The new prototype that Porsche hopes will become its latest legend
Porsche’s last absence from the top flight of sportscar racing spanned 15 seasons between 1998 and 2014. Now, it’s returning to the top of the tree once again with an LMDh prototype, just five years after the end of the 919 Hybrid LMP1 World Endurance Championship programme that recrowned the marque as the king of endurance with a Le Mans 24 Hours hat-trick. The reason is simple: a set of regulations that allows it to challenge for outright glory on both the world and North American stages from next season.
Porsche doesn’t want to just add to its record 19 overall victories at Le Mans; just as significantly, it’s looking to increase its tally of 18 wins in its North American equivalent, the Daytona 24 Hours. That’s important for a marque that hasn’t won since 2003 at what next January, as the opening round of the IMSA SportsCar Championship, will be the scheduled debut of the as-yet-unnamed LMDh.
“North America always has been and still is an important market for us,” says new Porsche Motorsport boss Thomas Laudenbach, who last year rejoined a company at which he had previously been its head of powertrains. The naturally aspirated 3.4-litre V8 that powered the RS Spyder LMP2 prototype of the late 2000s was among his babies.
“With the same car you can race in the WEC, an FIA championship that includes Le Mans, and in North America, where you have the big races like Daytona and the Sebring 12 Hours. An IMSA entry was one of the core points for us.”
That reasoning explains why Porsche never appeared likely to develop a Le Mans Hypercar, the other route into the WEC and the IMSA series. Laudenbach says it was considered – and Porsche was a participant as an observer in the initial rules discussions – but he points out that there was no firm commitment from IMSA that LMHs could compete until a full six months after Porsche’s announcement in December 2020 that it would be coming back with an LMDh.
“I wouldn’t say LMH was never of interest; it was considered,” he explains of a category that allows more scope for technology: a manufacturer can develop its own hybrid system rather than having to use the spec system mandated in LMDh.
“Of course some more technological space would have been nice from an engineering perspective. But it was important that if we returned, we needed to be able to race in the USA, which at that time wasn’t clear.”
There is now what Laudenbach calls “an entirely different set of boundary conditions” to 2017, when Porsche decided to call time on the WEC-only 919 project in favour of a move into Formula E. Not only can Porsche produce one car for both arenas, but it can do so at a reasonable cost, not the hundreds of millions required in the previous era. And with less expenditure than in LMH: the LMDh rules require the cars to be developed out of one of the next-generation LMP2 chassis from four licensed constructors.
“What you have to spend and what you can achieve is in a reasonable ratio,” he says. “It all came together to make LMDh very interesting, because endurance racing is our living room.”
Porsche, perhaps strangely, announced the team that will mastermind its factory assaults on the WEC and IMSA before the chassis partner was revealed for a programme on which Audi was initially piggybacking. (The Audi side of the programme has been axed, though officially is only on hold.) Team Penske was confirmed a couple of weeks prior to Multimatic Motorsport.
"If you do one programme with team A and one with team B, straight away they are in competition, especially if they see each other at Le Mans. We saw that it was best for all interfaces to have one partner" Thomas Laudenbach
Laudenbach insists that it is coincidence that it has partnered with two North American-based organisations. That’s even with the importance of the IMSA campaign.
“The nationality or the base of the company wasn’t a factor,” says Laudenbach. “We looked at all aspects of the companies: who has got the technological skills, what can they do for us, do they have the same philosophy?”
It should be pointed out that Multimatic already had a working relationship with Porsche: the 919 ran on its dampers, as does the latest-generation GT3 Cup car.
The idea of a full-house factory team based at Weissach running the cars in either series was quickly discounted. Part of the reason was that the standalone structure established for the LMP1 programme was integrated into the wider Porsche Motorsport organisation after 2017. It simply no longer exists.
Penske looked a shoo-in for the Porsche deal, at least on the IMSA side, almost from the beginning. Its deal with Acura in IMSA, which yielded two overall titles, came to an end at the conclusion of a three-year contract in 2020, so it was free to forge a relationship with a marque with which it has history. Not only did it run the RS Spyder programme in the American Le Mans Series from the end of 2005 until 2008, but it won the Can-Am title with the 917/10 and 917/30 Group 7 sportscars in 1972 and 1973.
