Wednesday, May 2, 2018

2018-19 FIA World Endurance Championship Season Preview

The "superseason" is upon us. The FIA World Endurance Championship transition to an autumn-to-spring schedule begins this year with an eight-race calendar spanning 13 and a half months. This year sees an expansion of the LMP1 class from five entries in 2017 to ten for this season with the influx of privateer entries. The LMP2 class sees a slight reduction, as many teams have moved up to LMP1 but the class will have more variety with the Ligier and Dallara chassis joining Oreca. BMW has entered the GTE-Pro class while the GTE-Am has nearly doubled its entries from five to nine.

Spa-Francorchamps hosts the season opener with its traditional first Saturday in May date. The 86th 24 Hours of Le Mans will run June 16-17th before a two-month hiatus and the third round of the season at Silverstone on August 19th, a four-month shift for the British round after it was held in mid-April dating back to the days of the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup.

There will be another two-month break before the fourth round of the season at Fuji on October 14th. The second half of the season begins a month later on November 18th in Shanghai and the Chinese round will close out the 2018 portion of the schedule.

The first race of 2019 will be the first ever 1000 Miles of Sebring on Friday March 15th. The final two rounds of the season will be Spa-Francorchamps on May 4th and the 87th 24 Hours of Le Mans on June 15-16th.

Rebellion Racing
#1 Rebellion R13-Gibson
Drivers: André Lotterer, Neel Jani, Bruno Senna
Prologue Result: 4th
What to Expect: This car was second fastest of the non-Toyotas and only 0.010 seconds off the SMP Racing's BR1 Engineering BR1. I think this team will be on the podium frequently. It has brought together two past champions and added Senna, one of last year's Endurance Trophy for LMP2 drivers champions. This car might not be able to chase down the Toyota but it could be leading the rest of the pack.

#3 Rebellion R13-Gibson
Drivers: Thomas Laurent, Mathias Beche, Gustavo Menezes
Prologue Result: Did Not Compete
What to Expect: Laurent and Menezes have been had tremendous success in LMP2 the last two seasons while Beche has been a loyal member of the Rebellion Racing following the team from LMP1 to LMP2 and back to LMP1 again. This car was not ready for the Prologue but all three drivers ran the Prologue in the #1 Rebellion R13. I think this is a big change for Laurent and Menezes and I think this team will have some growing pain.

ByKolles Racing Team
#4 ENSO CLM P1/01-Nismo
Drivers: Oliver Webb, Tom Dillmann, Dominik Kraihamer
Prologue Result: 6th
What to Expect: What was the only privateer LMP1 car for the last few years the CLM P1/01 appears to be developing into a reliable race car. However, it is behind two cars that have been developed from scratch in the last year. Dillmann ran the fastest lap in this car at the Prologue and was within a quarter second of the #17 SMP Racing BR1 Engineering BR1. The one thing this team might have over the other privateers is it has more experience with this car while all the others are still learning their respective machinery. ByKolles might get a podium or two on days of high attrition but if enough cars keep running then at best this car is looking at top five finishes.

#5 Ginetta G60-LT-P1-Mecachrome
Drivers: Charlie Robertson, Léo Roussel, Dean Stoneman
Prologue Result: 9th
What to Expect: This car has the most inexperienced line-up in LMP1. Robertson and Roussel both make the move up from LMP2 while Stoneman has not race a prototype of any type and ran three Blancpain Endurance Series races last year in his first year transitioning from single-seater racing. Stoneman is a talented driver but this car was 1.661 seconds off the next fastest car in class. The goal for this team is to get the car to the end of every race and get all three drivers experience for the future.

#6 Ginetta G60-LT-P1-Mecachrome
Drivers: Oliver Rowland, Alex Brundle, Oliver Turvey
Prologue Result: 7th
What to Expect: This all-British line-up looks good on paper. You have two LMP2 experienced drivers in Turvey and Brundle combined with a Formula Two race winner and Williams "young driver," whatever that means. This car was just over a second off the top privateer LMP1 car. The gap isn't great but this team will have some work to do to get to the top of the privateer pile.

