With only 5 weeks until the Le Mans 24hrs, Stelvio Automotive takes a look at the LMP1 field after the 6hrs of Spa and explains why the engravers should probably step away from the winners' trophies until the very end of the Great Race.
By Sean Smith
Sceptics would say that the Spa 6 hours showed what everyone feared. A two horse race where Toyota were faster than all their competitors and winning by a distance. The headline stories of the weekend was a Toyota 1-2 beat the Rebellion by 2 laps to 3rd, ByKolles in 4th and SMP in 5th, both 5 laps down. The DragonSpeed car was ruled out after a crash and the two Manors withdrew due to financial constraints and their constructor, Ginetta, resultantly not release the cars from the garage.
On paper then it was a great day for the only hybrid team. Toyota even stemmed the on-track race between Mike Conway and Fernando Alonso. The former’s #7 car and co-drivers had hauled themselves up from a lap down to be attacking Alonso and co.’s #8 machine for the win. Overall the cars performed perfectly and they had that bit of pace in hand over their rivals when it mattered in the race to make it look easy.
But a runaway Toyota 1-2 is by no means the whole story of the 6 hours of Spa for LMP1. This article will show how the non-hybrids fared and why NONE of them can be ruled out for the 24 hrs.
We’ll start with the Swiss team, Rebellion. They crossed the line in 3rd and 4th but after the race the lead car was disqualified because “The Plank” (the skid block at the back of the car) was worn down beyond the legal limit. The cars themselves ran well all weekend, especially over 1 lap. Rebellion topped the 3rd practice session with their R13 - Gibsons, which in essence are upgraded LMP2 cars but wound up to eleven, and on the first lap they hounded the lead Toyota.
As the race went on though they couldn’t keep up and have already voiced their concerns over their relative lack of competitiveness to the hybrid Toyotas, potentially in a bid to get a concession from the rule makers. Rebellion were closer to winning than any non-hybrid, non-works team has ever been before. It is also worth noting that the R13 as a car is only a few months old and has had only limited testing. With or without a concession, they should be quietly confident for Le Mans as the car is very quick.
Next, ByKolles crossed the line in 4th, only about a lap and a half behind the Rebellions. What is my favourite race car in the entire world probably had the second smoothest race it has had in its entire 4 year history. Aside from a tiny fuel fire at the first pit stop (clearly a visual homage to previous seasons) the car ran faultlessly. The little scare all in all probably lost them about a lap with the added stop-go penalty gained by too many of the team rushing over to the car with fire extinguishers. But otherwise ByKolles showed their 9 months of testing and development was worth it. The car was not held up for long periods in the garage at any point on the weekend and the lap times it showed were far more respectable than previously.
Overall the ByKolles Enso CLM P1/01 - Nismo (such a catchy name) is at least 2 or 3 seconds faster than it was at any point last season. A 4-5 lap deficit to the winner in race conditions is about half where it normally ends up and after watching the timing screens through the weekend and the car visually while it was on track when it appeared on TV, I think it has even more to give. This is a really solid start for the team and has given joy to the whole staff and hope to its fans. It’s worth also remembering that the 2017 ByKolles is the non-hybrid lap record holder at Le Mans and, judging by what was seen at Spa, ByKolles are at least in the running to hold their title.
Then we get to SMP. Or maybe more generally, the top Dallara. I was actually really shocked at the pace the cars were going at through the race. At some stages the SMP looked like it was faster than the two Rebellions and I couldn’t understand why. But then I remembered who else runs a very similar variant of the Dallara based chassis, Cadillac. Just to fill in anyone who hasn’t watched the Weathertech Sportscar Championship since 2016 let me bring you up to date. Cadillac have walked away with the titles both years by an easy margin... the end.
When you then peel back those Cadillac body panels you find Italy’s greatest chassis constructor. SMP have benefited from the 3 years of development from Dallara and Cadillac, as well as a couple of LMP2 teams, and as a result the car was rapid. The SMP is also being powered by AER’s V6 Twin Turbo engine which both Rebellion and ByKolles used to run in their cars. It's a colossally fast unit, if unreliable in the past. SMP look good heading to France but they will be rushing to fix the #17 car which had a huge crash at Raidillion where the car flipped over at high speed causing mummers over its safety. The team may need a new chassis before it's back on track, potentially with some design tweaks.
DragonSpeed looked on about the same pace as ByKolles and SMP in practice before Pietro Fittipaldi, grandson of Emerson as well as the last ever Formula Renault 3.5 champion, also crashed heavily at the top of Raidillon during qualifying, breaking both his legs. DragonSpeed will be eyeing up a replacement over the coming weeks but much like the other teams they had shown well up till that point.
