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FIA WEC 2016 Season Preview: Can Porsche repeat its ’15 success?

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SILVERSTONE – Since enjoying its inaugural campaign back in 2012, the FIA World Endurance Championship has firmly established itself as one of the premier sports car series in the world fit for some of the biggest car manufacturers on the planet.

This 2016 campaign marks the fifth season of the WEC, meaning it is perhaps unfair to still be talking about how great it is to have one unified, cohesive racing season with the 24 Hours of Le Mans as its centrepiece.

The rapid growth of the WEC means that it is now being seen as a serious alternative to other major championships such as Formula 1 and IndyCar for both drivers and teams.

Season five is set to be the biggest yet for the WEC, both in terms of car count and race schedule.

With Mexico on board, the calendar expands from the usual eight to nine races. Meanwhile a field of 33 is set for the season, without the usual drop-offs like in years past. Manor and SMP Racing enter into LMP2 for the full season, while perhaps the biggest story set to develop is Ford’s entry into the championship in collaboration with Chip Ganassi Racing and Multimatic.

FIA WEC 2016 – Storylines for the season

Porsche faces the weight of expectation

Porsche enters 2016 with an enormous act to follow. Despite only clinching the drivers’ LMP1 championship at the last minute in Bahrain last year, Porsche led the pack for the bulk of the season with its two 919 Hybrid cars.

The German marque enters 2016 defending a streak of six consecutive race wins and nine straight pole positions, with the trio of Mark Webber, Timo Bernhard and Brendon Hartley bidding to defend their world championships. Yet with Audi and Toyota both working tirelessly over the winter to cut the gap, and both with new cars compared to the 919 evolution, nothing is assured.

In GTE Pro, Porsche has dropped its full WEC programme in favor of backing one privateer team. Richard Lietz will defend his GT drivers’ title with the Dempsey Proton team which steps up from GTE Am, once again teaming up with 2015 partner Michael Christensen.

Audi, Toyota return with renewed vigor

Audi and Toyota were both left speechless following Porsche’s success last year, unable to answer the relentless pace laid down at the front of the field over one lap and struggling to hang on in the race.

For Audi, missing out on the WEC titles for the second year in a row was a big disappointment, as was losing its Le Mans title for the first time since 2009 and just the third since the turn of the century.

In response, the R18 car has been given a raft of upgrades, while the move to the 6MJ energy class will allow it to double to amount of hybrid power available. Issues in pre-season testing offered little encouragement, yet with the experience and prowess Audi boasts, it would be foolish to write it off.

Toyota’s title defence in 2016 was, putting it kindly, tame. Just two podium finishes came the way of the Japanese team, prompting it to switch focus to 2016 early and bring forward the planned improvements for 2017.

A new red and white livery graces the TS050 Hybrid for 2016, which has also been bumped up to the 8MJ class alongside Porsche’s 919 Hybrid, making it the most powerful car on the grid. Quite whether the success of 2014 can be emulated this year remains to be seen though.

No Le Mans title defence for Hulkenberg, Tandy and Bamber

Following the emissions scandal that engulfed the Volkswagen Group in the second half of 2015, the decision was taken by its board to cut its brands’ Le Mans entries down from three to two for the new year.

Audi and Porsche will both be reduced down to their usual pair of full season cars for Le Mans, meaning that Nico Hulkenberg, Nick Tandy and Earl Bamber will not defend their crown in June. Hulkenberg would have been prevented from doing so by the clash with the Formula 1 race in Azerbaijan that weekend regardless.

Bamber and Tandy will both be at Le Mans in June racing for Porsche in the GTE Pro class in separate 911 RSRs, yet the decision to cut back to two LMP1 entries will nevertheless ramp up the pressure on at the front. It may yet create an opportunity for Toyota, who is still yet to win the twice around the clock classic.

Even with these withdrawals, the grid at the Circuit de la Sarthe is set to stand at 60 entries, proving that endurance racing is in very good shape indeed.

Stemming from this, the clash with the European Grand Prix in Azerbaijan will be an interesting test of where the WEC stands compared to F1. The scheduling has not been received well; WEC CEO Gerard Neveu even suggested it was a deliberate ploy. Yet if Le Mans is all anyone is talking about on the Monday, it would be a big victory for the series.

