Porsche announced its departure from the top class of the World Endurance Championship back in July, but it is still nailing down the details of what comes next. It’s a massive game of musical chairs with around 300 staff members and six drivers who are sad to see the 919 program end, but very anxious to know what they’ll be working on next year. It’s all in a state of limbo until Porsche’s higher-ups figure it out.
At the 6 Hours of Circuit of the Americas this month, we asked some members of the final-year Porsche 919 LMP1 team about where they were in the process of shutting things down to ramp up a Formula E program and other non-LMP1 projects.
Porsche LMP1 Team Principal Andreas Seidl told Jalopnik that work on Porsche’s new Formula E squad won’t really go into motion after they’ve done their final WEC race.
“First, we need to finish this season, then get a good picture: what is Formula E, and what is required, and then put the structure in place to make sure we’re ready at the end of ‘19 [when Season Six starts],” Seidl told Jalopnik.
“The good thing is with—and this is why the decision was also made to enter Formula E at the end of ‘19—is that we have enough time to set it up properly again.”
The LMP1 effort has been around since 2014. Closing up shop will not happen overnight.
Seidl also mentioned that Porsche has a less-publicized drivetrain project within Porsche’s motorsport division. “On the powertrain side, we’ll use the expertise of our engine guys to work on a highly efficient combustion engine which would be used in various tasks, projects,” he said. Seidl refused to give any details on where that efficient combustion engine could go beyond, “For the next super sports car or whatever.”
“We help out on the GT project side as well, to strengthen that effort,” Seidl added, meaning the 911 sports cars that still race in Le Mans. He said Porsche isn’t at a loss of places to move ex-919 team members. “There’s enough to do.”
But their timing for starting all these other things is very clearly “not yet.”
To Porsche’s credit, Seidl says they will try to retain as much of their staff as possible, offering them other roles within the company to put their tremendous expertise to good use.
“All of our drivers have the possibility to stay with us, and to stay Porsche works drivers, which was important for us and a good sign also for them.” Seidl told Jalopnik. “But the detailed programs have to be worked out after the season.”
Yet the end of such a big and successful program is always going to be hard. A typical Formula E entry, for example, only has two drivers, so Porsche all but has to move some of their six LMP1 drivers elsewhere, possibly to a lower class in sports car racing. You can never tell if a driver who signed up to drive a top-level Le Mans prototype is going to be happy racing back in GT cars again.
How many of the LMP1 workers make that jump to Formula E, too, is one of many things Porsche is waiting to determine.
“I first need to understand the business to know how many people we need there,” Seidl told Jalopnik. “You hear a lot of rumors of how big the teams are, but it depends. [...] There are some private teams who work a lot with just suppliers, and then you have hundreds of people in place there. It’s difficult to compare. Sometimes you hear a Formula E team, including development, is 20 people.”
Seidl said Porsche wants to find places for team members to go next year towards the end of the month.
While there are still unconfirmed rumors about Porsche drivers ending up on other teams outside the greater Porsche-verse, most of the ones we spoke with didn’t have any updates they could give on where they would be racing next year just yet.
For the regular Porsche factory drivers, LMP1 driver Nick Tandy said that the end of 2017 still almost feels like business as usual in a weird way.
“I’m in the middle of a contract with Porsche, so as with every year, I kind of get asked to drive whichever Porsche car they want me to drive,” Tandy told Jalopnik. “I don’t really see that being any different next year.”
For better or for worse, the driver positions will get filled after all the bigger decisions get made.
“It’s a bit like every year,” Tandy continued. “Until Porsche [...] announce[s] their programs and decide[s] what they’re going to be doing racing-wise in the year after, you know, from a driver’s point of view, we kind of then fit in to place after this. So Neel [Jani], for example, he said he’s already going to do Formula E because he’s got maybe some time on his hands.”
Driver Nick Tandy said he had “some idea” what he might race next year, but couldn’t really give a set answer as to what series he might be joining. If he had to pick where he’d end up, though, he said, “I missed racing at Daytona this year. It’s the first time I’d missed the 24 Hours of Daytona for like, seven years or so. I really missed it, watching it on TV, so I’ve already made a request to drive some sort of Porsche there.”
Tandy came up through Porsche’s GT cars to land with the 919 team, so that would probably make a lot of sense. He’ll be racing Petit Le Mans with the Porsche factory IMSA team in October—the same team he used to race for in the same series that also includes Daytona—so he may well get his wish.
One other possibility for Porsche’s slate of six talented LMP1 drivers would be research and development work for all manner of road and race cars.
“There’s not just the race programs,” Tandy said. “There’s all sorts of testing stuff that goes on, and a lot that happens at the R&D center in Germany.”
In the meantime, it’s definitely a weird spot to be in for the 919 drivers.
“We had tests planned and things like this that are now—like testing for 2018—that no longer need to happen, of course,” Tandy said. WEC limits testing time, so the cancellation of Porsche’s 2018 LMP1 tests also has the unintended consequence of limiting Tandy’s seat time in general towards the end of this year. Seat time—even in a different year’s car—is always something drivers can’t get enough of.
