Tuesday, March 14, 2023

2023 FIA World Endurance Championship Season Preview

After a rough period for the FIA World Endurance Championship, the 2023 is set up to be one of its most exciting in its 12-year history. 

New manufactures, new cars and new drivers are in the series. The top class is larger than it has ever been with 13 Hypercar entries set for the full season and there are other manufacturers looking to join the series either sometime in 2023 or in 2024. 

While the Hypercar class is at a high point, the rest of WEC's grid is going through a transition. This will be the final season for GTE-spec cars, and there will only be a GTE Am class competing in 2023 while LMP2 is looking to be phased out as well due to the growth of Hypercar. GTE is set to be replaced by a pro-am GT3 class starting in 2024.

The distant future can wait, but we have a thrilling season awaiting us with 38 full-time entries set for the seven-race season.  

The WEC calendar has expanded to seven rounds after running only six races the previous two seasons. For the second consecutive year, Sebring hosts the season opener with a 1,000-mile race on Friday March 17. 

One month later, WEC has its first of four European rounds with the 6 Hours of Portimão returning to the calendar on April 16. Two weeks later, the 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps will take place. 

The 24 Hours of Le Mans will be June 10-11 with the final European round occurring a month later at Monza, a six-hour race on July 9. 

There will be a two-month break before the 6 Hours of Fuji is held on September 10. Bahrain hosts the season finale with an eight-hour race on November 4.

Cadillac Racing
#2 Cadillac V-Series.R
Drivers: Earl Bamber, Alex Lynn, Richard Westbrook
What to expect: At the 24 Hours of Daytona, there was almost a sense that Acura had the outright speed over a single lap, but had the most questions about reliability. Porsche had the speed over the long run, but still had little things popping that halted its progress. In the middle was Cadillac, good speed, but the most reliable and it felt like Cadillac was positioned to win at Daytona. 

Acura was able to complete all 24 hours and that one-lap pace carried over an entire stint. Cadillac went 3-4 behind the Acura 1-2, but the top four were covered by 11.176 seconds. Cadillac should feel confident entering its first foray into WEC. It helps that the Cadillac only trailed the Toyotas in the Prologue test last weekend at Sebring. Bamber is a past champion. Lynn has experience from GTE and LMP2. Westbrook is a capable veteran. This could be a special season for Cadillac, but it will not be easy.

Floyd Vanwall Racing Team
#4 Vanwall Vandervell 680
Drivers: Tom Dillmann, Esteban Guerrieri, Jacques Villeneuve
What to expect: Possibly a name change, but we can tackle the legal issues another time. This is the ByKolles outfit in another name. The team is known for talking a big game and massively underdelivering. Villeneuve will turn 52 years old this April. He hasn't run a prototype since 2008 when he was second at Le Mans in the Peugeot 908. I am not sure what he has left. Guerrieri is coming up from touring car racing, where he had good success and he was once a promising Indy Lights driver, but this is a big step. Dillman has been hanging with the ByKolles group since 2018, and he did win the 2022 Le Mans Cup LMP3 championship with Alexander Mattschull. 

It is doubtful this car completes the entire season let alone accomplish anything remotely remarkable on track. This is such an odd combination of drivers. Compared to the other lineups, it is weak. However, it did top the Glickenhaus in testing, and was within two seconds of the fastest time at the Prologue.

Porsche Penske Motorsport
#5 Porsche 963
Drivers: Dane Cameron, Michael Christensen, Frédéric Makowiecki
What to expect: This biggest concern for Porsche is it is taking drivers accustomed to GT machinery and hoping they can succeed in prototype. Cameron is simultaneously the leader and the least experienced in this group in terms of the series. Christensen and Makowiecki know the series but neither have extensive prototype experience. A race car is a race car, but even professionals have a learning curve. 