Manor gets the band back together

One of the new arrivals on the FIA WEC grid this year is Manor. That’s not the same as the Manor Racing Formula 1 team, but is the same as old Manor who raced in F1 last year – dubbed ‘real’ Manor by bosses John Booth and Graeme Lowdon.

After falling out with F1 team owner Stephen Fitzpatrick, Booth and Lowdon resigned from Manor at the end of last year and opted to enter the WEC with their own LMP2 team.

The Manor identity remains fiercely strong. The logo is the same, as are the colors of the car. Even most of the drivers are the same: Will Stevens and Roberto Merhi will both make their WEC debuts at Silverstone, while IndyCar’s James Jakes and sports car veteran Tor Graves also rejoin the team they raced for in junior formulae. Matthew Rao and Le Mans LMP2 winner Richard Bradley complete the lineup, although Merhi, Rao and Bradley remain in search of a Le Mans seat as the second Manor entry came too late to receive a Le Mans entry.

With a pair of Oreca 05 Nissans, Manor will be hoping to get on the pace as soon as possible. Even if their competitiveness remains unclear at this early stage, what is for certain is that the WEC is richer for having such a dedicated group of racers join the grid.

Ford hopes to rekindle the spirit of ’66

Fifty years on from Ford’s one-two-three finish at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the American manufacturer returns to the top line of GT racing this year in collaboration with Chip Ganassi Racing and a pair of fearsome looking Ford GTs for the full season.

It is an exciting time for the GTE Pro class, with Ford’s arrival marking the beginning of a four-way fight with Porsche, Ferrari and Aston Martin that should be relished and treasured.

The Ford GT made its race debut at Daytona earlier this year, and showed well at the Prologue in pre-season. The experienced offered by its drivers also gives it a boost: Stefan Mucke, Olivier Pla and Billy Johnson run in the No. 66, while Andy Priaulx and Marino Franchitti are joined by highly-rated youngster Harry Tincknell in the No. 67.

At Le Mans, sports car veterans Joey Hand, Dirk Mueller and Richard Westbrook and open-wheel stars Scott Dixon, Sebastien Bourdais and Ryan Briscoe are split in another pair of Ford GTs, to form a fearsome foursome.

At a time when manufacturers are increasingly wary about upping their involvement in top-level motorsport, to have one of Ford’s might join the WEC is a huge credit to the series – for as long as they participate. Now the challenge will be proving it is competitive from the outset to rekindle the spirit of ’66.

FIA WEC 2016 – Calendar

1. 6 Hours of Silverstone – April 17
2. 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps – May 7
3. 24 Hours of Le Mans – June 19
4. 6 Hours of Nurburgring – July 24
5. 6 Hours of Mexico City – September 4
6. 6 Hours of Circuit of The Americas – September 18
7. 6 Hours of Fuji – October 16
8. 6 Hours of Shanghai – November 6
9. 6 Hours of Bahrain – November 20

FIA WEC 2016 – Class by class

LMP1

Porsche will be pushing to repeat its emphatic success in 2015 by defending both the drivers’ and manufacturers’ championships. Webber, Hartley and Bernhard will carry the No. 1 this year on their car, while teammates Romain Dumas, Marc Lieb and Neel Jani remain together in the second 919 Hybrid. If their pace in the Prologue is anything to go by, Porsche will be the team to beat once again.

Audi and Toyota will not go down without a fight though. Both have changed their hybrid classes and made significant changes to their cars in a bid to cut the gap, while Kamui Kobayashi replaces the retired Alexander Wurz in the No. 6 Toyota car.

Rebellion Racing and ByKolles will once again battle for privateer LMP1 honors, the latter signing Formula E champion Nelson Piquet Jr. to join peers Nicolas Prost and Nick Heidfeld in the No. 12 car for a partial season.

LMP2

Much has changed in LMP2, owing in large part to impending new 2017 regulations that may reshape the class. Still, the 11 cars present this year are high quality entrants, including new class arrivals Manor and SMP Racing each with two cars.

G-Drive Racing will be bidding to defend its title, although Roman Rusinov is the sole remaining member of the trio that won the drivers’ championship in LMP2 last year after Sam Bird and Julien Canal’s moves away. The team will be run by Jota Sport this year with just one Oreca 05 Nissan in the field. The second G-Drive (Jota) Gibson will race in the European Le Mans Series and at Le Mans.

