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.

2023 Rolex 24 at Daytona: Schedule, TV info, start times, entry lists, notable drivers, more

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The new year brings the start of a new era for the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, which will open the 2023 schedule with the 61st running of the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

A new premier class for prototypes is the overriding story entering the 24-hour endurance race that unofficially kicks off the major-league racing season.

The new Le Mans Daytona hybrid (LMDh) cars of the Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) top category will re-establish a bridge to the 24 Hours of Le Mans while bringing a new layer of engine electrification to IMSA.

With at least a few of the cars on the grid at Daytona also slated to race at Le Mans in June, it’s possible for the first time in decades (since the “Ford vs. Ferrari” battles) to have the same car win the overall title at Daytona and Le Mans.

The GTP category will feature four manufacturers, two of which are new to IMSA’s premier division. Porsche Motorsport (with Team Penske) and BMW (with Rahal Letterman Lanigan) will be fielding LMDh prototypes, joining (now-defunct) DPi category holdovers Acura (Meyer Shank Racing, Wayne Taylor Racing) and Cadillac (Chip Ganassi Racing, Action Express Racing).

Here’s what else you need to know ahead of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season opener Jan. 29-30 at Daytona International Speedway:


NOTABLE DRIVER ADDITIONS 

The Rolex 24 will feature 10 active drivers from the NTT IndyCar Series, including the IMSA debuts of Team Penske drivers Josef Newgarden and Scott McLaughlin, who will be teamed in an LMP2 entry (teammate Will Power unfortunately had to withdraw from this debut).

Colton Herta will move into the GTP category with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud return with Meyer Shank Racing to defend their overall 2022 Rolex 24 victory. Scott Dixon also returns in the premier category with Chip Ganassi Racing for his 20th Rolex 24 start and third consecutive in the No. 01 Cadillac.

Other IndyCar drivers in the field: Romain Grosjean will make his debut in GTD Pro with Iron Lynx Racing (as a precursor to driving a GTP Lamborghini next year); Devlin DeFrancesco (Rick Ware Racing) and Rinus VeeKay (TDS Racing) are in LMP2; and Kyle Kirkwood will return in GTD with Vasser Sullivan.

Daytona 500 winner Austin Cindric also will return, teaming with DeFrancesco in an LMP2 entry for Rick Ware Racing.


CAR COUNT

The Rolex 24 field was capped at 61 cars, matching last year’s field (which was the largest since 2014). The field was capped because of the space limitations for the LMDh cars of GTP in the pits and garages.

Click here for the official 2023 Rolex 24 at Daytona entry list.


STARTING LINEUP

Tom Blomqvist captured the first pole position of the GTP era, qualifying defending race winner Meyer Shank Racing in first with the No. 60 ARX-06 Acura that he shares with Colin Braun, Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud.

The No. 7 Porsche 963 of Porsche Penske Motorsports will start second.

Click here for the 2023 Rolex 24 at Daytona starting lineup


RACE BROADCAST

The 61st Rolex 24 at Daytona will be streamed across the NBC Sports AppNBCSports.com and Peacock, which will have coverage of the event from flag to flag.

Broadcast coverage of the race coverage will begin Saturday, Jan. 28 at 1:30 p.m. ET on NBC and move to USA Network from 2:30-8 p.m. and then will be exclusively on Peacock and IMSA.TV from 8-10 p.m. Coverage will return to USA Network from 10 p.m. to midnight and then move to Peacock/IMSA.TV until 6 a.m.

From 6 a.m. until noon on Sunday, Jan. 29, Rolex 24 coverage will be available on USA Network. The conclusion of the Rolex 24 will run from noon through 2 p.m. on NBC.

HOW TO WATCH IMSA ON NBC SPORTS: Broadcast schedule for 2023

Other events that will be streamed on Peacock from Daytona during January (all times ET):

Jan. 21: IMSA VP Racing Sports Car Challenge, 2:05 p.m.

Jan. 22: IMSA VP Racing Sports Car Challenge, 12:20 p.m.

Jan. 22: IMSA Rolex 24 qualifying, 1:25 p.m.

Jan. 27: BMW Endurance Michelin Pilot Challenge, 1:45 p.m.


ROLEX 24 COVERAGE FROM NBC SPORTS

Wayne Taylor Racing takes a step up to the next level with Andretti Autosport

Austin Cindric seeks to join legendary club of Rolex 24-Daytona 500 winners

Helio Castroneves recalls “Days of Thunder” moment in 2022 Rolex 24 victory

The “Bus Bros” tackle the “Bus Stop” for Rolex 24 at Daytona debuts

Romain Grosjean adds Rolex 24 at Daytona to his crown jewel career

Tom Blomqvist beats the clock to win Rolex 24 at Daytona pole position

GTP cars make debut in “Gymkhana”-level traffic

Five things to watch in the new GTP class as a golden era of sports cars returns

Cadillac unveils paint schemes for LMDh cars

Austin Cindric, Devlin DeFrancesco, Pietro Fittipaldi teaming up in LMP2

IndyCar drivers in the 61st Rolex 24


ROLEX 24 DAILY SCHEDULE, START TIMES

Here’s a rundown of everything happening at Daytona International Speedway over the last two weeks in January, starting with the Roar test session. Rolex 24 start times and full schedule:

