Friday, 24 October 2014

Marking your card for Shanghai

Ahead of the next round of the World Endurance Championship in China, I have as usual been trying to work out what to expect. Fuji provided six hours of practically uninterrupted racing – and a facility like Shanghai will most likely provide similar. Remember that last year we had six hours racing at Shanghai: unspoilt by of Safety Cars, Full Course Yellows or rain. Although the weather gods were kind to us in Japan, rain in late October is not unheard of in China, and changeable conditions might be the best hope for either Porsche or Audi to put Toyota under pressure.

Before any race, a team will put together a race plan, which will include the driving sequence, length of stint and when tyres will be changed. Of course, the green flag waves and this plan is often the first casualty as events (dear boy) unfold and incidents happen. Nevertheless, and even if the better-prepared teams will have alternative plans up their sleeves to deal with various eventualities, it is the plan that you have to start with. And the thought occurs to me that the strategists at Porsche (and possibly even those at Toyota) might be thinking in terms of a five stop race in Shanghai.

It will not have gone unnoticed that at Fuji, Brendon Hartley in Porsche no. 20 managed a stint of 39 laps, which from the pit exit at the start of his stint to entering the pits at the end took him 58m 40s. If one allows that to refuel, change tyres and travel the length of the pit lane takes more than 1m 20s, then the inevitable conclusion is that it is possible for a modern LMP1 car to complete a six hour race on just five stops.

Last year at Shanghai, the longest stint by one of the works hybrids was 26 laps. By my reckoning, in fuel-saving mode, Porsche will be able to manage 32 laps. A good average lap time will be 1m 50s. I calculate that both Porsche and Toyota might be able to manage that, and if they do, then they'll be able to complete 191 laps in 6 hours - one more than last year's winning Audi R18 e-tron quattro.

With no time available for any development between races, it is safe to assume that Audi will struggle on pace again this weekend. Their decision to run in the 2MJ category may have provided them with the reliability to win Le Mans, but the long straights and tight hairpins of Shanghai will play to the more powerful cars from Stuttgart and Tokyo (via Cologne), just as it did in Japan. Audi also has a higher fuel consumption, so unless there is the opportunity to save fuel behind the safety car, both Audis will need six stops.

As Toyota found out in Texas, though, Audi will optimise their strategy, and pounce on any opportunity that is presented. And the most likely – some would say the only – area in which Audi can pull a rabbit out of the hat is in tyre usage. We know from previous visits to Shanghai that the tyres will not last two stints. At least, they won’t last two full stints. As Audi knows even now that they will have to do six stops for fuel, there might be an opportunity for them to do shorter stints with a lighter fuel load and thus be able to double-stint the tyres. But even then, I don’t think that the R18’s have the pace to worry the Toyotas. But the other advantage of having a six-stop plan is that it is inherently more flexible than a five-stopper. If the weather conditions change, or if a safety car intervention is called for, then a more flexible strategy could turn things Audi’s way. Even if nothing happens, everyone will have to be on their toes, ready to react, just in case!

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

A clean race and a clean sweep for Toyota

Surprisingly, the Six Hours of Fuji didn’t really throw up any surprises.

The two Toyotas made no mistakes and simply ran away into the distance, giving their opposition no chance. Maybe it was just the type of race that Nicolas Lapierre needed to take part in, to restore his self-confidence (if that was what was at the root of the “personal reasons” for not racing). As a previous winner at Fuji, he surely will not have had any difficulty in keeping the car at the front; it will likely cost him a world championship title.

It was a race that was enthralling rather than exciting. With its long straight, Fuji encourages a relatively low downforce configuration. This had the double consequence of increasing tyre wear and reducing fuel consumption. This, I think, goes part of the way to explaining why Michelin’s LMP1 tyres would not last for a double stint. The improved fuel consumption also enabled all six LMP1-H entries to complete the race on just six stops each.

