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.

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