Toyota Gazoo Racing 
#7 Toyota TS050 Hybrid
Drivers: Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi, José María López
Prologue Result: 2nd
What to Expect: This feels like a two-car class with another eight entries waiting to step up and capitalize on any mistakes. This car will win a race or not but historically the #8 Toyota has been the winner. The #7 Toyota has only won three races since Toyota became a full-time competitor in 2013 compared to the #8 Toyota's nine victories in that time period including four last season. This car will win once or twice but it will still be second fiddle.

#8 Toyota TS050 Hybrid
Drivers: Sébastien Buemi, Kazuki Nakajima, Fernando Alonso
Prologue Result: 1st
What to Expect: A championship and at least four victories. It is a high bar but this car won five races last year and the car didn't get weaker in dropping Anthony Davidson for Fernando Alonso. Buemi has been a stud and he is combined with one of the best drivers in the world in Alonso and a reliable hand in Nakajima. This car has waved the Toyota flag for half a decade and I don't see that changing now.

#10 BR Engineering BR1-Gibson
Drivers: Ben Hanley, Henrik Hedman, Pietro Fittipaldi, Renger van der Zande
Prologue Result: 8th
What to Expect: This car will be interesting to watch as this is the only chassis in LMP1 used by two different teams with two different engines. Van der Zande has become a respected driver in IMSA and was the fastest driver in this car at the Prologue and he was about a second and a quarter off the fastest SMP Racing BR Engineering BR1. However, van der Zande will be in and out of the car because of his IMSA duties and Fittipaldi will fill in for the Dutchman when needed. Hanley and Hedman are both new to LMP1 and are not the most experienced prototype drivers. I think this car's success is dependent on van der Zande.

SMP Racing
#11 BR Engineering BR1-AER
Drivers: Mikhail Aleshin, Vitaly Petrov, Jenson Button
Prologue Result: 3rd
What to Expect: This car was 4.372 seconds off the top Toyota at the Prologue test at Circuit Paul Ricard last month and was only 0.010 seconds faster than the Rebellion R13 that participated. Aleshin and Petrov will be on their own until Button joins them at Le Mans. Aleshin has been a quick driver in IndyCar but he showed a tendency for throwing away good results. Petrov had moderate success in the LMP2 class the last few years and he ran the team's fastest lap at the Prologue. Button will be a late addition and he did well in the Super GT season opener but it will be interesting to see if he can adapt quickly to a new situation. I think this car will be of the rest on a few occasions but it will have its off days.

#17 BR Engineering BR1-AER
Drivers: Stéphane Sarrazin, Matevos Isaakyan, Egor Orudzhev
Prologue Result: 5th
What to Expect: Sarrazin is the veteran while Isaakyan and Orudzhev both make the transition from single-seaters and a bit of LMP2. Isaakyan and Orudzhev won at Circuit Paul Ricard last year in European Le Mans Series. Sarrazin had taken a step back from full-time competition last year at Toyota. I think he will carry the team but this car will have rough days and be behind the sister car often but it will have a few good outings.

TDS Racing
#28 Oreca 07-Gibson
Drivers: Loïc Duval, François Perrodo, Matthieu Vaxivière
Prologue Result: 12th (3rd)
What to Expect: You have a 24 Hours of Le Mans winner joining Perrodo, who transitioned quite successfully to LMP2 last year, and Vaxivière also had a good debut year in LMP2. This line-up is doubling up and are running in the European Le Mans Series as well. I am not sure if there is an LMP2 trio that should know each other so well and I think this will be a title contender.

Racing Team Nederland
#29 Dallara P217-Gibson
Drivers: Giedo van der Garde, Jan Lammers, Frits van Eerd, Nyck de Vries
Prologue Result: 13th (4th)
What to Expect: Van der Garde is going to carry this team. He ran the fourth fastest lap at the Prologue but he was nearly a second and a half quicker than Lammers and another second faster than van Eerd. De Vries will replace Lammers after Le Mans and that could be the saving grace for this entry as van der Garde can't carry the load. I expect results to improve in the second half of the season.

