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WEC LMP1 season review: The golden age continues

From the pain of Toyota's Le Mans heartbreak to the joy of Audi's farewell win in Bahrain, the 2016 FIA WEC season was never short of talking points. Sam Smith takes a look back at a rollercoaster year for the global sportscar series.

WEC LMP1 season review: The golden age continues

Porsche – #2 crew peaks early to take title

Over the course of the 2016 FIA World Endurance Championship season, there was little doubt that Porsche deserved a second straight double in the drivers' and teams' titles.

The #2 Porsche 919 Hybrid driven by Neel Jani, Marc Lieb and Romain Dumas may have staggered over the line, but a combination of reliability, three strong results in the opening trio of races and their challengers' errors served to hand them the spoils on a big shiny plate.

Porsche’s defence of the WEC crowns was far from a tranquil one, though. Heading into the season, it was the favourite, mainly due to its early development of the all-conquering 2016-spec car and the fact that its rivals at Toyota and Audi had all-new challengers.

As it transpired, the 2016 fight for supremacy mostly went according to the script. Porsche was by and large reliable and still very quick, while the striking new models of the German marque's opponents were inconsistent, and on occasion quite fragile.

The #2 Porsche started the season strongly with maximum points at Silverstone and a second place at Spa. The former result came only after the #7 Audi was excluded for excessive wear on the front portion of the skid block.

On paper it was a fortunate ‘win’ for Jani, Dumas and Lieb, but if it had not been for a final-hour puncture, the nip and tuck battle it had with the #7 car may well have swung their way anyhow.

The attritional race at Spa may have brought second placed points for the #2 car but a hybrid issue sapped it of full power for almost the entire race. Le Mans followed, and a near-faultless display was rewarded after the cruel events which befell the #5 Toyota.

At this point, the #2 crew appeared to be in complete control but at the Nurburgring in July things started to go wrong and their season slipped into a pattern of mediocre performances. The Jani-Dumas-Lieb axis appeared to go in to some kind of ‘safe mode’ with more below par results at COTA (4th), Fuji (5th) and Shanghai (4th).

Things picked up at the Bahrain finale, at least pace-wise, but contact between Jani and the KCMG Porsche 911 RSR in the second hour brought the unthinkable notion of losing the title into sharp focus. They pulled through, but like an overly fatigued heavyweight boxer, they just made it to the bell.

In a season where a certain degree of fortune benefitted the #2 car, it would be trite and disingenuous to say Jani, Lieb and Dumas did not deserve the title. They were worthy by dint of their early season form, and on their day they were quicker than their opposition. It just turned out that those days became gradually more infrequent as the season wore on.

LMP1 World Champion #2 Porsche Team Porsche 919 Hybrid: Romain Dumas, Neel Jani, Marc Lieb
LMP1 World Champion #2 Porsche Team Porsche 919 Hybrid: Romain Dumas, Neel Jani, Marc Lieb

Photo by: Porsche Motorsport

Fortune and misfortune are part and parcel of endurance racing, but some of the hardships suffered by reigning champions Brendon Hartley, Mark Webber and Timo Bernhard in the #1 919 Hybrid this season were nothing short of harsh.

The season started with a performance befitting of champions, as Hartley simply ran and hid in the first stint at Silverstone. Maybe he sprinted a little too fast though, as contact with the Gulf Porsche of Mike Wainwright pitched both into a spectacular retirement.

Hartley acknowledged his slight misjudgement, and in hindsight probably didn’t need to take the chance, but such moves are executed dozens of times during a season without issue. This time the ‘gap Gods’ were not on Hartley’s side.

Two punctures at Spa (the second caused by bodywork damaged induced by the initial blow-out) put the #1 machine into a cycle of issues that resulted in merely a classification. With water pump issues also affecting the car's Le Mans race, the champions' title defence was effectively over as they languished 89.5 points behind their stablemates in the standings.

From this low point, they then went on a monumental blitz with four wins and a pair of third places in the final six events. The wins at Nurburgring, Mexico and COTA were tooth-and-nail victories, which showcased the class of all three drivers and their strategy crew.

Shanghai was more straightforward, but no less deserving. Hartley, Webber and Bernhard were as good as ever in 2016 and Webber especially must be proud to go out on such a wonderful high.

Porsche had been developing the 919 Hybrid since late summer 2015, and one of the hidden secrets of its package is the complex suspension system, which it tested exhaustively at Monza in October last year.

Indeed, the tests came thick and fast throughout the autumn and winter, as it continued to perfect the separate and split heave and roll capabilities within its inter-connected vehicle dynamic systems.

What makes Porsche’s success all the more remarkable is that the team, led by Fritz Enzinger and Andreas Seidl, was down one important constituent part before the season began, as technical director Alex Hitzinger departed the company in March.

The ambitious Seidl took on dual responsibilities and the results have so far been good. The test now comes as the team works on its 2018 challenger, which is likely to represent a big departure from the successful 919 Hybrid.

#1 Porsche Team Porsche 919 Hybrid: Timo Bernhard, Mark Webber, Brendon Hartley
#1 Porsche Team Porsche 919 Hybrid: Timo Bernhard, Mark Webber, Brendon Hartley

Photo by: Porsche Motorsport

Toyota – Tears of Pain, Tears of Joy

The starkest moment of the year and perhaps in modern endurance racing came in the death throes of the Le Mans 24 Hours, when Kazuki Nakajima stopped his leading Toyota TS050 Hybrid on the pit straight with just over three minutes of the race remaining.

