The new breed of Le Mans Hypercar machines are expected to be five seconds slower than the LMP1 cars they replace in the WEC’s top class, as they are not only down on power but also significantly heavier than their predecessors.
The WEC had factored this in prior to the 2021 WEC season, originally cutting the horsepower of LMP2 cars by 40bhp before announcing a further 25bhp reduction earlier this month. The minimum weight of the car has been increased from 930kg to 950kg, while all LMP2 teams are now mandated to complete the entire season running the low-downforce, Le Mans 24 Hours package.
However, these changes appeared to be insufficient to create a gap between the two classes in the Prologue test at Spa-Francorchamps at the start of this week, with LMP2 cars locking out the top three spots in the combined timesheets.
Sebastien Buemi’s 2m04.669s effort in the final session in the Toyota GR010 Hybrid was half a second down on the fastest time of the test, set by Nyck de Vries in one of G-Drive’s Aurus-badged Oreca 07-Gibson.
Following the test, Toyota called for a “review” of the balance between the two categories, with technical director Pascal Vasselon saying “it clearly was not the target to have LMP2 running faster than the Hypercar category.”
However, United Autosports driver Albuquerque feels pegging back the performance of LMP2 cars is not as straightforward a solution as it may seem, and may significantly affect the way those cars handle at different tracks.
“As an LMP2 driver, we don’t want to be slowed down more,” the 2019/20 class champion told Motorsport.com. “Already the car feels really bad, especially on long runs. It’s frustrating and it’s almost impossible to work on the car, because when the car is out of the window on downforce, there’s very little you can do about set-up.
“And then when we go to Bahrain with the Le Mans aero kit, with super-high temperatures… I don’t know see how we can drive there like that. At Spa with 20-25 degrees track temperature, it’s already slippery, so when we get to Bahrain it’s gonna be crazy slippery. And this is from a professional driver’s point of view, not even a gentleman driver.”
Toyota’s new GR010 Hybrid consistently set the fastest times across the board in sectors 1 and 2 at Spa, but struggled to match the pace of the LMP2 cars in the more twisty middle part of the track – a direct effect of its heavy weight compared to cars in the intermediate prototype class.
Albuquerque suggests the WEC and ACO should look at ways at increasing the performance of the hypercars instead of trying to slow the already-hobbled LMP2 machines.
“I agree with Toyota when they say we need to increase the gap between Hypercar and LMP2,” he said. “But I think they need to focus now on making the Hypercar faster. They should take away some weight. They were struggling in the second sector, which is just corners. Their car is too heavy, just allow them to go lighter.
“The Alpine… they changed to an LMP1 and they are slower than they were last year with an LMP2! I think a lot can happen between now and August [when the Le Mans 24 Hours will take place]. But the plan on paper is one thing and real life is another thing.
“The ACO just needs to listen to drivers, teams and engineers from both sides, because we don’t want to fight the Toyotas. LMP2 is already very competitive!”
The two-day Prologue test saw several crashes in the LMP2 and GTE classes, with Ben Keating (TF Sport Aston Martin), Sean Gelael (JOTA Oreca), Anders Buchardt (Project 1 Porsche), Job van Uitert (Racing Team Nederland Oreca) and Katherine Legge (Iron Lynx Ferrari) among those involved in major shunts.
JOTA driver Davidson believes the increased number of crashes were a direct consequence of LMP2 cars being slower on the straights than in previous years, forcing drivers to pass GTE cars in high-speed corners.
“The GTEs have more mechanical grip, but even with the Le Mans aero kit we have much more downforce, so the closing speeds in the high-speed corners like Blanchimont and Eau Rouge are frightening,” Davidson told Motorsport.com.
“I think it’s why you are seeing more crashes, because the LMP2s know they have to get the move down and exploit their speed in the high-speed stuff, because it’s much harder now to just power past them in a straight line like we used to.
He added: “We’ve seen a lot of incidents this week because drivers are trying to adjust to the new closing speeds, and everyone’s a bit out of kilter – coming back to a circuit they know well, but the overtaking moves and the planning of those moves is now different to what they used to be.”
The current forecast suggests a second wet race at Spa in as many years, after the 2020 running of the event was also heavily affected by poor weather.
Davidson believes there is a possibility of a shock win for a GTE Pro entry if the weather doesn’t improve by Saturday, stressing the advantage GTE cars enjoy over LMP2 cars in the wet thanks to better quality tyres.
The 42-year-old gave the example of the 2015 Petit Le Mans round of the IMSA SportsCar Championship when Porsche claimed outright victory with its 911 RSR, beating the DPi contenders in a race shortened to just under eight hours due to appalling weather conditions.
“It looks like we’re going to have changeable weather, and we saw last year in the wet the GTEs were sometimes faster than the LMP2s, because they have better mechanical grip,” he said.
“If it’s wet, we could see a GTE winning the race outright, like Petit Le Mans a few years ago! I wouldn’t be surprised if the hypercars find a bit more pace if it’s dry, but so far it looks like that won’t be the case.”
The WEC Spa 6 Hours starts on Saturday May 1 at 1.30pm CET, with practice and qualifying scheduled on Thursday and Friday. All sessions of the event will be streamed live on Motorsport.tv.