It is known that other teams were in talks about the WEC deal and were visited by the Porsche Motorsport hierarchy, but Laudenbach insists a decision to work with one team across the two series was reached early on.
“It was discussed in the early meetings if we should have a global partner,” he says. “If you do one programme with team A and one with team B, straight away they are in competition, especially if they see each other at Le Mans [though four works cars at the 24 Hours in year one of the programme appears unlikely]. We saw that it was best for all interfaces to have one partner. If there was one team that could do a professional job in two championships it was Team Penske.”
The decision to go with Penske for both the WEC and IMSA has resulted in a new entity known as Porsche Penske Motorsport. It will operate out of Penske HQ in Mooresville, North Carolina and a new base established in Mannheim, Germany on the site of a Porsche dealership long since part of the Penske group. PPM managing director Jonathan Diuguid, an engineer in the Acura DPi days, has promised “a one programme approach” from the new organisation.
A secret V8 engine
Porsche announced at the back end of last year the configuration of the engine that powers its LMDh, and which was already installed in the back of the Audi before the axe fell. It’s a twin-turbo V8, which it says has its roots in a production engine. That doesn’t necessary contradict the rumours that it is based on the RS Spyder powerplant. That engine was also the base of the 4.6-litre normally aspirated unit that powered the 918 Spyder hybrid sportscar produced in 2013-15.
Asked if there is any similarity between the LMP2 engine and the LMDh unit, Laudenbach says: “Yes, they are both V8s.” Porsche is keeping its cards close to its chest; more details of the engine won’t be divulged until the summer launch of the car.
Programme on course
Porsche is happy with testing so far, despite a faltering start. Before Christmas a shakedown was scheduled, then abandoned, as was an initial plan to begin circuit testing in North America with a January test at Sebring. The rollout also took place on Porsche’s Weissach test track in mid-January without the hybrid system working.
“It wasn’t the complete system, it wasn’t fully operational – that’s not a secret,” says LMDh programme manager Urs Kuratle, without going into detail of which component or components from the system developed by Williams Advanced Engineering (battery), Bosch (motor generator unit) and Xtrac (gearbox) weren’t ready.
“We wanted to get the car rolling: the car is more than just a hybrid system. We wanted to find as many bugs as possible.”
The 40kW (54bhp) rear-axle hybrid system was in the car for a Weissach run only a few days later, after which the test programme moved to a proper circuit, at Barcelona in February. The total distance covered by the car in subsequent tests at Motorland Aragon in March and Spa in April now stands at over 6000km.
There will be a core driving squad of 10 for the twin programmes come the start of 2023 – that’s six permanent drivers for WEC and four in IMSA. The likelihood is that WEC drivers will be brought in for the longer races that make up the Michelin-sponsored Endurance Cup leg of the IMSA series
“The reliability has been one of the surprising things,” says Kuratle. “That is a compliment to all the partners. It has definitely been running reliably because otherwise we wouldn’t have been able to do the mileage that we have.”
A second car is in build at the moment, and then one of the two chassis will be flown to the US to begin testing on American tracks. That will include official sanctioned tests run by IMSA at the back end of the year prior to the car’s homologation ahead of Daytona.
Kuratle says there will be two “parallel programmes with a test once a month”, probably with alternate tests in Europe and North America over the second half of the year.
Driving the LMDh
“It does feel like a prototype,” says Dane Cameron of a car that tips the scales at 1030kg – more than 100kg up on the Daytona Prototype internationals he formerly raced in IMSA. “I was impressed with it from the get-go; it didn’t feel strange, but once you get into the nuances of the car it is more complex.
“Weight is never your friend: there may be a little less peak performance compared with a DPi car,” continues the two-time overall IMSA champion, who was confirmed along with Felipe Nasr in the first Porsche LMDh driver announcement in December. “You feel how it affects the reaction of the car, how it changes direction. Everything takes a moment longer because you’re carrying 100 kilos extra.”
