Opinion: Why SMP Racing's WEC exit should be no shock

SMP Racing's exit from the FIA World Endurance Championship may have seemingly come from nowhere, but it was the natural consequence of rules preventing the privateers from challenging Toyota, says Jamie Klein.

Opinion: Why SMP Racing's WEC exit should be no shock
Listen to this article

LMP1 teams deserting the WEC has become an oddly familiar theme in recent years. And while SMP’s bombshell announcement on Monday may not have quite the same ramifications for the series as Audi or Porsche’s departures, it was no less unexpected.

After all, the Russian outfit had lodged a pair of full-season entries for the 2019/20 campaign, joining fellow privateer squads Rebellion Racing and Team LNT in doing so, and based on recent evidence it would have started as heavy favourite in the non-hybrid battle.

But last month’s drubbing for SMP’s pair of BR Engineering BR1s in the Le Mans 24 Hours at the hands of Toyota appears to have prompted a sudden change of heart.

In 2018, the AER-powered, Dallara-built BR1s were too underdeveloped and too unreliable to make much of an impact at La Sarthe, leaving the way clear for main rival Rebellion to scoop unofficial ‘best of the rest’ honours behind the all-conquering TS050 Hybrids.

But this time around, the #11 BR1 shared by Mikhail Aleshin, Vitaly Petrov and Stoffel Vandoorne enjoyed a near-faultless run, delayed only by a puncture and a brief stop to remove pieces of Rebellion debris from the front bodywork. And yet, it still finished six laps down on the Toyotas.

Third place #11 SMP Racing BR Engineering BR1: Mikhail Aleshin, Vitaly Petrov, Stoffel Vandoorne

Third place #11 SMP Racing BR Engineering BR1: Mikhail Aleshin, Vitaly Petrov, Stoffel Vandoorne

Photo by: Nikolaz Godet

And that was after Le Mans organiser the Automobile Club de l’Ouest had promised a closer contest between the two remaining manufacturer LMP1 cars and the privateers following the massive 12-lap advantage the hybrids enjoyed over the opposition in the 2018 race.

The inescapable conclusion was that SMP had gone as far as it could go within the constraints of the current LMP1 regulations. Finishing on the bottom step of the podium this year was tantamount to victory, and challenging Toyota in 2020 would remain impossible.

And given the lofty ambitions of the project established by Boris Rotenberg, which also competes in the Blancpain GT Series and supports Russian drivers at every level of single-seaters, fighting only for third place is of little real interest.

Perhaps the planned ‘handicap’ system, details of which have yet to be finalised, would have levelled the playing field to the extent that SMP could have feasibly nicked a win or two in the shorter WEC races.

But given the failure of the Equivalence of Technology rules to bring the non-hybrid cars anywhere near race wins, it’s not hard to see why SMP would be sceptical about that.

True enough, the EoT was never designed specifically to curb Toyota’s dominance, but after the curtain-raiser at Spa and especially Le Mans 2018, it should have been obvious something radical would be required to keep the privateers on side. Yet changes on the scale needed were not forthcoming.

By the end of 2018, both SMP’s BR1 and Rebellion’s R-13 had achieved something close to their performance potential, helped by EoT breaks but also development.

That prompted Fernando Alonso’s infamous and bizarre assertion that the privateers had become “much faster” than Toyota, following the only truly competitive qualifying session of the 2018/19 campaign in Shanghai.

#8 Toyota Gazoo Racing Toyota TS050: Sébastien Buemi, Kazuki Nakajima, Fernando Alonso

#8 Toyota Gazoo Racing Toyota TS050: Sébastien Buemi, Kazuki Nakajima, Fernando Alonso

Photo by: JEP / LAT Images

But Toyota had already been slowed down once ahead of the Fuji race, and it wasn’t prepared to be slowed down again, apparently wary of the increasing threat of the privateers. So, besides giving the non-hybrids more fuel per lap to use, there was little else the ACO could do.

The result was that Toyota headed to Le Mans this year with almost three laps already in its pocket, courtesy of being able to do 11-lap stints (as opposed to 10 for the privateers) and pitstops on average around eight seconds faster.

The remainder of the six-lap gap back to the third-placed BR1 can be largely put down to the TS050 Hybrid’s overwhelming race pace advantage in traffic.

Toyota technical director Pascal Vasselon was eager to highlight how much the privateers had come on in a year speaking post-race, but that viewpoint overlooks just how easy the Cologne-based outfit had it for a second year in a row. And the absence of SMP from the grid next June will only make its path to a third successive triumph at Le Mans all the more straightforward.

