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Why Porsche doesn't expect another WEC domination at Imola

Porsche pretty much dominated at the World Endurance Championship season-opener in Qatar back in March. The German manufacturer’s 963 LMDh led all bar 52 of the 355 laps on the way to blocking out the podium positions. But there’s every reason to expect that it is going to have more of a fight on its hands second time out for the Hypercar field in 2024 this weekend in Imola.

Porsche certainly thinks so. It is not expecting its domination to continue in Sunday’s Imola 6 Hours.

“I expect a really different weekend for all the cars and I’m looking forward to see how we are going to show,” says Jonathan Diuguid, managing director of the Porsche Penske Motorsport factory squad that competes in both WEC and the IMSA SportsCar Championship in North America. “I do think it is going to return to a normal order with Toyota and Ferrari [which between them triumphed at every race last year] fighting for the win, but I expect us to be there too.”

A different circuit, a different game

The Losail International Circuit presented a unique challenge for the WEC, and that went a long way to explaining why Porsche was consistently on top in the Qatar 1812Km. Not only did it win take the top three positions in the race, it claimed the pole and topped every session bar one through the pre-season Prologue test at the beginning of race week and then free practice.

The track was described by Toyota Gazoo Racing Europe technical director David Floury as an “outlier”. The Qatar venue is not the run-of-the-mill circuit faced by the WEC field. That is the result of what Diuguid ranked as “the smoothest racing surface” he’s ever seen over the course of his motorsport career. And by smooth he is referring to the absence of bumps and the fine asphalt.

The new surface laid down as part of the massive overhaul of a circuit built for the arrival of MotoGP back in 2004 made tyre warm-up critical. Graining of the Michelin tyres was perhaps the biggest problem faced by the Hypercar field in Qatar. This was a phenomenon caused by the tyre skipping — “micro-sliding” was the term used by Michelin - across the high-grip track surface when cold. It causes an unusual and aggressive form of tyre degradation. The French tyre supplier was urging caution during the warm-up phase on a new set of tyres — unheated these days after the ban on ovens or blankets — in Qatar.

PPM admitted it did encounter graining when it stayed in the Middle East after last November’s 2023 WEC finale in Bahrain to take in two days of testing at Bahrain. It went away, did its homework and returned with a set-up that both avoided the problem and allowed the drivers to rapidly switch on the tyres without inducing graining.

#6 Porsche Penske Motorsport Porsche 963: Kevin Estre, Andre Lotterer, Laurens Vanthoor (Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images)

There was a narrow set-up window for a 1000kg-plus LMDh and Le Mans Hypercars on the 3.37-mile Losail circuit, and Porsche nailed it. Or rather PPM did. Porsche privateer Jota, which ended up second, was up there in Qatar, but team boss Sam Hignett suggested after the race that the winning #6 PPM car shared by Laurens Vanthoor, Kevin Estre and Andre Lotterer was “in a class of its own”.

The consensus is that the window will be much broader at the 3.05-mile Autodromo Internazionale Enzo e Dino Ferrari at Imola, a circuit of the old school. Not only is the track surface much more coarse, but it is also bumpier. The kerbs are higher, too, and have to be attacked in pursuit of lap time.

“I do expect the cars to be a lot closer: the set-up window is a lot larger because of the Imola track characteristics,” says Diuguid. “There are going to be some circuits that are better suited to one platform or another, but at the end of the day you still have to execute to compete against everyone on track.

There's a new Balance of Performance

A new Hypercar class Balance of Performance table was published for Imola, though that doesn’t necessarily mean it has changed. Under the new BoP system introduced for 2024, values for minimum weight and maximum power are revised according to the characteristics of the circuit, as they were over the second half of last season. (A trio of tables were released after the Le Mans 24 Hours in 2023 for the final three races.)

The BoP tables come with no explanation from the rule makers, the FIA and the Automobile Club de l’Ouest, and never have. They want the BoP to become a non-topic, which explains why it is strictly forbidden in the sporting rules for manufacturers, teams and drivers to talk publicly about it. Sanction by the stewards faces those who do.

But it would probably be fair to say that the figures put in place for the Italian round of the championship do represent a change. Toyota, winner of all bar one of the seven races in ’23 as it swept to another drivers’ and manufacturers’ championship double, wasn’t really in the game seven weeks ago in Qatar.

It was the heaviest car in the field at 1089kg and that weight — 9kg heavier than ever before — took its toll. The effect of weight being piled onto a car isn’t linear, and it appears that it pushed it over some kind of tipping point on a circuit with a high proliferation of fast and medium-speed corners. Toyota pointed out that a heavier car will have a tendency to slide more, particularly when the tyres are cold. Which brings us back to the graining.

