Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Some Observations from the Silverstone 6 Hours

With apologies that this analysis is not as deep as usual, but nevertheless some thoughts that you may not have read elsewhere.

1) LMP1 just gets better and better
Even if the on-track racing may not have provided the same phenomenal spectacle that was seen at last year’s Silverstone Six Hours, this year’s crop of LMP1 Hybrid racers proved that the march of progress is relentless indeed. Despite a 7.5% reduction in fuel use, Toyota, Audi and Porsche all lapped quicker than last year’s best lap.

Best Lap Times:
2016: Porsche: 1m 40.303s / Audi: 1m 40.461s / Toyota: 1m 40.657s
2015: Audi: 1m 40.836s / Porsche: 1m 42.012s / Toyota: 1m 42.209s
Percentage improvement: Porsche: 1.7% / Audi: 0.4% / Toyota: 1.5%

Top Speeds:
2016: Porsche: 293.5 kph / Audi: 294.3kph / Toyota: 296.7 kph
2015: Porsche: 300.0 kph / Audi: 274.1kph / Toyota: 282.7 kph
Percentage improvement: Porsche: -2.2% / Audi: 7.4% / Toyota: 5.0%

Setup for Silverstone is of course a compromise, with its mixture of straights, fast sweeps and slow corners coming, annoyingly, in every sector. But the data would seem to show that Audi’s balance was about right, whereas Porsche could have perhaps sacrificed a little downforce for a higher top speed – possibly with the benefit of a better average lap time. Perhaps that was the difference between the number one and the number two cars: it was very noticeable in the first phase of the race that the Webber / Hartley car was substantially quicker than that of Dumas / Lieb / Jani, although no explanation for the difference was forthcoming from any official Porsche sources.

It should also be said that, despite the expectations – and despite the result which allowed a Rebellion to be classified in a podium position – reliability among the manufacturer hybrids was good. Porsche lost one car due to driver error and Toyota one due to a puncture. In the end, neither Audi was classified but it is not unreasonable to expect the team to be able easily to address the issue which caused the excessive wear to the skid block that led to the exclusion of the car.

As far as the problem that struck the other Audi R18 e-tron quattro - leaving it stranded in the middle of the track at the Loop as the Full Course Yellow was implemented, I am told that this was caused by ‘human error’, rather than mechanical frailty, so in some ways, the designers, engineers and test teams can be satisfied that their winter travails have been worth the effort.

2) The pecking order
My analysis of the times from the Prologue at Paul Ricard suggested that the times would be close at Silverstone and the best laps shown above reflect that to an extent. In the race itself, the difference in the average of the best 20% of green race laps between the Lotterer/Fässler/Tréluyer Audi and the Dumas/Lieb/Jani Porsche was less than a tenth of a second (the Audi being marginally quicker). The Toyota of Conway/Kobayashi/Sarrazin was around seven-tenths of a second slower in third place on the road. However, as I have already mentioned, the average lap times of the two Porsches in the first portion of the race were 0.66s different, whereas the two Audis were less than a tenth apart and the two Toyotas were separated by just three-tenths of a second.

There certainly seemed to be a difference in the suitability of the tyre compounds being used. Although Porsche, Audi and Toyota all use Michelin rubber, they all have different compounds available to them, and it would seem that Audi lost time in the opening stint on the wrong compound. Toyota made better use of their tyre allocation than Audi or Porsche and saved time in the pits by not changing tyres at every stop. Audi’s pit stops were not as slick as they should have been - in the first two stops, Lotterer and Fässler lost more than twenty seconds to Dumas and Jani.

A fact often forgotten is the turnover of staff that takes place within the teams: many of the tyre-changers at Audi were doing so for the first time in anger during the Silverstone weekend, and Audi’s hard-won reputation for efficiency in the pits needs to be addressed, in my opinion. Arguably, there were various points through the race when strategic mistakes were made by all of the leading teams - surely with a race under their belts, Spa will be better for everyone.

So is Audi really ahead of Porsche? I think not. The evidence from Silverstone isn’t conclusive. Is Toyota really behind? Possibly, but a look at the top speeds shows that the Japanese marque was 10km/h quicker down Silverstone’s big straights: surely that will negate any disadvantage in France in June? Sector times from Spa-Francorchamps –which provide a good indication of performance in slow, medium and high-speed configuration – will be telling.

3) The LMP2 class is good
Silverstone had greater strength in depth in the baby prototype class than we have ever seen. While we have become used to GT cars providing entertainment when attention wanders from the overall lead, LMP2 has taken over that role.

The difference in average lap times across the top four finishers was less than half a second – the RGR Morand Liger, the ESM Ligier, the G-Drive Oreca and the Signatech Alpine. That’s more than the difference between the two LMP1 Porsche 919s.

