Despite a change in engine and hybrid system empowerment ahead of the 2016 FIA World Endurance Championship by its two biggest rivals, Team Porsche’s 919 Hybrid appears set to remain as the favorite in the headliner LMP-1 Hybrid division, just over a month out from the season opener at Silverstone Circuit in England. Although the FIA-ACO had worked during the off season to pull back the blistering pace shown by the Hybrid-driven prototypes a season ago, based on this past week’s open test at the Paul Ricard Circuit in France, it appears most of the cuts made by the sanctioning body have been overcome by Porsche, as well as by arch-rivals Toyota and Audi.
Officially, a one minute, 37.445 second pass of the 3.64 mile French layout was the standard set by Porsche’s Brendan Hartley, with the team’s sister car of Neel Jani within a tenth of that personal best after five sessions of practice time. After Audi Sport Team Joest was the clear second best entrant in LMP1-Hybrid during 2015, the timing book from the French preseason efforts indicates that Toyota Gazoo Racing is within range of challenging that moniker in 2016. Toyota’s new TS050 Hybrid, featuring V-6 power was about a half second clear of Audi’s diesel powered R18 E-Tron Quattro. Unfortunately, the positioning of the two hunters as opposed to the hunted Porsche was two-fold affected this weekend. Both pursuing hybrids were about a second off the best shown by the V-4 driven Porsche 919 and while the Weissach-based runner had a trouble free test, Toyota and Audi efforts were a different story. An electrical malady stopped the Toyota TS050 on the second day of morning running, while a suspension failure on day one forced Audi to rush in a second car to continue action on the final day.
While the issues do not necessarily disqualify Audi or Toyota’s chances to catch Porsche in 2016, the battery driven hybrid systems in both the Quattro and TS050 could cause some growing pains in the run up to the season opener and the circuit’s signature event, the 24 Hours of Le Mans in June.
Among the three non-hybrid LMP1s present on the Paul Ricard grounds this week, Rebellion Racing’s pair of AER-powered R-One chassis were clear of Colin Kolles’ CLM P1/01 coupe, which features the same AER engine. While a good three seconds off the slowest Hybrid time, the trio of entries have maintained a similar three to four second cushion on the best of the LMP2 prototypes.
In terms of the baby prototypes, there appears to be a good turn of parity as multiple chassis types, coupled with the almost universal Nissan V-8 engine were within a second of each other after five sessions. In the case of the pre-season battle, Signature Alpine has made an early statement, placing its two cars first and fourth on the cumulative chart. Nicolas Lapierre, fresh off a top four effort last weekend in IMSA’s Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring, clicked off the standard bearer at one minute, 46.974 seconds. The effort was just enough to edge Jonny Kane in the Strakka Racing Gibson 015S open topped car. Signature Alpine, which made its debut in the FIA WEC last year has joined the coupe club with the Le Mans winning ORECA 05 for 2016, which it has re-badged as an Alpine A460. Strakka meanwhile, has switched back to an open cockpit design for 2016, after struggling for results whilst trying unsuccessfully to design its own coupe with support from Japanese constructor Dome.
Regular LMP2 front runners G-Drive Racing was third fastest with its Ligier coupe, with a second Onroak-designed coupe belonging to Ricardo Gonzalez’s new Mexico-based operation closing out the fast five. After sweeping both the Rolex 24 at Daytona and the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring to open the 2016 sports car racing calendar, Tequila Patron ESM was further down the list at Paul Ricard this past week. Keep in mind however, that this test was the team’s first running with brand new cars, different from the one used in both victories, and with Honda’s 3.5 liter turbo V-6 not yet approved for FIA WEC competition, the team is running Nissan-powered entries, putting the team on equal footing with the rest of their LMP2 rivals. Of course, getting used to an normally aspirated engine, as opposed to a turbo driven motor could take some time.
In the grand touring divisions, AF Corse’s pair of new Ferrari 488 went 1-2 in the Pro category, while last year’s Le Mans winning Chevrolet Corvette C7.R, now in the hands of Larbre Competition was the best of the bunch among the Amateur class, and third overall among all GT cars present at Paul Ricard.
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