The shortest stint of those six-stoppers was Mark Webber in the no. 20 Porsche, whose first stint was just 10 laps, having suffered a slow puncture. André Lotterer in the no. 2 Audi tried to make his tyres go for two stints, but had to capitulate after a stint of just 16 laps; which was the shortest stint that the Audi was capable of without having to make an extra stop for fuel.

Of course all this played into the hands of Toyota. It is no secret that the Japanese manufacturer holds the horsepower advantage, and provided the team found the correct balance, the rest was a formality. Toyota also seems to have learned Audi’s trick of getting the car to improve as the race went on. Both Kazuki Nakajima and Anthony Davidson set their cars’ fastest laps in the final hour of the race. Both the Audis set theirs in the first two hours.

The one moment of controversy was the Full Course Yellow (FCY) period, just before half-distance. The debris that had to be cleared from the track was quickly dealt with, and racing was underway again in less than three minutes, but inevitably the neutralisation affected some more than others. First though, to be clear: this was a Full Course Yellow, not a Safety Car Period. The regulations allow for both, and they are different. It was a procedure first introduced during the Silverstone 6 hours in 2013, and was felt then by race control to have worked well.

Just as with all procedures, though, it is important to understand what is and is not allowed. Under Full Course Yellow, the pit lane entry and exit remain open throughout. Cars must immediately slow down to 80km/h and must not overtake. At the end of the FCY period, messages will be displayed on the timing screens and green flags will be waved at all marshal posts. This is the signal for racing (and overtaking) to resume, “regardless of the positions of the cars relative to one another and to the line”.

Two cars took the opportunity to make pit stops: the no. 1 Audi, which was called in for Lucas di Grassi to hand over to Tom Kristensen; and the no. 27 SMP Oreca of Maurizio Mediani, which made a fuel-only stop. Everyone else stayed out, so in theory at least, should have pretty much maintained position. Here are the positions (and gaps) just before the Full Course Yellow was called.

No. Car Driver Laps Time Gap
8 Toyota Davidson 102 2h 34m 29.337s
7 Toyota Sarrazin 102 2h 34m 36.939s 7.602s
14 Porsche Jani 102 2h 35m 51.452s 1m 14.513s
1 Audi di Grassi 101 2h 34m 47.473s 26.040s
20 Porsche Bernhard 101 2h 35m 01.146s 13.673s
2 Audi Tréluyer 101 2h 35m 43.435s 42.289s
13 Rebellion Leimer 97 2h 35m 43.393s 6m 22.510s
26 Ligier Canal 95 2h 35m 17.285s 2m 46.400s
47 KCMG Oreca Howson 95 2h 35m 49.725s 32.440s
27 SMP Oreca Mediani 94 2h 34m 40.357s 27.421s
35 Oak Morgan Brundle 94 2h 34m 43.261s 2.904s
9 Lotus CLM Rossiter 94 2h 34m 56.672s 13.411s
51 Ferrari Bruni 90 2h 35m 37.877s 7m 27.057s
71 Ferrari Rigon 90 2h 35m 40.165s 2.288s
99 Aston Martin Rees 90 2h 35m 43.364s 3.199s
91 Porsche Bergmeister 90 2h 36m 09.631s 26.267s
95 Aston Martin Hansson 90 2h 36m 11.289s 1.658s
98 Aston Martin Nygaard 89 2h 35m 00.118s 30.837s
81 Ferrari Rugolo 88 2h 34m 59.194s 1m 41.394s
88 Porsche Al Qubaisi 88 2h 35m 22.905s 23.711s
75 Porsche Collard 88 2h 36m 10.725s 47.820s
61 Ferrari Skeen 87 2h 34m 35.957s 7.725s

The waving of the green flag is supposed to be simultaneous around the track, allowing driving to start racing again immediately: there is no need to wait until you get to the start-finish line or any other such restriction. And after a full racing lap, the positions (and gaps) were:

