Thursday, 1 May 2014

Looking forward to Spa...

The Spa 6 hours promises to be a fascinating contest. Nine cars competing in the LMP1 category, seven of which are works cars, all of them approaching the race with different agendas and technologies, all of them focussing very much on the Le Mans 24 hours, but none of them able to forget that World Endurance Championship points will be at stake.

I will not be there, in person, although I will be covering the race for radiolemans.com, based in the spare bedroom at home with more screens than I will be able to shake a stick at. If past experience is anything to go by, this provides a perfectly adequate environment from which to watch the race, and even if I am lacking in “Ardennes Atmosphere”, at least I save myself the time and strain of travelling and gain - or should I say, not lose - valuable brownie points at home.

There are a number of reasons for wanting to post this article immediately ahead of the Spa race; the main one is to draw attention to a number of significant factors that I find interesting, and hence might also be interesting to my readers.

First off, in the GTE class, the Aston Martin Vantages will be (are allowed to be) 15kg lighter than they were at Silverstone. Although the result for the British-built cars was in the end reasonably satisfying, the fact was inescapable that the cars were off the pace. Also, the Porsches will have to carry an additional 25kg, which will certainly prevent them from scampering away up the Kemmel straight at the rate that the Silverstone race implied that they might.

It is in the battle for overall honours, though that the chief interest - and intrigue - lies. What fascinates me is that Audi is the only LMP1 manufacturer that will have a high-downforce (non-Le Mans configuration) chassis at Spa. Fascinating, because historically, it is the Ingolstadt manufacturer that builds its season around the Le Mans 24 hour race - even to the extent of running three cars at Spa.

Having run two Silverstone-optimised chassis at the first round, Toyota has opted to configure both chassis at Spa in full Le Mans trim. Readers may remember that last year, the Japanese team had one car in each specification at Spa, enabling us to compare the low-downforce Toyota with the long-tail Audi.

Audi will once more have a long-tail car at Spa, but it will be in the hands of Marco Bonanomi and Felipe Albuquerque. All due respect to both, but they are two of the most inexperienced WEC drivers in the LMP1 entry, so any conclusions drawn about the expected performance of the long-tail Audi at Le Mans, based on its performance at Spa will be speculative indeed.

Porsche will be concentrating fully on preparing for Le Mans. Any result that is achieved at Spa will be against that background. I expect them to be closer to the Toyotas and Audis than they were at Silverstone, but I believe that we will only see the full potential of Stuttgart unleashed when we convene in France next month.

To my mind, the two season-long Audi entries, despite the strains of the past fortnight spent preparing the cars, will arrive at Spa-Francorchamps as the favourites: primarily because theirs will be the only LMP1 cars running without compromise. It is not in my nature to stick my neck out, but I would not be surprised to see them a lap or two ahead of the field at the end of six hours racing.

The other point of interest, more relevant (perhaps) to Le Mans than to Spa, is that the third Audi will be engineered at both races by Matthias Huber. Huber is from Audi Sport, as opposed to Progressive Motorsport. Last year, you may remember, this car was run by Progressive director, Howden ‘H’ Haynes. Haynes was able to oversee the running of both cars in those races where Audi entered only two cars, but at Spa and Le Mans he was principally focussed on looking after the no. 3 car.

Promotion this year for ‘H’ means that he will be overseeing all three cars (although with Kyle Wilson-Clarke and Leena Gade looking after the no. 1 and no. 2 cars, respectively, he might be giving a bit more of a helping hand to Huber initially). Ralf J├╝ttner now plays a less technical role, and so Haynes’ competitive spirit will not be lost on any of the Audis in the highest profile races of the year.

Audi's start to the season may not have been the one they would have wished, but no-one at Toyota or Porsche should under-estimate the likelihood of them bouncing back from the setbacks of Silverstone all the stronger.

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