An Unrestricted Porsche 919 ‘Evo’ Broke The Spa Lap Record, What Does This Mean?
Yesterday Porsche announced that they’d set a new record for the fastest single lap time at the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps. The Swiss Porsche factory driver Neel Jani set off in a modified version of the 2017 Porsche 919 Hybrid LMP1 car—it’s being called the 919 Evo—and proceeded to beat the previous record held by Lewis Hamilton in a Mercedes-Benz W07 since August of 2017. Hamilton’s Formula 1 car did the seven-kilometer lap in 1:42.533. Jani took the 919 Evo around almost a second quicker, clocking a 1:41.770.
Setting a record on one of the most significant race tracks in the world is always cause for some celebration, for at the very least it’s a signal of progress and a general continued interest in speed. In this case though, I think we can be a bit more specific about what the progress might be.
The Future of LMP1
Porsche pulled out of the top-class endurance racing not long after they won Le Mans for the third time in a row and the 19th overall. They will not campaign the 919 Hybrid in the 2018 World Endurance Championship (WEC), citing the sport’s high costs, the attractiveness of Formula E, and, though they won’t say it outright, a lack of competition.
They were developing a 2018 car though, and while it won’t compete in the WEC, they kept building it anyway. The result is the 919 Evo, and among other improvements it has a few hundred more horsepower now thanks to no more rulebooks getting in the way. The electric motors churn out 440 horsepower now rather than a peak of 400, and the traditional internal combustion two-liter V4 is up from 500 to 720. They’ve not just upped the power though, and the Evo lives up to its name in other regards to, like the new aero package featuring an extended front end diffuser, tweaked ground effects channels below, and a massive new rear wing. They also modified the side skirt profiles, and the whole package is capable of producing 53% more downforce than the 919 that competed at Spa last year. Engineers also managed to remove 86lbs from the 919, mostly by removing unnecessary systems like air-conditioning; dry, the Evo weighs just 1,872lbs.
Perhaps it’s just for publicity—and it probably is—but this is also a not-so-subtle signal for the potential future of prototype racing. I mean, this Porsche is literally faster than a Formula 1 car now. Sure, an unrestricted one of those would likely snatch the record right back, but it’s no secret that F1 is a bit drab and endurance racing is often more dramatic and engaging. Though both LMP1 and F1 are ludicrously expensive, it just seems like the former has been more relatable and accessible as of late; it’s too bad it’s all but finished. I’m not holding my breath, but the 919 Evo could help bring in the next era of elite prototype racing. Porsche themselves seem to hint at such ideas, though it’s hard to imagine a less-restricted LMP1 would bring the costs and barriers to entry down….
Fritz Enzinger, the vice president of Porsche’s LMP1 program, said of the recent Spa record: “[The] track record impressively proves the ultimate performance of the most innovative race car of its time. Our target was to show what the Porsche 919 Hybrid is able to do when we loosen the restrictions that normally come from the regulations.”
Team Principal Andreas Seidl added: “It was our target to show the Porsche 919 Hybrid’s abilities when we ease the restrictions that came from the World Endurance Championship regulations.”
Stephen Mitas, the chief race engineer for Porsche LMP1, and the man who was also heading the Evo project, had the same sentiment: “We all knew, no matter how successful the 919 Hybrid was, it could never show its full abilities.”
Does this mean they would return to the prototype classes in the WEC if they had more leeway? Probably not anytime soon, and it’s highly doubtful that any material changes will be made to the LMP1 category as a direct result of the 919 Evo’s achievements, but it does reveal the level of interest that fans still have in the waning field of WEC prototypes; if they were trading records with contemporary F1 cars on a weekly basis, surely that help sell some tickets. The problem of encouraging innovation while keeping costs reasonable is an age-old issue in racing series, though the potential bragging rights of being faster than Formula 1 might be an incentive to teams who think they can pull off what Porsche just did.
The Ultimate Nordschleife Lap Record
Speaking of beating F1, remember when Stefan Bellof beat Niki Lauda’s record lap time at the Nürburgring Nordschleife in 1983? Lauda’s Ferrari Ferrari 312T had sat atop the track’s “leaderboard” since his pole qualifying lap set prior to the 1975 German GP, and his time was remarkable as well for being the first recorded lap to come in below the seven-minute mark: a 6:58.6. Bellof, qualifying for the 1983 Nürburgring 1000km in a works Porsche 956, broke the record set earlier in the day by teammate Jochen Mass to post the fastest Nordschleife lap of all time: 6:11.13. It stands to this day.
In the span of less than a decade, even the most advanced sports cars shouldn’t be almost a minute faster than an F1 champion in a Prancing Horse, and to be sure, Bellof’s time comes with a significant footnote: the configuration that he lapped in 1983 was only used in 1983. Because of the construction of the upcoming GP circuit that was in large part built as a result of accidents like Lauda’s in 1976, the Nordschleife had to accommodate the work with a revised layout that included a temporary bypass to skirt the area under development. So, the 22.8-kilometer track became a 20.8-kilometer track. If you were to set a record, this was the year to do it.
And so, it’s stood for all this time, despite the 956 clearly not being the end-all be-all of Nürburgring conquerers. Bellof would tragically pass following an accident at Eau Rouge two years later. This was about the 919 Evo though, and seeing as Porsche has plans to cart it around the world for more lap record attempts, we might see a 35-year-old record finally fall. The 919 Evo is headed to the Nordschleife later this year, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this was the whole point of the car to begin with. Records on that circuit have yet to fall out of fashion regardless of how many times James May-types try to appeal to practicality, and to hold the top, top, spot would be quite a PR opportunity for Porsche. After all, if you’ve held the record for more than three decades, who else is there to beat it?