Wednesday, April 6, 2016

2016 FIA World Endurance Championship Preview

The 2016 FIA World Endurance Championship begins in just over a week in a half and Porsche will look to defend its title and Le Mans victory against Audi and Toyota. Meanwhile, LMP2 enters its final season under the current regulations and features teams from around the globe. In GTE, the big news is the arrival of the Ford GT program to battle with Ferrari, Aston Martin and Porsche.

All eight rounds from the 2015 season return for 2016 but the schedule has grown by one race. The Six Hours of Silverstone returns as the season opener and will take place on April 17th with the European Le Mans Series season opener taking place the day prior. Just under two weeks later, the FIA WEC will head to the Six Hours of Spa-Franchorchamps, the traditional precursor to the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The Le Mans Test Day is scheduled for June 6th with the 84th 24 Hours of Le Mans scheduled for June 11-12th. The Six Hours of the Nürburgring moves up a full month to July 24 and will close the European portion of the calendar.

The new round for 2016 is the Six Hours of Mexico City, scheduled to take place on September 3rd from Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez. A fortnight after the inaugural race in Mexico City, the series will head to North of the Border to Circuit of the Americas for the Lone Star Le Mans doubleheader with the IMSA SportsCar Championship on September 17th. After the two North American rounds and a month off, the FIA WEC will wrap up its 2016 season with three rounds in Asia. Fuji will host the series on October 16th. On November 6th, Shanghai will host the penultimate round. The season will conclude under the lights at the Six Hours of Bahrain on November 19th.

Porsche returns with two cars to defend its world championship. Defending champions Timo Bernhard, Mark Webber and Brandon Hartley will drive the #1 Porsche 919 Hybrid. The trio won four of eight races last season and also won four pole positions while finishing second at Le Mans to the one-off entry of Nick Tandy, Nico Hülkenberg and Earl Bamber. The #2 Porsche 919 Hybrid retains the same three drivers as Romain Dumas, Neel Jani and Marc Lieb all return. They won the season finale at Bahrain last year and finished second on five occasions in 2015 while picking up three pole positions along the way.

Audi has made no changes to its driver line-up. André Lotterer, Benoít Tréluyer and Marcel Fässler will be back in the #7 Audi R18 e-tron quattro. They finished second last year in the championship by five points to Bernhard, Webber and Hartley. The #7 Audi finished on the podium in every race in 2015 after winning the first two races and scoring two seconds and four thirds in the remaining six races. The #8 Audi R18 of Lucas di Grassi, Loïc Duval and Oliver Jarvis had only one podium in 2015 (third at Austin) and finished fourth in the championship. All three drivers return for 2016.

Toyota has introduced a new car for the 2016 season after scoring only two podiums in 2015, a third at Silverstone and a third at Bahrain. The Toyota TS050 Hybrid features a 2.4 L V6 twin-turbo engine instead of a 3.7 L normally aspirated V8 that was in the TS040 Hybrid. The hybrid system has also changed from a super capacitor hybrid system to a battery hybrid system. Unlike its LMP1 rivals, Toyota has made an alteration to its driver line-up. While Sébastien Buemi, Anthony Davidson and Kazuki Nakajima will return in #5 Toyota TS050, Kamui Kobayashi will replace the retired Alexander Wurz in the #6 Toyota and be joined by Stéphane Sarrazin and Mike Conway.

Besides the three manufactures, there are three privateer LMP1 entries. Simon Trummer, Oliver Webb and James Rossiter will drive the #4 ByKolles Racing Team CLM P1/01 at Silverstone and Spa-Franchorchamps with Pierre Kaffer replacing Rossiter at Le Mans. Rebellion Racing returns with two Rebellion R-Ones. Nick Heidfeld and Nicolas Prost return in the #12 Rebellion R-One and will be joined by defending Formula E champion Nelson Piquet, Jr. for the first three races with Mathias Beche waiting in the wings after Le Mans as he will race in ELMS and at Le Mans for Thiriet by TDS Racing in LMP2. Swiss driver Alexandre Imperatori and Mathéo Tuscher and Austrian Dominick Kraihamer return in the #13 Rebellion R-One.

Eleven cars are entered in LMP2 for 2016. The #26 G-Drive Oreca-Nissan returns to defend its championship with Romain Rusinov but the team has made some changes. Julien Canal and Sam Bird are and the team has switched from the Ligier chassis. Nathanaël Berthon and René Rast will replace Canal and Bird. Defending GTE-Am champion and 2014 LMP2 champion SMP Racing will leave GTE-Am and return to LMP2 with two BR Engineering BR01-Nissans. The team ran the BR01 chassis in ELMS last year. Maurizio Mediani and Nicolas Minassian will drive the #27 BR01-Nissan. Vitaly Petrov, Viktor Shaitar and Kirill Ladygin will drive the #37 BR01-Nissan.

After a difficult debut season in 2015, Extreme Speed Motorsports returns in 2016 with two Ligier-Nissans are fresh off of victories in the 24 Hours of Daytona and 12 Hours of Sebring. Scott Sharp, Ed Brown and Johannes van Overbeek will drive the #30 Ligier-Nissan. Ryan Dalziel moves over to the #31 Ligier-Nissan with Pipo Derani and Chris Cumming joining the team, replacing David Heinemeier Hansson and Jon Fogarty.

