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.