After an extended winter, the 2021 FIA World Endurance Championship campaign is nearly upon us. It’s a season of change: new rules, a new and shortened calendar and, of course, the arrival of a new top class.
The Hypercar category in the WEC has been in the works for years and finally makes its debut in this weekend’s Six Hours of Spa-Francorchamps.
To say it has been a rough ride for the championship’s new top class is something of an understatement. It’s been a tale of twists and turns, highs and lows, entries and exits, debate and controversy.
After all that, however, the debut season of the category is set to take to the stage with two teams racing this weekend and a third waiting in the wings.
Before Peugeot, ByKolles and Ferrari join in the coming years, the initial protagonists for the opening season of Hypercar competition are Toyota, Alpine and Glickenhaus.
Let’s start with Toyota, rightly seen by many as the big favorite heading in. That doesn’t come without its reasons: the Japanese manufacturer was unbeatable with the last of the LMP1 hybrid prototype, and with its hybrid expertise and the weight of one of the world’s biggest automotive corporations behind it, there’s no reason to doubt that the reigning champions will once again be the team to beat this season.
Its driver line-up is identical from that of the 2019/20 campaign, which in itself is a major benefit as it provides stability.
Reigning champions Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi and Jose Maria Lopez reunite to drive the #7 GR010 Hybrid, while last year’s Le Mans winners Sebastien Buemi, Kamui Kobayashi and Brendon Hartley team up aboard the #8 Toyota.
Their main rivals, at least for this weekend’s opening race at Spa, are Alpine. The French squad is the proverbial odd one out in the field, as its the only squad in the field that is running what has come to be known as a grandfathered LMP1 car.
The team is running the ORECA-built LMP1 chassis, formerly run by Rebellion as the R13. Powered by the same naturally aspirated Gibson V8 engine, the car is now known as the Alpine A480-Gibson.
After years of running very successfully in LMP2, winning the world title and taking multiple class wins at Le Mans, the Signatech-operated outfit has taken the opportunity to jump up to the top class, still possibly in preparation for an LMDh program later down the line.
Brought in for driving duties are Andre Negrao, Nicolas Lapierre and Matthieu Vaxiviere. Negrao and Lapierre have extensive experience together, peaking with two consecutive Le Mans wins and an LMP2 title during the 2018/19 Super Season, while Vaxiviere is new to the team.
The Alpine operation is something of a dark horse in the field. Its the only team not running a completely new car, which could be an advantage as rivals work out teething issues. This is something we’ve already seen during the Prologue, as both GR010 Hybrids have so far encountered mechanical issues.
The ORECA-Gibson package, on the other hand, has proven itself to be reliable through two extensive seasons of WEC competition and it is a proven race winner. It’s not quite clear where the pace lies between the two sides, but one would be smart not to count Alpine out.
The third and final protagonist in the story is not at Spa this weekend, but it is still worth talking about them.
Scuderia Cameron Glickenhaus has been hard at work these last few months developing their 007 Le Mans Hypercars. It is still undergoing testing and is yet to be homologated and will therefore not race at Spa, instead debuting at round two in Portimao.
The American outfit is the underdog, but is to be taken seriously. Powered by a twin-turbocharged V8 engine and with support from the likes of Sauber (aerodynamics), Motul (lubricants) and Team Joest (logistics and operational support), it’s clear that James Glickenhaus isn’t exactly pulling any punches.
Add to that a star-studded list of drivers that includes Romain Dumas, Pipo Derani, Richard Westbrook, Ryan Briscoe, Gustavo Menezes, Franck Mailleux and Olivier Pla, and there’s obviously a lot of potential in its package.
So that’s Hypercar. While the early results from the Prologue are raising eyebrows and quite a few questions, as LMP2 runners are so far consistently quicker on the timesheets, a new era dawns and it is very interesting to see how it will develop.