Friday, 18 December 2015

Christmas Rumblings from Ebenezer Truswell...

There are 21 Formula 1 Grands Prix scheduled for 2016. There are nine rounds in the WEC. If you are so minded, you could easily find eight 24 hour races (Le Mans, Spa, Nürburgring, Daytona, Dubai, Silverstone, Paul Ricard, Barcelona,) to go to and a three proper 12 hour races (Bathurst, Sebring, Sepang), not to mention the ‘split’ races at Mugello, Zandvoort, Brno, and Abu Dhabi. And those are all top line, international events, not merely national races for production cars. It’s enough. In fact it is too much. The ELMS is expanding to six races, the US sportscar season has twelve rounds and we are in the middle (you may have missed it) of a four-round Asian Le Mans [Winter] Series.

Then there are the ten rounds of the Blancpain GT Series, half of which are billed as “Endurance” races, held over three hours or more. That is more than fifty races and I have not even mentioned British GT, the GT-tour, VLN, ADAC GT, Dutch Supercar or Japanese Super GT. Or the Thunderhill 25-hour race, which seems also to be growing in stature.

I get the feeling these days of a helter-skelter: a headlong rush from one race to another, with no time to reflect between races. If that’s my view as an outsider, then for those involved, whether it be to prepare the cars, to organise the travel and hotels, or to manage, run and direct the races themselves, it is surely only a stone’s throw away from utter chaos.

Does it have to be this way? Can everyone truly hope to have a bigger slice of every cake? I suppose it depends on your point of view. For teams running cars, for organising bodies selling airtime to TV stations, then yes, having more races means more revenue, more turnover, more profit.

For professional drivers, of course, it means more earning opportunities and for gentleman drivers, more chances to indulge in their hobby, even if that means spending more money to do so.

The difficulty that I have with it all is that the abundance of racing diminishes the significance of individual events. Forgive me if I digress for a moment. Our local Rotary Club organises an annual firework display in a park close to our house. We went along this year, paid our £14 to get in, and were treated to a veritable extravaganza. It was good entertainment, thoroughly enjoyed by all the family, and it was made all the more special by the fact that, although the Rotary Club organises it annually, we had missed the last two events.

The point is that the intervening 36 months served to make the event, when we saw it, all the more special. There would be nothing (except some local bye-laws and an uncooperative council, probably) to stop them organising fireworks every Saturday night. But where would be the fun in that? What would be special about going along to something that you can see every week?

It is possible, though, that this is just me, failing to move with the times. I must admit I find the current trend towards social media deeply unsettling, a constant distraction as the appetite for the latest news grows - consumers seem to want less and less content, more and more often. Maybe I am in the minority, shuddering at the words of that Wizzard song: “I wish it could be Christmas every day!”

But all this proliferation may be no bad thing. If it is a case of suppliers providing what the market demands, then is it not exceedingly curmudgeonly of me to groan a little? In many ways I’m all in favour of giving the market what it wants, but then again, there are times when a little restraint can be a good thing. Like at Christmas, when, as my father used to say: “moderation in all things”; although I think it was Oscar Wilde who added “… including moderation”!

Today it seems to me there is a tendency to react (especially through social media outlets) rather than reflect – to think fast rather than to think deeply. The world today is seen through the judgemental lens of a smart phone rather than the eye of wisdom and empathy.

Anyway, to all my readers, merry Christmas: may it be a joyful time of year for you all, and may 2016 live up to our hopes and not down to our fears!

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Pausing to reflect... and speculate!

Yes – it’s that time of year again. When daylight is precious and coats, scarves and gloves are sought out of the backs of drawers. A time when bow ties make appearances and the carefree days of summer seem far away. A time for a single malt by an open fire and a reflection on the year gone by, accompanied by hot mince pies and anticipation of a bright new year ahead.

And an apology for those readers who enjoy reading my musings on this blog, that I have not been so productive of late. I try to ensure that what you will read here isn’t available anywhere else, and as there are seasonal reviews all over the place, I didn’t feel that there was necessarily much to add.

Porsche’s performance in the LMP1 class of the World Endurance Championship has been impressive by any measure, and although it saddens me to say it, Audi’s opposition was at times shambolic this year – to the extent that even if Porsche made mistakes, Audi made worse ones. Toyota have endured an even worse year, the 2015 iteration of the TS-040 being simply too slow to play a part in any battles for the lead during the season.

Here’s a view of the season that you might not have seen already:

Round Venue Changes of lead Laps led Porsche Laps led Audi Laps led Toyota
1 Silverstone 9 81 96 24
2 Spa-Francorchamps 6 109 67 0
3 Le Mans (24 hours) 27 340 55 0
4 Nürburgring 3 201 2 0
5 Austin 4 185 0 0
6 Fuji 9 166 50 0
7 Shanghai 8 149 20 0
8 Bahrain 10 126 73 0

That means that Porsche led around 78 percent of the racing laps in 2015, and Audi just 21 percent. And, averaged out across the season, one change of lead every 53m 41s. Another interesting view is to look at the outright performance potential, as defined by looking at the best 20% of green laps in each race, merging the two championship-counting cars together, and comparing with a theoretical best at each event. Note that this does not consider things like pit stop times, or car breakdowns – it looks purely at how fast the car is in the race. It also does not take into account that track conditions change over the course of a race, and that having the fastest car for the conditions is more important than having the fastest car overall.

Round Venue Performance Porsche Performance Audi Performance Toyota
1 Silverstone 98.8 100.0 99.0
2 Spa 100.0 99.6 98.2
3 Le Mans 99.6 99.9 98.1
4 Nürburgring 99.9 99.2 97.7
5 Austin 99.9 99.4 97.8
6 Fuji 99.3 99.7 98.2
7 Shanghai 99.8 99.5 98.1
8 Bahrain 99.8 99.8 98.2

While this raises some anomalies, which I don’t particularly want to go into here, it clearly demonstrates Porsche’s increasing dominance as the season progressed. However, Audi’s “performance potential” is not far off that of Porsche, even if that is not reflected in the number of laps led. As I have already mentioned, I feel that Audi was not the well-oiled machine of years gone by, with dodgy strategy calls and silly mistakes blunting what was anyway a challenging season.

It is tantalising to speculate on what 2016 might bring though. Cast your mind back to this time last year, when we were reflecting on a season in which Toyota won the manufacturers’ and drivers’ championships, and had a similar advantage in the closing races of the year.

Also, remember that both Porsche and Audi took a step up the MegaJoule ladder between last year and this: Porsche from 6MJ to 8MJ and Audi from 2MJ to 4MJ; Toyota remained on 6MJ. In 2016, it is safe to assume that Audi will take another step up (from 4MJ to 6MJ) and so will Toyota (from 6MJ to 8MJ). For Porsche, though, there is nowhere to go – unless the Endurance Committee surprises everyone and introduces a 10MJ class for 2016.

The point is, that the gains made by Audi and Porsche between 2014 and 2015 could quite conceivably be made by Audi and Toyota for next year. As can be seen from the “Performance” table above, you don’t need much of a performance advantage to lead a race. What you need to win a race – and indeed a championship – is to make everything work together efficiently.

If anything, the most efficient team of 2015 has been Toyota, whose cars have been generally reliable and who, as a team, has quietly gone about the business of racing without error. The absence of the media spotlight glaring on the team has probably helped, but they should have used this year to build a team spirit and understanding of the relationships within the team, which should help in 2016.

The news that all three major LMP1 manufacturers will do the whole of next season with just two cars each caused a few raised eyebrows. While I do not doubt that budgetary concerns played a significant part in the decision, I think that the logistics and organisation of a three-car team of current LMP1 Hybrids is just so complex, that the engineers at both Audi and Porsche will be heaving a quiet sigh of relief.

