With just over 30 minutes left of the first six-hour race of the 2013 World Endurance Championship, Allan McNish made it clear he meant business.
Half a minute behind the other Audi e-tron, the R18 of defending WEC and Le Mans champions André Lotterer, Benoît Tréluyer and Marcel Fässler, McNish could have settled for a team-friendly formation finish. After all, Toyota had started this year’s WEC where they had left off in 2012, with TS030 Hybrids locking out the front row of the grid at Silverstone. But McNish was having none of it and hounded Tréluyer through endless GT traffic until, with just one lap to go, he made his move.
With one race remaining in the eight race series, McNish (with teammates Tom Kristensen and Loïc Duval) has a commanding lead over the Tréluyer/ Lotterer/Fässler squad. Audi, as you might imagine, has already sewed up the LMP1 manufactures title; the Toyota challenge faded from that promising opening round, as the TS030 struggled to make its tyres work properly.
This year’s WEC, starting in the UK in Silverstone and finishing in November in Bahrain, has included six hour races at Spa in Belgium, in Brazil, the USA, Japan and China as well as the series’ totemic race, the Le Mans 24 Hours in June. And it’s been Audi all the way, the awesome R18 e-tron quattro winning every race except Fuji, which was finally abandoned after the third restart in biblical rain. Of Audi’s five wins, McNish, Kristensen and Duval have won four, including Le Mans. Drivers get double points for a Le Mans win. With that in the bag, the title is a driver’s to lose.
Le Mans wasn’t quite the cakewalk Audi might have imagined. The early laps in the wet before and after the terrible accident that claimed the life of Aston Martin GT driver Allan Simonsen belonged as much to Toyota as they did Audi, but the TS030’s early pace had more to do with lucky tyre choice than pace. It was attrition, not lack of pace, that elevated the Anthony Davidson, Stéphane Sarrazin and Sébastien Buemi Toyota to the lead lap at the end of the 24 hours.
This year’s Audi R18 was heavily revised from last year. WEC rules are now designed to partially neutralise the torque advantage of diesel-engined hybrids by only allowing cars to dump their battery loads at speeds above 60kph. The petrol-engined Toyota hybrid can use all of its hybrid power from a standstill, and the rule gave the Japanese team a definitive advantage on the tighter circuits at the end of the 2012 season.
Toyota didn’t bring its 2013-spec TS030 to Silverstone, but to the second race at Spa, by which time Audi had further evolved the R18 into the long-tail version it would race at Le Mans. Toyota never really recovered from the 1-2-3 beating it took at Spa. First they asked the Le Mans organisers to allow it to run a larger fuel tank. Then, after Le Mans and another Audi win, Toyota scaled down the operation to a single car (though in the final two races of the year it planned to revert to two cars again).
But this has irrefutably been Audi’s year. And the team is supremely confident its 2014-spec R18 – with the narrower bodywork and smaller tyres the organisers have legislated – can not only once again take on Toyota but also the works Porsche team who return to Le Mans and the WEC next year with a new purpose-built LMP1 car and star driver Mark Webber. Remember, the WEC in its current format is only two years old.
Further down the grid it’s not been Porsche’s year in GTs, where the 911 has failed to take the challenge to Aston Martin, and Ferrari, who boasted a line-up of former F1 drivers including Giancarlo Fisichella and Kamui Kobayashi. The 911 doesn’t seem to like dry tracks very much, and Marc Lieb and Richard Lietz’s third place in the championship is largely down to the class win in Le Mans in the wet.
Two wins on the trot for Darren Turner and Stefan Mücke in the Vantage – in the rain at Fuji and in Shanghai – have earned the pair a small advantage over Ferrari’s leading pair of Giancarlo Fisichella and Gianmaria Bruni in their 458. It’s down to the wire in Bahrain. It’s also close in LMP2, with Oak Racing’s drivers in their Nissan-engined Morgans set to fight it out for the title in Bahrain. The healthy grids of LMP2 cars that have kept endurance racing going for some time are, somewhat unfairly, under pressure both from Porsche’s entry into LMP1 and expanded manufacture support of GT racing.
Sorting one set of GT rules for Le Mans and the rest of the world is next on the job list of the FIA and the ACO. And credit where it’s due, together they have already put sports prototypes back on the map in 2013.