American team Tequila Patron ESM once again has two cars set for the full season, while the likes of Signatech Alpine and Strakka Racing also return. RGR Sport by Morand becomes the first Mexican team in the WEC, entering LMP2 with a Ligier car for 2016.

LMP2 is burgeoning with highly talented young drivers beyond established sports car aces. Pipo Derani stole the show at both Daytona and Sebring earlier this year, while the likes of Gustavo Menezes, Matt Rao and ex-GP2 racers Stephane Richelmi and Nathanael Berthon will hope to impress.

GTE Pro

The biggest news ahead of the new GTE Pro season may be the arrival of Ford and Porsche’s decision to end its factory effort, yet there are many other stories to be told.

The Ferrari-backed AF Corse squad will debut the new F488 GTE car at Silverstone, with GT racing legend Gianmaria Bruni being joined in the No. 51 car by Britain’s James Calado, whose place in the sister No. 71 car is taken by his good friend, Sam Bird.

Aston Martin Racing enters the new campaign keen to make up for a tough 2015, largely blighted by the Balance of Performance measurements, and switches from Michelin to Dunlop tires. Meanwhile it will be interesting to see how the Porsche-supported privateer entry, the Dempsey Proton team, gets on in the face of the incredible competition ahead.

GTE Am

With defending champions SMP Racing moving on up to LMP2, AF Corse takes up the mantle for Ferrari with its F458 Italia. The triumvirate of Francois Period, Manu Collard and Rui Aguas has bags of experience, and will enter the new campaign as the tentative favorites.

However, Aston Martin Racing will be keen to make good on the early pace it showed in 2015, with Paul Dalla Lana, Pedro Lamy and Mathias Lauda sharing the No. 98 V8 Vantage once again this season. As the only team racing on Dunlop tires instead of Michelins, the AMR boys could have a unique edge at times this year.

KCMG moves in the opposite direction to SMP Racing, switching focus from LMP2 to GTE Am, while the powder blue and orange Gulf livery will now be present on a Porsche 911 RSR in GTE Am, entered by Gulf Racing. Larbre Competition returns with the only Corvette on the grid, while Abu Dhabi Proton Racing returns for another year, with Patrick Long joining from the Dempsey team.

Alexander Rossi hopes to dodge oncoming traffic in second Baja 1000

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One of the great viral videos of last year’s offseason was the sight of Alexander Rossi’s Honda Ridgeline off-road vehicle and its near head-on collision with a passenger SUV coming in the wrong direction of last year’s Baja 1000.

The video of the incident overshadowed an outstanding debut for Rossi in the SCORE OFF Road Desert race.

Rossi (pictured above on the right along with fellow driver Jeff Proctor) told NBCSports.com that driving down the same roads still used by passenger traffic is one of the unique challenges of the Baja 1000.

“The most demanding form of racing is IndyCar racing,” Rossi told NBC Sports.com. “But the big thing for me in the Baja 1000 is mentally being able to understand the terrain that is coming at you at 120 miles an hour in the dust and pedestrians and other cars, people and cattle that come along with this race.”

Rossi is becoming a modern-day Parnelli Jones, A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti. He wants to race anything on wheels and win.

Since the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season concluded with the Sept. 22 Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey, Rossi competed in the Bathurst 1000 in Australia on Oct. 13. Earlier this year, Rossi drove for Acura Team Penske in the Rolex 24 at Daytona and the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring.

This weekend, the winner of the 100th Indianapolis 500 in 2016 and a perennial contender for the NTT IndyCar Series championship will compete in the Baja 1000 for the second straight year.

Rossi will be driving for the Honda Ridgeline Racing team and is the sixth Indy 500 winner to compete in the Baja 1000.

Other Indy 500 winners who have raced in the SCORE Baja 1000 include Jones, the 1963 Indianapolis winner and a two-time Baja 1000 race winner (1971 72); fellow Honda IndyCar Series driver and Andretti Autosport teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay, the Indy winner in 2014; Rick Mears, who won the Indianapolis 500 four times, 1985 Indy 500 champion Danny Sullivan and 2004 Indy winner Buddy Rice.