Accountants’ tentacles may reach deep, but the amount of money saved by not entering an extra car at Spa and Le Mans is but a drop in the ocean – you can be certain that a third car will be built; the money saved will be purely on the infrastructure to run it.

Three-car teams only arose because of the importance of Le Mans, of course. Entering a third car became a good way for teams to insure against the unpredictability of a 24-hour race. However, if endurance racing – indeed motor-racing as a whole – has learned anything over the past ten years, it is in the understanding of components, how to ‘life’ them and thus how to make the sum of those components reliable. Losing a car at Le Mans is certainly not impossible, but losing two? Of course, it happens: think of Le Mans 2011, when Audi lost the cars of both Allan McNish and Mike Rockenfeller in accidents, leaving the third car to win against three healthy Peugeots.

Since the dawn of the hybrid era, however, reliability has been extremely strong, and the argument of needing a ‘third car’ is less convincing.

Of course the other aspect is that the World Championships have become higher profile since they were introduced in 2012. Arguably, although the importance of Le Mans has not diminished, there is another bright star in the sky. A third car at Le Mans, even if it is ineligible for Manufacturer points, can end up giving its drivers points that the manufacturer would rather have scored by its other drivers – this year being a strong case in point. A point which, ultimately, can lead to distasteful manipulation of results on occasion.

Monday, 9 November 2015

Keeping Safe?

For the second time in successive races, the field started the Six Hours of Shanghai behind the Safety Car. Given the fact that the Free Practice and Qualifying sessions had all been held in dry – and in some cases, sunny – conditions, this was probably a sensible decision. The same thing happened three weeks before that in Fuji - although the rain was somewhat heavier, practice had been held on a dry track. Indeed, it was the second time in three years that the Six Hours of Fuji was started behind the Safety Car – maybe there is a lesson somewhere there for the calendar-maker?

I have written previously about starting a race behind a Safety Car and while I have to admit reservations about the purity of such a start, I suppose it is best summed up as the ‘least-worst option’. The pity of it is that 22 minutes (in the case of Shanghai) and 38 minutes (in the case of Fuji) of the 360 minutes scheduled racing were lost.

In 1977, I was at Brands Hatch for the World Championship of Makes Six Hours, which in dire conditions, had to be stopped after 37 laps. It was restarted as a 2h 45m race, once conditions had improved somewhat, but annoyingly, those first laps were deemed not to ‘count’ and the efforts of drivers in part one went unrewarded. I was standing in a puddle of ever-increasing dimensions as I waited for the decisions to be reached, and although track conditions improved towards the end of the afternoon, it was all rather dismal.

In 1982, again at Brands Hatch, again it was raining and the 1,000kms race again had to be stopped – after just nine laps. This time though, it was calculated as a two-part race, with times from the first twenty-minute part being added to the time for the rest of the race (a little over five hours) to create an aggregate result, albeit 27 laps short of the scheduled distance. This allowed Jacky Ickx (sharing with Derek Bell) to take victory, even though he didn’t manage to get past Teo Fabi’s Martini-sponsored Lancia, which won ‘on the road’, by just 1.7s, but which had finished the first race 6.4s behind the Rothman’s Porsche.

Had the rules for 1977 applied in 1982, then not only would Fabi and Patrese have won the race at Brands, but also Ickx would not have been world champion!

Although a Safety Car (then called a Pace-car) was first used at Le Mans in 1981, it took until the end of the decade before its use – to ‘neutralise’ the race – became widespread in racing across Europe. Particularly at Le Mans – for obvious reasons – but in all forms of racing: endurance racing, single-seaters, touring cars, the circumstances in which a race would be stopped became fewer and fewer. As a result, ‘aggregate’ races became consigned to history. Having the race decided ‘on the road’ became of critical importance, even if it meant that big leads were wiped out at a stroke as the Safety Car pulled onto the track. ‘Picking up the leader’ became crucial as well, of course, which meant that cars continued to circulate at racing speed, while the Safety Car driver chose his moment to accelerate. It seems to me that the aim of ‘Safety First’ was already being compromised as officialdom tried to implement safety procedures.

It wasn’t long before teams began to build the inevitable Safety Car period into their race plan, and race organisers were left playing catch-up trying to deal with the perceived unfairness that arose.

As a result, procedures became ever-more complicated, in the interests of preserving safety without compromising the race, and teams became ever-more adept in developing tactics to make the best of things. In US sportscar racing, it is rare for a Safety Car period to be less than 20 minutes – surely in this time, the race could have been stopped and restarted?

Worse though, is that different organising bodies have adopted different procedures. With a simple waved yellow flag it is easy. Drivers learn from their first race its meaning: “Great danger ahead, no overtaking, slow down, be prepared to stop.” But with a Safety Car Procedure it is not so simple. Mistakes were made: not only by drivers, but by officialdom as well.

In this year’s World Endurance Championship, there are three different and distinct ways of providing a safer environment to allow incidents that occur on the track to be handled, in addition to the ‘traditional’ yellow flag (see above), without having to resort to the dreaded ‘race stoppage’.

First, of course, there’s the Safety Car. But the procedure for using the Safety Car is different, depending whether we’re at Le Mans or not. And either case that’s different from procedures in the US, where many of the WEC drivers are occupied on non-clashing races.

Second, there’s the Full Course Yellow – similar to the so-called ‘Virtual Safety Car’ procedure in F1, but entirely different from a Safety Car procedure, in that drivers are required to keep to a blanket speed limit, imposed at the same time on the whole circuit. Theoretically at least, this should lead to ‘no bunching’, but Lewis Hamilton jeopardised even that theory by his antics at the US GP.

And third, there is the Slow Zone – again, requiring drivers to keep to a speed limit (80km/h), but only for a specific, and hopefully short, section of the track.

I hope you, dear reader, are keeping up here. Because if you’re not, then what chance the 100-odd racing drivers that take part in every round of the WEC?

At Shanghai, there were four periods of Full Course Caution, and at Fuji there were three. In three of those seven periods, pit stops were made by one or more of the Porsches and Audis that were at the sharp end of those races. Quite obviously, there is a lot to be gained from pitting during a FCY period, and if teams did not realise this initially, it is now common knowledge. Only two of these periods lasted for more than ten minutes, the rest were five minutes or less. In terms of laps, only one period was for more than three laps.

If the Safety Car is used, then the pit lane is closed for the first three laps. This rule is in place, not for safety reasons, but to avoid that some cars gain an advantage. There doesn’t seem any logical reason to me why the SC should close the pit lane, but that a FCY period should not – the advantage to be gained is identical. In fact, at Shanghai and Fuji, the SC laps were quicker than those spent under FCY conditions, so the chances of a car running out of fuel was actually greater – except for the fact, of course, that the SC was only used at the start of both races.

In the tennis match of rule-making, the ball is now in the FIA WEC Endurance Committee’s court to close this loophole and close the pit lane during a FCY period.

Although the option of a Slow Zone has been available to race director Eduardo Freitas, it has not been used since Le Mans. Bearing in mind the carnage that ensued as SZ procedures were not properly implemented - on more than one occasion - at Le Mans, one can see the wisdom of this. But, it is only by implementing these things, and learning from the experiences, that we will get to a satisfactory position.

It is interesting, that in drivers’ briefings, they are told that, in the implementation of a FCY, there is a “reaction time” element: enabling drivers (in effect) to choose the moment when they reduce speed to 80km/h. This is entirely sensible, since you don’t want to be hitting the brakes halfway through a long, high-speed corner. The main problem with the existing SZ procedure is the transition into and out of it. Preceding any Slow Zone is a yellow flag zone, through which drivers have to slow from racing speed to 80km/h. After the Slow Zone, the green flag indicates an immediate return to racing speed is possible. It is in the transition zones where the problems arise, particularly due to less-experienced drivers in some of the less powerful cars.