This should be the second of the two factory Porsches, yet it was the faster of the two at the Prologue. Add to the concerns the gremlins that keep plaguing the Porsche 963. Porsche will figure those out. The car had promise at the 24 Hours of Daytona. Porsche will figure it out, but questions remain over this lineup leading the way over the entire season. 

#6 Porsche 963
Drivers: Kévin Estre, André Lotterer, Laurens Vanthoor
What to expect: Lotterer is one of the best drivers of his generation. He is fine, but he even expressed some concerns after being away from top tier prototype racing for the last few seasons. Vanthoor was one of the best GT drivers in the 2010s and he has dabbled in LMP2 competition with some success, but he has never driven a prototype regularly. Estre is taking on something entirely new. 

This car feels the most set up for success in the Porsche camp. Estre was the fastest of the three drivers in the #6 Porsche at the Prologue. If Lotterer and Vanthoor pick up their pace, this is a scary lineup. With the Porsche's little problem, a championship is hard to imagine at this point. It has to get through a few races before that can feel possible.

Toyota Gazoo Racing
#7 Toyota GR010 Hybrid
Drivers: Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi, José María López
What to expect: This is the greatest test Toyota has seen since 2016 when Porsche and Audi were still field LMP1 teams. Toyota has the upper-hand in experience. This will be the third season of the Toyota GR010 Hybrid. This is Toyota's 12th season in WEC competition. It knows all the circuits. It has been through this gauntlet before. The biggest difference is will be facing the most competition ever in WEC. 

This is the sixth consecutive season for this lineup in the #7 Toyota. López topped the Prologue. It has won 11 races since the start of the 2018-19 season. Outside of a retirement at Sebring last year and a disqualification at Silverstone in 2018, this car has been on the podium in every race during that timeframe. It is the less celebrated of the two Toyota teams, but its quietly gets the job done. There should be tougher days for Toyota with all the manufacturers in Hypercar. The #7 Toyota will have its days though, and another world championship is possible.

#8 Toyota GR010 Hybrid
Drivers: Sébastien Buemi, Brendon Hartley, Ryō Hirakawa
What to expect: While the #7 Toyota has won 11 times since 2018-19, the #8 Toyota has won 12 times in that time, but this team has seen three different driver lineups in that time span. Buemi has been the one consistent, and Hartley and Hirakawa took no time to get up to speed. The defending champions are the favorites at the start, but with new cars and seven races in the 2023 season, there is plenty of time for momentum to swing in someone else's favor. 

The #8 Toyota will win races, and likely be a contender for the championship, but this team will see its greatest challenge in quite some time. Buemi and Hartley have shown they are up for it with their past successes in WEC. Hirakawa will be facing it for the first time. There will likely be a race where Toyota is thoroughly beat and it will be an eye-opener for this group that is used to winning or only losing because of how Balance of Performance played out. There is going to be a race where Toyota doesn't have an answer. It will not necessarily be a regular occurrence. It could happen once and Toyota could be in control for the other six races. 

Hertz Team Jota
#38 Porsche 963
Drivers: António Félix da Costa, Will Stevens, Ye Yifei
What to expect: For starters, Jota will not have its Porsche 963 until Spa-Francorchamps at the earliest, but perhaps not even until the 24 Hours of Le Mans. At the first few rounds, Jota will field an extra LMP2 car for its Hypercar drivers. Yifei and Stevens will drive an LMP2 car at Sebring with David Beckmann while Yifei, da Costa and Beckmann will drive at Portimão. The three regulars have all found success in LMP2 competition. They should all be competitive moving up to a Hypercar, but will be playing catch-up and there should not be expectations for victories or podiums. 

Ferrari AF Corse
#50 Ferrari 499P
Drivers: Antonio Fuoco, Miguel Molina, Nicklas Nielsen
What to expect: Ferrari's long-awaited return to top-tier sports car racing has arrived, and it is bringing fairly unexperienced prototype drivers into the top class. Fuoco was a promising single-seater driver. Molina doesn't really to struggle anywhere he has been. Nielsen is an up-and-coming getting tossed into the deep end. 

