Going in to the 6th year of the World Endurance Championship we see a whole host of changes, to regulations and to the entries for this years championship. LMP1 sees just five challengers this season with two manufacturers and one privateer. A pretty heavy reduction from last year when we had Audi and Rebellion also competing in the top class. While Rebellion stepped down to LMP2, Audi has completely disappeared from the WEC and prototype sportscar racing in the wake of its Diesel-gate troubles. This leaves us with just Porsche, Toyota and byKolles.
First things first, let’s look at last year’s champions. There is no surprise in the fact that Porsche brings back the all-conquering 919 Hybrid, a bigger surprise is to be found in the driver partnerships at Porsche. The world championship team of Romain Dumas, Marc Lieb and Neel Jani sees the former two leave the squad, combined with Mark Webber also leaving the LMP1 squad.
Whilst Mark Webber’s departure was announced pretty early last year, the replacement of Lieb and Dumas came as a bigger surprise. Joining Neel Jani is André Lotterer, who came over from Audi, and Nick Tandy who’s been pulled from the GTE roster. Meanwhile in the other team, the departure of Webber sees the rise up of Earl Bamber into the LMP1 ranks after both he and Tandy finally get their prototype drives after a stellar Le Mans 24 Hours victory in 2015.
The other factory entry in the top class is that of Toyota Gazoo Racing. Having come away from the Prologue in Monza as the team on top of the time sheets, it remains to be seen how the Toyota drivers will fare this year. One change to the drivers’ lineup is José María López replacing Stéphane Sarrazin and teaming up with Mike Conway and Kamui Kobayashi. It remains to be seen how the fierce touring car pace of the Argentinian translates to sportscar racing. In the second car the trio of Sébastien Buemi, Anthony Davidson and Kazuki Nakajima is the only line up in LMP1 to not see any changes.
The man on top of the charts at the prologue for Toyota was none other then Nicolas Lapierre, the prodigal son who lost his seat after a horrid 2014 season at Toyota. He will be teamed at the Le Mans 24 Hours, for which Toyota finally enter a third car, with Sarrazin and Yuji Kunimoto, GT500 driver and 2016 Formula Nippon champion.
The final full-season prototype entry in the top class is the byKolles CLM/P1 NISMO (what’s in a name). At the Prologue the team ran only 6 laps with the car due to problems. It allegedly had a rear wing failure, something you probably don’t want to fall off on a track as fast as Monza. The team switches to the LMP1 power plant from the former Nissan GT-R LM NISMO for this season, replacing the AER unit it ran in the past. This will hopefully give the team a chance to keep in front of the LMP2 runners as that was almost never the case last season.
The drivers for this season are Oliver Webb, James Rossiter and Dominik Kraihamer. Robert Kubica, who was announced two months as one of the drivers, has unexpectedly announced his departure days before the season premiere.
In the LMP2 class there is a new set of rules which sees all teams switch to newer machinery and a spec engine. The sad thing is that race teams are by nature very conservative, which means they look to proven material and what’s better than the chassis that won last year’s championship? This means everyone ends up with same material as everyone else, the Oreca 07 chassis and the Gibson GK428 4.2 L V8 engine.
The differentiating factor for this year will be the drivers in the cars and the teams behind them.
The first entry to talk about is the championship-winning Signatech Alpine team. Again choosing to rebrand the Oreca as an Alpine, the French team will expand to two cars for the 2017 season. The champions of 2016 will be reunited for this year as Gustavo Menezes and Nicolas Lapierre get together again for the full season, except for Le Mans where Lapierre will be driving for Toyota and be replaced by Romain Dumas for that race.
Gone from the team is Stéphane Richelmi, who is replaced by Matt Rao. With a season of sportscar racing under his belt this youngster should be a strong replacement for Richelmi. The second team will finally see the return of Nelson Panciatici to the main Alpine team. While the driver has been with Signatech since 2012, the two-time ELMS champion raced for the Baxi DC racing team in an Alpine last year. Pairing up with Panciatici are Pierre Ragues and André Negrão.
In from LMP1 is Rebellion Racing, the Swiss team switching to LMP2 to look for a more competitive class to race in. Their driver line-up will consist of Nelson Piquet Jr., Mathias Beche and David Heinemeier Hansson in the number 13 and Nicolas Prost, Bruno Senna and Julien Canal in the number 31. The latter line-up looking like one of the top contenders if the team can come to terms with the Oreca 07.
Also back for the 2017 season is Manor racing, with the team showing great pace in their inaugural season. However, the switch from F1 to WEC has been far from easy. If they proven to have learnt from last year’s mistakes, this team will be fighting for podium positions.
The LMP2 class for 2017 has such a strong field it is almost impossible to point out teams that are stronger or have a better chance of winning. This means races will be won by the team that makes the least mistakes and has a consistent race.