It seems to me that race officials need to recognise this and make suitable allowance in the procedure, to make the Slow Zone a more effective tool. At the moment it is under-utilised and wasted, in my opinion.

Familiarity with the procedure, whatever it is, undoubtedly helps, as does a clear message in driver briefings. These days, telemetry and GPS data are available to Race Control, so identifying transgressions and dangerous driving should not be as subjective an issue as in former times. If penalties for dangerous driving were draconian but fair, and safety rules and procedures were consistent, not just during a season, but across different series and championships, regardless of territory, organising body or racing discipline, then drivers would respond, and perhaps could then trusted to behave appropriately when following safety regulations.

It will never be possible to completely remove the element of chance and luck from racing. But to ensure that safety procedures commensurate with the times in which we currently live are feasible, drivers, race officials – in the control tower and on the circuit – as well as the spectators, need to know and understand what is going on. Then, and only then, will it be possible to create maximum safety with minimum disruption.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Reading the signs, drawing conclusions and personal opinions

From early in the week leading up to the Six Hours of Fuji, my weather widget was suggesting that some fairly heavy rain would arrive on Sunday, although it would be dry and sunny before that. This meant that although Practice and Qualifying would most likely take place in ideal conditions, the race itself would be affected by rain. For once, my forecast was reasonably accurate, and the rain was so bad on Sunday morning that the race was started behind the Safety Car. For 17 laps (38m 19s) the Safety Car led the field around and if it wasn’t entirely the same as 2013, there were certainly echoes of that event, which had to be aborted after just sixteen (non-racing) laps.

The world has moved on since I first started going to endurance races, but in days gone by, conditions that greeted competitors on Sunday morning would probably have meant race officials delaying the start, pending a decision based on whether things seemed to be improving or not. When they decided that the race could proceed, then it things would get under way, and the race would run for its full distance. If there was live TV coverage – and most likely there was not – then they would just have to deal with it, much as commentators at Fuji had to deal with talking about cars following the Safety Car for more than half-an-hour. That’s just what commentators do.

I sometimes wonder why TV companies can deal with cricket, which can often be delayed for hours due to inclement weather; or tennis, where the duration of the event is completely unpredictable, and yet demand that motor races should start and end at a specific time, “for the sake of the show”. I recognise that TV coverage is important to the sport, but occasionally I think that we get the horse and the cart the wrong way round with motor racing. Television is there to observe the event, not to direct it.

Be all of that as it may, the rules are clearly written these days to deal with such situations that we had in Japan, and we were treated, not to inane pictures of marshals pretending that they were fishing in a brook, but to the action of racing sports cars being waved off the echelon formation, to join the ‘race’ behind the Safety Car, which moved off the grid punctually at 11am, the scheduled start time.

Time spent behind the Safety Car is part of the race, of course, so as soon as the race got underway, team tacticians up and down the pit lane started to work out how they could use the time to their advantage. It was an opportunity to try to second-guess the officials – how long would the Safety Car stay out? Would the track be dry enough for “wet” as opposed to “monsoon” tyres when it went green? Was it worth putting the “silver” driver in the car?

Even though those first seventeen laps weren’t racing, they were part of the race, and provided plenty to keep spectators at the track and viewers of the TV and Internet streaming pictures entertained. It was nothing, though, compared to the action that started as soon as the green flag waved. The beauty of the World Endurance Championship is that it is racing that works on a number of levels – on the strategic, tactical level working out when to pit, how to make the fuel last, etc. but also on a pure racinglevel; providing great action on the track: nose to tail, side by side stuff, and more overtaking than you can shake a stick at.

In a race of fluctuating fortunes throughout the field, Porsche once again emerged at the front of the race for the overall lead, the 919 Hybrid proving once again to be too fast when it mattered. Audi’s aerodynamically-updated R18 e-tron quattro was clearly an improvement, not only setting the fastest lap of the race, but also keeping the Porsches out of the lead for 50 laps: nearly a quarter of the race.

The Dumas/Lieb/Jani Porsche was able to establish a lead of nearly a minute, thanks to fortuitous timing of a Full Course Yellow, just as the car was coming into the pits to refuel. It (briefly) re-ignited the debate into how to ensure that race neutralisations should be implemented without disrupting the pattern of the race, but I think that will have to be covered in another post at another time.

The race really turned Porsche’s way when Audi made a bad decision to put André Lotterer onto dry-weather slick tyres halfway through his stint, though. It is interesting to speculate on what might have happened had he been left on the ‘slick intermediates’.

Let’s have a look at the numbers:

No. Car Driver Stint Start Stint End Laps Average green lap time
17 Porsche Hartley 13:23 14:31 40 1m 36.586s
17 Porsche Hartley 14:32 15:33 39 1m 31.261s
18 Porsche Lieb 13:25 14:31 40 1m 36.508s
18 Porsche Lieb 14:32 15:31 37 1m 31.520s
7 Audi Lotterer 13:15 14:20 38 1m 37.219s
7 Audi Lotterer 14:21 14:33 7 1m 43.348s
7 Audi Lotterer 14:34 15:31 36 1m 32.092s
8 Audi di Grassi 13:18 14:19 36 1m 37.808s
8 Audi di Grassi 14:20 15:15 34 1m 34.087s

In the same time period that Lotterer was doing his seven laps on slicks, the two Porsches were averaging 1m 35s, so it is fair to assume that Lotterer, had he not have switched, would have been lapping eight seconds per lap faster for those seven laps. Additionally, had André kept the ‘slick intermediate’ tyres on (as Hartley, Lieb and di Grassi all did), then he would have saved not only the second stop to switch back to the inters (58.441s), but also the twenty-two seconds that it took to change to full slicks at his first pit stop.

Add all this together and you get (56+58+22=136) 2m 16s. Go back and look at the official results, and you’ll find that the winning Porsche finished the race 2m 16.479s ahead of the Audi (although it was a lap ahead, you can still calculate the winning margin).

Now of course we must remember that the Lieb/Dumas/Jani Porsche (that finished second) was served a drive-through penalty for not respecting the yellow flags, and then was slowed artificially to allow its team-mates, which had suffered torque problems throughout the race, to pass for the sake of championship points. So to put the case that Audi could have won the race is probably wrong. However, on a track where Audi has never won, surely there must be some cause for optimism in Ingolstadt and at Joest Racing in the remaining two rounds of the championship at Shanghai and Bahrain? Even though the odds may be slim, Audi is not going to give up the silverware without a fight.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Fuji - Porsche again?

As I write, the World Endurance Championship contenders are arriving in Japan and heading for the iconic Mt. Fuji, or more precisely, the Fuji International Speedway that sits in the shadow of Japan’s tallest peak. As usual, I will be not be there, but instead following events from the relative comfort of my spare bedroom, while commentating for And as usual, I’ve been trying to work out what might happen.

The first thing to say is that this is a ‘twenty-four tyre’ race – the same as Austin – i.e. the LMP1 cars have six sets of tyres for qualifying and the race.

By my reckoning, Porsche should be able to do 38 laps on a tank of fuel, which, if there are no yellow periods and it is a dry race, will mean they can do the race on six stops. This will, however, leave them with a final stint of not more than 12 laps, which they would achieve with a single, fuel only stop. This would probably be at the end of the race, but could possibly come at any point if tactics dictate, or they need to stop for some other reason.