Ferrari has been known for its poor decisions in Formula One over the last few seasons, and it has had questionable car development. Testing showed a Ferrari that could at least be competition. AF Corse running this program is the best thing that could happen. It knows how to handle endurance races. It will not be thrown through a loop in a 1000-mile or 24-hour race. The team is set up right. The car should be good, but if there is any manufacture you expect to have mechanical failures derail races, it is Ferrari.

#51 Ferrari 499P
Drivers: Alessandro Pier Guidi, James Calado, Antonio Giovinazzi
What to expect: Pier Guidi and Calado have won almost everything together in GT racing. They know the WEC schedule and the only thing that is different is the car. Calado did well in the Formula One ladder series, but never really got a sniff at it. The prototype is new for him and Pier Guidi while Giovinazzi is coming over after a lackluster time in Formula One. 

Giovinazzi turned some heads when he ran in LMP2 competition prior to his time in Formula One. He will be comfortable in endurance races and bolsters this lineup. The #51 Ferrari should finish better in the championship than the #50 Ferrari. If there is any Ferrari that should win this season, it is the #51 Ferrari, but all three of the #50 Ferrari drivers were faster than the #51 drivers at the Prologue. 

Peugeot TotalEnergies
#93 Peugeot 9X8
Drivers: Paul di Resta, Mikkel Jensen, Jean-Éric Vergne
What to expect: Peugeot arrived in the middle of last season and was fine. In three races, it failed to get on the podium once with its two cars. Twice did the #93 Peugeot retire. The pace was getting closer at the end of the season, but Peugeot has a long way to go. 

It hasn't done a 24-hour test yet. This will be its first time at Sebring. Though it has a half-season head start of the LMDh cars and Ferrari, Peugeot was slower than all of them at the Prologue, and the LMDh cars have run a 24-hour race already. This should be a frustrating season. The lineup is good, but if the car is not reliable, the drivers can only do so much.

#94 Peugeot 9X8
Drivers: Loïc Duval, Gustavo Menezes, Nico Müller
What to expect: The #94 Peugeot made it to the finish of every WEC race it entered last season, but it still had its share of mechanical problems. The closest it got to the lead lap was six laps down. It had good pace at the end of last season, but that could not be carried over a full race, and the Peugeot was fighting just to be ahead of the LMP2 winner. 

Of the five big manufacturers, Peugeot is a clear fifth. Its best results will have to come down to finding reliability while others struggle, and that isn't something you can bank on with the French manufacturer at this time. 

Proton Competition
#99 Porsche 963
Drivers: Gianmaria Bruni
What to expect: Proton's Porsche likely will not be available until Monza. It is not entered for Le Mans. Bruni is the only announced driver at this point. 

Glickenhaus Racing
#708 Glickenhaus 007
Drivers: Romain Dumas, Ryan Briscoe, Olivier Pla.
What to expect: Glickenhaus showed speed last year, but this is a tough field than it raced against in 2022, and it was 2.965 seconds off the top time Toyota set. Glickenhaus will have two cars at Le Mans and it is believed it will rotate its drivers through the one full-time car over 2023. Pipo Derani and Franck Mailleux drove for Glickenhaus last year and do not have WEC rides for 2023. Mailleux is assigned to the second Glickenhaus for Le Mans. 

Prema Racing
#9 Oreca-Gibson
Drivers: Juan Manuel Correa, Filip Ugran, Bent Viscaal, Andrea Caldarelli
What to expect: This is a young lineup of drivers who were recently in junior formula racing in European. Correa is still competing in Formula Two. Ugran ran in Formula Three two seasons ago but didn't score any points. Viscaal won in Formula Three, had a pair of podiums in Formula Two and he ran in the European Le Mans Series in LMP2 last year. This could be a blindly quick group that turns some heads or an inexperienced group that makes some mistakes. Caldarelli will only race at Sebring as Correa has Formula Two responsibilities in Saudi Arabia. 

