Toyota is the only manufacturer in LMP1 this year. The void left by Porsche at the end of 2017 has been filled by a clique of challengers, all armed with non-hybrid machinery. Can these ‘privateers’, from the established Rebellion to the new and ambitious Ginetta, ignite the series by giving the Japanese giant something to worry about this ‘Super Season’?

The Prologue test was not the first time a collective of 2018-19 World Endurance Championship cars have shared a track. During the winter several teams flocked to sunny Aragon in Spain to bank mileage ahead of the campaign. One test included cars from each of the non-hybrid constructors, and although times were not officially released there were suggestions of early advantages in the pack. However, at the official pre-season test dubbed the ‘Prologue’, the margins between the non-hybrids were extremely tight (and very encouraging).

This year’s Prologue was different to the others. Back in the gentler and more familiar climes of Paul Ricard after switching to a cold and drizzly Monza for 2017, this year’s curtain-raiser involved a 30-hour non-stop endurance test to mimic Le Mans, rather than having staggered sessions more akin to a typical six-hour race weekend.

Conway went fastest in the #8 for Toyota

Pace-wise, the non-hybrids were slightly closer than they have been the last couple of years. Most encouraging was the presence of all seven privateer cars (one Rebellion is in-build) sitting above the whole LMP2 contingent on the timing screens. Even that had been lacking in recent seasons. At the end of 30 hours, Vitaly Petrov claimed the ultimately meaningless honour of the fastest non-hybrid lap – a 1m 37.034s – behind the wheel of the #11 BRE Engineering BR1-AER, which is being co-run by SMP Racing and accomplished French single-seater squad ART Grand Prix. 

Behind Petrov were bunched a series of similar times from the other challengers, going all the way back to the ninth-placed #5 Ginetta G60-LT-P1 Mecachrome which ended the Prologue three seconds off the BR1’s pace. That was impressive considering Manor’s second Ginetta was only completed on Friday afternoon following a mammoth construction effort from the Yorkshire-based crew. Of course, they will need to be closer come the opening race at Spa next month, but the early signs are that we are at least guaranteed some quality LMP1 competition in 2018-19.

The elephant in the room was, as some would have predicted, Toyota. Both TS050 Hybrids streaked ahead during the first eight hours of daytime running and their early flyers were not challenged for the rest of the session. Mike Conway set the fastest lap overall on Friday afternoon – a 1m 34.655s – aboard the #8 car which was running in its conventional high-downforce setting. The sister #7 car in Le Mans low-downforce trim completed around 700 more laps (totalling at 839) because it was conducting the full endurance test, but it too delivered its best individual effort on the opening day. 

Anthony Davidson, who is on reserve driver duties this year after being replaced in the manufacturer’s full-season line-up by Fernando Alonso, clocked in the #7 at 1m 34.655s. Toyota also enlisted the help of driver-turned-team advisor Alexander Wurz, who prior to a run two weeks ago at Aragon hadn’t driven an LMP1 car in almost two years. Wurz stepped in to help accrue data with Kamui Kobayashi and Kazuki Nakajima both in Japan for the Super GT opener at Okayama, and with Alonso at the Bahrain GP with McLaren. Also testing were Sébastien Buemi and Jose Maria Lopez.

Toyota’s numbers rightfully sent out some early alarm bells. Everyone had expected the TS050s to be the ones to beat (they are the second-oldest LMP1 cars on the grid this year, behind the ByKolles CLM-Nissan) but the five-second margin between hybrid and non-hybrid diluted expectations somewhat. But on Saturday morning it emerged that Toyota’s ostensible dominance was being caused by an anomaly. The TS050s were running outside the WEC’s Equivalence of Technology regulations, reportedly to try out a new cooling system, that essentially enabled them to run much faster than they would in a race scenario. 

Manor debuted its second Ginetta chassis

Under the EoT, hybrid cars are pegged back by a series of fuel flow and energy restrictions that bridge the pace gap between them and the non-hybrids. With those controls not in place for the Toyota’s fastest runs, the disparity shown at the end of the Prologue was not necessarily representative of the true order.

The non-hybrids did close in on the Toyotas, even with the latter running unrestricted. Petrov’s time came just before midnight after a flurry of improvements on Friday evening. Four LMP1 non-hybrids chose to run through the night, giving them a chance to shave down the daytime benchmark of 1m 38.128s set by Petrov’s team-mate Mikhail Aleshin. The first to cut into the Toyota lead was a surprise to many, as ByKolles driver Tom Dillmann set the third-best overall time in the ageing but (once again) aerodynamically improved CLM P1/01. 

Dillmann’s time was then rapidly eclipsed by Andre Lotterer in the Rebellion R13 Gibson, now with TVR branding. A quick succession of fast laps from Lotterer (who fled Paul Ricard the next morning to race a GT3 Porsche on the Nürburgring Nordschleife) culminated in a 1m 37.044s, which brought the gap down further to 4.3 seconds. That lasted for about an hour, before Petrov came in to secure a time that wasn’t improved on during the seven-hour spell of daytime running on Saturday. In the end, the 30-hour test actually ran to 29 hours and 58 minutes. Ben Hanley stopped on the Mistral Straight in his BR1 Gibson entered by the US-based DragonSpeed outfit, bringing an early end to Prologue on-track activity in the only red flag event of the weekend.

