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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.

Max Verstappen shows speed in Austria; Lewis Hamilton lacking pace

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SPIELBERG, Austria — Red Bull driver Max Verstappen posted the fastest time Friday, and six-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton lacked pace in the second practice session for the Styrian Grand Prix.

Verstappen was 0.043 seconds quicker than Valtteri Bottas – Hamilton’s teammate at Mercedes – and 0.217 ahead of Racing Point driver Sergio Perez.

“The car already feels better than last week, the balance is a lot nicer and we have made a good step,” said Verstappen, who did not finish last Sunday’s season-opening Austrian GP after starting from second.

“It is too early to say how we are looking against Mercedes, but we are quite happy. We have tried a few different directions to understand the car a bit more and we are heading the right way.”

Hamilton was only sixth fastest, about 0.7 seconds slower than Verstappen. Hamilton spent a chunk of time in the garage while his team worked on his car.

“It was quite far off, so there’s a lot of work to do in the background to figure it out,” he said. “Others out there are quick and Valtteri’s obviously got good pace.”

Despite adding a new front wing to its car, struggling Ferrari had a dismal afternoon.

Charles Leclerc was only ninth quickest and 1 second slower than Verstappen, while teammate Sebastian Vettel lagged about 2 seconds behind Verstappen in 16th.

Daniel Ricciardo lost control of his Renault car early into the second session, swerving left off the track and thudding backward into a protective tire wall. He climbed out unharmed, other than a slight limp, but the left rear tire was mangled and the car was lifted off the track by a crane.

Alexander Albon spun twice, the Red Bull driver’s second spin taking him right off the track and into gravel.

Earlier, Perez was fastest in the first practice ahead of Verstappen and Bottas, with Hamilton fourth quickest and Vettel only 10th in sunny conditions.

That session was briefly interrupted when Nicholas Latifi’s Williams car pulled over to the side with a gearbox issue.

The incident brought out yellow flags, forcing drivers to slow down. But McLaren driver Lando Norris overtook Pierre Gasly’s AlphaTauri and got a three-place grid penalty for Sunday’s race.

Norris, 20, finished third at the Austrian GP last weekend, becoming the youngest British driver in F1 history to get on the podium and third youngest in F1.

The upcoming race is changing names from last week but is at the same track. It is surrounded by the Styrian mountains.

A third and final practice will be held on Saturday morning before qualifying in the afternoon, with heavy rain and storms in the forecast.

If third practice and qualifying are washed out, drivers take their grid positions from where they placed in second practice.

“It would definitely suck if we didn’t get to qualify,” said Hamilton, who started fifth and finished fourth last weekend. “It would make it challenging.”

However, qualifying also could be moved to Sunday morning.

“I don’t expect to be on pole position with this (practice) lap,” Verstappen said.