The 2018 sportscar season has finally started in Europe, with the ELMS having its first race of the year at the circuit Le Castellet in Paul Ricard.
The championship is in great shape, with forty-five cars starting this first race and an incredible number of LMP2 (19) on the grid. Some new teams debuted in the class and indeed one of them won the race on merit, with the championship still offering a nice chassis variety and, now, also a tyre war, with both Dunlop and Michelin supplying tyres to the teams, with the latter now finding a place on five cars.
As usual in this race analysis, we will not focus on the race itself, but we will go through an analysis of the performances of the main actors.
The first interesting note is that a team mounting Michelin tyres took the pole position on Saturday, in a session interrupted by a red flag after about five of the ten available minutes, for a problem encountered by one of Autosport Ligier.
The race, was at the end dominated by a team using Dunlop rubber and the well established Oreca 07, that seems to retain an advantage (at least on this track) on the Ligier and the Dallara, despite the joker the two manufacturers have been allowed this year to reduce their gaps to the Oreca.
The track itself has gone back to the configuration we had last seen in 2016, with the long Mistral straight employed fully, without chicane, allowing top speeds well in excess of 300km/h. As usual, the track has been divided into three sectors, as shown in the following picture.
The first sector is composed of two shorter straights, followed by low and medium speed corners: a chicane (Turn 1 and 2) and a series of second and first gear turns (T3, T4 and T5).
The second sector is mainly composed by turn 6 and the Mistral straight (T7 is a full throttle corner for an LMP2 car), with the T6 being extremely important because the exit has a significant influence on the speed that the car will carry on the long straight that follows.
Finally, the third sector includes the super fast turn 8 and then a long right hander (T9-T10) where the drivers carry a lot of speed in the entry and slow the car progressively to take the apex on the second part of the corner. They are followed by a series of slower corners, where also mechanical grip is crucial.
As we mentioned, the race was dominated by a debuting team (but with long and successful experiences in GP2 and Formula 2), Racing Engineering, who fields a single Oreca 07. Our analysis shows that the Spanish squad won on merit and this is even more remarkable if we think that also one of their drivers was at his first race with an LMP2 car.
Although Dragonspeed car n.21 took initially the lead of the race (in the hands of the Lapierre, before retiring after an accident with a GT car with Hedmann at the wheel) and built some gap to the following cars, our analysis shows that Racing Engineering Oreca n.24 averaged the best pace throughout the whole race.
We will analyze the first five classified cars plus some other representative crews, like Dragonspeed, who led the race in the initial phases, AVF car n.30 (best placed Dallara), Panis Barthez Competition car n.23 (best placed Ligier, running Michelin tyres), Idec car n.28, that took the pole on Saturday.
Let’s first start analyzing the pit stops.
This race was the first one where the new pit stop rules, approved by the ACO-FIA during the winter break, became effective, with the teams now allowed to change the tyres while the car is being refueled, this arguably taking out a bit the appeal of running different strategies and/or try to save time in the pit lane by not changing the tyres.
The first thing we notice is that the car ending the race in second position (TDS Oreca 07 n.33) is the one that spent less time in the pit lane, while the winning team didn’t do as good and spent in the pits some thirty-one seconds more, despite being on a five pit stop strategy as well.
Also, G-Drive was particularly effective during the pit stops, allowing their car n.26 the second best pit time of the race.
It is also interesting to notice how car n.29 (Duqueine Engineering Oreca 07) spent a much longer time in the pits than car n.24 but still managed to end the race on the podium, because of a very good pace. The French team pitted 6 times (once more of the winning car), with the first pit stop being a drive through/penalty costing about 25 seconds.
Considering they ended the race with a gap of about 7.9 seconds to the winning crew although spending some 36 seconds more in the pit lane, we could think they did indeed a very interesting race.
Looking at the performances, there is no doubt that Racing Engineering crew deserved the win. As the following table shows, the Spanish team obtained not only the best race lap time overall but also the best results if we consider the average of the best 20, 50, 100 and “all clean” laps best times.
Car n.29 was the one getting closer to car n.24 in terms of pace, above all if we do not consider the best 100 lap times of each crew.