Over in LMP2, ex-Formula 1 driver Pastor Maldonado turned his first laps as a sportscar driver.

And they were fast…!

The Venezuelan, who is a big Le Mans fan but hasn’t raced anything since his final F1 outing at Abu Dhabi in 2015, was immediately on the pace in the DragonSpeed Oreca 07 Gibson he will share this season with Roberto Gonzalez, Nathanael Berthon and, after Le Mans, Toyota’s Davidson. Maldonado set his fastest lap on Friday afternoon and that turned out to be the quickest anyone would go in the secondary prototype category. LMP1 expat Nicolas Lapierre was three tenths off in the Oreca-based Signatech Alpine, while Matthieu Vaxiviere went third fastest in the TDS Racing Oreca. The quickest non-Oreca time came courtesy of Giedo van der Garde in the Racing Team Nederland Dallara, half a second off Maldonado’s benchmark.

GTE-Pro – Porsche and Ford Ahead 

“I think people over think the Prologue. There’ll be a lot of rehearsal going on.”

That’s Paul Howarth, team principal for Aston Martin Racing. His Vantage cars were running in public for the first time, as were the two M8s run by the BMW MTEK squad. Both struggled to make a dent on the more established entries from Porsche and Ford in the timesheets, but that’s not to say either could be ruled out of being competitive. The automatic Balance of Performance process, which uses an algorithm to set technical restrictions and freedoms on cars depending on the track, debuted last year to much aplomb. Its continuation in 2018-19 should therefore make BMW and Aston Martin – the only two manufacturers to complete the full endurance simulation – latch onto the pace. 

The fastest lap in class went to Gianmaria Bruni, who is in for his first full WEC campaign since signing on from Ferrari last year. The Italian’s time of 1m 51.332s came at half eight on Saturday morning, usurping the previous best set by his team-mate Richard Lietz at dusk. Porsche’s sister car was half a second off the pace with Kevin Estre driving, while the quickest Ford turned in a 1m 52.010s through Harry Tincknell. The quickest laps from Aston and BMW respectively were 1m 53.444s and 1m 53.389s, although little can be read into the true GTE-Pro pecking order until Spa qualifying.

Aston Martin and BMW fielded their new GTE offerings

Ferrari had a much lower lap count than its rivals – the #51 AF Corse 488 ‘Evo’ only completed 64 laps while the sister #71 car ended on 188. No major issues were reported from the Scuderia, although the #71 car did require a lengthy gear ratio adjustment that prevented it from collecting more miles.

GTE-Am was the only category to have its best time set on Saturday. Matteo Cairoli’s impressive 1:52.936 put the #88 Dempsey-Proton Porsche 911 RSR on top of the pile, eclipsing the previous best submitted by Ben Barker in the Gulf Racing Porsche earlier that morning. Whichever car ended up on top, Porsche always held a 1-2-3-4 in the category for Pro-Am crews. 

In fact, Cairoli’s time would have put him fifth in GTE-Pro! 2018-19 is the first season in which Porsche customers can use the newest version of the 911 RSR that was water-tested in the GTE-Pro ranks last year. Ferrari and Aston Martin’s customers were both more than a second off the pace, which drivers of those two cars attributed largely to a pace deficit on the straights. Unlike the Pro-class BoP, however, GTE-Am performance is adjusted manually throughout the season.

Daniel Lloyd says…

It’s impossible to make any concrete predictions about a championship from pre-season testing, especially in the WEC where EoT and BoP controls exist to balance the cars. But, based on what was seen and heard at Paul Ricard, here is what we might expect to find at the season-opening 6 Hours of Spa:

– Toyota won’t have everything its own way. The non-hybrids demonstrated good pace in both high and low-downforce configuration, with most completing more than 200 laps. Toyota is still favourite, but don’t read into its times too deeply. The non-hybrids are working well.

– Pastor Maldonado could be a revelation in WEC. Although the LMP2 field isn’t as strong as it was in previous years, it was an impressive debut from the 2012 Spanish GP winner who had never previously driven the Oreca before Friday.

– Oreca is still the car to have in LMP2. Dallara and Ligier will most likely need a BoP boost (new for this year in the class) to challenge the hitherto dominant 07. But let’s remember: Ricard is an Oreca test track.

– GTE-Pro is more open than it looks. Teams had different agendas at Ricard: some were on qualifying simulations, others focused on endurance. ‘Auto’ BoP will tighten things up at the front.

– There are some bright young stars in GTE-Am. Porsche juniors Matt Campbell and Julien Andlauer should be ones to watch. Porsche Young Professional Matteo Cairoli continues to impress. Charlie Eastwood is making strides for his WEC debut with Aston Martin. The future looks promising for GT driving talent.