Ten of the eleven starters made it to the finish – and five of them spent less time in the pits than the ‘winning’ Audi, so there’s not much wrong with either the teams or the robustness of the cars. This year will be the swan-song for the current breed of LMP2, before the new regulations in 2017 – enjoy it while you can!

4) The balance of GTE-Pro needs fixing
If there was a disappointment at Silverstone, it was the GTE-Pro class. The AF Corse Ferrari 488 GTE of Davide Rigon and Sam Bird led every single lap of the race – almost unheard of in GTE races in 2015. The best Ferrari lap (by Bruni in the no. 51) was more than a second quicker than the best lap of any non-Ferrari (Darren Turner in the no. 95 Aston Martin).

The average lap times tell the same story: the Ferraris were 1.3% quicker than the best that Aston or Porsche could manage, and 1.8% faster than the Fords. Moreover, the AF Corse cars spent less time re-fuelling and went further between stops.

The fact that the Bruni/Calado Ferrari was able to recover to finish second, despite a three-minute penalty pit stop was further evidence of the Maranello superiority. The World Endurance Committee will consider adjustments ahead of the 6 hours of Spa-Francorchamps: I cannot imagine that they will not act.

5) ELMS is good
The four-hour ELMS race on Saturday afternoon featured a 44-car grid, 19 of which were in the LMP3 class. Compare this with 30 cars that started the 2015 edition of this race, with just five LMP3 cars. Three different P2 manufacturers in the top three places overall. Harry Tincknell, in the winning G-Drive Gibson, having somewhat blotted his copybook on the opening lap, drove superbly to hand the car over to Simon Dolan in a winning position. Giedo van der Garde, in his final stint was also mighty, setting the car’s fastest lap of the race on the final lap - whether that is a good thing or not is left to the reader to decide!

A one-two result for United Autosports in LMP3 demonstrates that serious engagement garners results – it will be interesting to see how long it is until the team arrives in LMP2. At which point the class can justify its claim as a feeder category.

What about you? Were you at Silverstone? What did you think? If you watched it from home, did you enjoy the coverage? Do you agree with any of these musings? Let me know in the box below!

Monday, 25 April 2016

A Grand Day Out

I had a very good day out at the Guild of Motoring Writers appropriately-titled ‘Big Day Out’ last week. It was held at Castle Combe, in Wiltshire, a track I don’t know particularly well, having only commentated for two race meetings there – the most recent of which was back in 2005, when the British F3 and GT championships visited.

The day had the backing of several manufacturers, including Honda, Fiat and Jaguar Land Rover, but more importantly allowed members to drive their own cars on the circuit. Altogether, I had an hour of driving on the track, and somewhat more than that sampling other cars on the local roads.

Although I normally confine myself to writing about the sport rather than road cars, I had such a good day that I wanted to record it here. I know it’s self-indulgent, but then if I can’t be self-indulgent on my own blog, then where can I be? Especially since I no longer keep up-to-date with my hand-written diary!

Readers may know already that my regular road car – that I have owned since 2009 – is an Audi S4 Avant. The biggest surprise of the day was that I fell back in love with it. Not that I had ever really fallen out of love with it, but I realised once again what a good car it is. It is certainly not a ‘track day’ car (although it does boast 328bhp), and I am certainly not a track day driver, but the car lapped very quickly, was great fun to drive and most important, kept me safe despite a couple of minor misjudgements on my part. The car simply accelerated well, braked well and turned where I wanted it to.

By the end of the day, I was confident enough that I knew the circuit, and had the opportunity to take a Honda Civic Type-R around. With 306bhp compared to my Audi’s 328, but weighing only 1397kg compared to the 2275kg of my car, this pocket-rocket was quite brilliant. It may have lacked some of the subtle refinements of the Audi, with that over-stated rear wing and rather bright red sports seats, but I can easily see how it would appeal to a younger version of myself. After a couple of laps, I pressed the red “+R” button that adjusted the engine mapping, steering and suspension, to make driving more quickly even more of a pleasure. Keeping up with a competently-driven Caterham offering passenger rides up ahead was not difficult, and when the chequered flag was shown to bring the session to a close, I was genuinely disappointed. The car is built just thirty miles away in Swindon, and demonstrates a corporate interest in the sport that the soon-to-be-launched NSX (later this year) will surely continue. Honda at Le Mans? Why not?

The other side of the day was made up of various road cars that could be driven, not on the track but around the byways surrounding the picture-postcard village of Castle Combe itself. There were two absolute stand-out cars here: at very different ends of the spectrum, but both left me smiling broadly as I stepped out of them.