Interestingly, car n.21 was close to car n.24 pace, but never really at the same level, although Lapierre was able to take the lead and built some gap during the first portion of the race.
Car n.33, who finished in second position, was sensibly slower than car n.24, with average gaps increasing as we look at more laps (we move between 0.2 seconds to more than 1 second in our table). Anyway, TDS crew spent 31 seconds less than car n.24 in the pit lane.
As we saw, the first seven positions have been all taken by Oreca cars, despite both Ligier and Dallara being allowed to introduce new parts for this season, to close their gap to the benchmarking vehicle. The best placed Ligier ended in eigth position (running Michelin tyres), with a pace gap of about half a second per lap compared to car n.24.
The best placed Dallara ended only in eleventh position and had an average performance gap of about 1.4 seconds compared to car n.24.
The question is of course how well prepared the teams came to this first race. Some of them could well have run the car for a limited time. On the other hand, anyway, the team who won the race was also at their first race in the ELMS championship.
To get a better feeling about the pace difference between each crew, we can look at the plots showing the best 20, 50 and 100 lap times for each of the car we are considering.
As also the table suggests, the first thing that the plots tell us is that car n.24 and car n.29 had the best pace, with the first being slightly quicker up to the 40th best lap, while the seconds seems to be slightly better in the second half of last plot (if we exclude the very right portion of it).
Dragonspeed car n.21 is constantly a bit slower than car n.24 and car n.29 with the gap opening dramatically in the second half of the second plot.
Car n.23, the best placed Ligier, maintains more or less a constant gap from car n.29, with its lap times represented by a line that runs more or less parallel to the one of Racing Engineering.
The second placed car n.33 pace is not too far from the one of cars n.24 and n.29, up to the 20 mark, but gets worse as we consider more and more laps.
The n.30 AVF Dallara is constantly and substantially slower than the competition, if we exclude the performance drop of Dragonspeed and the car n.28, that is relatively quick in its best 40 laps, but its performance drops significantly on the right part of the last plot.
This first analysis confirms how Racing Engineering won on merit, mainly because of a better pace than all the other cars. Third placed car n.29 was extremely close though and we should probably ask ourselves if they could fight for the victory, without spending so much time in the pit lane.
We can now dig into a more detailed analysis to understand where each car was stronger or weaker and if any team went for a significantly different setup choice, by looking to sector times and top speeds.
Starting from Sector 1, the table relative to the best times and the average of the best 20, 50, 100 and “all clean” laps times gives us a first hint about the differences between some of the cars and the different choices that each team took.
First thing to notice is that the winning crew (car n.24) doesn’t stay on top in any of the metrics of our tables, with the best times being taken by car n.28 (Idec Sport Oreca 07, with Michelin tyres) and car n.29. Car n.28 anyway seems to fall down on performance as we consider more and more laps. On the other hand, car n.24, although not being the fastest, is always extremely close to the best times, with differences always well below one tenths, if we exclude the best sector 1 time overall.
Ligier n.23 (Michelin tyres) is also pretty competitive, staying very close to the best times in the average of the best 50, 100 and “all clean” laps metrics.
On the other hand, AVF Dallara n.30 is constantly 0.3-0.4 seconds slower than the winning car n.29.
If we look at the plots of the best 20, 50 and 100 sector 1 times, we pretty much get a similar picture.
The first plot shows very well how competitive car n.28 was, if we only look at the best 10 sector 1 times. Anyway, the pictures changes if we consider the second and third plot, with car n.24 and n.29 establishing themselves as the references and car n.23 remaining pretty close to them. It looks like this first sector suites the Ligier relatively well, while the AVF Dallara struggles.
Also car n.33 is constantly 0.2-0.3 seconds slower than Racing Engineering and Duqueine crews.
Just by looking at this first sector we could come to the conclusion that car n.24, n.29 and n.23 could behave similarly or have a similar aerodynamic performance. Anyway, if we move to sector 2, we immediately recognize how wrong this conclusion is.
Sector 2, pretty much composed of one corner and a very long straight, is all about corner exit and straight line speed. Car n.24 and car n.29 are clearly the best performers here, with car n.24 holding a small advantage.
Car n.23 has a bigger gap to the best crews than in sector 1. Being this sector dominated by top speed performances, we can already suspect that the Ligier is not as slippery as the Oreca 07.