NTT IndyCar season champions who have raced in the Baja 1000 include Mears, Hunter-Reay, Sebastien Bourdais, Jimmy Vasser and Paul Tracy.

Rossi has a better understanding of what to expect in this year’s Baja 1000 after last year’s rookie experience.

How valuable was last years’ experience?

“It’s hugely valuable,” Rossi said. “The course changes each year. There will be some elements that are the same, but it’s a new route from start to finish this year. That is why we go down a week early. We do pre-running in a similar type of vehicle and take course notes and analyze each individual section of the course, find the danger areas and what you need to do come race day.

“Ultimately, the biggest thing is having the knowledge of how to prepare for the race and what to expect once you roll off the starting line. That is something I will have going for me this year that I didn’t have last year.”

As an off-road rookie, Rossi acclimated to the demands of desert racing as the Jeff Proctor-led Honda Off-Road Racing Team finished second in Class 7. It was the fourth consecutive time the team finished first or second in the Ridgeline Baja Race Truck at the Baja 1000.

“I don’t know that I can pinpoint any highlights other than just the whole experience,” Rossi said of last years’ experience. “The whole week and a half I had down there in 2018 was phenomenal. The team made me feel part of the family from Day One. I just love driving a desert truck through Baja California. It’s an experience unlike any other.

“The entire event was a highlight more than one specific moment.”

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Driving an off-road Honda Ridgeline through the desert of Baja California in Mexico is vastly different than Rossi’s regular ride in the No. 27 NAPA Honda in the NTT IndyCar Series. But Rossi believes there are many similarities, also.

“It’s very different, for obvious reasons, but ultimately, a race car is a race car,” Rossi said. “It has four wheels, and you are trying to get it from Point A to Point B quicker than other people. The general underlying techniques of getting a car through the corner efficiently is all the same; it’s just a different style.

“Everyone here is very talented at what they do and very good so in order to win this race, you have to be at the top of your game.”

The Baja 1000, like most forms of off-road racing, is more against the clock than a wheel-to-wheel competition such as IndyCar. Rossi believes it is a different form of endurance racing, similar to IMSA in many ways.

“You have to compare it like an endurance race,” Rossi said. “It’s a race where the first part of it, you are trying to get through and not take chances and stay in touch with the people you are trying to stay in touch with.

“When you get down to the final 20 to 30 percent, that is when you try to either close the lead of extend the lead of whatever position you are in. That is similar to the Rolex 24 at Daytona. It comes down to the last three or four hours, and we take a mentality closer to that.

“The only difference is if you get it wrong at Daytona, you spin in the grass. Here, it can be more dramatic than that.”

As an off-road rookie in 2018, Rossi acclimated to the demands of desert racing as the Jeff Proctor-led Honda Off-Road Racing Team finished second in Class 7. It was the fourth consecutive time the team finished first or second in the Ridgeline Baja Race Truck at the Baja 1000.

“The Honda off-road guys and my co-driver/navigator Evan Weller make it so easy for me to just jump right in and go to work,” Rossi said. “I can’t wait to share the seat with Jeff [Proctor] and Pat [Dailey] once again, and hopefully, bring home a win.”

The Honda Off-Road Racing Team has had an outstanding 2019 season, including class wins for the Baja Ridgeline Race Truck at the Parker 425, the Mint 400 and the Baja 500; where the team successfully debuted the second-generation “TSCO” chassis; and a second-place Class 7 finish at the Vegas-to-Reno event.

Proctor won his class in the Baja 1000 in both 2015 and 2016 with the Ridgeline, finished second in class in 2017 and 2018; and won the companion SCORE Baja 500 race both in 2016, 2018 and again earlier this year. The Ridgeline competes in Class 7, for unlimited six-cylinder production-appearing trucks and SUVs.

“We are stoked to have Alexander back racing with us in Mexico for his sophomore attempt at this iconic off-road race,” Proctor said. “This year’s 52nd annual Baja 1000 course covers ALL of the toughest terrain and areas in Baja Norte….as always, it will be tough.

“Alex is one of the brightest motorsports minds I’ve worked with, and he is a great asset to our team.”

The Baja 1000 begins Friday and runs through the weekend along the Baja Peninsula of Mexico.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500