However, since Le Mans, Porsche has chosen to do fewer laps than the expected number that comes out of my calculator. So, I actually expect them to do only 37 laps per stint - and 35 laps on the first stint, since there will be two formation laps behind the Safety Car.

I expect Audi to do 36 laps per stint. This is also a comfortable 6-stop race, but leaving a final stint of 20 laps, if they are still on the lead lap. Audi will be running an upgraded aero kit for Fuji, which should provide more downforce, but with a 1.5km straight they need more downforce and less drag (obviously). In Austin, the gap from the Porsches to the Audis was less than it was at the Nürburgring, and in the first sector there, Audi was actually quicker than Porsche. However, in the second part of the lap, which included the long backstretch, the Porsche held the advantage.

Fuji is not a circuit that plays to Audi’s strengths - indeed Audi has never won here - so it would be a surprise if they can match Porsche’s lap times, but it is important to remember that developments are constantly evolving on the cars. To stand still is to go backwards.

At Nürburgring and Austin the two Audis were running considerably less downforce than the Porsches and were quicker through the speedtraps, but slower on lap times.

I am estimating that average lap times during the race this weekend will be 1m 27.5s for Porsche. Remember, that’s an average for the whole stint: some laps will be faster and some slower. I don’t know where Audi will be - maybe 0.4s average per lap slower? So around fifteen seconds over a full stint of around fifty-four minutes.

Where I don’t think there will be any change is in Porsche’s ability to turn the car round quicker than Audi in the pits. Audi is aware of their disadvantage, and is obviously working on a solution, but it is my belief that the difference is not in procedure, but in design; and until the 2016 cars appear the Porsche will continue to exhibit its advantage in re-fuelling time - not just ahead of Audi, but of Toyota too.

As for qualifying times, I expect a two-lap average of 1m 24.5s (from Porsche, obviously). As it’s Fuji, we can possibly expect a surprise from Toyota, but I can't see how they will get below 1m 25.5s, nor how they can realistically expect to finish higher than fifth and sixth, unless those ahead have problems. That said, Toyota’s reliability has been exemplary so far this year, so if floods, earthquakes or pestilence strike Audi and Porsche, then the locals will have plenty to cheer!

In LMP2, teams are restricted to four sets of tyres per car for qualifying and the race. They will, I expect, be looking at 32/33 laps per stint. I estimate the average lap time for stint will be 1m 35.0s for the Tandy/Bird types, so they will be pitting before the LMP1 cars (but after the Rebellion/CLM). By the way, remember that it is Nick Tandy who’ll be in the KCMG Oreca in Fuji, replacing Nicolas Lapierre, who drove in Austin.

In LMP2, then, the race will consist of seven stints of roughly equal length. This means having to double-stint the Dunlop tyres three times. Another thing to bear in mind, is that the Silver driver, although only required to do 1h 15m, will probably end up doing 60 laps (1h 40m) to avoid having to make seven stops. However, as we saw in Austin, if rain or yellow flags mean an earlier stop, it might be worth making seven stops in total.

In the GTE classes, teams should be able to do the race on five stops, since their range is more than 1h 05m. Even though there is a limit of six sets of tyres for qualifying and race, the race simply isn’t long enough to allow them to use any more, so tyres (at least) will not be a problem.

The Balance of Performance adjustment made since Austin will certainly help the Aston Martins to get closer to the Manthey-entered Porsches - although it remains to be seen by how much. Porsche has to carry an extra 5kg (a family-sized bag of potatoes) compared to Austin/Nürburgring. Aston has a 0.2mm bigger diameter air restrictor - worth maybe 20bhp. In Austin, Aston was 2km/h slower through the speed trap, but around 0.5% slower in lap time. Ferrari’s BOP is unchanged.

If the Six Hours of the Circuit of the Americas turned out to be something of a whitewash for Porsche in both LMP1 and GTE-Pro, it will be much harder for them in the Six Hours of Fuji.

The circuit requires something of a compromise set-up. But here more than anywhere else, in the final part of the season, the emphasis is on having a car that is quick on the straight. The forecast (long-range, admittedly), is for a dry race. Last year (after the wash-out of 2013), there was but one period of Full Course Yellow for two and a half minutes, allowing the completion of 236 laps in six hours. A record is possible, but will require a clean race.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Always something to watch in the WEC

Porsche is on something of a roll at the moment. Perhaps against the odds, the car of Nick Tandy, Earl Bamber and Nico Hülkenberg remained reliable for 24 hours at Le Mans, but was also markedly quicker than anything else out there and took a well-deserved victory. After the long summer break, Porsche showed that they did not forget how to win and if anything were more dominant both at the Nürburgring and in Austin, Texas, when they overcame various issues and problems on the way to two further wins.

There are a number of ways of measuring differences in performance over the course of a six-hour race and none is ideal – race pace can change, teams need to push, drivers may be more or less motivated – but whichever way you look at it, Porsche seems to have the upper hand at the moment and Audi doesn’t seem about to bounce back into the championship.

The average of the best 20% of laps is, for me, as good a way as any of evaluating the absolute pace of a car. Using this method, at the Nürburgring, Porsche was 0.5% quicker than Audi on the track. At Austin, Porsche’s advantage came down to 0.3%. In the first sector at Austin (which comprises the start-finish straight and turns 1, 2, 3 and 4), the Audis were actually quicker. This is the first time that an Audi’s sector times were quicker than those of Porsche since Spa-Francorchamps.

At Fuji, Audi plans to run some upgrades to the aero, but will we see the two R18 e-tron quattros close the gap still further in Japan? I somehow doubt it. Of the races in the remaining part of the season, the Circuit of the Americas was surely the one at which Audi was going to perform best.

There must come a point this season where even though Audi will be pushing as hard as they can, they must turn their attention to next year and the new car. While some upgrades to this year’s car will be relevant and transferable to next year’s model, other developments will surely have to wait until 2016. Until then, while Porsche may not have things all their own way, only reliability issues will stop them in the remainder of this year.

The LMP2 race at Austin was interesting though and perhaps worthy of a closer look.

The KCMG Oreca of Nicolas Lapierre, Richard Bradley and Matt Howson had to start from the back of the class grid, despite having been quickest in the qualifying session. But with six hours to play with, the team, fresh from winning the rounds at Le Mans and the Nürburgring, would no doubt have been confident of being able to increase their lead in the teams’ and drivers’ championships.

In the early laps, Lapierre made good progress, getting the Oreca up into second place in the class by the time the first pit stops came round, although Sam Bird, starting the G-Drive Ligier had made good use of the clearer track and had escaped into a lead of nearly ten seconds by this point. Both KCMG and G-Drive cars had changed drivers and tyres at the first stops, Bird handing over to Julien Canal and Lapierre to Richard Bradley. Meanwhile, Ryan Dalziel had stayed behind the wheel of the HPD-engined ESM Ligier, on the same set of tyres and took over the class lead.

On newer tyres though, both Bradley and Canal were closing in, and after just over an hour of the race, the Oreca managed to get past both Ligiers and into the lead. Richard Bradley was comfortably the quickest driver in the class at this stage, and proceeded to extend his advantage in the KCMG car. Bradley and Canal both stayed in for a double stint, but the KCMG team turned the British driver around eight seconds quicker than G-Drive, providing Bradley with a 34-second lead as the first Full Course Yellow was shown just before the two-hour mark.

As luck would have it, just as Julien came through at the end of his first full lap under the FCY, he completed the minimum 1h 15m driving time required of all drivers in LMP2, so the team wisely called him into the pits. Roman Rusinov was installed, a new set of Dunlops bolted on, and the G-Drive car set off again, now in third place, but with a crucial advantage in terms on strategy.

