Last week at the Circuit Paul Ricard down in the Provence region of France, we got to see the contenders for the 2015 FIA World Endurance Championship in action for the first time. The peak of the Championship is undoubtedly the Le Mans 24 Hours, the one that they all want to win above everything else.
That is one fact that does not have to be disclosed to the 2014 FIA World Endurance Champions, Toyota. Generally, last season they had the advantage over both Audi and Porsche - except in June at Le Mans, when their challenge was blunted by a combination of accident damage and electrical failure, leaving Audi to triumph. Porsche were too new to the LM P1 Hybrid category to have any realistic hopes of victory but by the end of the season they took the top step in Brazil. I had an in-depth look at how the race played out HERE and HERE. No doubt that Toyota's and Porsche's attempt to win the French endurance classic in 2015 began the day after the race in 2014... that is how really good teams deal with defeat.
So the media was assembled in France, the charge led by an unruly gang of photographers as ever. They were anxious to get some detailed pictures of the car and its crew. The team and its excellent PR staff were equally keen to keep the media mob under some form of control, somehow it all worked.
Toyota is persisting with a two car entry, despite being outnumbered by the opposition at Audi, Porsche and Nissan (ah yes, more about Nissan later). The #1 car will have last year's World Driver Champions, Anthony Davidson and Sébastien Buemi in the hot seat, who'll also be joined by Kazuki Nakajima in a first full season in the FIA WEC. In the #2 TS040 the drivers will be Alex Wurz, Stéphane Sarrazin and Mike Conway, the latter also having his first full season with the team. There will be two additional test/reserve drivers, Kamui Kobayashi and Nicolas Lapierre who will act as support to the race crews.
At first glance I struggled to see any material difference to the 2014 car, however even the most cursory enquiry showed that Toyota Racing had been hard at work in their Köln base. The car has been modified for 2015, with updated aerodynamics, revised front end including crash structure and new suspension kinematics to optimize tire usage, plus additional weight saving.
As with last season, the TS040 will race within the 6MJ hybrid category with enhancements, such as modifications to the super capacitor construction to increase performance and reliability over time.
These dry facts were given more substance by the project's Technical Director, Pascal Vasselon. “The regulations have been essentially stable so there was no reason to review completely our concept, considering our performance throughout 2014. So the updated car is no revolution but it’s an evolution almost everywhere. It looks like it is from the same family; nevertheless we have redesigned roughly 80% of the parts. Again this season we will have high and low downforce packages, for the usual reason that Le Mans has very different requirements compared to most other tracks. The current regulations favor more subtle changes between these packages to keep the drag reasonably low, such as modifications to the rear wing, engine cover and front end. So far we are satisfied with our progress during the ‘one-car race’ that is testing. Now we have a few weeks remaining to get ready for the serious business of racing.”
Every aspect of the car has been worked on as was further revealed by Hisatake Murata, General Manager, Motor Sports Unit Development Division: “We have put huge effort into upgrading the whole car, including the powertrain, where we have made improvements in most areas. This means that total maximum power is over 1,000PS (986hp) and the performance of the powertrain has been considerably enhanced. Our development means we will achieve the maximum hybrid energy more consistently than last season. Therefore we fully expect to see a performance improvement from the hybrid system, especially over race distances, and at every circuit. Our 2015 upgrades are another step towards producing ever-better hybrid cars and, once again, components and techniques from the TS040 will be utilized to improve Toyota road cars.”
Some of the changes to the car have been forced by updates to the Technical and Sporting Regulations. Teams are now limited to a maximum of five engines per car for the entire season, although none of the team’s cars exceeded this limit in any of the previous three seasons. Additional limits apply to tire usage, with four sets of slicks allowed during practice and six for qualifying and the race, except in Bahrain and Shanghai where eight sets are permitted, with eleven sets permitted during the Le Mans 24 Hours.
Flexibility limits have been introduced for bodywork items such as the splitter, the rear wing, diffuser and plank, while the car is now subject to added ballast when, as is the case with the #1 and #2 crews, the average driver weight is less than 80kg/176lbs.
In one sense it was difficult to draw any firm conclusions from the Test days at Le Castellet, lap times are not a reliable sign of optimum performance as there are many variables to be taken into account, such as tires, fuel, hybrid usage etc., etc. There was the usual sparring between the teams, with one particularly unsubtle photographer causing Toyota to get the screens out in an attempt to prevent anything secret being snapped.
In reality the teams have a pretty good idea of what the opposition is up to, they are all too good at engineering not to work out the clues. One thing is for sure the battle for supremacy throughout 2015 will be fierce. It all kicks off at Silverstone on 12th April, I will be there to figure out what is going on...I hope.