#31 Oreca 07-Gibson
Drivers: Roberto González, Pastor Maldonado, Nathanaël Berthon, Anthony Davidson
Prologue Result: 10th (1st)
What to Expect: Maldonado was the top LMP2 driver at the Prologue. González is back for a second year in the LMP2 class. Berthon will start the season in this car before Davidson joins the team after the 24 Hours of Le Mans. LMP2 is kind of a crapshoot but the Oreca was the best LMP2 car last year and I don't see that changing in 2018. Once Davidson joins the team it will only take this car to another level.

Signatech Alpine Matmut
#36 Alpine A470-Gibson
Drivers: Nicolas Lapierre, André Negrão, Pierre Thiriet
Prologue Result: 11th (2nd)
What to Expect: Signatech has been a successful team and has the LMP2 title in recent memory. Lapierre was one of those drivers and Negrão had a promising first season in prototypes last year. Thiriet won the LMP2 title in the European Le Mans Series in 2012. This will be a championship-contending team.

Jackie Chan DC Racing
#37 Oreca 07-Gibson
Drivers: Jazeman Jaafar, Weiron Tan, Nabil Jeffri, Afiq Ikhwan Yazid
Prologue Result: 15th (6th)
What to Expect: This all-Malaysian driver line-up is young with Yazid the oldest driver at 26 years old. Yazid, Jaafar and Tan all won in the Asian Le Mans Series this past season at Buriram. Jeffri will serve as a reserve driver with race participation remaining unknown. Jackie Chan DC Racing had a successful year last season but I think this line-up will be using this season more to gain experience.

#38 Oreca 07-Gibson
Drivers: Ho-Pin Tung, Gabriel Aubry, Stéphane Richelmi
Prologue Result: 14th (5th)
What to Expect: Tung fell just short of the LMP2 title last year and Richelmi brings LMP2 championship experience to the line-up. Aubry will be splitting this season between this and the GP3 Series and he ran the final two races of the previous Asian Le Mans Series season in the LMP3 class with a victory in the finale at Sepang. This team should win a race but the title might be a bit ambitious.

Larbre Compétition
#50 Ligier JS P217-Gibson
Drivers: Erwin Creed, Romano Ricci, Julien Canal
Prologue Result: 17th (7th)
What to Expect: Creed and Ricci are both moving up from LMP3 in the European Le Mans Series and defending Endurance Trophy for LMP2 Drivers champion Canal was a late addition after the withdrawal of Fernando Rees. I think this car will be mostly gaining experience for Creed and Ricci.

AF Corse
#51 Ferrari 488 GTE Evo
Drivers: James Calado, Alessandro Pier Guidi, Daniel Serra
Prologue Result: 23rd (5th)
What to Expect: The defending champions Calado and Pier Guidi won three races last year and had seven podium finishes in nine races. AF Corse drivers have won three of five GTE championships in WEC history. I think the team will take a step back but it should be competing for race victories. Daniel Serra will be in the car at Le Mans.

#71 Ferrari 488 GTE Evo
Drivers: Sam Bird, Davide Rigon, Miguel Molina
Prologue Result: 27th (8th)
What to Expect: Bird and Rigon won two races last year and they won twice in 2016 while finishing second in the championship. These guys are good and should give the sister car a run for top AF Corse entry. However, an intra-team battle could allow others to step up and leave AF Corse in the middle of the class.

Ford Chip Ganassi Team UK
#66 Ford GT
Drivers: Stefan Mücke, Oliver Pla, Billy Johnson
Prologue Result: 20th (4th)
What to Expect: The two Fords are pretty interchangeable with less than a tenth covering the two cars and less than a second covered all five drivers that participated in the Prologue. Mücke and Pla was the top Ford in 2016 with a victory and two runner-up finishes but took a step back in 2017 with only one podium finish. This car should be a podium threat. Billy Johnson will be in the car for this year's races at Spa-Francorchamps and Le Mans.