Sure enough, Bradley came in to hand the KCMG Oreca to silver-graded Matt Howson, and Nelson Panciatici pitted the Signatech Alpine a lap later, leaving the Rusinov with a lead of nearly a minute. The Russian must have been checking his lottery tickets, because just as the fuel light was coming on, another Full Course Yellow was called, and Rusinov duly pitted, having completed 27 laps in his stint. He kept the same tyres and emerged from the pits for a double stint, but again, managed to complete the stop while the opposition was touring round at 80km/h. The G-Drive Ligier was still leading, but with four stops completed, compared to the three stops of the KCMG Oreca. Unfortunately, the black-and-orange car would still have to make three more stops, the same as the blue-and-silver machine. Would KCMG be able to get the lead back using its superior pace?

All credit to Matt Howson, his lap times for the whole stint were, on average, just as fast as those of Rusinov. They were also a tad quicker than the gold-graded Richard Bradley – Matt actually going quicker in his second stint on the same tyres, and taking the lead at the four-hour mark as Rusinov pitted to hand the G-Drive car back to Sam Bird.

As Bird emerged from the pits, he was twenty seconds adrift of Howson in the KCMG Oreca, but within seven laps he was past and consolidating his position, knowing that once Nicolas Lapierre was back in the Oreca, the KCMG car would only have to make one more stop, whereas he would have to stop twice more.

Howson handed over to Lapierre with just under an hour and forty minutes remaining, and as the Frenchman rejoined, the gap between the G-Drive Ligier and the KCMG Oreca was not much short of a lap – plenty of time for Bird to make that extra stop and still come out ahead. In the end, it was academic, since the KCMG car was assessed a penalty for a pit stop infringement and the G-Drive car won in the end by 1m 21s.

The analysis makes interesting reading.

First, the Average Lap Times. This is based on taking the best 20% of laps completed under fully green flag conditions.

No. Car Average lap time
47 KCMG Oreca 05 Nissan 1m 57.923s
26 G-Drive Racing Ligier JS P2 Nissan 1m 57.942s

Looking at individual driver performances is often a dangerous business, and usually there are reasons that stints may be different, but again, looking at the average of the best 20% of laps completed we get:
No. 26 G-Drive Racing Ligier JS P2 Nissan
Driver FIA Grade Laps Driving Time Average lap time
Sam Bird Platinum 81 2h 40m 35.089s 1m 57.634s
Julien Canal Silver 37 1h 17m 49.002s 1m 59.898s
Roman Rusinov Gold 52 1h 53m 59.901s 1m 58.873s

No. 47 KCMG Oreca 05 Nissan
Driver FIA Grade Laps Driving Time Average lap time
Nicolas Lapierre Platinum 72 2h 23m 03.109s 1m 57.533s
Richard Bradley Gold 50 1h 48m 38.235s 1m 58.515s
Matt Howson Silver 48 1h 42m 15.371s 1m 58.788s

All of this seems to show how well-matched the two cars were in Austin. The difference (apart from KCMG’s penalty) was down to the pit stops:
Total Time in Pits
No. Car No. of stops Time in pits
26 G-Drive Ligier 7 7m 53.626s
47 KCMG Oreca 7* 7m 42.068s
*including stop/go penalty

But this doesn’t tell the whole story. What if the KCMG Oreca hadn’t been served the penalty for the pit lane infringement? The fact is that it would still have been at least 45s behind the Ligier. The Ligier’s advantage came because 2m 12s of its time spent in the pits was while the FCY was in operation. I reckon this saved it almost a minute on its overall race time. Then again, what if Rusinov’s contact with Gianluca Roda in the Corvette (in the fourth hour) had been more serious? That might have been much more costly for G-Drive.

With three rounds of the championship remaining, KCMG has a fourteen-point lead in the Teams’ standings: in effect that means the team needs a win and two second places to finish the year. If LMP1 is getting predictable, then LMP2 is most certainly not!

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

The WEC at the COTA - some predictions

So, the World Endurance Championship arrives at the Circuit of the Americas in Texas this weekend for round five of the eight rounds that compose the championship.

There is no shortage of preview material out there on the Internet, so instead I shall plough my own furrow here, using the data from previous races to make some predictions that I hope are not too far wide of the mark.

This is the third time that the WEC has visited this venue - readers may remember that last year’s race had to be stopped due to torrential rain. It was restarted after a delay of more than three-quarters of an hour, and cars ran behind the Safety Car for four laps before the green flag was shown, so all in all more than an hour of racing was lost. Therefore, comparisons with the race distance of 157 laps in six hours are meaningless.

In 2013, 187 laps were completed by the winning Audi e-tron quattro, driven by Tom Kristensen, Allan McNish and Loïc Duval. What none of us knew at the time, was that not only would it be Allan McNish’s last win in the WEC, but Tom Kristensen’s also - the Scot retiring from full-time racing at the end of that year, and the Dane at the end of last year.

It is likely then, that the record of 187 laps from 2013 will be beaten this year – I estimate that the race distance could be somewhere between 190 and 195 laps, if it is dry and the race is free of yellow flags. Furthermore, the winning Audi made seven pit stops in 2013 and used 371 litres of diesel and the second-placed Toyota, which completed the same number of laps, also made seven stops, and used 443 litres of petrol. This year, Porsche and Toyota will be limited to 389 litres (petrol) to cover the same distance, and Audi to 324 litres of diesel.

Also, it seems clear that the race this year will be a seven-stint race (six stops) – I reckon that both Audi and Porsche will be stopping every 29-30 laps, and that means that the minimum stint length (without needing to add an extra stop), will be 22 laps. In other words, if there is rain, a full course yellow, or someone suffers minor damage or a slow puncture, and they have completed more than 22 laps, then it makes sense to stop immediately. Otherwise, drivers will be encouraged to stay out and “drive around the problem” to avoid the need for an extra pit stop.

What about the lap times, though? I wouldn’t be surprised to see Porsche averaging 1m 48.2s per lap over a 30-lap stint, given the kinds of times that the two 919 Hybrids were managing at the Nürburgring. Quite where Audi will be will depend on whether they are able to find the right aero balance. This was clearly lacking at the Nürburgring, and Audi found themselves half-a-second (on average) slower than the Porsches, even though they had a 5km/h advantage through the speed trap.

Consider this also: the Six Hours of the Circuit of the Americas is a 24-tyre race (for the LMP1 cars, for qualifying and the race – plus two ‘joker’ tyres). If the Porsche is producing more aerodynamic grip than the Audi, it may be that it is the Audis that struggle to make the tyres last for two stints, rather than the Porsches, as it was in Spa-Francorchamps.

The rear bodywork of the Porsches caused some eyebrows to be raised at the Nürburgring, as it featured some extensions to the wheel-arches that appeared to go over the rear bodywork. There were suggestions that this was in contravention of paragraph 3.6.2 of the Technical Regulations.

Of more concern to Audi, however, was the fact that Porsche’s pit stops continued to be four to five seconds faster. Some of this is obviously due to the fact that Porsche are putting in less fuel at each pit stop, but there are still two aspects that have to be explained: why do the Porsches stop earlier than they need to (for refuelling)? And how do they manage to get the fuel into the car so quickly? I believe the answers to these two questions are linked, but until I get confirmation from the team, I will speculate no more.

The weather forecast suggests that it will be a warm, dry race, with temperatures soaring into the thirties (Celsius) for the start, and only dropping to around 27 deg. by the 11pm finish. Very similar, in fact, to the temperatures we had for the Nürburgring race.

The folk at Porsche must be rubbing their hands together in glee.

