Porsche sets stage for ‘electric’ new chapter in racing
Monday, August 07, 2017
June's 24 Hours of Le Mans will likely be remembered as the end of an era in world-class sports car racing.
With Audi's withdrawal from the FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC) at the end of 2016, a mere five factory-supported entries from two manufacturers — Porsche and Toyota — took part in the top class at Le Mans in 2017, LMP1. During the race, every one of those LMP1 entries ostensibly competing for the overall win had serious mechanical issues or wrecked out of the biggest race in worldwide sports car racing.
In the end, the Porsche No. 2 entry of Timo Bernhard, Brendon Hartley and Earl Bamber claimed victory, coming back from 19 laps down after early mechanical trouble on the 8.5-mile Circuit de la Sarthe. The triumph was the third consecutive overall win for Porsche and extended its all-time record total of wins to 19.
But that victory didn't come before the serious — and previously unthinkable — possibility of a car from the next class down, LMP2, winning the overall prize despite huge power, development and budget disadvantages. After the 24 hours were finished, two LMP2 teams stood on the overall podium, and seven of the top eight finishers belonged to the lower prototype class.
Even before the race and LMP1's terrible day, there were rumblings that Porsche was planning to leave the WEC, and thus Le Mans at the end of 2017. On July 28, a not-so-well-kept secret in the motorsports world was confirmed — Porsche would be dropping its LMP1 program after the end of this WEC season in November.
For the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the withdrawal of Porsche is an unquestionably massive blow. It leaves only Toyota standing in LMP1 with no manufacturer entries in sight for 2018. Thus, when the checkered flag waves on the final race of the WEC season on Nov. 18 in Bahrain, it will likely mean the official end of the LMP1 class as currently constructed.
But Le Mans has dealt with these kinds of issues before in recent memory, such as when the Group C era of Porsche invincibility came to an end, or when GT1 class dominance concluded in the late 1990s. Toyota may have to run a year against overmatched competition, or Daytona Prototype international (DPi) cars may have to be brought overseas from their current home in the IMSA WeatherTech Championship in the U.S.
Whatever the case, the ACO, which governs the 24-hour race, will find some way to ensure substantial competition goes forward.
While much will be made of the effect Porsche leaving will have on the French endurance race classic, it's worth noting that Porsche is leaving the WEC to start a works Formula E team — part of a recent trend in motorsports.
Formula E is an all-electric series that requires just a fraction of the cost of an LMP1 program. Audi and Porsche each reportedly spent $200 million annually on their WEC teams, totals generally more associated with Formula 1 teams that have about double the race weekends to prepare for and travel to as WEC teams.
Porsche's WEC team is more than familiar with powering a race car with the help of noninternal combustion power, as LMP1 has featured hybrid cars for the entirety of Porsche's four-season return to top-class sports car racing. The move to Formula E, which Porsche will enter in 2019, will help Porsche meet two of its objectives in its future road cars.
Part of Porsche's "Strategy 2025" plan is to put a greater emphasis on sustainability, and its Mission E project aims to put an all-electric sports car on the road that can get from 0 to 60 mph in less than 3.5 seconds and has the electric equivalent of a 600-horsepower car.
Racing classes like the ones that compete at Le Mans have long been associated with being on the cutting edge of technology that eventually makes its way into road cars. Porsche can now continue that tradition of putting track knowledge on the road as the electric vehicle becomes more prominent over time.
Formula E, only in existence since 2014, has attracted more than just Porsche among well-known auto manufacturers and teams. Audi, BMW, Jaguar and Mercedes-Benz will all come into the series a year before Porsche, in 2018. Fans of American open-wheel racing will recognize that IndyCar team Andretti Autosport already has a team in the series.
If you're hoping to watch a Formula E race on TV late this summer, you're out of luck because the series runs a nontraditional calendar that concludes in the summer. Formula E just completed its third season on the last weekend of July with an exciting and heated championship round in Montreal.
And if you're hoping to see the all-electric, open-wheel cars on iconic tracks such as Silverstone and Spa-Francorchamps that the WEC and Formula 1 visit, you'll be disappointed. Formula E races mostly on short, temporary street circuits in urban locales like Hong Kong, Paris, Berlin and New York City.
Porsche's top-class exit from arguably the greatest race in world motorsport will come as a disappointment to fans and Porsche lovers alike. However, Porsche teams will still race in the GT classes in WEC and IMSA with the 911 RSR.
Furthermore, Porsche's presence in an all-electric series promises to bring more development to the world of high-performance electric sports cars on both the track and the road.
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