In less than two weeks time Porsche will be competing in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The team has competed continually since the early 1950s, and this is their 3rd outing in the 919 Hybrid. While every year is important, this year is especially so as Porsche are both the current title defenders and the leaders in both the manufacturers' and drivers' classifications of the 2016 World Endurance Championship. In preparation for the race, Porsche relies on a team of masterful strategists to plan each move of the race much like a chess master would prepare for a match; playing 'what-if' scenarios over and over again.
Porsche's Team Strategists
While Porsche's LMP1 team is literally comprised of 100s of players (taking into account R&D, transportation and logistics, drivers, crew, support, etc.) the key strategists are:
- Team Principal Andreas Seidl
- Chief Race Engineer Stephen Mitas (AU)
- Strategy Engineer Pascal Zurlinden (FR)
- Vehicle Race Engineers Kyle Wilson-Clarke (GB, car number 1) and Jeromy Moore (AU, car number 2)
Seidl and team work countless hours ahead of the race planning the optimum strategy if all goes according to plan. However, it's a 24 hour race and the chances of things going as planned across all 24 hours is quite slim. That's where the "what-if" scenarios come in. What if this happens, or that? How will Porsche react? It's the strategist job to come up with those reactions ahead of time. How they react and how the team responds to each scenario is what will make or break their race. Here are the five factors they look at the most:
1. Refueling Stops
Porsche knows the importance of fuelling stops, and has a history of turning fuel efficiency into strong race performances. In 1980, a high measure of efficiency took the 924 GTP from a best qualifying position of 36th to a 6th overall finish, with just 56 minutes spent in the pits over 24 hours for fuel and service. For the 919 Hybrid, pit strategy will be just as important. The car's 62.5 liter fuel tank is expected to last 14 laps, a sum the total race length is not expected to be evenly divisible by. Porsche notes that at some point the car will stop for a partial fill of fuel to try to even the distance. The full load of fuel weighs 44 kilo, and the difference between a full and empty tank is said to account for some 2 seconds per lap.
2. Tire Changes and Strategy
As in Formula 1, or even NASCAR, tire strategy will prove critical for the Porsche team. According to Andreas Seidl “In Le Mans in 2015, our longest distance with one set of tires for a car was 54 laps. This means we refuelled three times without changing the tires. From their best to their worst performance – adjusted for the effects of fuel – the tires lost roughly 1.6 seconds per lap." Pit stops involving tire changes are invariably longer than those without, and the team quotes pit stop times of about twenty seconds slower with a tire change than without. The current tire rules require narrower tires than used in past years to improve fuel efficiency. More information can be found here.
3. The Drivers
The Porsche team is fielding two cars this year, neither of which include the winning team from last year. The present teams, comprising Brendon Hartley, Timo Bernhard and Mark Webber in the number 1 car, alongside Neel Jani, Romain Dumas, Marc Lieb in the number 2 car are both immensely capable. According to Seidl any of the drivers can manage a 54-lap quadruple stint in the middle of the night. WEC racing rules stipulate that each driver must drive six hours of the total distance, and no driver may drive more than four hours of every six, nor may any driver drive more than 14-hours of the total race. Using driver's efficiently and effectively is a major part of the overall strategy.
Because of these conditions, Porsche must decide how to make best use of each of its drivers over the course of the full event. Each driver must be considered for what they bring to the table, and the team notes the need for a cool head in the race's combative early stages, as well as the prestige of being the driver to take the car over the line at the race's conclusion. Information not only on driver strategy, but the driver's workload can be found here.
4. Accidents and Repairs
Over the course of 24 hours, accidents are nigh on inevitable. Porsche driver Mark Webber was involved in one of the most famous Le Mans accidents of the modern era while racing with Mercedes-AMG in 1999. Most accidents are much less cut-and-dry, and often the cars will require substantial assessment by the team through both telemetry and replays to determine if a car needs to come in for a major service following an impact.
5. The Speed of the Pit Crew
As noted the difference in the speed of pit services can vary immensely depending on what is required; with the fastest refueling stop taking just 51.3 seconds and the fastest refueling, tire and driver change taking fully 1 minute, 13.9 seconds. At the 2015 race the Porsche 919s spent a combined 95 minutes and 36 seconds in the pits. This performance was not only 35 minutes faster than the nearest competitor with three cars, but only 39 minutes more time than a single Porsche race car spent in the pits in 1981.
Pit rules are every bit as complex as driver regulations, and effectively prohibit 12-second NASCAR-style pit stops with up to 12 crew members present. According to the regulations, only two crew members may refuel, and refueling and tire changes may not be undertaken simultaneously as the wheels must be on the ground during refueling. Prior to the race the pit crew drills countless scenarios in order to be as prepared as possible for any eventuality.
In addition to being the world's oldest sports car endurance race still running, the 24 Hours of Le Mans is one of the toughest races on the planet. As Mark Webber puts it "“Le Mans is brutal. Before you start thinking about the rivals, you first have to conquer the race itself.”