Last weekend saw the final round of the European Le Mans Series championship take place in Portimao. G-Drive Racing won the ELMS LMP2 championship, 110 points to United Autosports' 98 points. However, this win for G-Drive goes beyond just teams and drivers. It sets the benchmark for the whole LMP2 category.
The 2017 season was the start of a new iteration for the ACO's second prototype class, seeing them switch from a completely open format to more of a spec-series, with only four manufacturers and one engine (a 600bhp Gibson V8) allowed. At the time, the decision seemed like a radical and largely unnecessary change that could potentially hamper what had become a hugely entertaining and successful category. Especially considering that the FIA World Endurance Championship has seen its LMP2 field filled with almost nothing but Orecas all year.
Fast forward to the end of the 2017 ELMS season, and those opinions have changed somewhat. We have been treated to a fantastic season featuring three of the four LMP2 manufacturers - Oreca, Onroak (Ligier) and Dallara. Throughout the year, Oreca and Ligier have been battling for the championship through G-Drive Racing and United Autosports respectively with the Oreca coming out on top, despite the Ligier scoring two wins to their one. However, in this case, consistency was the name of the game, and two relatively low scores damaged United Autosports' chances of winning the title.
So what does this mean for the category?
If you were not aware, the current regulations mean that the LMP2 chassis introduced at the start of 2017 are part of a four-year cycle. The cars are to remain unchanged throughout these four years, except for one 'joker' upgrade which must be approved by the ACO.
In an attempt to close the apparent performance gap between the Oreca (which was perhaps most noticeable at this year's Le Mans 24 Hours) and its rivals, Dallara, Riley-Multimatic and Ligier have had approval from the ACO to develop and run their joker modifications for 2018. In a statement released in mid-October, the governing body clarified their position on the upgrades, saying:
"The ACO and the FIA have made clear to the different protagonists the rules and objectives of these modifications: namely, to maintain the competitiveness of the three constructors in relation to Oreca in 2018 without, however, these modifications giving one of them a consistent advantage compared to the benchmark car. The ultimate aim is to ensure that LMP2 remains a category in which variety and hotly-contested racing prevail."
For Ligier and Dallara, this involves work on both their sprint and Le Mans aero kits, and both manufacturers have reportedly been testing the new parts. For their colleagues at Riley/Multimatic, the work is somewhat more extensive. The LMP2 chassis (the Mk.30) is currently being re-designed, alongside the developments for both aero kits. Not much has been said about the performance of any of these new packages, but perhaps we will know more after the ACO's comparative wind tunnel tests next month.
If we do see a closing of the performance gap, or even if we don't, what does this mean for the LMP2 fields across the globe?
Well, rumour has it that the ELMS will be seeing LMP2 growth and will keep its reasonably even spread of Dallaras, Ligiers and Orecas on the grid. Over in China, the Asian Le Mans Series is about to kick off in Zhuhai with a 6-car grid made up of Ligiers and Orecas. In the USA, the IMSA Weathertech Sportscar Championship has had confirmation of BAR1 Motorsports joining the solid Prototype category with a Riley/Multimatic Mk.30 in 2018. Moreover, as the year draws to a close, all eyes are fixed on the ACO's premier championship - the WEC.
With the loss of Audi last year, and Porsche at the end of this season, LMP1 is looking somewhat unstable. Customer and privateer cars are due to come in for the 2018/2019 'super season', but news from the manufacturer's camps has been relatively scarce. The new look LMP1 could be fantastic, we will have to wait until next year to find out, but we have to consider the worst case scenario - what if it's actually terrible and we lose LMP1?
Is LMP2 in a position to take up the mantle as the top prototype class?
From a racing perspective, you can't accuse LMP2 in WEC of being boring. They may all have the same car, but the racing this season has been phenomenal. Factor in the unprecedented 'almost win' for Jackie Chan DC Racing/Jota in this year's Le Mans 24 Hours, and it's increasingly obvious that LMP2 is quite the spectacle. On the technology front? Well, that leaves a little to be desired.
Don't get me wrong, in its current state, LMP2 is excellent. The cars look great, perform well and sound fantastic. But, I don't believe they have what it takes to be the pinnacle of endurance racing. Yet. As it stands, they're too restricted. However, I don't think it would take much to turn the class into something really special. Allow more open development from more than four manufacturers. Introduce different technologies, biofuel, hybrid, battery power, hydrogen power or whatever. The talent pool is already there; the class can undoubtedly pull in big names (just look at United Autosports latest Daytona 24 signing if you need an example.) This prototype class is quickly establishing itself as a powerhouse in endurance racing.
In the ever-changing landscape that is motorsport, cars, champions and series will come and go, sometimes quicker than we had hoped. It is, however, encouraging to know that there are always successors to take their place. LMP2 is clearly on the up, despite the unexpected changes that came into force at the start of this year. It spells great things for the class and gives us hope for endurance racing in the future.
Photo credit: Lou Johnson (http://loujohnsonphoto.com/)