Friday, 11 September 2015

The Rest of the Barcelona 24 hours

After witnessing the 24-hour races at Dubai, Daytona, Nürburgring, Le Mans and Spa already this year, I stayed up all night again last weekend, to watch my sixth 24-hour race of the year. It was the first Barcelona 24 hours I had attended – indeed it was the first motor race of any kind that I had seen in Spain but it marked the 44th different motorsport venue that I’ve seen action at. It was the 65th 24-hour race I have been to (I think), and as expected, the Creventic-organised event was enjoyable, entertaining and dramatic.

I’ve written a race report for DailySportsCar already, so I don’t propose to repeat that here, instead I thought I would bombard you with a few numbers. Also, having received a (good-natured, I think) complaint that my race report did not even mention the class winner in SP3, I thought I had better address that situation too.

There were seventy-four cars that started the race – and no, I am not going to mention all of them – in nine classes, and fifty-two of them took the chequered flag 24 hours later. Almost exactly the same percentage (70%) as finished in this year’s Dubai 24 hours, but considerably more than Daytona (55%), Nürburgring (68%), Le Mans (67%) or Spa (56%).

The Barcelona race featured thirteen caution periods – neutralised, in Creventic events, by a Code-60 purple flag – the same number as we had during the Dubai race. In Dubai this accounted for a total of 3h 19m, whereas at Barcelona the neutralised time was just 2h 07m. Compare that with 5h 06m at Daytona or 4h 33m at Spa (including both Safety Car and FCY periods), although just 2h 02m at Le Mans (ignoring periods when Slow Zones were in force).

There were eighteen changes of the overall lead during the race, and six different cars led at one point or another. At Dubai we had 11 changes among 4 different cars, at Le Mans there were 27 changes among 4 different cars, at Spa 23 changes of lead among 9 different cars and at Nürburgring, there were 34 changes of lead among 10 different cars. But nothing can beat the 58 changes of lead between 9 different cars in this year’s 24 hours at Daytona!

All of that being as it may, I am well aware that there is more to a 24-hour race than merely numbers. On the emotional side, although I enjoyed being at the Barcelona 24 hours, I didn’t quite experience as much of it as I would have liked. I didn’t get to look around the track at all, didn’t see any of Barcelona itself, and wasn’t really able to appreciate the ambience of the place. I also found the immediate vicinity somewhat uninspiring: the track is built very much in a “brown-field” area, and while I am sure that the Formula One cars generate a good atmosphere when they are there, for the rest of the year the place is just a little forlorn.

Drivers, though, tended to be enthusiastic about the track, although from where I was standing, some parts seemed to be a little overly technical – of the other tracks on the 24-hour circuit, I suppose Barcelona comes closest to Dubai in that sense. And there’s nothing really wrong with that, it’s just that being in the middle of a desert, I don’t expect anything more of Dubai, whereas Barcelona has a little more heritage: Montjuich Park, Pedralbes, even Sitges Terramar. Despite a physical proximity, the Circuit de Catalunya – built in 1991 – has little or no echoes of history.

I didn’t see a published crowd figure, but there seemed to be a decent crowd there. Not in comparison to the other European 24-hour races, but certainly compared to other Creventic races. It was good, too to see so many families there. Endurance racing may be a specialist niche, but surely the enthusiasm of plenty of Spanish children will be sparked by Mercedes SLS AMGs or the Ferrari 458 Italia in years to come!

So what about the race? As I’ve said, the stories in the GT3 (A6), and to an extent, the SP2 and 997 classes I have already covered elsewhere. In our commentary for, I think we gave all the classes due mention, too. But I fear there may be some justification in suggestions that the SP3 class deserves more attention, not least because of British interest, but also because the class itself is broadly for GT4 cars and it attracted a wide range of different types of cars.

There were nine cars in the SP3 entry list: two Ginettas, two Aston Martins, a Porsche, a Lotus, a Maserati, a BMW and a Saker. While the GT3 field was dominated by German manufacturers and international teams, the GT4 field was much more of a British domain, with six British teams and 21 British drivers in the entry.

Qualifying provided the SP3 cars the opportunity truly to show their mettle, a wet track during the session for the supposedly faster A6 and SP2 cars preventing anyone from lapping quicker than 2m 05.991s. The rain had stopped for the SP3 and A3T cars, and it took most of the session for the track to dry, but by the end of the forty-five minute session it became clear that the lower-class cars would eclipse the times of the earlier session.

Quickest in qualifying was thus Alex Osborne with the APO Sport Porsche, just over a second quicker than Bradley Ellis in the Optimum Motorsport Ginetta, who was a similar interval ahead of Cor Euser in his Lotus Evora. Common sense prevailed, and although the top thirteen cars from session 2 were quicker than Renger van der Zande managed in his SLS AMG, the GT3, 997 and SP2 cars lined up at the front of the grid, the SP3 class taking up their positions on rows fifteen and beyond.

In the race, not one of the cars had a trouble-free run, and initially the class was led by the rapid Alex Osborne in the APO Sport Porsche, which got up to eighth place overall before its first pit stop, which dropped the car to 34th overall, seventh in class. After this, the lead swung to the Lotus Evora, driven by Cor Euser, Huub Delnoij and Hal Prewitt, to the Optimum Ginetta of Flick Haigh, Bradley Ellis, Adrian Barwick and Will Moore and even the Aston Martin Vantage of Dan Brown, Tom Black, Angelos Metaxa and Chris Kemp - which led for a lap during Saturday afternoon - as James and Paul May tried to drag the Porsche back up the order.

As darkness fell, it seemed like the Optimum Ginetta was establishing itself in the lead, until Flick Haigh had an encounter with another car just after 9pm, while being passed by the Ferrari 458, and spent more than two hours in the pits being repaired. This put the APO Porsche back in the class lead, until 1:30am, when a twenty-minute unscheduled pit stop sent the car tumbling back down the order and handed the lead to Martin Thomas in the CWS 4x4 Ginetta G55.

Thomas then had a fifteen-minute stop to hand the car to Tony Hughes, which gave the lead back to the Lotus Evora, and the Ginetta faded away further at daybreak with another thirty-five minute stop to address alternator problems. This left us with a two-way fight for class honours between the Cor Euser Lotus and the APO Porsche that continued right to the end of the race.

Here’s a look at the detail of the lap times and times spent in the pits for each of the class:

Class SP2 (GT4)
No. Car Team Average lap time
43 Porsche 997 Cup GT4 APO Sport 2m 01.871s
160 Lotus Evora GT4 Cor Euser Racing 2m 01.405s
178 Ginetta G55 GT4 CWS 4x4 2m 03.888s
163 Ginetta G55 GT4 Optimum Motorsport 2m 03.752s
170 Aston Martin Vantage GT4 Speedworks Motorsport 2m 04.233s
173 BMW M3 V8 Rollcentre Racing 2m 04.982s
165 Aston Martin Vantage GT4 Vantage Racing 2m 03.740s
89 Saker GT TDI HTM-Red Camel Racing 2m 04.294s
125 Maserati Gran Turismo Boutsen-Ginion Racing 2m 02.736s

Class SP2 (GT4)
Pos. No. Car No. of pit stops Total time in pit lane
1 43 Porsche 997 Cup GT4 15 1h 32m 48.759s
2 160 Lotus Evora GT4 16 1h 07m 14.648s
3 178 Ginetta G55 GT4 19 2h 16m 23.403s
4 163 Ginetta G55 GT4 15 1h 49m 01.279s
5 170 Aston Martin Vantage GT4 21 2h 59m 29.793s
6 173 BMW M3 V8 19 3h 09m 11.911s
7 165 Aston Martin Vantage GT4 10 (DNF) N/A
8 89 Saker GT TDI 17 (DNF) N/A
9 125 Maserati Gran Turismo 9 (DNF) N/A

It was a well-deserved win for the Northamptonshire-based team, finishing just 52s ahead of Cor Euser’s Lotus Evora. The rest of the SP3 field was more than twenty laps behind: to put that in perspective, it would have taken nearly an hour for the third-placed CWS 4x4 Ginetta to catch up!