#63 Oreca-Gibson
Drivers: Mirko Bortolotti, Daniil Kvyat, Doriane Pin
What to expect: This should be the best Prema team. Bortolotti had a successful career in GT3 competition in many different series. He made his LMP2 debut last year at Le Mans. Kvyat brings Formula One experience. He should have a handle on the car. Pin is 19 years old and showed great speed last year in GTE. She is new to an LMP2 car, and she was third fastest at the Prologue. She should improve over the entire season, but she is already starting on a good note. Prema has produced race winners before. This car could do it. 

Vector Sport
#10 Oreca-Gibson
Drivers: Ryan Cullen, Gabriel Aubry, Matthias Kaiser
What to expect: Vector got a podium result last year, but finished ninth or worse in the remaining five races. Aubry won in LMP2 driving for Jackie Chan DC Racing over 2018 to 2020. Kaiser is relatively new to LMP2. Results should be better than last year. There should be more than one finish better than ninth. 

United Autosports
#22 Oreca-Gibson
Drivers: Filipe Albuquerque, Philip Hanson, Frederick Lubin, Ben Hanley
What to expect: Either of the United Autosport cars could win the championship. Hanson and Albuquerque have great experience together. There are two races that clash with IMSA, meaning Albuquerque will not be in WEC, but Hanley is an incredible substitute to call in. Lubin is moving from Euroformula Open. He is in good hands. Lubin is the question mark, but this team should still be at the front. 

#23 Oreca-Gibson
Drivers: Tom Blomqvist, Oliver Jarvis, Josh Pierson, Giedo van der Garde
What to expect: This might be the best team in class. Blomqvist and Jarvis won the IMSA Daytona Prototype international championship last year with Meyer Shank Racing. Pierson had a stellar rookie season in 2022. Like Albuquerque, Blomqvist has two IMSA rounds that take priority, but van der Garde will not miss a beat. Both United cars should win.  

#28 Oreca-Gibson
Drivers: Pietro Fittipaldi, David Heinemeier Hansson, Oliver Rasmussen
What to expect: Fittipaldi is joining a regular LMP2 contender in Jota. He and Heinemeier Hansson raced together in ELMS last year. Rasmussen had a good rookie season in WEC with Jota last year. I wouldn't be surprised if this team found a way to win a race or two. I am concerned with this program as Jota expands to Hypercar. Divided attention could see a downward turn in results. 

Team WRT
#31 Oreca-Gibson
Drivers: Robin Frijns, Sean Gelael, Ferdinand Habsburg
What to expect: Frijns and Gelael were second in the championship last year with three victories. Frijns and Habsburg won the LMP2 title two years ago. This will be a tough group to beat. Multiple victories feel highly likely. They should be in the championship discussion to the very end of the season. 

#41 Oreca-Gibson
Drivers: Rui Andrade, Louis Delétraz, Robert Kubica
What to expect: Delétraz has won the ELMS LMP2 championship the last two seasons. In 2021, he won it with Kubica. Kubica had good results last year in WEC, and Andrade won a race while finishing on the podium three times. Andrade also won Petit Le Mans while finishing second in the IMSA Endurance Cup for the LMP2 class. It will be tough to beat the sister car, but the #41 Team WRT entry should get a win or two. 

Inter Europol Competition
#34 Oreca-Gibson
Drivers: Albert Costa, Fabio Scherer, Jakub Śmiechowski
What to expect: Costa has found success in GT3 competition, but LMP2 is completely new to him. Scherer and Śmiechowski have each spent the last few seasons in LMP2. Scherer has shown promise. Results have been more spotty for Śmiechowski. This class is going to be difficult. Any top five finishes will be a victory for this group. 