#67 Ford GT
Drivers: Andy Priaulx, Harry Tincknell, Tony Kanaan
Prologue Result: 19th (3rd)
What to Expect: Priaulx and Tincknell finished third in the championship last year but didn't seem like a contender. Ford is looking to make a championship push in its third year. The team has had lulls in the middle of each of its first two seasons. I think Priaulx and Tincknell will lead the Ford team and could make a title push. Tony Kanaan will be in the car for this year's races at Spa-Francorchamps and Le Mans.

#81 BMW M8 GTE
Drivers: Nick Catsburg, Martin Tomczyk, Philipp Eng
Prologue Result: 34th (10th)
What to Expect: Tomczyk is a past Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters champion and he spent 2017 driving for BMW Team RLL in IMSA where he won a race at Laguna Seca and had four podium finishes in 11 races. Catsburg has experience in GT3 series and touring cars. This is going to be a rough year but it will not be because of the drivers. Eng will be in the car at Le Mans.

#82 BMW M8 GTE
Drivers: António Félix da Costa, Tom Blomqvist, Augusto Farfus
Prologue Result: 24th (6th)
What to Expect: For a new team and new car, this Prologue test result was a promising sign. Da Costa is an underrated driver and Blomqvist has had a good career in Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters. However, both these drivers lack endurance race experience and that could hold this team back. Farfus will be the third driver at Le Mans.

Porsche GT Team
#91 Porsche 911 RSR
Drivers: Gianmaria Bruni, Richard Lietz, Frédéric Makowiecki
Prologue Result: 17th (1st)
What to Expect: The Porsches look real good and Bruni is back in the WEC and motivated. Bruni and Lietz combine for three championships in GTE out of five seasons and Lietz finished second in the championship by eight points. They were the fastest two drivers at the Prologue. I do not expect a beat down but if the #91 Porsche is leading the championship 365 days from now nobody would be surprised. Makowiecki will be the third driver at Le Mans.

#92 Porsche 911 RSR
Drivers: Michael Christensen, Kévin Estre, Laurens Vanthoor
Prologue Result: 2nd (2nd)
What to Expect: Christensen and Estre had three podium finishes last year but had four retirements. I don't expect that same level of bad luck. These drivers are capable of winning races but I think it will be very difficult to be the best Porsche in GTE-Pro let alone the best in class. Vanthoor joins this team at Le Mans.

Aston Martin Racing
#95 Aston Martin Vantage AMR
Drivers: Marco Sørensen, Nicki Thiim, Darren Turner
Prologue Result: 29th (9th)
What to Expect: Aston Martin won two races last year and in the other seven races had a combined zero podium finishes. This year comes with a new car and it will take some time for it to challenge the Porsches, Fords and Ferraris. The one comforting thing is Aston Martin does find a way to have a few good races and this line-up should have its day in the sun but not be a title contender.

#97 Aston Martin Vantage AMR
Drivers: Alex Lynn, Maxime Martin, Jonathan Adam
Prologue Result: 25th (7th)
What to Expect: Adam is veteran in the team as Lynn moves over from part-time LMP2 experience and Martin joins the team from the Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters. I think this car will be in the back half of the GTE-Pro field on a regular basis and be regularly behind the sister car.

Spirit of Race
#54 Ferrari 488 GTE
Drivers: Francesco Castellacci, Giancarlo Fisichella, Thomas Flöhr
Prologue Result: 32nd (7th)
What to Expect: Castellacci and Flöhr have been running with each other for quite a while dating back to GT3 competition and last year WEC was a good year with Miguel Molina as their third driver. This year they get a superb third driver in Fisichella. Castellacci and Flöhr won at Fuji last year and had four podium finishes but the Porsches look really strong this year.

Team Project 1
#56 Porsche 911 RSR
Drivers: Jörg Bergmeister, Patrick Lindsey, Egidio Perfetti
Prologue Result: 28th (4th)
What to Expect: Bergmeister is one of the top Porsche GT drivers and Lindsey has had a good career competing as an amateur in the United States. They race together with Park Place Motorsports in IMSA and that familiarity should be in their favor. Perfetti is a bit of an unknown but he was on pace with Lindsey at the Prologue. This team will do well but I am not sure it will have what it takes to be a championship contender.

