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Why the WEC's eagerly-anticipated new era is unmissable

After more than three years of expectancy, the new era of sportscar racing finally dawns as this week’s Sebring 1000 Miles kicks off the 2023 World Endurance Championship season. Here’s what all the excitement is about

FIA WEC Hypercars

FIA WEC Hypercars

JEP / Motorsport Images

This is it! The start! It wasn’t the Daytona 24 Hours in January any more than it was the Spa 6 Hours nearly two years ago. The much-heralded golden era of sportscar racing finally begins with this week’s opening round of the World Endurance Championship at Sebring.

There have been Le Mans Hypercars racing since the opening round of the 2021 WEC, and LMDh machinery came on stream with this year’s IMSA SportsCar Championship curtain-raiser in January. But the Sebring 1000 Miles on Friday is the first time that they will race together. Convergence has finally arrived after more than three years of hype.

That golden era, brave new world or whatever you want to call it is founded on the ability of racing cars built to two different cost-effective rulesets to compete in both the world’s most important sportscar series and at the big races associated with them, the Le Mans 24 Hours and Daytona included. It explains why there are five major manufacturers competing in the Hypercar class of the WEC this year – that’s Toyota, Ferrari, Porsche, Peugeot and Cadillac – and more to come. And that’s not counting the fledging car makers in the fight, the likes of Glickenhaus, Vanwall and possibly Isotta Fraschini, which for the moment are best described as garagistes.

That’s why what some might argue is a support race to the Sebring 12 Hours IMSA round on Saturday is one of the most important moments in the history of endurance racing. The 1000 Miles is at once a landmark moment and a test of the so-called convergence process that has laid the foundations for what is to come.

PLUS: The long road to convergence for sportscar racing's new golden age

We should be shouting about it, and not just because Ferrari and Porsche are back at the front of the prototype field after 50 and five years respectively with striking-looking machinery made possible by the new rules. There haven’t been this many manufacturers duking it out at the front of the grid for yonks.

The arrival of BMW, already racing in a class known as GTP in IMSA, Lamborghini and Alpine in 2024 will push the total of OEMs up to eight. It could be nine if Acura, winner at Daytona with its LMDh, expands its programme, most likely under the flag of parent company Honda. That would mean an unprecedented number of car companies represented at the front of the prototype grid.

The WEC has all the right manufacturers, and more are on their way in the coming years

The WEC has all the right manufacturers, and more are on their way in the coming years

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

The present iteration of the WEC peaked at four OEMs in LMP1, and then only for one race: when Nissan’s disastrous front-wheel-drive GT-R NISMO LM made a belated debut at Le Mans in 2015 before being consigned to the dustbin. In the days before the rebirth of the WEC in 2012 you have to go back to Le Mans 2001 to find as many major marques competing for outright victory as this year.

And the WEC has and will have all the right manufacturers. You only have to add up their Le Mans victories to understand that. Porsche has 19, Ferrari nine, Toyota five and Peugeot three, so the total stands at 36. It will increase to 38 next year on the entry of BMW and Alpine, or rather 39 on the likely assumption that the winner of the 2023 running of the event hangs around for 2024. Had Audi pushed on with its LMDh programme announced in November 2020 and canned early last year, that number would have topped 50!

Can the formula work?

If the original timescale had been adhered to, this magic moment would have been a year in the past. It has largely been forgotten that LMDh was originally announced for 2022 in both WEC and IMSA. The COVID crisis, declared a pandemic just weeks after that day at Daytona 2020 when the category was announced, and the complexities of balancing the two types of prototype ensured that an already optimistic timescale had to be pushed back a year.

It has been a long and winding road to get to the point where we are today. The difficulties of balancing the four-wheel-drive LMH machinery with the rear-drive LMDhs was highlighted by your author from the get-go, Super Touring highlighted by way of example.

"One of the benefits of a fixed BoP is that there is no incentive anymore for sandbagging. In past years there were a lot of stories about sandbagging that were bad for everyone" Pascal Vasselon

All-wheel drive was eventually banned in the booming tin-top formula of the 1990s. It hasn’t been outlawed in the Hypercar class. “Mitigated” is the word used by Peugeot Sport technical director Olivier Jansonnie to describe the effect of the convergence process on the benefits of the front-traction of the LMHs. That’s a pretty accurate take on it.

