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WEC Sebring

How Toyota's new WEC challengers are shaping up

The new era for the World Endurance Championship begins at Sebring this weekend as an influx of manufacturers arrive to take on Toyota. But who will take the initiative?

#8 Toyota Gazoo Racing Toyota GR010 - Hybrid: Sébastien Buemi, Brendon Hartley, Ryo Hirakawa

Toyota is set to face its sternest test in the World Endurance Championship this year since the Hypercar class replaced LMP1 in 2021.

New LMDh machines balanced to match the Le Mans Hypercars have brought entries from Porsche and Cadillac, while Ferrari's first top class effort in a generation and a full season assault from Peugeot make this the most eagerly-anticipated season in the WEC's modern history. The presence of privateer entries from Glickenhaus and Vanwall, with Jacques Villeneuve in tow, means there will be no shortage of storylines across the seven-round championship.

Ahead of this weekend's season-opening Sebring 1000, Autosport considers the prospects of Toyota and its challengers.

Toyota GR010 HYBRID

#7 Mike Conway/Kamui Kobayashi/Jose Maria Lopez
#8 Sebastien Buemi/Brendon Hartley/Ryo Hirakawa

Toyota is returning to the WEC for its 11th straight campaign with a clear target in front of it

Toyota is returning to the WEC for its 11th straight campaign with a clear target in front of it

Photo by: Toyota Racing

Toyota is returning to the WEC for its 11th straight campaign with a clear target in front of it – and one on its back as well. It has swept to five consecutive Le Mans victories and four championship drivers’ and manufacturers’ doubles in the absence of any proper factory opposition, so continuing that run will go a long way to legitimising those successes. And as the incumbent king of the WEC with a proven car and an established driver line-up, the odds look good for it to be able to do just that.

An all-new LMH was on the drawing board as Toyota cast an eye on the arrival of Ferrari, Porsche et al for this year, but it opted instead to evolve the GR010 HYBRID that came on stream in 2021. There is no change in the driver line-up after reserve Nyck de Vries landed a Formula 1 seat at AlphaTauri. Sebastien Buemi, Brendon Hartley and Ryo Hirakawa defend their title in the #8 Toyota Gazoo Racing entry, while Kamui Kobayashi, Mike Conway and Jose Maria Lopez – who back in the middle of last season had looked certain to be replaced by de Vries – stay together for a fifth campaign in #7.

The improvements to the GR010, powered by a 3.5-litre twin-turbo V6 within the strict criteria laid down in the LMH rules, are less extreme than for last season and have been focused on driveability, serviceability and reliability, as well as bringing the weight down close to the 1040kg minimum for four-wheel-drive machinery. Essentially, Toyota wanted to create a more raceable machine.

“We have not been working on pure aero efficiency, rather aero consistency, trying to help driveability,” says Toyota Gazoo Racing Europe technical director Pascal Vasselon. “We have worked to have as consistent a car as possible.”

That will be key in a championship where the performance of the cars is levelled up under a Balance of Performance formula. The same logic applies to revisions to the brake cooling for the new season.

“Within a balanced category, one of the items related to racecraft is serviceability of the car,” explains Vasselon. “We have been at times struggling to adjust the brake cooling. We have gone to a different cooling duct arrangement, so we can add or remove blanking very easily.”

Development on the reliability of the GR010 includes what the team believes is a successful attempt to overcome the ECU glitch that has cropped up on multiple occasions over the past two years. That included last year’s Le Mans, when the multiple resets for #7 in hour 16 took it out of contention in the fierce battle with the winning sister car.

It all adds up to a package that has to make Toyota the favourite going into the season, Buemi admitting that “it’s a bit difficult to deny that”. But the Swiss insists the team is “staying humble and not underestimating anyone” with the arrival of some real opposition for the first time since 2017.

