So the new era finally starts. This weekend at Spa-Francorchamps, the FIA World Endurance Championship will kick back into life as the new Le Mans Hypercar (LMH) category takes its global bow.
The Spa 6 Hours heralds new hope for long-distance sports car racing as a raft of manufacturers, including Audi, Ferrari, Peugeot and Porsche, plot their return to a much-loved form of motorsport that has fallen into the doldrums in recent years, at least in terms of the premier division. Now a new golden age beckons – but just not yet.
It’s unfortunate that the new era will get off to a stuttering start, because there are just two new LMH cars on the entry list, and both are Toyotas. The Cologne-based Gazoo team, which almost single-handedly propped up the final years of the previous LMP1 era with its sophisticated (and expensive) TS050 Hybrids, was the first to commit to the LMH category – and, thankfully for the WEC, has been quick out of the gate with its new GR010 Hybrid. In contrast, Peugeot’s campaign will start next year, before the other ‘big three’ arrive in 2023.
Toyota was meant to be facing two LMH cars from American boutique hypercar specialist Scuderia Cameron Glickenhaus in Belgium, but owner Jim Glickenhaus has stuck by his word that he will enter his new SCG 007s only when they’re deemed to be ready. Hopefully that will be by Portimão in June and Monza in July, ahead of the pandemic-delayed Le Mans 24 Hours on 21/22 August.
For this weekend, that leaves the GR010s facing a lone Alpine A480, a ‘grandfathered’ non-hybrid LMP1 car that in its previous guise (as the Rebellion R13) beat Toyota’s TS050s on more than one occasion last season, thanks to the Equivalence of Technology handicapping system.
A similar Balance of Performance (BoP) formula now aims to even up the two cars built to entirely different rules. It’s an echo of the early Group C races in 1982, when the new Porsche 956 faced – and was beaten by – Lancia’s Group 6 LC1s. From those faltering first steps, Group C emerged as arguably the most competitive and best-loved sports car era. Here’s hoping history repeats – although Toyota won’t agree in the case of Spa.
Autocar caught up with GR010 driver Mike Conway during a break from testing at Circuit Paul Ricard, before the two-day WEC Prologue at Spa that ran this week ahead of the race. The 37-year-old from Kent was crowned world champion last year with team-mates Kamui Kobayashi and José María López and will once again face genuine (and, to Toyota’s credit, unimpeded) opposition from the sister car of Sébastien Buemi, Kazuki Nakajima and Brendon Hartley. Conway says he’s “excited” about the new era but can’t hide his regret that the car he will now race is heavily dialled down from the technical marvel that was the TS050.
“It’s still a prototype, still a sports car and still loads of fun to drive,” he says. “As you say, everything is dialled down: the downforce, the power, especially from the hybrid side… it’s quite a bit down. But we have more power now from the combustion engine. It’s not quite as quick – we’ll be slower – but that was the target from [organiser] the ACO and the FIA to make a car that’s more budget-friendly and will work across different championships. They’ve achieved what they set out to do.