LMP1-H Tribute: The early years of the WEC and Audi’s continued success

The first of a three-part tribute to the LMP1-Hybrid reminisces to the early years of the WEC and the category’s official birth in 2012.

After eight years of the LMP1-Hybrid, the leading endurance category/car will now retire and make way for the Le Mans Hypercar era.

The Le Mans Prototype 1 class has stood long as the leading category in global endurance racing.

However, that category once again faces a transformation into what will be a new era of Le Mans Hypercar.

While the LMP1 dates back through several decades, the most recent and dramatic change was the introduction of the LMP1-Hybrid in 2012.

We will explore the life of this category that spanned eight years of service, from the early days of the WEC, right down to the final days when the LMP1-H found itself at its own demise.

The story of LMP1 stretches as far back as the late 90s, when the evolved Group C Prototype regulations were becoming old and outdated.

So, along with the GT1, there was the introduction of the LMP900 which featured the earliest LMP1 cars with their open-top cockpits, to the official LMP1 regulations of 2004.

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The 2000s were filled with Audi’s domination in sportscar racing, but it was not until 2012 when the Automobile Club l’Ouest (ACO) had made revolutionary adjustments, rather than evolutionary, to introduce the LMP1-Hybrid.

The President of the ACO, Jean-Claude Plassart, was to step down from his nine years in such a role to hand down to then Vice President Pierre Fillon.

Gérard Neveu would become the Manager of the FIA WEC, and would do so until December of 2020.

Manufacturers would be able to enter the LMP1-H category to pursue its leading development with Hybrid technology, along with the significantly higher costs, while privateers would continue in LMP1 (non-Hybrid).

The Intercontinental Le Mans Cup saw a revitalisation to gain world championship status and become the FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC) – the name that has stuck since 2012.

This new start featured global manufacturers and their best Le Mans Prototypes but with the hybrid powertrain, utilising Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems (KERS) as assistance.

Combined with such an elevated label, the ACO and the FIA were sure to have fans reminisce over the racing ahead.

Audi’s dominant form was no surprise given their interests in LMP1-H. They were keen to combine the electric drive with their outgoing diesel powertrain that would form the basis of their e-tron Quattro – the combustion engine powering the rear wheels and an electric drive powering the front, with energy naturally retrieved from braking.

Toyota had been left without any full pursuit of a world championship since concluding their costly Formula 1 programme in 2009, but a return to Le Mans and endurance racing would be what they needed after crucially missing out on a victory in 1998.

Even if their last appearance was during ’99 in the LMGTP class, their sportscar racing heritage dated back to 1983.

As for Peugeot, they needed to show their winning material after ending Audi’s streak in 2009, but also facing one of the most notable defeats in the history of Le Mans.

However, their story in the WEC turned out to be short-lived as they exited the world championship before it had even began.

Oddly enough, their announcement was made on the day of the deadline to apply for an entry in the WEC.

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At the 2011 Le Mans 24 Hours, Peugeot hinted their intentions to go in the new direction of Hybrid technology with their 908 Hybrid4, having unveiled an earlier 908 Hybrid variant back at the 2008 Paris Motor Show.

Peugeot factory driver Anthony Davidson had been competing with the manufacturer since 2010 and appeared to have not been told about Peugeot’s exit.

At the 2012 Autosport International Auto Show, he said in an interview how he looked forward to the future battles with the return of Toyota and even the launch of the 508 HYbrid4 street car.

“This year we’re going to Brazil (2012 6 Hours of Sao Paulo) at 800m above sea level, and in a turbo car, with the diesel turbo, that’s going to be a huge advantage…” he said while explaining the performance leveling that would take place (Equivalence of Technology and Balance of Performance).

The release on their departure produced this statement:

“This decision has been taken against the backdrop of the challenging economic environment in Europe coupled with a particularly busy year for the Brand in terms of new vehicle launches.

