Why WEC’s LMP1 handicaps are not working

After Toyota GAZOO Racing became the sole hybrid-powered LMP1 team, the ‘Success Handicap’ system in the LMP1 class hasn’t quite produced the close on-track battles that were initially intended.

The recent races of the 2019-2020 season of the FIA World Endurance Championship have seen very little action between the LMP1 cars, with the most recent round (five) in Austin showcasing a dull display of competition in the LMP1 class.

Toyota nonetheless sits comfortable at the top of the standings after COTA. The drivers of the #7 car are currently leading the drivers’ championship with 112 points, ahead of the drivers of the #8 car, who have 107 points.

The #1 Rebellion crew are third with 93 points, and in the manufacturers’ championship, Toyota leads Rebellion 126 points to 93.

At the Lone Star Le Mans, only the two Toyota GAZOO Racing hybrids and the #1 Rebellion Racing prototypes participated throughout the whole race weekend, following the absence of the two Ginetta LNT cars.

Throughout the six-hour-long race, the three cars rarely changed position as the Rebellion was untouched by the Toyotas who struggled to even match them on pace alone and the race wasted an opportunity in the sense that it only takes at least two participating LMP1s to battle throughout a race.

Kamui Kobayashi, of the championship-leading #7 Toyota GAZOO Racing car (who are affected most by the success handicap), labelled the Lone Star Le Mans event as a “joke” after the car finished two laps behind the winning #1 Rebellion.

Image Credit: TOYOTA GAZOO Racing

He told Motorsport.com: “I don’t understand. They say it’s a handicap, but it decides who is going to win.”

Since the departure of the Porsche LMP1 team at the end of the 2017-2018 season, ACO and the FIA established the ‘Equivalence of Technologies’ (EOT) rules to take place at the 2018-2019 WEC SuperSeason. They were formed in order to address the unfair advantage the Toyotas had over non-hybrid competitors, like the SMP Racing team.

The EOT rules would counter the fact that the four-wheel drive Toyotas will always be more efficient in wet weather conditions and also at a bumpy circuit like Sebring Raceway, which accommodates the Toyota’s more complex suspension systems.

The performance parameters that are adjusted as part of the EOT and the success handicap includes penalties related to (hybrid) boost usage, allocated fuel per stint and how much fuel can be used on a per lap basis (both specific on the hybrid cars – hence the lifting-and-coasting).

Thus the penalties are more heavily imposed in light of a race win and/or a lead in the championship standings.

LMP1 Success Handicap at COTA 2020 Lap Time Handicap Max. Boost Energy Released Max. Petrol Energy Max. Petrol Per Stint
#7 TOYOTA TS050 HYBRID +2.77 seconds 2.78 MJ per lap 51.9 MJ per lap 32.5 kg
#8 TOYOTA TS050 HYBRID +2.21 seconds 3.23 MJ per lap 52.8 MJ per lap 33 kg
#1 Rebellion R13 Gibson +0.55 seconds N/A Unlimited per lap 56.3 kg

But regardless of these implementations, the WEC SuperSeason itself saw the Toyotas dominant as ever, although they did often find themselves fighting with each other which is more than the likes of the current season.

Even so, WEC fans are not going to ponder the SuperSeason for the lack of an LMP1 title-fight that characterised the category throughout the whole season.

If we look back at the 4 Hours of Silverstone that kicked off the 2019-2020 season, not even the Toyotas could do battle with one another and hinted a flaw in the EOT system, therefore foreshadowing an imbalance of the success handicap.

In that race, the #7 Toyota faced a half-a-second lap delta handicap for its lead on seven points before the race itself. In the face of this initial deficit, the gap turned out to be more than nine-tenths.

A factor not particularly considered by ACO and the FIA is the traffic that comprises the action of a multi-class race. As the top and fastest class of car in the race, the LMP1s are faced with the exciting prospect of overtaking slower-class cars whilst they have their own battles.

A race where the success handicap’s flaw was revealed was the 4 Hours of Shanghai, because it was evident how far the Toyotas were pulled back as they were matching the pace of the lower LMP2 class and were even lapped by the leading non-hybrid-powered #1 Rebellion.

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Overall, the Toyotas struggled in the shadow of the handicaps, most notably on the championship-leading #7 car.

The LMP1 endurance prototypes existed to showcase the peak of the performance and technology that teams and manufacturers were capable of implementing.

The brutal reality is that ACO have eliminated any direct competition between the cars and instead into a competition where the focus is to ensure that the Toyotas are truly unable to win, meaning that the handicap rules were a careless measure brought upon an already delicate LMP1 category.

Alternatively, ACO could have orientated the success handicap rules in order to allow the #1 Rebellion to challenge the Toyotas in order to establish a title fight, being meticulous in regulating a balance of performance.

This sole objective through making it nearly impossible for the Toyotas to win on outright pace is a direct reaction from the dominance of the WEC SuperSeason and targets the #7 and #8 individual crews to have their efforts and investment disparaged by the regulations.

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However, with the majestic legacy of the LMP1 car soon coming to an end, it may be too late to act as only two out of the three races remaining (1000 Miles of Sebring and 6 Hours of Spa) will impose a success handicap for the LMP1.

Or perhaps this is still a chance where WEC fans can be treated to a total of 14 hours of close-LMP1 racing with the use of a fairer success handicap system.

SuperSebring may allow the Toyotas to battle one-another, as they are going to be split by just under half a second per lap as a result of the five-point gap between the cars in the standings.

The #1 Rebellion can theoretically face a + 1.5 second advantage against the Toyotas, but the fact that Toyotas are well-prepared for the demanding concrete surfaces could change things. Furthermore, this can present a dramatic title-showdown at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, despite no success handicap imposed throughout that race.

Aside from the potential, it’s clear that the success handicaps are an initial measure to not provoke closer racing like the Balance of Performance (BoP) does in the LM-GTE classes, but to eliminate what could have been an exciting send-off for the LMP1 category.

The success handicaps are not only impairing the highest class of endurance prototype racing, and denting WEC’s reputation, but are also deterring the likes of endurance fans who want to see the LMP1 category end on a high note.