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!

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