Signatech Alpine has entered two cars. One will be the Baxi DC Racing #35 Alpine-Nissan for Asian Le Mans Series LMP3 champions David Cheng and Ho-Pin Tung with Nelson Panciatici rounding out that line-up. The #36 Alpine-Nissan will have a whole new driver line-up. Nicolas Lapierre returns to FIA WEC full-time after running three races last year for KCMG, which included a class victory in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. American Gustavo Menezes moves up to LMP2 after two seasons in FIA Formula Three. GP2 and Blancpain Sprint Series race winner Stéphane Richelmi will be the third driver in the #36 Alpine-Nissan.

Strakka Racing has entered the #42 Gibson-Nissan for Nick Leventis, Danny Watts and Jonny Kane. The team finished third last year at Silverstone, its best finish in 2015. Ricardo González moves from G-Drive to form a partnership with Morand Racing. Joining González in the #43 RGR Sport by Morand Ligier-Nissan will be Bruno Senna and Filipe Albuquerque. Manor Motorsport is a new team on the LMP2 grid. The team has two cars entered full time, the #44 and #45 Oreca-Nissans. However the #45 Oreca-Nissan will not be entered for the 24 Hours of Le Mans due to being a late entry to the FIA WEC season. Tor Graves, James Jakes and Will Stevens are confirmed in the #44 Oreca-Nissan. Matt Rao, Roberto Merhi and Richard Bradley are confirmed in the #45 Oreca-Nissan.

The factory-back Porsche Team Manthey will not return in 2016 but Porsche will have a competitor in the professional GTE class. Dempsey-Proton Racing will move up to GTE-Pro and field the #77 Porsche 911 RSR for defending World Endurance Champion for GT Drivers Richard Lietz and Michael Christensen. Wolf Henzler will join Lietz and Christensen for the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Porsche won four races in GTE-Pro last year, all coming after the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

AF Corse entered two Ferraris in class but there will be a change in the driver line-up. Gianmaria Bruni will be paired with James Calado in the new #51 Ferrari 488 GTE as Toni Vilander will focus on the IMSA season driving with Giancarlo Fisichella for Risi Competizione. Calado spent the last two seasons paired with Davide Rigon and the two drivers scored ten podiums in 15 races together. Rigon returns in the #71 Ferrari and will be joined by last year's LMP2 champion Sam Bird. Bruni won twice in 2015 with Vilander and had two second-place finishes.

After winning only one race in GTE-Pro in 2015, Aston Martin has shaken up its driver line-up. Darren Turner returns in the #95 Aston Martin V8 Vantage but will be joined by Danes Nicki Thiim and Marco Sørensen. The #95 Aston Martin's lone podium was a third in the season finale at Bahrain. It was Turner's first winless season in FIA WEC. Richie Stanaway and Fernando Rees were two of the drivers responsible for Aston Martin's lone victory in 2015 at Spa-Francorchamps. They will drive the #97 Aston Martin and 2015 British GT Champion Jonathan Adam will replace fellow British driver Alex MacDowell.

The big additions to the FIA WEC grid are the two Ford GTs run by Chip Ganassi Racing. Stefan Mücke moves over from Aston Martin and will be joined by former Nissan LMP1 driver Olivier Pla in the #66 Ford GT. American and IMSA Continental Tires SportsCar Challenge regular Billy Johnson will join Mücke and Pla for the first three rounds of 2016. Johnson won the CTSCC opener at Daytona with co-driver Scott Maxwell and finished second at Sebring. In the #67 Ford GT will be an all-British driver line-up with Marino Franchitti being joined by Andy Priaulx. Another former Nissan LMP1 driver, Harry Tincknell will be the third driver in the #67 Ford at Le Mans.

A half a dozen cars are entered for the full season in GTE-Am. The top returning GTE-Am team from 2015 is the #83 AF Corse Ferrari of Emmanuel Collard, François Perrodo and Rui Águas, who won one race and finished on the podium in seven of eight races. The worst finish for the #83 AF Corse Ferrari in 2015 was fourth in the season finale. The #98 Aston Martin of Paul Dalla Lana, Pedro Lamy and Mathias Lauda won three races in 2015 and finished second in three other races.

Three Porsches are entered in GTE-Am. KCMG will field the #78 Porsche for Christian Ried, Joël Camathias and Wolf Henzler for at least the Silverstone season opener. Gulf Racing moves to FIA WEC after racing in ELMS last season. Adam Carroll and Michael Wainwright will move up to FIA WEC as well and be joined by Ben Barker in the #86 Porsche. Abu Dhabi-Proton Racing has entered the #88 Porsche for Khaled Al Qubaisi, David Heinemeier Hansson and Patrick Long. Long will miss the season opener due to commitments to the Pirelli World Challenge in Long Beach. Klaus Bachler will substitute for Long at Silverstone.

The Six Hours of Silverstone will begin at 7:00 a.m. ET on Sunday April 17th.