“In this context, Peugeot prefers to concentrate its 2012 resources on its commercial performance and, in particular, ensuring the successful launches of the 208, 3008 HYbrid4, 508 RXH, 508 HYbrid4 and 4008 which will take forward the brand’s strategy of moving upmarket and extending its global presence.”

As far as even a privateer effort for Peugeot at the Petit Le Mans, Audi’s Ulrich Baretzky indicated that a privateer was typically around two or three seconds off a factory lap time at Le Mans simply due to a lack of technical resources.

This meant that Audi were the sole LMP1 competitors to use diesel powertrains, and this would be the case for the remainder of the decade.

Other interests hinted were from the likes of Honda and Porsche, with both having to decipher an expedition in Formula 1 or the WEC in 2014-15.

“Very surprised of the sad news that Peugeot Sport will not compete in the World Endurance Championship in 2012. Thank you for the competition, great racing and good battles over the last 5 years. Tom K.” – Tom Kristensen of #2 Audi Sport Team Joest

Porsche had physically produced a 2014-specification variant of Formula 1’s 1.6L turbo-V6 Hybrid powertrain, but decided to opt for a return to the top category and Le Mans.

Honda, quite notably, decided to make a return to the world of F1 but have recently announced their departure at the end of 2021.

Throughout the LMP1 (Hybrid) era, these three manufacturers were the only ones to take on the combustion-electric powertrain given their financial capacity to commit between $100 million to $250 million per year on their LMP programmes.

But would this competition stop the domination of Audi and their impressive tally of Le Mans victories from the turn of the century?

Not yet would be the answer to that question.

2012-2014: Audi totals a 13 Le Mans winning tally

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As said by Head of Audi Motorsport Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich, the idea of electric assistance was prevelevant in the prior years: “We started to think about the hybridisation of a Le Mans sports car relatively soon after the first TDI successes (2006).

“A concrete opportunity for this materialised when it became clear that the regulations would be permitting such an option (for the 2012 WEC).

“In 2008, the Le Mans organiser ACO announced this forward-thinking approach and since 2009 the regulations have expressly been allowing energy recovery systems for LMP1 cars.”

In 2012, Audi was the first automobile manufacturer to run an LMP1 (one out of three entries) in a race, using their e-tron Quattro technology at the 6 Hours of Spa, the second round after the 12 Hours of Sebring.

Toyota would later join with the all-new TS030 at Round 3, the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Ullrich continued: “Right from the beginning of the project, we intensively liaised with our colleagues on the production side of the house where concepts are created and examined for future road vehicles.

He spoke, in 2012, on how their road-going production development would benefit from their e-tron Quattro KERS systems in the near future.

At Le Mans on June 16-17, Audi managed to take the first Le Mans victory of the WEC era, and the first for an LMP1-H, but it was their 12th victorious result at the historic race.

The season featured seven overall LMP1s, including three entries from Audi, with the #1 e-tron Quattro, the outgoing #2 R18 Ultra, and the #3 R18 TDI.

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Toyota had just one TS030 Hybrid for the season (two at Le Mans), with the car featuring a naturally aspirated 3.4L V8 Hybrid as opposed to Audi’s Turbo Diesels (only one had the 4.0L diesel hybrid powertrain).

Nevertheless, Audi won the two Le Mans in 2012 and 2013, as well as the manufacturers’ and drivers’ championship.

Tom Kristensen was also able to reach his record of nine Le Mans and still holds it to the present day from 2013.

The 2014 year had the three manufacturers engaging in LMP1-H, and it was the year when the FIA divided the LMP1 category for this single year – one into the hybrid cars, and the other of privateers using non-hybrid powertrains.

“The decision in favour of flywheel energy storage was made based on the specific requirements relating to racing,” said Dr. Ullrich.

“That’s also why a battery system is currently out of the question in view of our ultra lightweight design (through the use of a flywheel).

