Porsche WEC. Behind the scenes with Le Mans winners

April 04, 2016

Last year the 919 LMP1 Hybrid secured Porsche its 17th Le Mans victory as well as both World Endurance Championship crowns. That’s quite an act to follow, as James finds out when invited behind the scenes of the team’s Middle East test session in Abu Dhabi.

  • Check out the original post on crankandpiston.com HERE, and a pdf version from evo Middle East HERE

  • Motorsport Porsche 919 Hybrid Test Abu Dhabi, Yas Marina Circuit

EnginePowerTorque0-100kphTop speedWeightPrice
V4, turbocharged, 2000cc‘Approx. 900bhp’TBC2.2 secsTBC875kg (1,029bhp/ton)Yikes!

So, what next?”

It’s a slightly brusque question fired at Porsche LMP1 team principal Andreas Seidl, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t on everybody’s mind. In its sophomore World Endurance Championship season last year, Porsche secured both the Drivers’ and Manufacturers’ titles as well as a long-awaited 17th victory at Le Mans. From the season’s eight rounds, the 919 Hybrid took all but two race victories, a further six podium finishes ensuring Stuttgart was never out of the top three. Given its strong hit rate in 2015, it’s not like Porsche has anything else to prove
in the WEC…

“What we achieved in 2015 was great, but it’s history now,” Andreas explains, a Chopard watch peaking not-accidentally out from under his jacket sleeve. “We’re effectively starting from scratch, so it’s important to keep both feet on the ground, prepare properly, and use the same attention to detail we have for the last two years. It’s very much game on again.”

Succinct and to the point. Andrea almost makes its sound easy.

We’re currently sitting in the Yas Marina Circuit paddock, a multitude of voice recorders and iPhone speakers pointing in Andreas’ direction. We’re one of the few media outlets in town – and indeed globally – who have been invited behind the scenes of Porsche’s second of two test programs in Abu Dhabi before the 2016 World Endurance Championship kicks off in April. And so far, things seems to be going well. There’s the traditional hustle and bustle in the team garage of course as mechanics and engineers remain glued to timing screens, laptops and a bank of two-dozen computer screens mounted to a temporary framework. But there’s not the frenetic pace one might reasonably expect of a reigning world championship outfit with limited testing time: during our near-hour long conversation, Andreas’ phone chirrups just once, our conversation interrupted only intermittently by the high-pitched wail of Porsche’s 2016 WEC challenger racking up the kilometres.

There’s still a couple of weeks to go before the final ‘Prologue’ session at Paul Ricard, a weekend that, incidentally, Porsche finishes solidly on-top. Today’s test then – day four of five – is exclusively about Michelin, former Formula 1 man Mark Webber conducting the opening leg of some ‘intense tyre development’ before handing over to teammate, and fellow Driver’s World Champion, Timo Bernhard. Hopefully he’ll not be too shagged out after six consecutive hours in the hot seat to spare us a few minutes later.

“There’s been considerable belt tightening around Porsche’s V4-hybrid powertrain. And it’s brain-rottingly complicated.”

But while the hard and soft compounds lining the Yas garage walls seven-high, ten-wide and three-deep are today’s focus, it’s far from the only thing Porsche has had to work on during the winter, a point Andreas makes during a tour of the garage. Indeed, new regulations mean that although the team’s 919 Hybrid LMP1 is ‘merely’ an evolution of last year’s title winner, some major tweaks have been required. The hybrid powerplant, for one.

“Our concept is actually quite aggressive, so any changes to the regulations are always going to hit us quite hard,” Andreas continues. “There’s no magic fix, so it can be quite frustrating. But these new regulations still give our engineers a lot of freedom, and that really drives them, as we’ve already seen. Last year we had easily the best car, the best driver line-up and the best team performance. I’ve no doubt we can repeat this this season, even with less fuel to work with.”