Alpine Elf Team
#35 Alpine A470-Gibson
Drivers: Olli Caldwell, André Negrão, Memo Rojas
What to expect: This is a sleeper in a strong LMP2 class. Negrão won the LMP2 title in 2018-19 and is stepping down from Hypercar as Alpine prepares an LMDh car. Rojas is a veteran from IMSA and ELMS, but this will be his first WEC season. Caldwell has some good results in Formula Three. This could be the group that surprises folks this season. 

#36 Alpine A470-Gibson
Drivers: Julien Canal, Charles Milesi, Matthieu Vaxivière
What to expect: Both Alpine entries are sleepers. Canal has won this championship twice and he has been exceptional in ELMS. Vaxivière is another driver coming down from Hypercar. There is no need to worry about him. Milesi won this championship in 2021. There are eight cars in this class that could conceivably win the championship. There are only seven races. Somebody is going to end this season disappointed. It could be the #36 Alpine or the #36 Alpine could be spoiling the party. Both are equally likely outcomes. 

AF Corse
#21 Ferrari 488 GTE
Drivers: Simon Mann, Stefano Costantini, Ulysse de Pauw
What to expect: Ferrari was shutout in GTE Am last year. Aston Martin and Porsche split all of the races. Mann's best finish was seventh last season with Christoph Ulrich and Toni Vilander as his co-drivers. This lineup isn't better on paper. I don't see this team making a leap forward in the championship.

#54 Ferrari 488 GTE
Drivers: Francesco Castellacci, Thomas Flohr, Davide Rigon
What to expect: With GTE Pro dissolving, Castellacci and Flohr gain a stunning boast in Rigon joining the lineup. This car has what it takes to win races with the inclusion of Rigon. A championship could be a stretch, but you cannot rule it out. 

#83 Ferrari 488 GTE
Drivers: Luis Pérez Companc, Alessio Rovera, Lilou Wadoux
What to expect: Rovera returns after winning the 2021 GTE Am championship. He spent 2022 in LMP2. Pérez Companc is returning to WEC competition. He did the IMSA endurance races last year. Wadoux had a taste of WEC in LMP2 last year. This will be a new challenge for her. This team will not be regularly pushing for podium results. 

#25 Aston Martin Vantage AMR
Drivers: Ahmad Al Harthy, Michael Dinan, Charlie Eastwood
What to expect: TF Sport won the championship last year with Ben Keating and Marco Sørensen. It doesn't have a top notch Aston Martin factory driver this year. Al Harthy has a lot of time driving Aston Martins, and he won last year in the European Le Mans Series. Eastwood has spent the last few years in LMP2, but he nearly won the GTE Am title in 2019-20 driving an Aston Martin. Dinan is new to WEC and international competition. It is good car, but I think results will be scattered all over the place.

Corvette Racing
#33 Corvette C8.R
Drivers: Ben Keating, Nicky Catsburg, Nicolás Varrone
What to expect: Keating just won the championship last year in an Aston Martin. He has found success in many different types of machine. The Corvette should not be much more of a challenge, especially with Corvette factory driver Nicky Catsburg paired with him. Varrone is a young up-and-comer. He won on his European Le Mans Series debut last year and he won in his IMSA debut this past January in the LMP3 class at the 24 Hours of Daytona. Keating will have a good push for defending his title. 

Project 1 - AO
#56 Porsche 911 RSR-19
Drivers: Matteo Cairoli, P.J. Hyett, Gunnar Jeannette
What to expect: Hyett and Jeannette may have surprised themselves last year, finishing second in the Bahrain finale, their first race in WEC. I don't think the results will come that easy in 2023, even with the likes of Cairoli as their co-driver. Not to diminish it to beginner's luck, but any podium finishes will be a impressive result. 

Kessel Racing
#57 Ferrari 488 GTE
Drivers: Scott Huffaker, Takeshi Kimura, Daniel Serra
What to expect: Kimura has made a handful of WEC appearances while remaining a Asian Le Mans Series regular. Huffaker has won in IMSA driving in LMP2. Serra has a good record in GTE Pro competition. Serra can only do so much and his co-drivers are going to be learning these circuits. 