First was the Jaguar XF. Equipped with a three-litre turbo-diesel six-cylinder engine and delivering 296bhp, this car welcomed me into its driving compartment from the moment the door closed with a satisfying ‘thud’. Having previously owned a 1988-vintage Jaguar Sovereign, I expected “grace, space and pace”, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that the 2016 evolution still provided opulence, speed and a general feeling of quality that surpassed anything that I’ve experienced from any of the German manufacturers that are regarded as market leaders.

Its list of features is far too long to describe here; indeed, I could not even manage to explore everything that the car could do in the brief half-hour that the car was at my disposal. But this was luxurious technology for the 21st century – making driving more comfortable, convenient and safe.

Inevitably, such things do not come cheap: the basic on-the-road price is just under £50,000 and the version I drove would have set me back £58,355, but this is an astonishingly well-appointed car. I found it so good that I would give very serious consideration to it when – if ever – the time comes to replace the Audi. These days, when perhaps greater consideration should be given to the country of manufacture, it is good to know that two of the best cars I drove on the day were made in England.

Then there was the Fiat 500. Powered by an 875cc twin-cylinder air-cooled engine, it sounded a bit like an old VW beetle that I drove thirty years ago. But it was such a happy little car – no wonder you see so many of them on the roads. I promise you, I couldn’t stop laughing as I drove it. And when I spotted a fellow Guild member in a Jaguar XE behind, I couldn’t resist showing him how quick the thing was. It may only deliver 104bhp, but it does so extremely well. Kim Palmer from Jaguar was most concerned that we might have been “racing on the public highway”… Of course not, Kim!

The Fiat is, obviously, aimed at a very different consumer from the Jaguar. But it does go to prove that there are different ways of giving driver satisfaction. Back seat passengers would be somewhat squashed, but not impossibly so. And journeys of over an hour might become more wearying than those in the Jag. But if the task is the daily commute, the school run or nipping over to see friends, then I can see no need to consume fuel at the rate that the Jaguar gulps it down, when the Fiat will get you there in the same time, use less fuel and for an outlay of less than a third of the cost of the Jaguar.

Thanks to Guy Loveridge, Chris Adamson, Kim Palmer, Tom Lynch, Puneet Joshi and Nick Mason who between them ensured it was indeed a Big Day Out. And to Jeff Bloxham for additional photographs.

Sunday, 10 April 2016

Looking forward to the World Endurance Championship

When I was younger and had fewer responsibilities, I used to dabble in buying and selling stocks and shares. I read many articles describing how the future behaviour of prices could be predicted from an analysis of past performance. Some of what I read made a lot of sense, and I started to do my own analysis, and sometimes – just occasionally – I got this spectacularly right and I began to believe that I might one day become a wealthy man. Needless to say, other times I was not so successful; and I have in any case discovered that there are other things more important that financial success.

I tell you this, not to suggest that you should follow my investment advice, but rather to set your expectations on the outcome of this year’s World Endurance Championship, based on the times set at last month’s Prologue at the Paul Ricard circuit at Le Castellet in the south of France.

The first thing (other than to note that prices can go down as well as up, and that you may lose your shirt if you do not keep to your repayment schedule) is to note that the WEC season has become a saga in three parts. In 2015 that was perhaps more noticeable than ever before. Secondly, Toyota had a spectacularly bad year last year. Although its 2015 car was undoubtedly an improvement on the 2014 version, it became apparent very early in the season – some would say even after the Prologue – that it would be a season to forget for the 2014 world champions.

So even if it is a risky business, it is worth looking at the Prologue in a bit of detail, in an attempt to see what it might mean; initially for the opening round of the championship at Silverstone, and also for the 24 hours of Le Mans in June.

And I’m sorry for those fans of LMP2 or the GTE classes, but I am going to restrict myself here to just looking at the LMP1-hybrid class and the contest for outright wins.

Let’s start off with the headline figure: that of best lap recorded and compare them with 2015:
Car 2015 Best 2016 Best Percentage Improvement
Porsche 919 1m 37.220s 1m 37.445s -0.2%
Toyota TS-050 1m 39.949s 1m 38.273s 1.7%
Audi R18 e-tron quattro 1m 39.058s 1m 38.827s 0.2%

Next, my favourite, the best average lap time for a stint of ten laps or more:
Car 2015 Best 2016 Best Percentage Improvement
Porsche 919 1m 40.5s 1m 39.8s 0.7%
Toyota TS-050 1m 42.0s 1m 41.9s 0.1%
Audi R18 e-tron quattro 1m 40.5s 1m 40.7s -0.2%

If anything, this just goes to show the difference between best laps and average lap times over a full stint. So just how far were the cars going in a stint?
Car 2015 Longest 2016 Longest Percentage Improvement
Porsche 919 31 laps 29 laps -6.5%
Toyota TS-050 29 laps 10 laps -65.5%
Audi R18 e-tron quattro 30 laps 20 laps -33.3%

Here is where the story of tyre wear comes in though. The length of the Toyota stint was not constrained by fuel, but by the tyres – according to my information – and the races at both Silverstone and Spa restrict the LMP1-Hybrid teams to just 26 tyres (6 sets plus two ‘spares’) for the race – meaning that at least one set must be used for 90 minutes. This, along with reliability, could well end up deciding the outcome of the first three rounds of the championship.