To reduce racing speeds this season – a factor that ultimately saw the demise of the World Sportscar Championship, and almost cost former World Champion Anthony Davidson his life in an enormous accident at La Sarthe in ’14 – there’s been considerable belt tightening around it’s hybrid powertrain. And it’s brain-rottingly complicated. A 2-litre petrol V4 sends ‘less than 500bhp’ to the rear axle via a seven-speed sequential racing transmission, while a separate electric motor sends ‘more than 400bhp’ to the front, effectively giving the 919 temporary all-wheel drive. For 2016 though, the amount of permitted fuel per lap has been reduced in an effort to encourage more efficient electric powertrains. Indeed, two on-board Energy Recovery Systems draw up to eight megajoules (MJ) of ‘used’ power from the brakes (at the front) and the exhaust (the rear), the highest possible and more than either principal rivals Toyota or Audi could summon last year. As a result, for 2016, Porsche is limited to 4.31-litres of petrol for every lap, which – even when you consider the 900bhp power output – is still a sizable drop: it equates to a loss of four seconds, per lap, around Le Mans.

There’s slightly more to this though than German efficiency. Porsche’s LMP1 program works heavily in tandem with the road car division, technology and hybrid expertise passing back and forth for the benefit of both companies. The 919’s 800-volt electrical system for example may seem familiar to some, since it’s also used in the new Mission-E Concept, set to become – if rumours are to be believed – an all-electric production Panamera. Though an 18th victory at Le Mans and another two World Championship trophies might cement a legacy and sell a few more road cars, there is more to Porsche’s WEC campaign than outright glory. In many ways, it represents the company’s future.

“One of the main reasons Porsche returned to sports cars was the benefit this would have for the road car division,” Andreas explains. “Discussions were already in place about the WEC’s future regulations, with renewed focus on efficiency, and it was through this that we saw a perfect platform to develop technology for the road in a motorsport environment. We actually took a lot of people from the road car side, which meant we had a big head start on hybrid technology in the beginning. It’s like when team members move across to road cars: they’ve worked in high pressure situations and can bring knowledge that others just don’t have.

“And it’s not just about the individual technology. It’s about the materials used within that, the software, the development of an already proven hybrid system. It’s a step-by-step process, so there’s elements we might not see for another five or six years. ERS, for example, since it’s only a matter of time before…”

The end of this point is cut off rather dramatically as Webber in the ‘919’ clad prototype (the new red, black and white livery will boast the sacred #1 in Paul Ricard) pulls into the pits, team personnel moving quickly to jack the car, flick the kill switch and interrogate the driver for vital data. Just behind us, Bernhard – still temporarily in his civvies – hoves into view to listen in, joined shortly afterwards by teammate Brendon Hartley. It may seem relaxed, but there’s no doubt everyone at Yas today is taking this test VERY seriously.

“Porsche’s LMP1 program works heavily in tandem with the road car division, technology and hybrid expertise passing back and forth for the benefit of both companies.”

With good reason, since it’s not just the powertrain that’s been given a spruce. Though the 919’s 875kg kerb weight is actually up from last year’s 870kg – “ask any engineer, they’re tell you that’s a lot!” – weight saving has been crucial, given all the headaches that come with it: make the carbon fibre mounting of the gearbox too light and it will be too unreliable. Andreas ‘gleefully’ reminisces about the 919’s first official roll-out in 2013, during which a too-light crankshaft vibrated so violently at speed that a full re-design was required, threatening the roll-out altogether.

The chassis and suspension meanwhile remain unchanged, save a new front axle for improved traction and more flexible setup options. It’s a testament to the ‘carbon-fibre sandwich’ that Porsche first used in 2014 and has barely changed since, whereby the V4 – lighter and more easily accessible in its 90-degree banking than a flat-six – is integrated into the monocoque along with the transmission rather than mounted on top of it. All for the sake
of torsional rigidity.