Wednesday, Jan. 18

7 a.m.: GTP garages open

4 p.m.: Non-GTP garages open

4 p.m.: IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship haulers load-in (park only)

6:30 p.m.: Non-GTP garages close

9:30 p.m.: GTP garages close

Thursday, Jan. 19

7 a.m.: Garages, IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship haulers open

8:30 a.m.: IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship safety inspection

10 a.m.: Rolex 24 Media Day

2 p.m.: Michelin Pilot Challenge driver and team manager briefing

3 p.m.: IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship driver and team manager briefing

5:15 p.m.: Track walk

7:30 p.m.: Non-GTP garages close

9:30 p.m.: GTP garages close

Friday, Jan. 20

7 a.m.: Garages open

8:45-9:15 a.m.: VP Racing SportsCar Challenge practice

9:30-10:45 a.m.: Michelin Pilot Challenge practice

11 a.m.-12:30 p.m.: IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship practice

1:45-2:15 p.m.: VP Racing SportsCar Challenge practice

2:30-4 p.m.: Michelin Pilot Challenge practice

4:15-6 p.m.: IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship practice (GTD/LMP3/LMP2 4:15-5:45; 4:30-6: GTD Pro, GTP)

8 p.m.: Non-GTP garages close

9:30 p.m.: GTP garages close

Saturday, Jan. 21

7 a.m.: Garages open

8:40-9:15 a.m.: VP Racing SportsCar Challenge qualifying

9:30-11 a.m.: Michelin Pilot Challenge practice

11:15 a.m.-12:45 p.m.: IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship practice

2:05-2:50 p.m.: VP Racing SportsCar Challenge, Race 1 (streaming on Peacock)

3:10 p.m.: IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship practice

4:30-5:30 p.m.: Michelin Pilot Challenge practice

6:30-8:30 p.m.: IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship practice

10 p.m.: Garages close

Sunday, Jan. 22

7 a.m.: Garages open

10:15-11:15 a.m.: Michelin Pilot Challenge practice

12:20-1:05 p.m.: VP Racing SportsCar Challenge, Race 2 (streaming on Peacock)

1:25-3 p.m.: IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Rolex 24 qualifying (streaming on Peacock)

8:30 p.m.: Garages close

Wednesday, Jan. 25

6 a.m.: Garages open

7:30-10 a.m.: IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship safety inspection, non-GTP

8 a.m.: Mazda MX-5 load-in

10-11:30 a.m.: Track walk

10 a.m.-noon: IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship car photos

11:30 a.m.: Michelin Pilot Challenge team manager briefing

Noon: IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship team manager briefing

12:30 p.m.: IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship new driver briefing

Noon-2 p.m.: IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship safety and technical inspection, non-GTP

1:45-2:30 p.m.: Mazda MX-5 practice

2:45-3:45 p.m.: Michelin Pilot Challenge practice

2:30-7:30 p.m.: IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship safety inspection, GTP only

4-5:30 p.m.: Track walk

6:45 p.m.: Garages close

Thursday, Jan. 26

7 a.m.: Garages open

9-9:30 a.m.: Mazda MX-5 practice

9:45-10:45 a.m.: Michelin Pilot Challenge practice

11:05 a.m.-12:35 p.m.: IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship practice

12:55-1:10 p.m.: Mazda MX-5 qualifying

2:25-3 p.m.: Michelin Pilot Challenge qualifying

3:20-5:05 p.m.: IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship practice (3:20-5:05: GTD, LMP3, LMP2; 3:35-5:05: GTD Pro, GTP)

5:30-6:15 p.m.: Mazda MX-5, Race 1

7:15-9 p.m.: IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship practice

10:15 p.m.: Garages close

Friday, Jan. 27

7 a.m.: Garages open

9:25-9:55 a.m.: Michelin Pilot Challenge practice

10:15-11 a.m.: Mazda MX-5, Race 2

10:30 a.m.: Michelin Pilot Challenge driver and team manager briefing

11:20 a.m.-12:20 p.m.: IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship practice

1:45-5:45 p.m.: BMW M Endurance Challenge at Daytona (Michelin Pilot Challenge; streaming on Peacock)

8:45 p.m.: Garages close

Saturday, Jan. 28

6:30 a.m.: Garages open

9:45 a.m.: IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship driver and team manager briefing

12:30-12:40 p.m.: Rolex 24 engine warmup

1:30-1:40 p.m.: Rolex 24 formation laps

1:40 p.m.: The 61st Rolex 24 at Daytona (starting on NBC; streaming flag to flag on Peacock)

Sunday, Jan. 29

1:40 p.m.: Finish of the 61st Rolex 24 at Daytona

7:30 p.m.: Garages close