The raising of the speed at which electrical power can be deployed means a front-axle hybrid system is no longer the performance tool that it was in the days of the LMP1 hybrids, or even of year one of LMH in 2021. This was one of the keys to creating a level playing field in Hypercar.

Hypercar is a Balance of Performance class. It became that even before the announcement of LMDh: it was a condition of Aston Martin’s entry with the Valkyrie super-sportscar in June 2019, a programme that was axed (though officially only put on hold) straight after the LMDh announcement. The difference between now and then is that the two rulesets that allow entry into Hypercar are closely aligned. It gives the BoP more than a fighting chance of doing its job.

Designers have incorporated styling cues from their road cars, the most extreme example of which is the avant-garde Peugeot 9X8

Designers have incorporated styling cues from their road cars, the most extreme example of which is the avant-garde Peugeot 9X8

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

Both LMH and LMDh rules are focused on controlling performance rather than setting design restrictions. Targets are set for aerodynamics in terms of downforce and drag: each car must fit into a very small window that is the same for both classes. And because they are relatively modest, it has freed up a manufacturer’s designer to incorporate styling cues or more from their road cars. The most extreme example is the avant-garde Peugeot 9X8.

Power is strictly controlled, both in terms of total output and the way it is delivered. The maximum is laid down – from this year it stands at 520kW (or 697bhp) at all tracks – and a power curve for each car is laid down in the BoP and policed by driveshaft torque meters that measure performance live on track.

“The car potential is perfectly aligned: the essence of both sets of regulations is to have cars with the same performance,” says Toyota Gazoo Racing Europe technical director Pascal Vasselon. “We have the same power and the aero window is tiny. That makes life easier in terms of the BoP. The small differences [in the cars’ performance] should only need fine tuning.”

There here has been a significant change to the BoP process from the first two seasons of the LMH-only Hypercar class. The BoP has been set for the first four races up to and including Le Mans in June. The move, thrashed out by the rulemakers – the FIA and the Automobile Club de l’Ouest – and the participating manufacturers, has been devised to stop manipulation of the BoP ahead of the race that really matters.

“One of the benefits of a fixed BoP is that there is no incentive anymore for sandbagging,” says Vasselon. “In past years there were a lot of stories about sandbagging that were bad for everyone. The aim now is to balance the potential of the car and then stay stable.”

The BoP could change before Le Mans, but only in terms of the balance between the cars built to the two different rulesets. The rulemakers now talk about the platform BoP and the manufacturer BoP. The former refers to the balance between LMH and LMDh, the latter to the BoP for each car.

The platform BoP could change for round three of the WEC at Spa at the end of April, based on data accrued at Sebring and round two of the series at the Portimao 6 Hours two weeks ahead of the Belgian race. So for example, if the Cadillac LMDh receives a weight break, the Porsche will get it too. The manufacturer BoP can then be reset after Le Mans for the remainder of the season, while the platform BoP could change after another two races – Monza in July and Fuji in September – for November’s season finale in Bahrain.

BoP will be devised on a manufacturer and platform basis

BoP will be devised on a manufacturer and platform basis

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

All the manufacturers are singing from the same songbook when it comes to the BoP. That’s perhaps not surprising because the formulation of the latest guidelines has been a highly collaborative process. There’s no way of knowing whether anyone will break ranks and start claiming in public that their BoP is unfair, but the organisers are determined to make the BoP a non-subject. There’s even a new clause in the 2023 sporting rules for the WEC that expressly bans discussion of the BoP in public.

Manufacturers, teams and drivers “must not seek to influence the establishment of the BoP or comment on the results”, reads the relevant clause. Infringements may be penalised by the stewards at any time. What those penalties might be isn’t disclosed, though the message is loud and clear.

Return of the privateer

The privateer pretty much withered and died during the LMP1 hybrid era. You couldn’t buy one of the high-tech rocketships and the contingent of teams running a proprietary chassis – the likes of JRM with HPD back in 2012 – and the garagistes building their own machinery shrunk through the WEC era. Glickenhaus has shown what a small, special builder can do under the new rules in LMH, but LMDh in particular reopens the door for the customer teams that over the years have been so important to sportscar racing even at its highest level.