Peugeot 9X8

#93 Mikkel Jensen/Paul di Resta/Jean-Eric Vergne
#94 Loic Duval/Gustavo Menezes/Nico Muller

Peugeot made two full-season entries last year but chose six months of testing over racing in the first half of the series

Peugeot made two full-season entries last year but chose six months of testing over racing in the first half of the series

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

Peugeot enters a first full season in the WEC with its avant-garde 9X8 LMH unchanged in concept from last year. So that means no sign of a conventional rear wing! There has, however, been an intensive winter development programme, spanning 6000 miles and three endurance tests, after a troublesome exploratory campaign by the sportscar racing returnee in the three post-Le Mans WEC races in 2022.

The results of that development will be entrusted to the same line-up that raced for the Peugeot TotalEnergies team in last year’s Bahrain season finale. Nico Muller, who took the place filled by reserve driver James Rossiter for Monza and Fuji after Kevin Magnussen’s pre-season return to F1, shares the #94 entry with Loic Duval and Gustavo Menezes, while Paul di Resta, Jean-Eric Vergne and Mikkel Jensen are teamed in #93.

The French manufacturer’s comeback to front-line endurance racing was announced way back in November 2019 for an entry at the start of the 2022-23 season, which, had the WEC’s winter format not been blown out of the water by COVID, would have meant a debut at the back end of last summer. So the Monza debut in July for the 9X8 certainly didn’t represent a delay for the striking hybrid contender powered by a 2.6-litre twin-turbo V6.

Peugeot made two full-season entries last year but chose six months of testing over racing in the first half of the series, in the knowledge that the specification of the car would be largely fixed once it was homologated. It wasn’t entirely convincing on its arrival: Peugeot failed to get a car to the end of a single one of the six-hour races without delays, and showed flashes of pace rather than consistently doing so.

However disappointing the results were last year, it was a valuable experience for an in-house team that is largely new as it geared up for its a bid to add to its tally of Le Mans victories in the middle of its first full campaign with the 9X8. Peugeot’s successes with the 908 LMP1 turbodiesels, including the last of its three victories at the French enduro in 2009, are now ancient history.

Olivier Jansonnie, technical director on the 9X8 programme, gives Peugeot “seven out of 10 or maybe eight for the way we developed the team”. It would have to be “a lot lower” when it came to reliability, he admits.
In terms of performance he insists that the 9X8 “showed some good stuff”, particularly in Bahrain when #93 qualified on the front row and set the fastest race lap. He suggests that it is difficult to judge the car’s long-run pace given its poor reliability in the eight-hour finale.

The measures to address the weaknesses have been undertaken right across the car, “a bit of aero and mechanical design, as well as work on the powertrain”, says Jansonnie. “If everything has gone to plan we should be where we wanted to be last year.”

Ferrari 499P

#50 Antonio Fuoco/Miguel Molina/Nicklas Nielsen
#51 James Calado/Antonio Giovinazzi/Alessandro Pier Guidi

Ferrari is no newcomer to the WEC, but its step up from the GTE Pro class to Hypercar will come with its challenges

Ferrari is no newcomer to the WEC, but its step up from the GTE Pro class to Hypercar will come with its challenges

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

The significance of Ferrari’s factory return to the top-flight of sportscar racing cannot be understated. The presence of the most famous motor racing marque at the front of the WEC grid provides the cream on an already luscious cake.

It is coming back 50 years on from its last such campaign, and doing so in the centenary year for Le Mans. The significance was not lost on Ferrari and its sportscar racing boss Antonello Coletta: “All the numbers have come in a magic moment. We understood that the occasion was great.”

The result of the decision to return announced in February 2021 is the 499P hybrid Le Mans Hypercar, a machine that will race in a livery that tips its hat to the marque’s last Le Mans contender, the 312 PB three-litre Group 6 car of 1973.

Developed in-house at Ferrari’s Attivita Sportive GT department, the car is powered by a three-litre twin-turbo V6 that has its roots in the production engine used in the 296 and therefore the new GT3 version of the car. The nomenclature of the new racer is derived from the capacity of a single cylinder just like the very first Ferrari, the 125S of 1947.

Ferrari undertakes its Hypercar campaign with its long-term partner from the GT ranks, AF Corse, and a roster of familiar drivers – Coletta always insisted that he wasn’t looking beyond the Ferrari family. Five drivers have graduated from its GT squad and are joined by Formula 1 reserve and former Alfa Romeo driver Antonio Giovinazzi, who has been on the marque’s books since 2016. He shares #51 with James Calado and Alessandro Pier Guidi, three-time winners of the WEC GTE Pro title, while Antonio Fuoco races #50 with Miguel Molina and Nicklas Nielsen.