“But [the lack of testing] opens up other things that we can do at the factory, and get involved with maybe some production car stuff,” Tandy said.
The lone driver with already public plans for next year was Neel Jani, who’d already signed on to race with Formula E’s Dragon Racing team.
“For sure it’s not a downside,” Seidl said of Neel Jani racing with Dragon next year. “That is something Neel did with Dragon Racing—a deal between them. We allowed out drivers quite early on that they can go for any drives in addition to what they’re doing now and when we exit [LMP1].”
Jani said he really pushed for his drive in Formula E when the rumors of Porsche shutting down its LMP1 program started to feel real.
“At Le Mans, it started feeling like maybe—maybe there’s a possibility that it doesn’t go on,” Jani told Jalopnik. “I didn’t know, but I thought maybe. So, I started pushing already earlier, and I was interested in Formula E already last year, but I was not allowed to drive there. But I kept in contact with various teams, and now obviously the window opened because Porsche pulled out, so I just reactivated my contacts. Now luckily, the test went well with Dragon Racing and they accepted taking me on.”
Jani does plan to remain a Porsche factory driver, as Dragon Racing isn’t a manufacturer and doesn’t conflict there. Dragon still has a technical partnership with Faraday Future, but Dragon is not Faraday Future’s full-on works team—a subtle difference that keeps it from being a conflict for Jani. Porsche has also offered to put Jani into their race cars next year, just like his teammates.
“Obviously, the [Porsche] program is small now because there’s not too much activity, but I think that’s why [driving for both Dragon and Porsche next year is] a great solution for me,” Jani explained.
Bonus: since Porsche is heading to Formula E the next year, Jani’s experience next year could make Jani a favorite for that factory Porsche seat. We’ll see.
For one of Porsche’s LMP1 drivers, however, this is the second year in a row where the top-class team he’s racing for dropped out of the WEC. André Lotterer was quickly hired from Audi’s LMP1 team after Audi left the WEC at the end of 2016, and he opened up about some of the emotional side of a big Le Mans team shutting its doors.
“Two years in a row that it ends?” Lotterer told Jalopnik. “Yeah, thanks for reminding me. We found out after the Nürburgring, obviously when the press release came out, but there were some rumors already. So, we kind of expected it. At that point, I already processed the pain.”
Lotterer was still sad to lose his ride yet again, but it was much worse the first time when Audi shut down.
“The first tough moment for me was when Audi stopped because obviously, that was like my family,” Lotterer explained. “We compete there, my teammates were my brothers, so my whole world came down.”
These hyper-competitive LMP1 teams do so much together that they do become a bit of a second family for drivers like Lotterer. Losing that family hit him hard.
“I found a new challenge here at Porsche, and invested myself in that,” Lotterer continued. “In the beginning, for sure, it took some time to adapt. [...] Just when I finally feel at home and feel good, they’re pulling out.”
“For sure it was a difficult, let’s say seven or eight months after Audi pulled out to handle everything, but on the other side, fortunately I could keep racing these awesome cars until the end and be the longest driver in LMP1 in this championship. I really took it from the beginning to the end.”
When we asked if Lotterer knew what his plans were for next year, he responded, “Yeah, more or less. Might do Formula E. We’ll see. I still want to race at Le Mans as well, so I will see what opportunities come up then.”
Sure enough, he announced that he was heading to the Techeetah Formula E team less than two weeks later.
Lotterer is definitely going to miss the cars in LMP1 the most, like most of us who fell in love with the class.
“These cars are just awesome,” Lotterer said. “Everything—the whole teamwork, the technology and freedom to develop so much, and the performance of these cars—the formula, the hybrid, acceleration of a thousand horsepower, the speed we’d take into the corners, and yeah. To work with super-talented engineers with a lot of resources to change and make things happen—create milestones with new technologies. It’s a big adventure. We developed the car from scratch.”
The same reasons Lotterer praised the LMP1 cars are the same reasons why most of us did. They were almost otherworldly creations, made under regulations loose enough for manufacturers to really experiment with cool, state-of-the-art technology.
However, that also allowed the big teams involved to spend so much at dominating Le Mans that they priced out new entries from coming into the series.
Lotterer may have been sad to see Porsche’s program end, but he did make a good point for the continued survival of the WEC: people love Le Mans.
“People will always come to race at Le Mans,” Lotterer told Jalopnik. “It will attract teams and eventually manufacturers again because to say you won Le Mans is not for everyone.”
He seemed optimistic that the remaining top LMP1 class would find some way to reinvent itself, because of course they would: who doesn’t want to win Le Mans?
But leaving Le Mans prototype racing for Porsche—whose heart is very clearly in the right place when it comes to retaining their fantastic 919 staff in other projects—clearly isn’t as simple as announcing your departure, taking your cars and going home.
Behind the scenes, it’s a complete shake-up of what many team members consider to be a second family, and a complicated dance of resources and people that will take months—if not all of next year—to even figure out.