After Porsche put its hand up in support of LMDh, it made it clear that it wanted to supply customer cars. It has always been a key tenet of its programme. The 963 type number, one on in sequence from the 962, a design sold by the dozen to teams on both side of the Pond, acknowledges that intent.

Jota has managed to do something else that was key to the glorious age of the customer 962: land a major sponsor from a well-known brand, car hire giant Hertz

The 962, and the 956 predecessor on which it was based, has long been regarded as the epitome of the customer racing car: it offered a competitive entree onto the grid with top-notch service back-up. Yet the 962 customer cars were always at least one step behind the works machines in development. The strict homologation rules in Hypercar mean that is no longer the case.

PLUS: How Porsche's Le Mans legend changed the game

“The playing field has been levelled,” says Jota founder Sam Hignett, whose team is on course to get the first customer 963 on the grid at Spa in late April, two races ahead of Proton Competition with the second of the two cars made available for this year. “The homologation rules mean you are not going to turn up at a race and find that the factory cars are running a new aero kit that you haven’t got. It’s a privateer-friendly rulebook.”

Jota has managed to do something else that was key to the glorious age of the customer 962: land a major sponsor from a well-known brand, car hire giant Hertz. That’s encouraging for the WEC.

The other LMDh manufacturers have all suggested that they might make cars for sale, though none has committed as yet. Peugeot has sold a 9X8 for a 2024 WEC campaign to a French entity that owns the rights to the Pescarolo Sport name, though its car will be run from the factory. Glickenhaus will sell you a car, too, and it insists that it’s cheaper than a Porsche!

What's new for 2023

Tyre warmers were brought into focus during the Prologue when James Calado crashed his Ferrari 499P LMH on an out-lap

Tyre warmers were brought into focus during the Prologue when James Calado crashed his Ferrari 499P LMH on an out-lap

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

The dynamic of the races is going to change significantly in 2023 thanks to two key rule changes. The first is the banning of tyre warmers, for so long part of the European sportscar scene but not in the US. The second is the closure of the pits under the Full Course Yellow virtual safety car procedure when an 80km/h (50mph) speed limit is enforced.

The outlawing of tyre warmers has been made on environmental grounds. There’s an ‘it’s the same for everyone’ argument, of course, but the ecological benefits have been questioned. The arguments of the doubters suggest that any gain in terms of a reduction in emissions by the WEC circus will quickly be wiped out by just a handful of shunts.

It clearly is going to make it tricky for the drivers leaving the pits on cold tyres even if Michelin has developed a new range of rubber fit for purpose, more so probably at Spa in April – remember the snow at the Belgian race in 2019? – or during the night at Le Mans than at Sebring this week. But the issue was brought into focus during the Prologue when James Calado crashed his Ferrari 499P LMH on his out-lap on Sunday morning.

The closing of the pits during an FCY removes the opportunity for a car to dive into the pits under the yellows for potential strategic gain. The thinking is that it will improve the show by not breaking up the racing.

The move will be linked to new guidelines whereby an FCY-only procedure will always be short and sharp, used when there is perhaps an errant corner marker to replace or a bit of debris to be picked up. Prolonged FCYs will become a thing of the past; the safety car will always be employed if a longer neutralisation is required.

There is going to be an even bigger change come Le Mans. The old system whereby the field remained neutralised behind three safety cars is gone. The field will still be brought under control by the trio of course vehicles, but it will subsequently be massed behind a single safety car. Once that process is complete, a wavearound will begin: a car ahead of the leader in its class in the queue will be able to pass the safety car. The field will then be arranged in class order before the restart.

The organisers – the FIA and the ACO – are aware that they’ve now got a great product and want to enhance the show. You can’t doubt their logic at this momentous time in the history of endurance racing.

The WEC is well-placed for its new era as Toyota faces  a stern challenge

The WEC is well-placed for its new era as Toyota faces a stern challenge

Photo by: Toyota Racing

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