  • Motorsport Porsche 919 Hybrid Test Abu Dhabi, Yas Marina Circuit

There’s another titanic BOOM as the V4 is fired into life in the garage, all those not wearing protective headphones immediately cringing and reaching for their now perforated eardrums. Wheel guns spring into action followed soon after by some shrieking high revs as the all-black liveried 919 cruises back onto pitroad. The noise is still audible half a circuit away, although the electric motor has taken over by the time the Aussie ‘whooshes’ down the pit straight.

Last up on the tour is the team’s new array of downforce packages, courtesy of two front end canopies leaning rather ingloriously in the corner. The ‘do not touch’ sign seems particularly redundant today: the cost of one of the 919’s lightweight wheel nuts will set me back at least a couple of hundred quid should I somehow manage to break one, so I can only quake at the cost of a carbon fibre moulded front end nose cone. Directing our attention to the first of what appear to identical front sections, Andreas explains that with a new high downforce package available for Silverstone, Porsche is hoping to be even stronger next year, and straight out the box to boot.

“Obviously we want a competitive car and to win as many races as possible. Previously we’ve only had one aero package, a low downforce setup [with subtly rounded headlights, a less aggressively raked splitter and new dive planes] geared more towards Le Mans and less suited to the first race at Silverstone. This year though we’re allowed a maximum of three packages, which means we’ll have a setup more suited to the opening two races. That will make a big difference, and should make us a lot stronger immediately.”

All eyes remain on the big prize at Le Mans, but with only nine rounds of the season to compete in and ever-more blood thirsty rivals – “Toyota is already calling 2016 its ‘year of revenge’ “ – Porsche HAS to make every point count. On paper its run to the title seemed straightforward, the Manufacturers crown already in the bag in Shanghai with one round to spare. It could so easily have been different at the Bahrain season finale though, where engine issues dropped the polesitting #17 to fifth at the flag and only savage brake wear preventing Audi’s lead #8 from taking the chequered flag and nabbing the title on the line. A well-conceived prototype earned Porsche its silverware last year, but as Andreas concedes, they also got lucky.

“On paper its run to the title seemed straightforward. It could so easily have been different at the Bahrain season finale though.”

We’re directed back to a table in the paddock already setup with water bottles and shades: though the weather and temperature is less changeable than Porsche’s previous testing facility in Bahrain, it’s still starting to heat up.

Webber, the 919 now back in the garage and Bernhard now sliding through the almost impossibly small door – honest to God, it’s the size of a Pringle can – makes his way over (he’s already got his Chopard watch on). Debrief in the bag, he’s looking forward to some downtime after completing 230 this morning, but seems more than happy to sit and discuss the season ahead, his new life with Porsche compared with Red Bull and, of course, his new book. When asked how he feels ahead of his championship defence, his reaction is unsurprising.

Yeah, it’s gone really well,” Mark begins. “To get a good track at this time of year is not easy: Europe is hit and miss with the weather and we decided not to go to Bahrain because it’s too windy, so Yas Marina works well. Every run we’ve learnt something, even 0.001 per cent, and we’ve done a lot with the new Michelin compound. Y’know, the French they have long lunches, so we have to make sure we Michelin exactly what we need early!”

Like Andreas, he’s visibly relaxed, and makes the whole thing sound so easy. It’ll be interesting to see, come November 2016 in Bahrain, whether this confidence is justified.

*My thanks to Jürgen Tap for the images

Technical specifications (Porsche 919 Hybrid, 2016)

Engine: V4, turbocharged, 2000cc

Power: ‘Approx. 900bhp’

Torque: TBC

Transmission: Hydraulically activated seven-speed sequential

Front suspension: Multi-link pushrod independent with adjustable shock absorbers

Rear suspension: Multi-link pushrod independent with adjustable shock absorbers

Brakes: Hydraulic dual-circuit, internally ventilated carbon fibre

Wheels: 18in front and rear

Tyres: 310/710-18, Michelin Radial (front and rear)

Weight (Minimum): 875kg

Power-to-weight: 1,029bhp/ton

0-100kph: 2.2 secs

Top speed: TBC

Price: Yikes!