Shanghai, and look what happened there. It could come down to tyres. If Audi can double-stint the Michelin rubber, then it will spend less time in the pits, and could win the race that way. The drop in temperature over the six hours will be significant, and that could mean that, even if the first stops are for fuel and tyres, the tyres will probably last longer in the later stints, and it could then swing in favour of Audi towards the end of the race. Traditionally, Audi sets up its cars to be fast at the end of endurance races, rather than the start – so no-one should be surprised to see ever-improving pace as the race goes on.

Toyota may have had the upper hand thus far in Bahrain, but they will have to fight for the outright win. And they will have to fight harder as the race evolves, I reckon. Just because the race seems to be going Toyota’s way in the early stages, don’t go away and do something else, as you’ll be sure to miss something!

In any case, the GTE class race looks like being a corker. I think it will be a question of making the fuel last as long as possible in each stint to enable the final ‘splash and dash’ stop to be as short as possible – I don’t think that four stops will be possible, but (as I have discussed before) it will require a stint of 1 hour 11 minutes to make it achievable. Of course, the safety car could make that calculation academic, but it looks like Aston, Porsche and Ferrari will be nose-to-tail throughout – with the fuel consumption of the re-vamped Porsche the big unknown!

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