Porsche looked to Silverstone last weekend to get their 2016 World Endurance Championship (WEC) campaign kick started. After a dominant 2015 season in the World Endurance Championships the pressure is on to ensure that the German team are able to put in a repeat performance.
Porsche had a slow start to the season last year, securing a pole position at the 6 Hours of Silverstone only to be outgunned by the race pace of the Audi which eventually won by just 4.6 seconds. Despite having secured 7 historic wins at this circuit, Porsche haven’t won the event since 1985.
The disappointing start to the 2015 WEC series was not a marker for what would happen the rest of the year. After Silverstone and Spa were out of the way, Porsche scored a milestone victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, followed by 8 back to back wins.
The reaction from rival LMP1 manufacturers Audi and Toyota was to head back to the drawing board, redesigning their cars from scratch with different powerplants, hybrid drive systems and re-designed aerodynamics. This year, Porsche faced a new bread of untested competition, it was anyone’s guess what the result would be.
Arriving at the circuit to light rain was a bit of an anti-climax. Temperatures were an unseasonable 3 degrees centigrade. It felt more like January than mid-April! With pit lane access we were delivered to the front door of the Porsche hospitality area which meant we didn’t get wet having to walk from the car park.
The first event of the day was a WEC practice session for LM cars. By the time is had began, the rain turned to sleet. In a matter of minutes, the sleet gave in to the temperature and became a full blown snow storm.
A few cars braved the weather, skating and spinning their way around the track. A single Audi (whose driver had asked his team to take a photo) and a Toyota piloted by Anthony Davidson were notable. Inevitably, the red flags were shown when Davidson spun into the gravel trap, necessitating a fork lift to carry out the extraction works.
It took an hour or so for the snow to subside. We managed to secure a quick tour around the pit garage in the mean time. Much like Formula 1, it takes an army of engineers, analysts and support staff to run an LMP1 team. Porsche employees around 100 people to run and manage its LMP1 team with a team of dedicated staff also working on statistics from Stuttgart.
After a morning of free practice for several other classes and qualifying for the European Le Mans Series support race; qualifying for the WEC series got underway. Each car had to field two racers who both set fastest laps, the average of the two laps determines the
It wasn’t until that evening when Toyota bought over a plate of Sushi we learned of a cross team bargain. It had been agreed between the companies that if Porsche got pole Toyota would bring Sushi, if Toyota got pole Porsche would bring Bratwurst. As neither team managed to put their car on pole, there was an exchange of both Sushi and Bratwurst!
Race day started with a walk through the pit lane. It seems this has become tradition as the drivers were all out, providing autographs to the fans. Porsche had the largest queue, the crowds drawn by Mark Webber. Once this was over, the cars started to head out to the grid. We were lucky enough to be given access for the grid walk too. With the cars lined up Le Mans style, this gave us an opportunity to take a look at the last minute preparations.
Before long, we were ushered away. Porsche had a hospitality box overlooking the start-finish line, the perfect place from which to watch the start. WEC races begin with a faux Le Mans-style start. The cars are lined up against the pit wall and waved off for two formation laps before the flag drops and the racing starts for real! Patrick Dempsey waved the cars off this year having retired from driving duties within his own racing team.
Before long, Mark Webber in the number 1 Porsche 919 had caught the back of the two Audi’s. The Aussie quickly disposed of the competition and started building a gap. The Audi’s were quicker than anyone had expected, yet the Porsche clearly had the edge. The number 2 car was slightly slower, sticking behind the Audi’s
After 10-15 laps, we moved back to the Porsche hospitality area to make sure we were up to date with all the timings. The best way to fully understand endurance racing is with the lap timer open on one screen and the live video feed on the other. Porsche were fortunately running both in the hospitality area which gave us the best view of the racing.
Having built a solid gap, Webber handed over the reigns to youngster Brendon Hartley. The New Zealand youngster continued stretching his lead until it stood at around the 40 second lap. By this point Porsche were a good two hours into the race. All sensible bets were on the number 1 car taking the win once again. Then the unthinkable happened.
Hartley, gaining speed on a slower Gulf Porsche 911 GT car, went for a overtake into the smallest of gaps. Any other day, the move would have stuck, however, the Gulf car somehow missed the faster LMP1 car and just like that, the number 1 car was out of the race. As fate would have it, one of the Audi’s developed a problem on the same lap and was forced into retirement. The left one Audi and the remaining Porsche to battle it out.
During the ensuing yellow flag period, the remaining Audi have managed to work its way back up to the Porsche which hit slower traffic. This gave it a spring board upon which it managed to launch into the lead following the restart. It remained this way until about an hour before the end when the Audi pitted handing a slender lead to the Porsche which would also need to pit but would need less fuel.
Strangely, once the Porsche did pit it only received front types. It was a call designed to save time later in the race. Unfortunately it backfired and just one lap later, Neel Jani was back in the box to replace a puncture, effectively handing Audi the win. The next-best Toyota came a uneventful 3rd earning valuable points but demonstrating that there was work to be done.
Ultimately, Porsche weren’t to be disappointed long. Audi were reprimanded for excessive wear on a skid plate, handing the win back to the number 2 Porsche machine. Neel Jani, Romain Dumas and Marc Lieb were eventual winners in a race that proved to be a perfect season opener! Bring on Spa Francorchamps…