There have been across-the-board reductions in minimum weight and maximum power in Hypercar for Imola, at least for the existing machinery. Only Peugeot will go to the grid with a heavier car than in Qatar. The 9X8 LMH is regarded as new for the purposes of the BoP after its re-homologation following the major overhaul, the addition of a rear wing included, that came with the switch of tyre sizes to the same narrow fronts and wider rears of the competition.

#7 Toyota Gazoo Racing Toyota GR010 - Hybrid: Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi, Nyck de Vries (Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images)

PLUS: Why Peugeot had no choice but to revamp its radical Le Mans Hypercar

Again, there has been no explanation here, but the nature of the Imola track will be at the root of such sweeping changes. The rule makers also have to maintain what is sometimes called “class differentiation” between the Hypercars and the new LMGT3 machinery.

Ferrari and Toyota are the biggest winners in terms of weight. The Ferrari 499P LMH will weigh in 34kg below the figure at which it raced first time out this year, the Toyota GR010 HYBRID 29kg. Both cars have had max power raised by amounts under 10bhp.

At the other end of the scale, the Cadillac V-Series.R LMDh, the third fastest car over the 10 hours of the Qatar race, has lost only a couple of kilos and is now down at the class minimum of 1030. That explains why it has received the biggest power boost of 18kW or 24bhp.

A less favourable tyre allocation

The allocation of tyres laid down in the rules for a six-hour race places a greater onus on looking after them than a 10-hour WEC round. The eight sets permitted in Qatar was slightly more generous than the four and half that will be allowed this weekend.

It’s marginal, but it could give an advantage to the car that looks after its tyres best. On the evidence of last year, that’s the Toyota. It was a key reason why the GR010 was dominant at all the races bar Le Mans: it killed the opposition over the second stint on a set of Michelins.

There's a new car on the grid

Peugeot’s 9X8 2024, as the revised LMH has been dubbed, is effectively a new car. The monocoque and the running gear of the original version that came on stream in mid-2022 have been retained, but concept of the car has been radically altered with the switch away from the same size tyres front and rear that hamstrung the machine over its first season and a half.

What it can achieve straight out of the box, though with 8,000km of testing already under its belt, isn’t clear. But Peugeot abandoned the wingless concept of the first iteration of the car to ensure that it is competitive on a broader range of circuits and less at the mercy of the BoP. The car worked at Qatar with a bit of help from the BoP, just as it did at Le Mans and Monza last year, but it struggled to varying degrees elsewhere.

Peugeot Totalenergies Peugeot 9X8 (Photo by: Peugeot Sport)

It knows that the revised 9X8 is “inherently quicker”, the words of Peugeot Sport technical boss Olivier Jansonnie, than its predecessor, and was surprised how much the change in tyre dimensions has yielded.

Jansonnie insists that the updated car is ready for Imola. If the BoP is on the money, there is no reason why Peugeot shouldn’t be able to repeat the kind of performance that in Qatar almost yielded its best result since its return to top-line sportscar racing. Peugeot goes to Imola with the heaviest car and one among the least powerful. That might suggest the 9X8 2024 has received a conservative BoP for its first race.

Expect more yellow-flag interruptions

There were just two Full Course Yellow virtual safety cars over a race distance lasting just shy of 10 hours in Qatar. A circuit with acres of run-off ensured that. The drivers won’t have that luxury of jinking across some asphalt run-off if they make a mistake this weekend.

“The walls are close because it’s more an old school,” says PPM driver Matt Campbell, the pole winner in Qatar. “There isn’t the amount of run-off that there was at Qatar, where if something did go wrong we were able to stay green. I would expect a lot more possibility for yellows, which will mix things up.”

It could rain on Sunday

Copy and paste the above if there is rain. As this was written there is a decent chance of a wet race on Sunday in the Emilia Romagna region of Italy. A chance in the region of 50%, the forecasts were saying. That will inevitably spice things up, rain always does. But at Imola a wet track is of extra significance.

“It could be challenging,” continues Campbell. “It will definitely add an extra element where you have to attack the kerbs. And we all know that kerbs are very slippery when it’s wet.”

Everything points to a bit of a shake-up in the Hypercar pecking order between Losail and Imola. The Qatar 1812Km wasn’t a classic, but this time around everything is pointing to there being more of a battle up front. Porsche, according to Diuguid, is “expecting a good race”.

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