Iron Lynx
#60 Porsche 911 RSR-19
Drivers: Matteo Cressoni, Alessio Picariello, Claudio Schiavoni
What to expect: Cressoni and Schiavoni return for another season together. Their best finish last year was fourth, but they were eighth or worse in their other races. The move to Porsche means Picariello joins the lineup. Picariello has won an ELMS championship. This group could see a marginal improvement. 

Dempsey-Proton Racing
#77 Porsche 911 RSR-19
Drivers: Julien Andlauer, Christian Ried, Mikkel O. Pedersen
What to expect: Reid won twice last year. Pedersen won once with Team Project 1. Andlauer has been an emerging driver for the last few years. Ried has never won an WEC championship. Twice he was runner-up in this class. He has won 11 times in his career. This could be the team that gets him that elusive championship.

Iron Dames
#85 Porsche 911 RSR-19
Drivers: Sarah Bovy, Rahel Frey, Michelle Gatting
What to expect: This team has spent the better part of the last two years together. They were on the podium in the final three races last season in WEC and they were third in the ELMS GT championship. The group is changing cars from a Ferrari to a Porsche. It could take a moment to get used to the cars, but Gatting was second at the Prologue and Frey was eighth. This is a tougher field. A slight dip in results would not be surprising, but would not be the end of the world. 

GR Racing
#86 Porsche 911 RSR-19
Drivers: Ben Barker, Riccardo Pera, Michael Wainwright 
What to expect: Since 2016, GR Racing has only five podium finishes in 45 WEC starts. It has never won in WEC. I don't see that changing in 2023. It may get one podium finish. If it gets two, it will be an outstanding year for this group.

Proton Competition
#88 Porsche 911 RSR-19
Drivers: Ryan Hardwick, Zachary Robichon, Harry Tincknell
What to expect: Hardwick is stepping into WEC competition as he has been a top amateur driver in IMSA's GTD class for many years. Robichon has won IMSA's GTD championship and Tincknell was fourth in the GTE-AM championship last year and he knows all of these tracks. This is a sneaky strong team though two drivers are unfamiliar with WEC. Hardwick is not commitment beyond the 24 Hours of Le Mans, but they could be set for big things. 

Northwest AMR
#98 Aston Martin Vantage AMR
Drivers: Paul Dalla Lana, Nicki Thiim, Axcil Jefferies
What to expect: Dalla Lana and Thiim opened 2022 with three podium finishes, and then didn't finish better than fifth the rest of the season. They are both past champions. Aston Martin has had at least one car finish in the top two of the GTE Am championship the last three seasons. However, the top Aston Martin driver ranked 24th out of 43 in GTE Am at the Prologue. Thiim was 28th. Jefferies has only one WEC start and will be learning most of these tracks. 

D'station Racing
#777 Aston Martin Vantage AMR
Drivers: Tomonobu Fujii, Satoshi Hoshino, Casper Stevenson
What to expect: Fujii and Hoshino got a podium finish last season and they had a podium finish last season. Their points total dropped from 51 points to 35 points from 2021 to 2022. This car should be somewhere in the middle of 35 to 51 points. The podium will be tougher to get on in 2023.

On-track action begins Wednesday March 15 at 10:55 a.m. ET with second practice later that day at 4:35 p.m. On Thursday March 16, there will be a third practice session at 11:55 a.m. ET. Qualifying will consist of three separate sessions, one dedicated for each class. Each session will last 15 minutes and qualifying will begin at 6:30 p.m. ET on Thursday. 

The 1,000 Miles of Sebring will begin at 12:00 p.m. ET on Friday March 17. There is an eight-hour time limit on this race. In the first two editions of the 1,000 Miles of Sebring, only 946.23 miles and 725.56 miles were completed. Last year's race saw a red flag for an accident by the #7 Toyota and a second red flag for lightning and heavy rain, which ended the event 45 minutes before reaching the time limit.