I mentioned before that there are three phases to the WEC – the bit before Le Mans, the bit after Le Mans, and of course, Le Mans itself. This year, with an extra race in Mexico in the third part of the season, the first two races are relatively less important. Like last year though, Silverstone and Spa make up just two of the nine-race calendar, and just two-tenths of the points. In addition, Silverstone, Spa and Le Mans, although they all have sublime sections of high-speed cornering, are as different from one another in technical terms as any three circuits on the calendar.

So although Silverstone and Spa are important races, one should perhaps not use them to determine what will happen at Le Mans - just as last year, the first two races can throw you severely off the scent. At Le Castellet Porsche, Audi and Toyota spent their time running through some quite different programmes; programmes that were different from one another, but also different from what they did last year. For example, both Audi and Toyota experimented with different aero configurations whereas Porsche stuck to a ‘high-downforce’ set-up. At both Silverstone and Spa last year (as well as at the Prologue) Porsche was concentrating on its ‘low-downforce’, Le Mans aero package. This undoubtedly contributed to its success both at Le Mans and in the championship, but now that the data is gathered, this year will see the team from Weissach attempting to gather points early in the year as well.

Another way to look at the data is to look at the top speeds recorded, again with a comparison to last year’s Prologue:
Car 2015 Top Speed 2016 Top Speed Percentage Improvement
Porsche 919 338.6 km/h 301.7 km/h -10.9%
Toyota TS-050 334.4 km/h 340.7 km/h 1.9%
Audi R18 e-tron quattro 313.0 km/h 310.3 km/h -0.9%

Times through Paul Ricard’s second sector (which includes the main back straight) also indicate that the new Toyota TS050 has prodigious speed, but also confirm that Porsche was most likely running a lot of high-downforce drag during the test.

Rumours suggest that the reliability of the new Audi R18 e-tron quattro is not what the Ingolstadt team has wanted. However, despite spending much of the evening session in the garage at Ricard, Audi actually completed more laps in this year’s Prologue than the car did last year, as the table shows - note that as teams ran two cars each in 2015, I have only included the figures for a single car (the better of the two):
Car 2015 Laps Completed 2016 Laps Completed Percentage Improvement
Porsche 919 393 372 -5.3%
Toyota TS-050 311 266 -14.5%
Audi R18 e-tron quattro 229 235 2.6%

So what does it all mean? Can we use the data from Paul Ricard to make some predictions about the Six Hours of Silverstone? Is there already a favourite emerging for Le Mans?

Of course, there was a lot more going on during the Prologue than was apparent on the surface. Even the data that I have extracted is far more limited than the teams themselves have. But one thing I have noticed is that the teams tend to be so wrapped up in themselves that they don’t always spot the shape of the bigger picture.

The structure of qualifying remains this year – the two best laps from two different drivers, both of whom have to drive the car during a twenty-minute session. Here’s my prediction for Silverstone then:
Car 2015 Pole time 2016 prediction Percentage Improvement
Porsche 919 1m 39.721s 1m 39.684s -0.0%
Toyota TS-050 1m 40.382s 1m 39.574s 0.8%
Audi R18 e-tron quattro 1m 40.352s 1m 40.136s 0.0%

This is the two-lap average, and I have taken into account that Porsche last year at Silverstone had a very similar aero package to the one that they would run at Le Mans, whereas this year they will probably run a higher downforce package. Overall, despite a reduction in fuel consumption allowance of around 7.5%, I expect the times to be very close to those we saw last year. LMP1 fuel tank capacities have also been reduced by an equivalent amount, so the overall stint lengths are probably going to be about the same as they were last year – about 29 or 30 laps. Last year we had two short full course yellow periods, and the race ran for 201 laps (a record). Given some decent weather, some shorter pit stops and clear running, the race should run over 200 laps again this year.

Who’s going to win? There’s no way of knowing. My analysis above indicates that there will be a lot less than a second separating the first three rows of the grid. So much is new: hybrid systems, engines, aero. Michelin brought new tyre compounds to Paul Ricard as well, which further complicates the mix. Although the six hours will be run as a sprint, traditional endurance values like reliability, consistency and efficiency will probably be the deciding factors.

Let’s just hope that the race - indeed the whole season - lives up to expectations!