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!