Clearwater Racing
#61 Ferrari 488 GTE
Drivers: Matt Griffin, Keita Sawa, Weng Sun Mok
Prologue Result: 33rd (8th)
What to Expect: Clearwater Racing did not need a year to acclimate to WEC after years of running Asian Le Mans Series last year. The team retains the same line-up from last year and this trio finished third in the championship after winning a race and having six podium finishes and finishing in the top five in all nine races. I think this year will be a little tougher and I am not sure this car will be in the championship fight.

MR Racing
#70 Ferrari 488 GTE
Drivers: Olivier Beretta, Eddie Cheever III, Motoaki Ishikawa
Prologue Result: 35th (9th)
What to Expect: Beretta is a respected veteran but there are a lot of stout professionals in this class. He and Ishikawa raced together in the Blancpain Endurance Series last year. Cheever III has been holding his own in GT3 competition and he was running a Cadillac DPi-V.R. for Spirit of Daytona at the 24 Hours of Daytona and 12 Hours of Sebring this year. However, I think this team's lack of experience will hold it back.

Dempsey-Proton Racing
#77 Porsche 911 RSR
Drivers: Matt Campbell, Christian Ried, Julien Andlauer
Prologue Result: 26th (3rd)
What to Expect: Ried finished second in the championship and he is adding an extremely gifted Porsche driver in Campbell and Andlauer is a promising Porsche junior driver. Andlauer was the sixth fastest driver in class at the Prologue behind the likes of Matteo Cairoli, Ben Barker, Campbell, Alex Davison and Jörg Bergmeister. This team is the favorite for the class championship.

#88 Porsche 911 RSR
Drivers: Khalid Al-Qubaisi, Matteo Cairoli, Giorgio Roda
Prologue Result: 21st (1st)
What to Expect: Cairoli finished second in this championship last year while Al-Qubaisi has had endurance racing success in the 24H Series and Roda moves over from the European Le Mans Series. I think the two Dempsey-Proton entries will be going head-to-head for class victories in many races this season.

Gulf Racing UK
#86 Porsche 911 RSR
Drivers: Michael Wainwright, Ben Barker, Alex Davison
Prologue Result: 22nd (2nd)
What to Expect: Last year was a good one for Gulf Racing UK as the team picked up two podium finishes. Barker and Wainwright return with Davison joining after a long career in his native Australia in the Supercars series. I think this team will challenge for race victories but I am not sure it can make a title push.

TF Sport
#90 Aston Martin Vantage GTE
Drivers: Euan Hankey, Charlie Eastwood, Salih Yoluç
Prologue Result: 30th (5th)
What to Expect: TF Sport nearly won the European Le Mans Series GTE title last year in the team's first year in the series but fell two points short. Hankey and Yoluç won a race and had five podium finishes in six races in that series with Nicki Thiim as the third driver. Hankey and Yoluç also made their Le Mans debut last year with Rob Bell and finished seventh in class. I don't think this car will be at the front of the class but it will have respectable results.

Aston Martin Racing
#98 Aston Martin Vantage GTE
Drivers: Paul Dalla Lana, Pedro Lamy, Mathias Lauda
Prologue Result: 31st (6th)
What to Expect: This is the GTE-Am stalwart and this trio finally got its elusive class championship last year. I don't expect them to fall off but I think this year will be this team's greatest challenge yet. It could run eight successful races and that not be enough to take the title. This car will win a race or two but I am not penciling it in for the title this year.

This weekend's action begins Thursday May 3rd with two practice sessions at 6:00 a.m. ET and 10:45 a.m. ET. A third practice will be held Friday May 4th at 4:40 a.m. ET with qualifying following. The GTE qualifying will be at 8:50 a.m. ET with LMP qualifying following at 9:25 a.m. ET. The 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps will start at 7:30 a.m. ET on Saturday May 5th.