No. Car Driver Laps Time Gap
8 Toyota Davidson 106 2h 42m 06.609s
7 Toyota Sarrazin 106 2h 42m 09.015s 2.406s
14 Porsche Jani 106 2h 43m 34.110s 1m 25.095s
20 Porsche Bernhard 105 2h 42m 27.373s 24.498s
1 Audi Kristensen* 105 2h 42m 55.741s 28.368s
2 Audi Tréluyer 105 2h 43m 22.616s 55.243s
13 Rebellion Leimer 100 2h 42m 01.320s 6m 30.829s
26 Ligier Canal 99 2h 43m 01.247s 2m 37.553s
47 KCMG Oreca Howson 98 2h 42m 16.287s 52.957s
35 Oak Morgan Brundle 98 2h 42m 35.598s 19.311s
27 SMP Oreca Mediani* 98 2h 42m 59.693s 24.095s
9 Lotus CLM Rossiter 97 2h 43m 06.381s 1m 43.648s
51 Ferrari Bruni 93 2h 42m 11.679s 5m 53.962s
71 Ferrari Rigon 93 2h 42m 13.272s 1.593s
99 Aston Martin Rees 93 2h 42m 21.600s 8.328s
91 Porsche Bergmeister 93 2h 42m 32.678s 11.078s
95 Aston Martin Hansson 93 2h 42m 35.248s 2.570s
98 Aston Martin Nygaard 93 2h 42m 58.297s 23.049s
81 Ferrari Rugolo 92 2h 43m 01.859s 1m 46.760s
88 Porsche Al Qubaisi 92 2h 43m 27.994s 26.135s
75 Porsche Collard 91 2h 42m 38.140s 53.351s
61 Ferrari Skeen 91 2h 42m 41.261s 3.121s

Unless you’ve got a very big screen, or you’ve printed this out, it might be a bit difficult to compare these two, so here are the net gains / losses for each car, relative to the one ahead of it.

No. Car Driver Gain/Loss Time
7 Toyota Sarrazin Gain 5.196s
14 Porsche Jani Loss 10.582s
1 Audi di Grassi Pit loss 26.660s
20 Porsche Bernhard Gain 14.707s
2 Audi Tréluyer Loss 12.954s
13 Rebellion Leimer Loss 8.319s
26 Ligier Canal Gain 8.847s
47 KCMG Oreca Howson Loss 20.517s
27 SMP Oreca Mediani Pit Loss 15.985s
71 Ferrari Rigon Gain 0.695s
99 Aston Martin Rees Loss 5.129s
91 Porsche Bergmeister Gain 15.189s
95 Aston Martin Hansson Loss 0.912s
98 Aston Martin Nygaard Gain 7.788s
81 Ferrari Rugolo Loss 5.366s
88 Porsche Al Qubaisi Loss 2.424s
75 Porsche Collard Loss 5.531s
61 Ferrari Skeen Gain 4.604s

You will notice that I’ve excluded some cars from the comparison, as in some cases the car ahead had emerged from the pits. In other cases, the gaps are just misleading. In effect, it is not possible to disentangle the effect of the pit stop from the effect of the FCY. In these cases, I have measured the gain on the car that finished up in front, after the relevant pit stop. In the cases of the cars that stopped, I have indicated that the time they lost as a ‘pit loss’. And of course it is also impossible to disentangle the speed differentials during the racing time that is inevitably included in the four laps between the two positions taken for my reference laps.

However, it does look a little as if Matt Howson’s claim that he was delayed by the Full Course Yellow has some merit. At the end of the race, the KCMG Oreca was just 5.434 seconds behind the G-Drive Ligier. Whether the 20 seconds lost in the FCY would have made the difference between winning and losing the LMP2 class of course is another matter. And quite why Howson should have lost so much time is not clear either. Certainly, if one looks at the laps spent while the FCY was in operation, average speeds of the laps completed were between 90 and 100km/h. So most likely the difference came either at the start or at the end of the procedure.

In any event, speeds under FCY were investigated by the race director, and no action was deemed necessary. Just be sure that more controversy would have arisen if a Safety Car (or, heaven forbid, the red flag) had been used. And surely, any procedure that takes just two and a half minutes has to be good?

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Aligning the Elements in Japan?