The first 499P was given a shakedown last July and a second car came on stream almost immediately as Ferrari dovetailed endurance testing with performance work in its efforts to close the gap on the established WEC runners. So far the design has notched up 15,000 miles on track, and perhaps crucially has undertaken a pair of two-day tests at Sebring.

A newcomer or returnee it may be, but the pressure is undoubtedly on the Italian marque, as Coletta concedes: “When Ferrari competes in a category, everyone sees Ferrari first and then all the others.” Ferrari has been at pains to stress that it is heading into the season with humility. It also admits that there will be lessons to be learnt racing at the front of the grid rather than down in the pack in GTE Pro.

“There are still maybe a lot of niggles in race situations, so the biggest goal for us as a team is to learn as fast as we can to improve the car all the time,” says Calado. “The outright goal is obviously to get wins, to get championships, to get Le Mans, but we don’t know when that is going to happen. You can’t expect it probably in the first year.”

Porsche 963

#5 Dane Cameron/Michael Christensen/Frederic Makowiecki
#6 Kevin Estre/Andre Lotterer/Laurens Vanthoor
Jota #38 Antonio Felix da Costa/Will Stevens/Yifei Ye
Proton #99 Gianmaria Bruni/TBA/TBA

Porsche was at least as fast as Cadillac at Daytona, even if the Acuras that finished 1-2 had a clear edge

Porsche was at least as fast as Cadillac at Daytona, even if the Acuras that finished 1-2 had a clear edge

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

Porsche’s absence from the prototype ranks looked on course to be brought to an early end the moment the LMDh category was announced. It immediately came out in support of a concept that allowed it to race in both the WEC and IMSA at a price tag a fraction of what it had spent on its 919 Hybrid LMP1 that competed on the world stage in 2014-17. It was almost certainly the first to green-light a programme, though it was beaten to the punch in going public by Volkswagen group sister marque Audi, which subsequently backtracked to focus on Formula 1.

Porsche’s own announcement of a car that would subsequently be christened the 963 in homage to the all-conquering 962 Group C contender came in December 2020, followed five months later by the news that it was renewing its alliance with Penske for assaults on both IMSA and WEC under the banner of Porsche Penske Motorsport. That preceded both confirmation of Multimatic Motorsport as the chassis partner and the engine concept, a 4.6-litre twin-turbo that has its roots in the normally aspirated V8 that powered the RS Spyder LMP2s Penske successfully campaigned in North America in the late 2000s.

Porsche announced its drivers for both campaigns in three tranches between December 2021 and last November. Dane Cameron shares #5 with Michael Christensen and Frederic Makowiecki, while #6 is driven by Andre Lotterer, Kevin Estre and Laurens Vanthoor.

There will be a third PPM car at Le Mans, in which so far only Felipe Nasr has been listed. The customer cars from Jota and Proton are set to bolster the Porsche attack from Spa and Monza respectively.

Makowiecki had the honour of undertaking the first laps in the car early in January 2022 at Porsche’s Weissach test track, after which it embarked on a test programme that from the summer straddled Europe and North America. It had a six-month jump on the other three LMDh manufacturers racing in 2023, but it was forced to do much of the heavy lifting on development of the one-make hybrid system. It wasn’t quite the head start that it might appear, even if the new car has racked up 25,000 testing miles.

It looked anything but that on the debut of the 963 at the Daytona IMSA series opener. One car finished down the order after undergoing an early change of the hybrid battery, and the other went out late on with a major gearbox issue. The only consolation was that Porsche was at least as fast as Cadillac, even if the Acuras that finished 1-2 had a clear edge.

There is, however, “definitely confidence” that the problems have been fixed, according to PPM team boss Jonathan Diuguid. There were some “productive conversations” with the suppliers.

“The time is short, but our group is working really hard,” he says. “We are motivated to come back and address the technical issues and show the potential and pace of our Porsche 963.”

