What next for LMP1 and WEC after Porsche exit?

The exit of Porsche from the WEC a year before their commitment to the series ended surprised many, although it had been on the cards for a short while. The exit leaves just Toyota as the main LMP1-H team factory team for 2018, throwing the future of the category into doubt…

Audi’s exit at the end of 2016 from the WEC was a blow. Seeing just four regular LMP1 Hybrid entries was an odd sight but it was not the end of the world. After all, both Toyota and Porsche were committed for the next couple of years and there was always the chance that another manufacturer could come in and take their place. Peugeot were interested in coming back, but cost was a big factor in whether they would or not. The first warnings of LMP1H’s future came at this years Le Mans, as all the frontrunning LMP1 cars hit trouble, allowing an LMP2 car to fight for the overall win. The #2 Porsche eventually won, but it only took the lead in the final hour and had fought back from near enough last position.

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That race raised questions on whether the hybrid style of engines should be dropped, as the privateer LMP1 field is set to grow massively for 2018. All the cars in that category of course will be running with no hybrid power. But no one believed that another LMP1H team would leave the series just a year after Audi.

Audi left to fully commit to its Abt Schaeffler team in Formula E, and just a few days ago Porsche announced they would leave at the end of 2017 for Formula E as well. Suddenly, the whole future of the LMP1H category was thrown into doubt. Just Toyota remained and now they too are questioning what’s right for them.

The worst case scenario for the series is Toyota decide competing alone is something they really don’t want to do, so duly decide to follow Porsche and leave after 2017. Whilst no Formula E entry would be imminent, they could commit more money and resources to their renewed World Rally Championship program, and potentially explore a re-entry into Formula 1.

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If they did leave, LMP1H would cease to be and we would see a competitive privateer class, with Ginetta, Manor, Perrin, ByKolles and SMP all featuring. It could see up to 10 plus cars and feature some incredible racing. But no top car manufacturer is a big failure for the series, especially with Porsche and Toyota being crucial in the new regulations that were agreed for 2020.

Formula E has not only snatched Audi and Porsche, but also has Jaguar, Mercedes, BMW and Citroen (DS Racing). Ferrari have also stated that they are interested in the series too, so no Ferrari LMP1 car anytime soon despite it being a dream of many racing fans. Of course Toyota could stay on in the WEC and go at it alone until their current commitment expires, or wait it out and see if a new manufacturer comes along to give them some competition. The former is surely the WEC’s best hope for now, although it would look rather odd just seeing Toyota fighting themselves. Audi however did do just that at the start of 2012 so it isn’t totally unusual, but the series and fans would much rather see competition than a one team fight. It would be very ironic if Toyota stayed on yet still lost out at Le Mans and an LMP2 machine or LMP1 privateer won…

Perhaps a fanciful option is the two LMP1 categories are merged and the category becomes a non-hybrid one, so at least Toyota could fight the privateer teams. But with the FIA having just agreed new rules for the series from 2020 onwards based around hybrid rules, that is a very imaginative option. Most likely, Toyota will either stay on board for at least 2018. Leaving with Porsche isn’t entirely out of the question either. But either way, the departure of Porsche has left the series with a large void. Two of its biggest names gone in two years and no sign of anyone joining the top category anytime soon. LMP2 and GT however are thriving, and BMW are returning to GTE Pro next season. Perhaps the series isn’t dead in itself. But maybe its leading light is slowly being extinguished, and will eventually go out for good. Who knows what’s next for LMP1…