Interestingly car n.30 is much closer to the best performance cars in this sector than it was in sector 1, with times being only marginally slower and a gap that reduces if we consider more laps.
Looking at the plots relative to the best 20, 50 and 100 sector 2 times, we get a better feeling about the performance situation in this portion of the track.
It is even more evident how car n.24 was clearly the fastest in this sector, with car n.29 following close up to the 30-40 marks, but then falling a bit behind. AVF Dallara was particularly good in this sector, where top speed is crucial.
Car n.33 is again not particularly fast, while car n.21 is nowhere close to the best pace.
This seems to anticipate what we could find out by looking at the top speeds since the speed trap was located at the end of the Mistral straight and of sector 2.
The first thing to notice is that car n.30 is, without doubt, the fastest in straight line, although car n.24 and car n.29 remain close. If we put together this detail with sector 2 performance, it is interesting to notice how, despite having the best top speeds, AVF Dallara n.30 was a bit slower than car n.24 in sector 2, this probably signalizing how Racing Engineering Oreca was more effective at the exit of turn 6.
Ligier top speeds were significantly lower and this is something we must keep in mind when we will analyze sector 3 times: they tell us the Ligier is probably more draggy than the Oreca and the Dallara (at least in the configuration chosen by the Panis Barthez Team for car n.23). We will try to understand if it has also more downforce or not. By looking at sector 1 times, we concluded that in slower corners the two cars were not too far from each other, although the best Oreca still had a small advantage.
The plots relative to the best 20, 50 and 100 top speeds pretty much confirm what we mentioned.
These plots and the data relative to sector 2 also show where Dragonspeed car n.21 was particularly penalized, in terms of performance, with the American team having the lowest top speeds among the cars we consider and losing significant time in this portion of the track.
Sector 3, the longest of this track, is a mix of medium and slow speed corners, where both mechanical grip and downforce are very important.
Also in this sector, car n.24 and n.29 were clearly among the fastest car, with the Oreca in general obtaining not only the best sector 3 time of the race, but also staying always on top also if we consider the average of the best 20, 50 and 100 best sector 3 times.
Beside this, the previous table also shows how the AVF Dallara was particularly slow in this sector, where downforce surely plays an important role.
The best Ligier was a bit closer, with a delta compared to car n.24 moving between 0.2 and 0.4 seconds.
Interestingly, the best sector 3 time was obtained by Dragonspeed Oreca n.21, with the American Team also staying on to in the best 20 laps average. This confirms what we saw analyzing sector 2 times and top speeds: most probably, Dragonspeed opted for an higher downforce setup compared to other teams running Oreca cars, thus having an advantage in this sector. Anyway, it is clear that what they lost in the previous two sectors (above all the second) was not compensated by the advantage they had on other cars in this part of the track.
The plots relative to the best 20, 50 and 100 sector 3 times gives a better feeling about the relative difference between the cars we consider.
The first thing we notice is that the Dallara is heavily penalized in this sector. It would be interesting to understand if the Italian car was so slow in Paul Ricard because of wrong setup decisions or because of a structural lack of performance. It will be one of the topic of next races, for sure, with a Dallara now also taking part to the WEC.
Beside this, the first plot shows clearly how car n.21 had an advantage on the other crews, as long as Lapierre was at the wheel.
Car n.21 and n.29 were pretty much on a similar performance level and indeed still very fast, with Race Engineering crew having a small advantage up to the 70 mark and falling a bit behind afterward. We could suppose the two newcomers run their cars with similar aerodynamic configurations, as they pretty much show the same trends in each section of the track.
One of the most interesting point, though, is also to notice how close the n.23 Ligier was to the two best Oreca. Above all on the long distance, Panis Barthez crew was among the fastest teams in this sector, this probably signalizing that the Ligier has a good downforce but lacks a bit of efficiency, if we also consider what we learnt looking at sector 2 times and top speeds. Again, it would be very interesting to understand if this comes from car’s design or team choices, also considering both the Ligier and the Dallara had a chance to improve their cars during the winter to close the gap to the Oreca.
It will be exciting to follow the next races and see if the gap will reduce in other tracks.