Cadillac V-Series.R

#2 Earl Bamber/Alex Lynn/Richard Westbrook

The General Motors brand was the marque with the most wins over the six-season life of the outgoing DPi category in 2017-22

The General Motors brand was the marque with the most wins over the six-season life of the outgoing DPi category in 2017-22

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

Cadillac, lest it be forgotten, is another returnee to Le Mans and its environs. Next to Ferrari and Porsche it is, of course, easily forgotten, given that its history right at the top of sportscar racing is both sporadic and sketchy. But what it does have is consistent success in North America. And that’s what arguably makes its entry into the WEC with its V-Series.R LMDh so intriguing.

The General Motors brand was the marque with the most wins over the six-season life of the outgoing Daytona Prototype international category in 2017-22, and was unbeaten at the Daytona 24 Hours over the first four of those years. A programme that started with the 2017 DPi-V.R has continued into the new era with another contender developed in conjunction with Dallara and powered by a 5.5-litre normally aspirated V8.

An expansion into the WEC means a return to Le Mans for the first time since the underachieving Northstar programme of 2000-02.

Cadillac is a global marque, but the make-up of its campaign this year perhaps indicates its priorities. There’s only one V-Series.R racing full-time in the WEC, but there will be three at Le Mans when its two IMSA entries join in. GM understands the reach of the French enduro into North America, witness the long-standing Corvette Racing GT programme.

The full-season WEC entry under the Cadillac Racing banner is run by Chip Ganassi Racing. That’s the ‘real’ CGR rather than the Ganassi-branded Multimatic squad that operated the WEC Ford GTs in 2016-19. A base in Germany has been lined up for the team post-Sebring, while the driver line-up has a familiar look: Earl Bamber and Alex Lynn have been retained by the US team; and Richard Westbrook has been brought back three years on from his four-season stint on the Ford programme in IMSA.

Cadillac arrives at Sebring in good shape after a strong debut for its LMDh at Daytona that yielded the final place on the podium. Perhaps just as importantly, it has already completed three times the eight-hour WEC distance around Sebring: the team successfully undertook a 24-hour test at the bumpy Florida venue in October.

What it hasn’t done is any testing in Europe. Not a jot. Laura Wontrop Klauser, GM’s sportscar programme manager, points out that a need to maximise track time with the LMDh militated against that, despite the car’s origins in Italy. “We couldn’t sacrifice a car being in a container for extra days or weeks when we had a very aggressive test schedule that we were trying to accomplish in a short period of time,” she says.

Instead, Cadillac fielded the WEC car at Daytona alongside the regular IMSA entries from Ganassi and Action Express Racing. That, it insists, was more valuable than testing in Europe. “Every test is useful,” says Stephen Mitas, Cadillac Racing’s team manager and strategist, “and every race is even more useful.”

Glickenhaus-Pipo 007 LMH

#708 Ryan Briscoe/Romain Dumas/Olivier Pla

Glickenhaus has been welcomed back by the series despite missing the last two rounds of 2022

Glickenhaus has been welcomed back by the series despite missing the last two rounds of 2022

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

Glickenhaus was the saviour of the WEC in the first two seasons of the Hypercar class. Not only did it put another LMH on the grid alongside the Toyotas, but it kept them honest at times. Witness two pole positions last year and a near-miss at Monza: it would most likely have won but for a brand-new turbocharger grenading itself.

The American entrant proved itself a credible contender at the highest level with its 007 non-hybrid LMH powered by the bespoke Pipo 3.5-litre V8 twin-turbo and developed by Podium Advanced Technologies.

There were months of procrastination about whether it would return this year with the team run by Podium but, after declaring its intent to race on into 2023 last December, it has been welcomed back by the series despite missing the last two rounds of 2022. It again runs one full-season car and has another entry for the big one at Le Mans.

You could say it’s business as usual for Glickenhaus Racing. Romain Dumas, Olivier Pla, Ryan Briscoe and Franck Mailleux, stalwarts of the team’s first two WEC campaigns, return to the line-up. Dumas and Pla are pretty much confirmed in #708 for the full season, while the team could try out other drivers at Algarve and Spa as it looks for team-mates for Mailleux at Le Mans. Briscoe is set to move cars to join Mailleux for the centrepiece WEC round, though the team insists that it is taking its campaign race by race.