Cameron and Nasr have shouldered the bulk of the development work so far, but a number of other drivers from Porsche’s bulging factory roster of GT drivers have had the chance to sample the LMDh. Frederic Makowiecki was the first when he got to shake down the car at Weissach in January. The Porsche bigwigs have mentioned some other names: it is known that Andre Lotterer, Kevin Estre, Michael Christensen, Laurens Vanthoor and Mathieu Jaminet have all climbed behind the wheel so far.
There will be a core driving squad of 10 for the twin programmes come the start of 2023 – that’s six permanent drivers for WEC and four in IMSA. The likelihood is that WEC drivers will be brought in for the longer races that make up the Michelin-sponsored Endurance Cup leg of the IMSA series. Diuguid points out that the Daytona, Sebring and Petit Le Mans enduros will be “fantastic opportunities for the WEC drivers to get more experience” of the car.
The likelihood is that when the full line-up is confirmed it will include some more incomers. “Porsche is a good address for drivers who are not with us right now,” says Laudenbach. He insists that the team is “relaxed” on the topic. “There’s no rush,” he reckons. That suggests that the full complement won’t be announced at the summer launch of the car, which could happen as early as the end of June.
Customer cars from day one
Porsche’s announcement of its LMDh programme included a commitment to have cars in the hands of privateers in addition to the works entries from the start. It’s remaining true to its word, making a total of four cars available, with a maximum of two in each arena.
“It’s a brave approach to have customer cars from the first year; if you remember we didn’t do that with the RS Spyder,” says Laudenbach of a programme that didn’t expand until Dyson Racing switched to the car in the ALMS in the second full season for the design in 2007. “It could be up to two in each series. We are saying that is the maximum and we can’t do more than that.
“One thing is clear: it is not about selling as many cars as we can. With such a high-level prototype, if we sell a car to a race team, first of all it’s important that the team is at a certain level to handle it and then that we can support them. We want to make sure they have everything to be competitive.”
Discussions are already under way with potential customers, says Kuratle.
“We have had some good talks with customers, but nothing is signed yet,” says the Swiss, who began his motorsport career with Sauber in Group C back in the late 1980s. “Yes we are in contact with potential customers, but there are not 10 teams in line for a car like this. We fully hope that we have two cars, which maybe could also be two teams – a car in each team – in 2023, in both the series. That is the aim and the capacity we have.”
Early debut possible
Porsche’s LMDh could feasibly race before next season. An FIA World Motor Sport Council decision in March opened the way for the new breed of prototype to compete in this year’s WEC on an invitational basis. It was a clear invite to Porsche, given that none of the LMDh manufacturers for next year are at such an advanced stage with their cars. The rulemakers – the Automobile Club de l’Ouest and the FIA – are looking to get as much data as possible to help with the Balance of Performance that is one of the cornerstones of the new era.
"It only makes sense if we consider ourselves in a shape that is mature enough to go racing. We won’t race just to be there" Thomas Laudenbach
The move has been welcomed by Porsche, but it has stressed that no decision is imminent whether it might be ready and willing to race the LMDh this season. Laudenbach says that Porsche is “interested” in the opportunity, while stressing that the season finale in Bahrain in November is the only race it could feasibly attend.
“We are happy that this opportunity exists,” he says. “But it only makes sense if we consider ourselves in a shape that is mature enough to go racing. We won’t race just to be there.”
Porsche has a head start on the rival LMDhs from Cadillac and Acura it will face at Daytona next January – they aren’t due to run until the summer. The early test debut for the Porsche is a double-edged sword, reckons Kuratle.
“We are the guinea pig for the hybrid system,” he explains. “But I would call it an even situation.” He says that because Porsche is effectively readying the hybrid system for its competitors.
Porsche is aiming to be ready to win in both IMSA and the WEC from next season and, reckons Kuratle, “there can be no excuses because we have all the resources to develop a winning car”. The marque believes it will be well placed to notch up wins 19 and 20 respectively at Daytona and Le Mans in 2023.