Porsche powering up for an electric racing future
Porsche has said goodbye to the top class of world endurance racing as it prepares for Formula E, writes Roger Houghton
Motorsport has been part of Porsche’s DNA for almost 70 years, but where will it go now that the factory team of 919 hybrid Le Mans Prototype (LMP1) racing cars recently ended its involvement in the top class of the World Endurance Championship (WEC) in Bahrain?
The goodie bags given to journalists hosted by Porsche at the Bahrain International Circuit provided the answer: Porsche E-Performance.
Like many other motor manufacturers, Porsche is gearing up for the all-electric Formula E, but will only enter the fray at the end of 2019 when the sixth year of Formula E racing gets under way. This will tie in well with the company’s programme to partially, or fully, electrify several of its models, with the move to electric power highlighted by the arrival of the dramatically styled Mission E all-electric sports car in 2019.
There are already several hybrid models in the expanding Porsche model range and this is expected to extend to a hybrid derivative of its signature 911 sports car.
Andreas Seidl, the Porsche LMP1 team principal, says there have been many valuable spin-offs from the 919 hybrid programme, which operated under the banner Mission: Future Sportscar. He believes these will benefit the brand in terms of new business processes and manufacturing methods, but the big winners will be Porsche customers, who will reap the rewards of proven technology transfer from the endurance racers to production cars.
These technologies include 800V electric systems and the efficient pairing of electric motors and a petrol engine to deliver vast amounts of power, transferred to the road by a complex four-wheel drive system. The complex cars made effective use of regenerative braking to charge the lithium-ion batteries.
The 919 hybrid is such a complex piece of engineering that it requires at least 25 people to get the systems up and working — even if the car is only being used for a demonstration.
However, Porsche will keep its feet in the racing water with fossil-fuelled internal combustion engines.
This will include entering factory 911 RSR models — with mid-mounted, normally aspirated, 4.0l, flat six engines — in the GT class of the WEC as well as the International Motor Sports Association series in the US.
Support for long-standing Porsche 911 GT Cup races worldwide will continue, with a new, more powerful GT3 model, which was debuted in the first round of the Middle East GT3 Cup in Bahrain.
South African Saul Hack made his series debut in Bahrain and showed promise by collecting the Rookie of the Day award in the first event of this six-round series, which runs from November to April. There are three races in Bahrain, two in Dubai and one at the Yas Marina circuit in Abu Dhabi.
The 2016 Bahrain WEC race was emotional for the Volkswagen Group’s Audi LMP1 team as its successful run in endurance racing came to a premature end. In 2017, another VW Group team, Porsche, also made a premature exit from LMP1, as Audi, Porsche and Toyota had originally signed to continue supporting this formula until the end of 2018. Now only the Toyota Gazoo Racing team remains.
Audi was able to close this chapter in its motorsport history on a high with a flag-to-flag win in Bahrain in 2016, but in 2017, a Toyota TS050 hybrid — driven by Sebastien Buemi, Anthony Davidson and Kazuki Nakajima — finished a lap ahead of the leading Porsche shared by 2017 world champions Timo Bernhard, Earl Bamber and Brendon Hartley. The second 919 hybrid finished in third spot after six hours of close racing.
Seidl, who was involved with Sauber BMW in Formula 1 and BMW in DTM racing before joining the Porsche LMP1 project in 2012, said at a media conference before the race in Bahrain that this programme had been an amazing four-year journey for him and the team.
It included fast-tracking the design and building of one of the most complex racing cars of all time, using a combination of a 2.0l, turbocharged V4 petrol engine and an electric motor, while putting together a 260-member racing team and building a winning culture.
He said the number of Porsche employees as well as those people working directly on the programme at specialist suppliers during the 919’s racing career had reached almost 700. All their names were listed on decals on the two cars that raced in the last hurrah in Bahrain.
"I am particularly proud of the winning culture we built up in our new, in-house team in a comparatively short period of time," said Seidl.
"Everyone pulled in the same direction and we received excellent cooperation from the many specialist suppliers we used," he said.
The brand’s latest foray into the demanding world of endurance racing was amazingly successful: 20 pole positions, 17 victories (including seven one-twos), 13 fastest race laps, six world championship titles (three for manufacturers, three for drivers), crowned by three consecutive wins in the Le Mans 24 Hours (2015, 1916, 1917), which brought Porsche’s total number of victories in this famous event to 19.
Now the challenge is to switch direction to designing, building and racing an electric single-seater racing cars.
Seidl says none of the 919 hybrid team members will be retrenched, but those who do not join the smaller Formula E project team will be deployed in other positions at Porsche, where their vast experience will prove invaluable.