The car is largely unchanged, too. There has been no winter test programme: neither of the two cars has run since the last race outing for the team at Monza last July, save for a brief outing with the owner of the #709 car at the wheel. That meant its first experience of the new generation of Michelin tyres came at last weekend’s Prologue.

Glickenhaus hasn’t been idle since its last WEC appearance, however. It has worked on getting the most out of what it has, and in particular the rear-axle brake-by-wire system introduced early last season.

“We have been concentrating on optimising the package we have,” says Glickenhaus chief engineer Stefano Rapisarda. “We want to give the drivers more confidence in the electronic systems. We have worked a lot on the software side.”

Glickenhaus also hasn’t ruled out employing some of its jokers as the season progresses, but that kind of development programme will depend on either sponsorship or a funded driver providing the necessary financial resources.

That said, Hypercar is a BoP formula, which team founder Jim Glickenhaus believes will give his LMH a chance even in the face of a much deeper pool of opposition.

“If we get a fair BoP, and I have been assured we will, there’s no reason we can’t be competitive,” he says. “We know we’re the little guys racing against big OEMs, but we’ve done better than anyone expected. I’d like to think we can continue to punch above our weight.”

Vanwall Vandervell 680

#4 Tom Dillmann/Esteban Guerrieri/Jacques Villeneuve

Kolles is bullish that his team can compete with the big boys this time

Kolles is bullish that his team can compete with the big boys this time

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

The German squad that formerly raced as ByKolles is back in the WEC after a two-season hiatus and now flies the flag of a marque that has been absent from the track for much, much longer.

It has brought the name of the Vanwall team, winner of nine world championship grands prix in 1957-58, back to international motorsport with an all-new LMH. That move has not been without controversy, however; a dispute over the rights to the name with a British entity remains ongoing.

The non-hybrid Vanwall Vandervell 680 – the name refers to the founder of the original team, Tony Vandervell, and the horsepower output originally laid down in the rules for Le Mans – has been designed, developed and mostly built in-house, just like its long-serving predecessor. It has retained the 4.5-litre Gibson V8 engine that powered the final iteration of the CLM P1/01, and like the Glickenhaus is a non-hybrid.

Team boss Colin Kolles insists the P1/01 was all about learning, calling it an “investment to reach the point at which we are today”. He describes the build quality of the latest creation “Formula 1 standard”, and insists it is a major step forward on a car that never did much more than make up the numbers on the WEC grid. Kolles is bullish that his team can compete with the big boys this time.

“We’re not scared of anyone,” he insists. “We are here to win.”

Vanwall has been running its car since last March; remember its entry for last year’s WEC was turned down, but it got on with the job of developing the car to back up Kolles’s proclamations that it would try again for 2023.

It has completed a significant test programme around Europe, though not at the same level of a manufacturer operation, with Tom Dillmann and Esteban Guerrieri undertaking the majority of the driving. The team regular and the WTCR race winner have moved over from development roles into race seats alongside the team’s star signing over the winter: none other than 1997 F1 world champion Jacques Villeneuve.

A common acquaintance informed Kolles of Villeneuve’s sportscar ambitions, a try-out in the Vanwall LMH was hastily arranged at Barcelona last November and a deal quickly followed. The team owner insists that a 51-year-old whose brief flirtation with top-level sportscar racing at Peugeot came to an end 15 years ago is highly motivated, physically up to job and will be on the pace.

Villeneuve is also a driver whose last full season of racing was in the NASCAR Euro series back in 2019, so he’s short of mileage. A single day in the car on his try-out at Barcelona was the only test he managed to fit in before the team was forced to switch focus and make sure the Vandervell 680 was homologated, which involved putting the car in the Sauber wind tunnel as demanded by the regulations. That explained the focus on him during last weekend’s Prologue test at Sebring.

Villeneuve's familiar helmet colours are likely to garner plenty of attention

Villeneuve's familiar helmet colours are likely to garner plenty of attention

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

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