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!

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