“But I can safely state that the things we’re testing with flywheel energy storage are of interest to our production colleagues too. The combination of different systems is an aspect that will have to be considered in various applications in the future.”

Audi opted for the flywheel that suited the nature of power and torque delivery from their TDI engine, while Toyota had a powerful compressor on their side to rapidly deploy their energy also recovered from the front axle. Porsche utilised a KERS system which recovered energy from the front axle/braking, but also from exhaust gases.

The 2014 year played host to other regulations, such as the end of open-cockpit prototypes in LMP1, the introduction of fixed slow zones and hybrid braking zones, plus a revitalised effort on safety.

Known as the LMP1-L (privateers), the other P1 category featured only two teams and three cars in the form of Lotus and Rebellion Racing.

Upfront in LMP1-H, Toyota asserted confident pace at least when they took pole position at the 2014 Le Mans 24 Hours in the #7; they claimed an average time of 3m21.789s among the three qualifying sessions.

While they grasped pole ahead of the two Porsche WEC debutants, the #8 started in third ahead of the other #20 Porsche and the three Audi R18 e-tron Quattros.

With two-time Formula 1 World Champion Fernando Alonso doing the honours of waving the French Tricolor flag, the #7 helped itself to a smooth start after defending its pole early on.

The #8 held the lead with confidence for the first few hours until a multi-class accident established itself on the Mulsanne Straight.

Approaching the second hour, the track was rain-soaked and a pack of LM-GTEs were running slower due to the effects of the rain plus any aquaplaning they wanted to avoid.

The #8 piloted by Nicolas Lapierre approached this group and the #3 Audi at considerable speed and spun the TS040 among the group of cars and collided with the barrier.

The #8 limped back to the garage and faced repairs lasting up to an hour, thus putting it out of contention for the win.

The newly introduced ‘Slow-Zones’ were implemented to clear up the debris, which then became a safety car period.

As for the other two cars involved, they both retired as the AF Corse of Sam Bird reared into the #3 Audi driven by Marco Bonanomi.

Meanwhile, the remaining #7 Toyota ran offset pit-stop cycles to its Audi rivals but found itself leading for the next hours.

Before the night, the debuting Porsche 919 Hybrid experienced its first reliability issue in the form of a fuel pressure issue on the #14.

Marc Lieb pulled the car and it dropped down to 51st position after its time in the garage, but quickly recovered to sixth place.

The next issue in LMP1 was during at the halfway distance when the #1 Audi of Kristensen made a move into the garage to replace faulty fuel injectors, and the #14 experienced another fuel pressure problem so entered the pits on the electric drive.

The #7 comfortably held the lead for nine hours until Kazuki Nakajima lost power and drive, and was forced to pull to the side after Arnage corner.

It later emerged that a wiring loom had melted due to the failure of an FIA-mandated component; Toyota had to abandon the car and thus gifted the lead to the #2 Audi followed by the #20 Porsche and the recovering #1 car.

Much later at the 21-hour mark, Audi performed their second turbocharger change but on the #1 which was being piloted by Kristensen at the time.

The first was on the #2 driven by Andre Lotterer which sat in the pits for 20 minutes, falling down to third and with only an hour at the lead of the race under its belt.

Soon enough, the #20 retired into the garage and out of the race after a broken anti-roll bar after what was an hour in the lead too.

Audi finished 1-2 with cars #1 and #2. The remaining Toyota #8 took the third podium spot five laps down from the leader; the sole #14 Porsche was a further 31 laps down to conclude their Le Mans debut.

Dr. Ulrich was predictably pleased with Audi’s rack of 13 wins at the historic race, but also respected the efforts of Porsche and Toyota as competitors, with the whole experience being described as unique to the Le Mans paddock.

Audi managed to proved their ability to get one of their three R18 e-tron quattros to the top step of the podium, but this was to be their last as a certain name would put itself into future winning contentions for the title and Le Mans wins.

The name in question would be Porsche.