The World Endurance Championship reconvenes at Fuji International Speedway this weekend, and according to the meteorologists, the weather is set fair for the whole of the weekend. Some sunny spells, temperatures in the high teens or low twenties; but importantly, no rain. Bear in mind though that these are the same meteorologists that suggested that the 6 hours of the Circuit of the Americas would also be dry... weather forecasting was never an exact science.

But after last weekend’s formula 1 race at Suzuka, and last year’s washout at Fuji’s WEC round, the Japanese fans deserve a dry race, and as rain has affected so much of the WEC season thus far, it would be good to have six hours of uninterrupted racing on Sunday.

And if we do have an uninterrupted, dry race on Sunday, then surely Sébastien Buemi and Anthony Davidson will be rubbing their hands together in glee. They currently hold (along with Nicolas Lapierre) an eleven point advantage in the drivers championship, but they know that it is the eighteen point deficit in the Manufacturers’ championship that their Japanese employers are particularly concerned about. They also know that, in the Austin race, Buemi enjoyed a very handy advantage indeed in his TS-040 Hybrid. Looking at the average lap times from the first hour and the last two hours of the race alone reveals that the Swiss driver was substantially quicker than anyone else.

In the first 42 laps, each of Buemi’s best 10 laps was, on average, more than 1.4s quicker than the best of his rivals (Lotterer in the Audi). And in the final 64 laps, each of his best 15 laps was still more than half a second quicker (although this time it was Lucas di Grassi that was best of the rest). During both of these periods the track was fully dry, and conditions were pretty much ideal for fast lap times. If a similar superiority can be achieved in similar conditions in Fuji, then neither Audi nor Porsche are going to be able to keep up. And surely Davidson will not allow himself to be slower that Buemi. There are advantages to two driver teams in a six hour race - drivers tend to stay more focussed - and provided both are on form, I think ‘Sebant’ will be tough to beat on Toyota’s home ground.

In Austin, both Toyotas made three driver changes, whereas both Audis changed only twice, so that each driver only had one stint at the wheel. This certainly didn’t make the difference between winning and losing, but is just another example of Audi's habit of optimising every little detail, so that when an opportunity presents itself, as it did in Texas, the team has the best chance of turning that opportunity to its advantage.

Austin showed that the Toyotas are not only quick on the track though, but they have better fuel consumption than Audi too. Neither of the Audis could manage more than 29 laps on a tank of diesel, whereas both Toyota and Porsche demonstrated that they could run 30 laps. At Suzuka, that means that Toyota and Porsche will be able to manage at least 35 laps, enough to get by on just six stops for the race. Audi may be able to conserve the tyres more than their competitors, but will still have to make an extra stop for fuel, by my reckoning.

In the GT class, Ferrari and Aston Martin seem to have the current BoP advantage over the Porsches, although it is interesting that only AF Corse has all Platinum-graded drivers in its two crews. Having said that, for my money Olaf Manthey has the strongest line-up in its two Porsches, whereas at Aston Martin, there is really only one car capable of challenging for class honours.

In Austin, Toni Vilander was slightly off the pace of Gianmaria Bruni - possibly because of the conditions not being ideal whenever he was in the car, but even Gimmi was not able to match the average lap times of Darren Turner and Stefan Mücke in the no. 97 Aston. However, it will not have gone unnoticed that the AF Corse team was able to turn their 458 Italia round much more quickly in the pits than the Vantage. At the end of the day, I believe that the advantage rests with Aston Martin Racing, but they have to sharpen up in every area in order to catch their rivals in the championship points standings. In the GTE-Am class, AMR is ahead: due as much as anything to its professionalism; in the PRO class, small things have caught the team out. It is not a question of outright speed, but dealing with the challenges of endurance racing: be that the changing weather conditions, mechanical reliability or efficiency in the pits.

If some of those variables can be removed in this weekend's round in Japan, then indeed, conditions might align themselves for Toyota and for Aston Martin. Will it happen that way? We’ll have to watch it and see!