The FIA WEC has a big problem to solve between now and the start of the 2020/21 season next September. This will be the beginning of the new Le Mans Hypercar regulations which aim to make the top class at Le Mans look more like a road going car than a spaceship. The problem is that Hypercar is way slower than the LMP1 class it replaces, and currently slower than the next rung down, LMP2.
For the last two years at Le Mans the LMP2 class pole position time in qualifying has been at or around 3 minutes 25 seconds. The target lap for Hypercar is 3 minutes 30 seconds, so the P2 cars will need to be made at least ten seconds a lap slower than they are right now. This becomes further complicated when you consider that the GTE Pro category has a pole time of around 3 minutes 47 seconds, with GTE Am only a couple seconds behind that.
The time tuning gap is only so large. And the WEC has to get this right, because the Hypercar teams—Toyota, Aston Martin, Peugeot, Scuderia Cameron Glickenhaus, and ByKolles thus far—are counting on being able to fight for the win at all rounds, Le Mans included.
In order to keep the classes in their current state, with the Hypercars running at the front, P2 behind, then the GTEs, there is a finite bit of tweaking that can be done.
LMP2 is pretty well perfect right now, and the teams were promised that the specifications would remain stagnant for many years as to keep costs as low as possible. So if you do major tweaking, how will the drivers and teams in that series cope?
Earlier this month it was announced that the LMP2 cars would receive a 40 horsepower reduction in power from their spec Gibson V8s from about 600 down to about 560 ponies. It was also clarified that the LMP2 class would be mandated a spec tire for the first time in ages. Today, we found out that Goodyear would be that supplier.
Goodyear joined the WEC this year after the departure of long-time tire competitors Dunlop. It currently faces off against Michelin in the class, but Michelin will be shoved out next year in favor of creating bespoke tires for each of the teams in the Hypercar class (as it currently does for LMP1).
By losing 40 horsepower in LMP2, the class will certainly gain lap time, especially at a top-speed-dependent track like Le Mans, but that’s certainly not enough on its own. That means that in order to make LMP2 definitively slower than Hypercar, these new Goodyear LMP2-spec tires will have to be hard as bricks in order to limit off-corner traction and lateral load through the corners.
The knock-on effect that I see this may have is a reduction in the driver friendliness that that LMP2 has become known for. Because LMP2 requires at least one silver- or bronze-rated driver, the class is completely driven by gentleperson drivers funneling money into privateer race teams. If the cars are no longer fun or easy or safe for these non-pros to race, as I suspect these harder tires may be, will these drivers even be interested in continuing to fund a team?
The second potential side effect of making LMP2 slower is to safety. Nowhere on the WEC schedule is it more dangerous to pass than at Le Mans. If the speed differential between LMP2 and GTE Pro is reduced beyond the tiny amount that currently exists, particularly on the Mulsanne straight, those P2 drivers will be taking greater risks, which puts everyone on track in potential danger. And if those lesser-than-pro skilled drivers are now forced to contend with a more complex throttle application leaving a tight corner, perhaps more mistakes are bound to happen. Remember when the LMPC class was a hazard bound to happen in IMSA?
By making the highest class of WEC racing slower, might it be killing its second highest (and by-far most subscribed) class of competition?