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Porsche - dominating the WEC?

Porsche’s win at Le Mans in June may have come as a surprise, but their win at the Nürburgring ten days ago was predictable from the moment that Hans-Joachim Stuck waved the flag to start the race. Audi Sport Team Joest may have threatened occasionally through practice, but once the race started, it was clear that only mechanical frailty was going to stop the Porsche steamroller.

Porsche’s test programme has taken them through the various weaknesses of the 919 Hybrid, and one by one, these have been addressed – to the point where the Weissach cars put their rivals from Ingolstadt well and truly in the shade in the sunshine and soaring temperatures in Germany.

Take a look at the average lap times from the best 20% of green laps completed:
Lap Times
No. Car Drivers Best Lap Average of best 20%
1 Toyota Davidson/Buemi/Nakajima 1m 40.207s 1m 40.940s
2 Toyota Wurz/Sarrazin/Conway 1m 40.738s 1m 41.374s
7 Audi Fässler/Tréluyer/Lotterer 1m 38.611s 1m 39.768s
8 Audi Di Grassi/Duval/Jarvis 1m 38.608s 1m 39.581s
17 Porsche Bernhard/Webber/Hartley 1m 38.307s 1m 38.904s
18 Porsche Dumas/Jani/Lieb 1m 37.955s 1m 39.129s

Notice how the average lap time of the no. 17 Porsche is much closer to its best than any of the other cars. There is no doubt that the Porsches were quicker, this time.

Remember, at Le Mans there was nothing to choose between the average times of Audi and those of Porsche, and in addition, there has been a change to the Equivalence of Technology since Le Mans, which has handed Audi an additional 0.5kg/h of fuel (up from 79.0kg/h to 79.5kg/h) and reduced Porsche’s from 88.5kg/h to 87.0kg/h. Both teams also had a reduction in fuel capacity, but this would not have affected the raw pace of either car.

So, in theory at least, the casual observer might have expected the Audi to have been quicker – certainly not 0.5% slower. Except that Porsche brought what were effectively two new cars to the Nürburgring. In particular, the new cars featured a new, high-downforce aero kit, which had not been previously raced during the season.

At Silverstone – in conditions that were very different from those at the ’Ring – Audi used a high-downforce configuration, whereas Porsche was focussing its preparation on Le Mans, and had its cars very much closer, aerodynamically, to the configuration that it was to run at Le Mans. As a result, the average lap times of the Audis were a degree quicker than the Porsches.

Spa saw the debut of the Le Mans-aero Audis, and in terms of raw pace, this was the first time that Porsche’s race pace was quicker than Audi’s – to the tune of around 0.4%. Despite its pace, in the race, the Porsche used up its allocation of 24 tyres, and ended up with dramatically slower lap times as the tyres went into their second stint. The Audis, on the other hand, seemed to float above the tarmac: Benoît Tréluyer actually triple-stinting his Michelins in his final shift behind the wheel.

At neither Le Mans nor Nürburgring were tyres an issue – the regulations allowing teams to use eight sets of tyres in what was scheduled to be a seven-stint race in Germany – and Porsche’s dominance allowed them to overcome problems for both their cars.

In the early stages of the race, it seemed that either Timo Bernhard was deliberately holding up the Audis to allow Neel Jani to establish a lead, or that he had a problem of some sort on the car. Consider this:

Before/After FCY Comparison
No. Driver Average of laps 2-9 Average of laps 13-23
17 Timo Bernhard 1m 39.504s 1m 42.404s
18 Neel Jani 1m 39.128s 1m 40.379s

(In case you have forgotten, the FCY came between laps 10 and 12.)

In fact the explanation was that a dive plane had failed on the Porsche, ruining the balance of the car. Coincidentally, Marcel Fässler suffered a puncture on the Audi and headed for the pits, just as Bernhard gave up the struggle and brought the Porsche in for a new nose section.

From here on in, the no. 17 Porsche had it all its own way, continuing to lap quicker than anyone else. However, in addition to looking at lap times, it is also worth looking at top speed: a sure indication of how teams were playing the drag/downforce balancing act.

Top Speeds
No. Car Drivers Top Speed (km/h)
1 Toyota Davidson/Buemi/Nakajima 303.9
2 Toyota Wurz/Sarrazin/Conway 311.2
7 Audi Fässler/Tréluyer/Lotterer 316.2
8 Audi Di Grassi/Duval/Jarvis 317.1
17 Porsche Bernhard/Webber/Hartley 311.2
18 Porsche Dumas/Jani/Lieb 312.0

From this, there doesn’t seem to be much doubt that the Audi was not running much downforce – surely, with the benefit of hindsight, a mistake given the disparity in lap times?

The penalties that affected the no. 18 Porsche came as a surprise. To be clear, the penalties were for exceeding the so-called ‘instantaneous limit’, which relates to the maximum permitted fuel flow measured in kg/h. This should not be confused with the ‘energy limit’, which limits the amount of energy (in MJ) used per lap. It is far less likely that the latter will be exceeded, since it can be averaged over three consecutive laps.

As I have already said, the limit for Porsche had been reduced for the Nürburgring race, from 88.5kg/h to 87.0kg/h. Interestingly, the offending laps, according to the official bulletins, were not even that fast. Compare these with the average of the best 20% lap time for the Porsche of 1m 39.129s.

Fuel Limit Offence - Porsche
No. Driver Lap No. Lap Time
18 Neel Jani 27 1m 40.309s
18 Neel Jani 28 1m 40.547s
18 Marc Lieb 46 1m 39.482s
18 Marc Lieb 47 1m 41.205s

According to Porsche, a sensor on the engine malfunctioned, resulting in too much fuel being pumped through to the engine. Once this had been identified, it was switched off, as apparently (how very Porsche), it had a redundancy. Not before three stop/go penalties had been applied though, of five, thirty and sixty seconds. The total delay for the Porsche – accounting for the time lost driving through the pit lane as well – was around 2m 30s, which is roughly what the gap was between the two 919s at the end of the race (bearing in mind that they were separated by a lap). So it is fair to say that there was no real difference over the course of six hours, between the two cars.

There were suggestions (borne out by the difference between the best and average lap times) that Audi was not as consistent as Porsche’s. My preferred method for measuring consistency is to look at the standard deviation (a statistical term for measuring the spread of values around their mean) of the lap times – and this suggests that, if anything, the standard deviation of Audi’s lap times was actually less than that of Porsche. (Clearly, for this purpose one has to exclude pit stops, yellow periods, etc.) But certainly the consistency of the no. 17 car was better than the others.

Finally, a quick look at the performances of the individual Porsche drivers.

Porsche Driver Comparison
No. Driver Laps Best Lap Time Average Lap Time
17 Timo Bernhard 58 1m 38.422s 1m 38.758s
17 Mark Webber 81 1m 38.307s 1m 38.912s
17 Brendon Hartley 64 1m 38.428s 1m 39.020s
18 Romain Dumas 33 1m 38.822s 1m 39.420s
18 Neel Jani 107 1m 37.955s 1m 38.846s
18 Marc Lieb 62 1m 39.188s 1m 39.577s

The World Endurance Championship reconvenes at the Circuit of the Americas in Texas next week, and the LMP1 cars are going to be limited to six sets of (slick) tyres for qualifying and the race. Porsche will no doubt be hoping that their high-downforce configuration will preserve the tyres, since they will have to double-stint them at least once. And surely Audi will revert to a Silverstone-style high-downforce configuration for their two R18 e-tron quattros?

