Saturday the 5th of May marks the kick-off of the FIA World Endurance Championship Super Season. In the Belgian Ardennes, Spa-Francorchamps hosts the first round of the 14-month long season. In the run-up to the 2018-19 championship premiere, we took what we learned at the Prologue at Paul Ricard to preview the grid for the longest season ever.
Before the 30-hour endurance test in Southern France, nobody would’ve lifted an eyebrow if you told them that after 30 hours of testing, the Toyota TS050 hybrids would be fastest. But they might however afterwards, if you tell them that this was while running unrestricted, not bound by any Equivalence of Technology (EoT) limitations, testing a new cooling system. When actually running in EoT-spec, with less fuel flow and less megajoules than a non-hybrid car, they only managed to set a fifth time.
When correcting lap times for this EoT-spec, Vitaly Petrov in the number 11 SMP Racing BR1 set the fastest time of 1:37.034, closely followed by former 3-time Le Mans champion André Lotterer in the brand new Rebellion R13, only .01 seconds off the pace.
In all, six privateer cars were within one second of each other, with only the number 5 CEFC Ginetta G60 slightly off-pace. No big surprise however, as the team only finished building up the car late Friday afternoon.
The big question on everyone’s minds is how will the Toyotas match up to the non-restricted, non-hybrid privateers at the upcoming 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps.
Biggest excitement in Paul Ricard was for the debut of Pastor Maldonado, who drove his first laps in an LMP2 setting the fastest time in the process.
Last year, the class consisted of only Oreca 07 chassis running on Dunlop tires. The 2018-19 Super Season sees the debut of teams running Ligier JSP217 and Dallara P217 chassis and Michelin rubber, adding a little bit of variety to the class.
In terms of outright speed during the test: all seven cars were within 1.2 seconds of each other which might be a harbinger of close racing in upcoming events.
In GTE-Pro, Porsche and Ford stood just over a second clear of the other manufacturers: Ferrari with their updated 488 EVO, the brand new BMW M8 GTE and the also new-for-2018 Aston Martin Vantage GTE—none could match the leaders’ speed.
More remarkable were the GTE-Am Porsches of Dempsey-Proton and Gulf Racing outpacing the Pro-class Ferraris, BMWs and Aston Martins. BMW and Aston Martin seem to suffer slightly from the Balance of Performance, although it’s unclear exactly how hard they pushed at the test. Especially the Bavarian formation’s M8 should be capable of faster times, considering its pole position at the 12 Hours of Sebring earlier this year. The fact that the M8 also set the highest top-speed of the GTs adds to the suspicion that they didn’t go all-out yet.
Photos and text by Rick Kiewiet.