The pre-season two-day Prologue test for the 2021 FIA World Endurance Championship at Belgium’s Spa Francorchamps circuit produced incident and drama both on and off-track as the championship marked the debut of the first of the new generation of Hypercars, and a large LMP2 class featuring a newly-introduced set of performance restrictions designed to separate the second-tier cars from the incoming top class.
After two days of testing it didn’t work out like that, and the response from both the competitors and the governing bodies gives an insight into what we can expect as more and more manufacturers join in the new top class over the next two to three years.
The fastest time in three of four lengthy track sessions went to LMP2 cars, despite a recent 20 kilogram weight increase, a 64 bhp power cut and the imposition of the previously Le Mans 24 Hours-only low downforce aero package, believed to reduce the LMP2’s downforce levels by something approaching 20 percent.
A Hypercar did top the final track session of the test; Sebastien Buemi doing a qualifying simulation in one of the two new Toyota GR010 HYBRID machines, but it came after two days of major reliability woes for the Toyota Gazoo Racing team’s other No.7 car, and against a pattern of performance that saw the Toyotas consistently setting the fastest times in the opening and closing sectors of the track, but some 2.0s off the LMP2 pace in the longer mile sector of the circuit.
Cue the inevitable cries of sandbagging, and the equally inevitable rumblings from Toyota that its performance is as it expected it to be.
Post-test there were some direct remarks from senior management at both Toyota and the Alpine Endurance team that fields the only other car on the top class at Spa: a performance-adjusted ex-Rebellion LMP1 car now dubbed the Alpine A480. The new Glickenhaus 007s are absent, the team still testing and delaying locking in its five-year homologation, but all are effectively calling for a change in the Balance of Performance between the classes.
That’s not a simple process. The Toyotas are running at a hefty 1040 kg with around 700 bhp from their combined internal combustion and (front-axle deployed) hybrid electrical system. The Alpine runs at 930 kilos and with just over 600 bhp, and the LMP2s at 950 kilos with 536 bhp.
The principles of the BoP system surround monitoring a range of data sources based on race performance, and the message from the technical officials responsible for defining the new class, and for developing and monitoring the Balance of Performance process, was clear. The intention is to make no adjustments during race meetings, and BoP for the next race meeting will be based on data collected in race conditions only.
These are the first moves in a process that followers of sportscar racing are set to become very familiar with. Toyota and Alpine are grappling with it today; Peugeot arrives in 2022 and then Ferrari brings its new Hypercar to the track in 2023. There are a raft of other manufacturers expected in 2023 and then 2024 with new LMDH prototypes that will also be balanced into the same top class in the WEC.
Whilst the results of Saturday’s race will be watched with interest, the real intrigue is set to take place behind closed doors after the paddock is cleared. Balance of Performance has arrived in top class sports prototype racing, and powerful players will be watching closely how this all plays out.