SMP’s exit has already reduced the non-hybrid LMP1 contingent for the 2019/20 season to a maximum of just four cars – although that could end up being as little as two, given that neither Rebellion nor LNT have committed to running more than one car each at this stage.

Coming at the same time as the withdrawal of Ford and BMW from GTE Pro, the disappearance of the BR1s from the grid will merely cement the new campaign as one to be endured rather than savoured before the dawn of the WEC’s hypercar era in 2020/21.

#8 Toyota Gazoo Racing Toyota TS050: Sebastien Buemi, Kazuki Nakajima, Fernando Alonso

#8 Toyota Gazoo Racing Toyota TS050: Sebastien Buemi, Kazuki Nakajima, Fernando Alonso

Photo by: Paul Foster

shares
comments
Ragues replaces Thiriet in Signatech WEC squad
Previous article

Ragues replaces Thiriet in Signatech WEC squad

Next article

Di Resta eyes future Aston Martin hypercar drive

Di Resta eyes future Aston Martin hypercar drive
Load comments
Why F1-snubbed Davidson has no regrets in retirement Prime

Why F1-snubbed Davidson has no regrets in retirement

He may not have won the Le Mans 24 Hours - falling agonisingly short in 2016 - and didn't get the opportunities in Formula 1 his talents merited. But after calling time on his professional career last month, Anthony Davidson says his pride in his performances with Peugeot and Toyota in LMP1 mean more than the results he achieved

WEC
Dec 17, 2021
Why Le Mans didn't decide Toyota's WEC title outcome in 2021 Prime

Why Le Mans didn't decide Toyota's WEC title outcome in 2021

Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi and Jose Maria Lopez scored a second successive FIA World Endurance Championship title in the #7 Toyota, as its new Le Mans Hypercar went unbeaten. Motorsport.com recaps how each of the four classes in the 2021 season were won and picks out the best LMH and GTE drivers

WEC
Nov 28, 2021
The unanswered questions that define WEC 2021's controversial ending Prime

The unanswered questions that define WEC 2021's controversial ending

OPINION: The deeply unsatisfying ending to a brilliant World Endurance Championship GTE Pro battle in Bahrain had Ferrari provisionally heading back from the desert as the victor. But Porsche plans to appeal the outcome, which rests on a number of confusing elements that have yet to be satisfactorily explained.

WEC
Nov 9, 2021
How the WEC's heavyweight duel reached its controversial flashpoint Prime

How the WEC's heavyweight duel reached its controversial flashpoint

The Ferrari versus Porsche fight for the FIA World Endurance Championship's GTE Pro title had been a finely-poised affair, right up until Alessandro Pier Guidi's punt on Michael Christensen in the closing stages of the Bahrain 8 Hours handed Ferrari a provisional title, pending Porsche's appeal. Here's how the controversy played out.

WEC
Nov 8, 2021
The remarkable fixes Toyota used to avert another Le Mans disaster Prime

The remarkable fixes Toyota used to avert another Le Mans disaster

The 1-2 finish achieved by Toyota at this year's Le Mans 24 Hours was a result that will have surprised few, given its status as pre-event favourite. But the result was anything but straightforward, as worsening fuel pressure concerns required the team's drivers and engineers to pursue "creative fixes" on the fly. Here is the full story of how it reached the end without a lengthy pit visit

Le Mans
Nov 3, 2021
The 10 greatest drives of lost legend Jo Siffert Prime

The 10 greatest drives of lost legend Jo Siffert

It's 50 years since Jo Siffert was killed in his prime at Brands Hatch. The Swiss scored just two world championship wins in a Formula 1 career spent largely with privateer teams, but showed on numerous occasions in single-seaters and in sportscars with Porsche that he could beat any of the best drivers of his era given the right equipment.

Formula 1
Oct 24, 2021
Inside the Le Mans finish too barmy for Hollywood Prime

Inside the Le Mans finish too barmy for Hollywood

Team WRT has been at the forefront of GT racing for years and made a successful move to prototypes for 2021, capped by an LMP2 win on its Le Mans debut. It could've been even better had the race been one lap shorter, when its cars ran 1-2, but the stranger-than-fiction reality has spurred the team to reach greater heights.

Le Mans
Oct 16, 2021
Why Toyota's Le Mans victory was not as simple as it looked Prime

Why Toyota's Le Mans victory was not as simple as it looked

Toyota scored its fourth Le Mans 24 Hours victory and a 1-2, with the #7 car of Kamui Kobayashi, Mike Conway and Jose Maria Lopez beating the #8. But although it looked straightforward from the outside, Toyota faced serious problem that had to be solved with some quick-thinking and ingenuity.

Le Mans
Aug 24, 2021