With the Dallara chassis and the same Gibson engine as Rebellion they should be confident of a solid performance if their car runs smoothly. If Fittipaldi cannot race, potential Weathertech or IndyCar drivers could be available; they could alternatively appoint one of their LMP2 drivers to the squad so there is no fear of a void of talent. That said this will be a setback for a new team to LMP1 and again, like SMP, they probably need a new chassis to be built for them by Dallara. Fortunately the Italian constructor probably already has a couple of spares ready to go so there should be no fears of DragonSpeed's non-participation.
Lastly, Manor. Normally I would slightly mock a rival team for the weekend they suffered but instead I genuinely felt sorry for them. I remember when ByKolles had their cars impounded by a supplier years ago and it felt awful just being a fan, I can only imagine what it was like for the Manor team at the track last weekend. Ginetta let the absolutely beautiful G60 do a few installation laps but that was it as a sponsor had not coughed up the capital for them to race.
As such there was too much risk to send the cars out. This is a particularly big blow because the Manors have a brand new Mecachrome engine in the back of the car which has had almost no on-track testing. I think the team will get to Le Mans but without serious running on the test days and practise sessions they may be out very early in the race, which will be a huge shame. It’s fair to say Manor will not be in the hunt for the win unless a miracle occurs and the Ginetta-Mecachrome combo is the fastest machine ever created, but that would be a 5000/1 bet at best.
For the other teams aside from Manor, I believe that they really do have a chance. There are multiple reasons why even after Spa I remain confident Le Mans will not be a bloodbath for the non-Hybrids and a resultant coronation for Toyota.
For starters Spa is nothing like Le Mans in track layout. Le Mans only has 6 slow corners, Spa has 9 and it is half the distance with far lower top speeds. This matters because of where the advantage of the hybrids is over those without the technology. The gain is largest out of slow corners. Toyota gain 500bhp from their electric motors but as soon as they’re out of power and heading down a long straight the TS050s have to rely on only a very fuel limited 500bhp engine. The privateers have as much as 700bhp from their various engines and they have access to that at all times. Unless Toyota take all the downforce out the car, I think we can expect them to be maybe 10 or 20 mph slower than the best non-hybrid down each straight at La Sarthe.
Second, a lot has been said about the hybrids being able to go longer than the non-hybrids on fuel; that didn’t come to fruition at Spa. The advantage only came from the non-hybrids having to take longer to re-fuel their larger fuel tanks and taking about a second to restart after every pit stop. In terms of distance per stint all of them seemed to be going just as long as Toyota could. Toyota will still gain over them in the fuel stops overall, but if the advantage in stint length doesn't materialise at Le Mans they will lose a lot of the buffer zone than what was envisaged.
Which leads to Toyota’s Achilles heel, the hybrid technology, especially on a hot day in France.
Spa was warm and the Toyota team will be pleased they got strong running in that kind of weather without fault. But again, Le Mans is very different to Spa. If the weather continues to be hotter than last year all the way to mid-June it might be the ultimate test for a car and system which has failed before in the high heat. Any issue on the hybrid system will completely incapacitate the Toyota and effectively rule it out of the race. The non-hybrids can take advantage of this fragility and attack them all day, all night, and all through the next day without fear. If they keep the pressure on and the weather is favourable, this could cause the TS050s to crack.
What’s more, Rebellion were really, really close to Toyota at times at Spa, and again, it is an almost new car. Now the R13 is fully broken in it will be on full attack mode at Le Mans. ByKolles too, if for once they have some luck on their side, will be in the mix as they seem to be a few seconds faster than they were last year. And again, they hold the non-hybrid record lap with the P1/01 which, beyond anything else, is designed to work well at Le Mans. The Dallara cars too must be dark horses. They are proven machines and just need to be set up correctly to not be so skittish for the drivers and they’ll be there on pace, all 3 of them. This makes at least 6 cars challenging Toyota's TS050 Hybrids.
But the biggest threat to Toyota is their Le Mans curse. They have probably lost the 24 hrs more times than anyone else; Toyota have literally been within a lap of victory and still lost. When you look at what's in their favour they do still hold the cards they need to finally win. The fact of the matter is that the TS050 is the fastest car. It has an advantage as a 3 year old, now fully developed machine which the team know inside-out. They have talented drivers, most of whom know La Sarthe really well. Despite the ifs, buts and maybes, they are the favourites going in to the event.
They also know that if they do not win this year it will be a lot harder to do at the end of the WEC Super Season at Le Mans 2019. By then all the privateers will have had a whole year to further develop and understand their cars and the TS050 will be relatively stagnant in performance.
Toyota are already working on the proposed GT-P concept (below) that may be coming in 2020/21 so as a result the TS050 is in many ways a stop gap car for them before the next big rule change for the WEC. It’s possible this potential divide in concentration within the team could be the final joker in the pack to still give us the upset of the decade next month.