It was a moment of complete incredulity, and one so painful to watch it was deserved by no team. To its credit, the Cologne-based squad valiantly fought back to at least sew a few stitches into their La Sarthe wounds by winning at Fuji in October. 

Toyota arrived at Paul Ricard in March with a new twin-turbo V6, new lithium-ion battery electrical storage and an upgrade to the 8MJ energy-retrieval category as a result. The initial tests were promising, but it soon became evident that its slippery design was not, even with a higher downforce body kit, going to be a contender on tracks such as the Nurburgring, and so it proved.

After an anonymous debut at Silverstone, the TS050 Hybrids came alive at Spa, and the #5 car seemed in line for a well-earned victory until a terminal engine problem, believed to be related to forces pulled at the Eau Rouge/Raidillon complex, resulted in a major disappointment.

This was an emotion which Anthony Davidson, Sebastien Buemi and Kazuki Nakajima got to know well in 2016.

Curiously, as is often the case in endurance racing, one car seemed to have less issues than the other, and in the #6 Toyota crew of Mike Conway, Stephane Sarrazin and Kamui Kobayashi, an unlikely title challenge gained momentum as they accrued an impressive 73 points in four races.

A tactical masterclass won them the 6 Hours of Fuji after short fuelling and forsaking tyres on the final stop, with Kobayashi putting in a superb performance on worn rubber to seal the deal in the closest finish in WEC history.

While the #6 car enjoyed its day in the sun, the #5 crew was again left to rue another missed opportunity, as theywere mysteriously off the pace at Fuji throughout the six hours.

Davidson, who missed the Mexican race after a rib-jarring shunt during testing at Magny-Cours in August, certainly took some recuperating time in getting back to his usual tip-top form, but the poor luck they received this season was the defining factor in them finishing the season 85 points in arrears of their teammates.

If something did go wrong in 2016, it was usually Messrs Buemi, Nakajima and Davidson who bore the brunt.

Next season is massive for Toyota. Le Mans will loom large from the New Year onwards, and 2017 has to be their year. The removal of Audi from the mix will assist their quest somewhat, but Porsche will be eyeing up a hat-trick and 19th win in the French classic.

#5 Toyota Racing Toyota TS050 Hybrid: Sébastien Buemi, Kazuki Nakajima, Anthony Davidson
#5 Toyota Racing Toyota TS050 Hybrid: Sébastien Buemi, Kazuki Nakajima, Anthony Davidson

Photo by: XPB Images

Audi – Victorious farewell masks meagre season

The moment Audi announced its departure from endurance racing will likely be looked back upon as an era-defining one in years to come. The decisive, swift and brutal decision came from the board table, but it was at the race track that the sting was felt most keenly.

A whole generation of drivers, engineers, mechanics, officials and fans knew nothing other than Audi racing in sportscars. Now it was gone, and the hole left behind cannot even be covered, let alone filled.

The year had started with much optimism. Jorg Zander’s angular and arresting R18 took one's breath way on first viewing at the Paul Ricard Prologue last March: this was more spaceship than racing car; an oeuvre of such daring that it seemed inconceivable it could be as fast as it looked.

Yet, when the conditions were right, it was a real flying machine and one that the drivers enjoyed hustling too. It seemed to have grip to give away, on the higher downforce tracks at least.

Disappointingly, in low drag configuration, and especially at Le Mans, it was rarely the same proposition. Intricate and puzzling issues in keeping its Michelins in a preferred operating window all too often reduced the Audis to supporting roles on a stage where it was used to calling the shots.

It was a major surprise, especially after Lucas di Grassi had scorched to fastest time at the test day just a few weeks before. Still, he and teammates Oliver Jarvis and Loic took third place and kept the remarkable sequence of an Audi finishing on the podium every year since 1999, but the faces on the podium showed little joy.

At Le Mans, the #8 car lost time with minor issues such as a loose door and changing an illuminated number panel, something which proved to be a microcosm of Audi’s year. While throughout the Joest-run outfit's history in racing it has seldom had need for operational or minor technical worry, in 2016 such niggles were almost common place.

Wins at Mexico City and Austin were pulled from their grasp by such issues, and so too any chance of a title challenge slid like sand through the fingers of the Ingolstadt marque.

That is not to say that Audi was completely below par in 2016, that would be overly harsh. Le Mans and Shanghai apart, it always had one car in the hunt for victory, and on two occasions (three if you include Silverstone) this was converted into success.

Still, it was an immense frustration that this very special car never realised  its full potential; even more so that its highly developed big brother, which was intended for 2017 action, will now in all likelihood never see the light day.

At least Audi received a gloriously respectful and honoured send-off in Bahrain last month - how fitting it was that an age of unparalleled excellence and sporting triumph aptly ended with one final victory.

#8 Audi Sport Team Joest Audi R18: Lucas di Grassi, Loic Duval, Oliver Jarvis
#8 Audi Sport Team Joest Audi R18: Lucas di Grassi, Loic Duval, Oliver Jarvis

Photo by: Audi Communications Motorsport

Check back tomorrow (Wednesday) for the second part of our WEC season review, where we reveal the top 10 LMP1 drivers of the year.

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Series WEC
Teams Team Joest , Porsche Team , Toyota Racing
Author Sam Smith
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