It will be dark for more than half of the race, which should see temperatures coming down from their seasonal high of the low thirties (Celsius), to more manageable levels, but if Audi doesn’t find some pace from somewhere, then Porsche is going to make the remainder of the season look very straightforward.

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Reflecting on the Spa 24 hours

A few weeks have gone by since the Spa 24 hours, and although only one round of the 2015 Blancpain Endurance Series remains, there is still a month-long wait until the cars reconvene at the Nürburgring to round off the season. I enjoyed the Spa race, partly because I find it hard not to enjoy a race over that distance, but as well because just being at Spa is to be in the company of heroes from a time when motor-racing was rather more heroic than today. I’ll admit that it wasn’t a classic race in the true sense, but it was nevertheless full of intrigue and possibilities. I would even go as far as to suggest that the outcome could have been different, had things played out just a little differently, but you’ll have to stay with me to the end of this ramble to see that.

Before the race, the wise observers were predicting a two-way battle between BMW and Audi and they weren’t wrong.

The race had a slightly bizarre feeling to it for the first few hours, as yellow flags and Safety Cars prevented a pattern from emerging, and there was no flow to the race. In the first three hours, the longest period of green flag racing was just twenty-four minutes. It was unfortunate that the first SC period split the field – providing the leading three cars with an advantage of over a minute on the rest of the field. It was also unfortunate – although surely avoidable – that the fifth SC period (lap 99 to 102) had to be carried out with a single Safety Car, when two were used for the rest of the event.

It is doubtful that these shenanigans had anything to do with the eventual outcome, given that none of the cars that were given the advantage in the early stages (the two McLarens and the Rast/Vanthoor/Winkelhock Audi) finished in the top ten anyway. What was interesting was that the final half of the race was completed with the interference of the Safety Cars for just nineteen minutes – although a further twelve minutes were spent under Full Course Yellow conditions. None of which could hide the advantage that the BMW Z4 GT3s held, although when the no. 45 car spun to a halt on its 400th lap, there were no doubt some worried faces and nervous hearts beating in the Marc VDS pits.

As it turned out, the no. 46 BMW Z4 was quicker anyway, particularly when being driven by Nicky Catsburg. In addition, the BMW spent almost four minutes less in the pits than the WRT Audi, so the victory for Bas Leinders’ crew was indeed well-deserved.

Before looking at that in any more detail though, I want to spend a moment pondering the relative merits of using Safety Cars and Full Course Yellow procedures – for both were used, as race director Alain Adam indicated might be the case in the drivers’ briefing. The total race neutralisation time was as follows:

Safety Car
No. Reason From To Time
1 #90 off at Les Combes 16:53 17:12 20 mins
2 #15 off at Les Combes 17:17 18:11 55 mins
3 #3 off at Stavelot* 18:38 19:18 41 mins
4 #75 off at Blanchimont 20:43 21:25 43 mins
5 #888 off at Blanchimont 21:48 22:00 13 mins
6 #11/#29 collide at La Source 22:20 22:42 23 mins
7 #7 off at Les Combes* 23:09 23:16 8 mins
8 #19/#21 collide at Bus Stop 23:29 23:43 15 mins
9 #50 off at Bus Stop 03:43 03:56 14 mins
10 #30 off at Stavelot 06:23 06:42 20 mins
*indicates a Safety Car period leading on directly from FCY - some may not regard this as a separate neutralisation.

Full Course Yellow
No. Reason From To Time
1 Rain 18:35 18:37 3 mins
2 #70 off at Eau Rouge 20:08 20:14 7 mins
3 #7 off at Les Combes 23:02 23:08 7 mins
4 #35 off track 01:43 01:46 4 mins
5 Debris at Eau Rouge 09:05 09:10 6 mins
6 #45 off at Rivage 10:49 10:50 2 mins
7 #50 off at Fagnes 12:48 12:50 3 mins
8 #44 stopped at Bus Stop 13:09 13:13 5 mins

(Please bear in mind that this information was compiled from my own notes and observations, so may be subject to fatigue, bad writing or just plain errors. The organisers do not publish this data in an official form, so if anyone can correct me, I am very happy to hear from you - and give you credit!)

The advantage, as Alain Adam said, with the Full Course Yellow procedure, is that it instantly reduces the speed of everyone on the race track to 80km/h – in theory at least. If marshals need to gain access to the track quickly, then surely this is the best way to achieve it. The removal of Full Course Yellow is similarly straightforward: once the incident is cleared, wave the green flag and get on with the motor race.

However, when barriers need to be made safe or replaced, and a neutralisation of longer than ten or so minutes is required, then a Safety Car is a sensible option. It seems somehow intuitive that keeping to an 80km/h speed limit for a long period of time would create issues of its own that a Safety Car avoids. From a tactical point of view it is a different matter. During a Full Course Yellow, the pits remain open throughout, so stopping will enable work to be carried out on the car while the competition is travelling at a reduced speed, enabling relative time to be gained.

When the Safety Car is out, however, although the pit entrance is open, the pit exit remains closed until the last car in the queue behind the Safety car passes – meaning that anything up to two minutes may be spent stationary waiting to be allowed out onto the track. In order to minimise this time, a well-prepared team manager will know the threshold points where his car should be, both in terms of the stint elapsed time and the car’s track position, to be able to make the decision whether to call the car into the pits (or not) whenever the Safety Car appears.

With under six hours of the race remaining, the Marc VDS BMW, in the hands of Nicky Catsburg, was leading and drawing away from Stéphane Ortelli in the WRT Audi. Pierre Dieudonné blamed tyre pressures that had not been set correctly, preventing the 1998 Le Mans winner from returning respectable lap times and losing more than two seconds per lap on average. The decision was made in the Audi pit to bring the Frenchman into the pits early in the interests of damage limitation. However, bringing him in at the end of lap 419 meant that although the remainder of the race could be completed on four stops, it seemed to me that no account was being taken of the planned stops of the no. 46 BMW, which would most likely stay out two laps longer. It might have been pivotal.

The result was that the Audi’s stops came two laps earlier than those of the BMW in the final phase of the race and critically, the BMW had a lead of just over 30s, which the Audi never looked like being able to close on sheer pace alone. However, just after the Audi had made its 22nd pit stop, at 12:45 on Sunday lunchtime, the AF Corse Ferrari of Garry Kondakov had a problem just before the Bus Stop Chicane, and a Full Course Yellow was imposed. Lucas Luhr, in the BMW, was due in for his equivalent stop on the next lap anyway, so took advantage of the fact that everyone was going slowly to make a refuelling stop and hand the car over to Markus Paltalla. The stop took 2m 04s seconds, but instead of losing the best part of a lap, when the green flag waved the BMW was still 1m 13s ahead of Nico Müller’s Audi – some 40s further ahead than it had been before.

Now just speculate, for a moment, that Dieudonné had allowed Ortelli to stay out for three further laps. This would have put his refuelling schedule one lap behind the BMW, instead of two laps ahead. And further, what if that Full Course Yellow had been called one lap later? It would have been the BMW whose pit stop would have been under green, racing conditions, and the Audi would have had the good fortune to have pitted while the BMW was travelling along at 80km/h. The forty seconds that the Audi would then have gained would have enabled it to have leapfrogged ahead of the BMW – and then what fun it would have been to watch Catsburg fighting to get back past Nico Müller in the WRT-entered Audi!

This is not to suggest that the Marc VDS BMW win had anything to do with luck – it was a well-deserved and well-executed victory; only to show how a slightly modified strategy from WRT would have led to the possibility that the race might indeed have ended on a rather different note.

Your thoughts, comments and questions are, as always, welcome.