With victories in the IMSA and WEC openers, Porsche Penske Motorsport is a transformed team

By | March 4, 2024

Another weekend, another big race victory for the Porsche 963.

After a difficult first year for the Porsche LMDh program, Porsche Penske Motorsport and its private teams in both IMSA and the FIA ​​World Endurance Championship, 2024 is quickly becoming a year to remember for the storied German brand’s motorsport program.

After a rather disappointing start in GTP and Hypercar, towards the end of the 2023 season there were signs that the tide was turning for Porsche and its Penske works cars. Looking back, strong performances at the FIA ​​WEC 6 Hours of Fuji – in which Penske led much of the race – and wins in IMSA at Road America and Indianapolis were a sign of things to come.

After an offseason spent regrouping and preparing minor electronic reliability upgrades ready in time for the Rolex 24 At Daytona, the Penske operation has been a success. To kick things off, it won the two 24-hour classics in Florida before claiming a historic double podium at yesterday’s WEC season opener in Qatar, amid a 1-2-3 for the brand, thanks to its heroics from HertzTeam JOTA and a heartbreaking end to the race for Peugeot.

The body language of everyone involved in the program has improved dramatically. There is now real momentum and confidence that the 963 will earn its stripes this year and add another successful chapter to Porsche’s storied history in sports car racing.

So what’s behind this sudden change in form?

Kevin Estre, Andre Lotterer and Laurens Vanthoor celebrate after leading Porsche’s victory at the Lusail International Circuit. Motorsport images

“It’s a combination of things,” Andre Lotterer told RACER after finally taking his first win with Porsche in Qatar and his first WEC victory since 2015. “We learned a lot of things the hard way last year. There were adjustments we had to make as a team. Our operations are now more efficient. We use data better, we have new members in the team, new engineers and everything felt calm and controlled during the race.”

Before the 1,812 kilometer race, the Porsche 963, owned by Penske and JOTA, set the pace all week at the Lusail International Circuit. From the outside it looked encouraging, but no one within the team was willing to get carried away. Ahead of the race, a senior team source told RACER that they honestly expected a similar gap between the LMDh and LMH spec cars to last season’s race.

However, once the lights went out, this simply wasn’t the case. In fact, not only were Porsche’s 963s – including JOTA’s No. 12 – the class of the field, but the biggest challenge did not come from Toyota or Ferrari. Instead, that came from Peugeot’s No. 93 9X8. The French team, struggling to impress with the radically designed 9X8, led early on and at one point in the middle of the race looked set to take back the lead before the car’s pace dropped as the sun set. down.

Even with a late scare that the winning Porsche’s number panel would fall off after contact with a Lexus LMGT3 car, Peugeot’s race promptly fell apart, with the car running out of fuel and limping home on the final lap before was disqualified after post-race technical checks. In some ways it was reminiscent of Toyota’s demise at the 2016 24 Hours of Le Mans. While the stakes were clearly not as high, Peugeot has the added advantage of being able to immediately shift focus to Imola and the run-up to Le Mans . , with an updated 9X8 that promises to give it a fighting chance on a regular basis.

Reigning Le Mans winner Ferrari looked ready to start its season strongly. And it might have had a chance at victory had all three 499Ps not suffered self-inflicted wounds, with contact and punishment destroying the race. Cadillac’s story was similar: an incident at the start that left the V-Series.R with a mountain to climb to score points that reflected the car’s encouraging long-term pace.

Toyota, however, was the real enigma. Nyck de Vries achieved a level of performance in qualifying by sneaking onto the front row that the team could not maintain in the race. The Lusail circuit is often described as the most weight-sensitive track on the calendar and with the GR010 HYBRID being the heaviest Hypercar (at 1089 kg/2400 lbs) this clearly made a difference.

However, Porsche believes its ability to beat the likes of Toyota and Ferrari is not simply a result of a change in the BoP and/or the Qatar circuit suitable for the 963, although both were certainly factors.

“Last year we fell short in the WEC, but this victory shows that we can compete in both championships,” said Penske director Jonathan Diuguid. “We are participating in a BoP championship, so that is part of it, but at the end of the day we are doing the best we can with the situations we are faced with. You saw the result in the race.”

When asked for an assessment of the program’s upward trajectory ahead of the Qatar race, Porsche Motorsport boss Thomas Laudenbach spoke about the benefits of the ‘one team’ setup for IMSA and WEC, with Penske running both programs which helped improve the car faster. and make important decisions about upgrades and refinements.

“2023 had a lot of ups and downs – we did a lot of homework over the winter,” he said. “I know Daytona is IMSA, but for us it’s all one team, one program. It’s not just about the car’s performance level; at Daytona we had all four cars cross the finish line without any problems. This was remarkable and encouraging.

“Last year we were not in a position to win races for many reasons. There is some momentum now and Daytona was a big boost. That is an advantage of having one organization, we have Penske in Mooresville (NC) and (Porsche Penske) in Mannheim (Germany) running the programs.”

Team boss Roger Penske added during a media roundtable in Qatar that key hires in the program’s leadership structure also played a role.

“A year ago we were building Mannheim, hiring people and trying to put together a new, highly technical product with common parts from external suppliers that we had no control over,” he said. “Jan Lang (from Joest) has now come on board as general manager of the team in Mannheim, which is a step. Then we now have Travis Law (hired as race director), Jonathan Diuguid and Stefan Moser (technical director of Porsche LMDh). The DNA is very positive: we have added people with many capabilities. And we can now test all the time – in the US and here – and go one step further. I remember going to tracks for testing, sitting there for three days and only running for five hours. It’s a different routine these days when we collect data for use in IMSA and WEC.

“A year ago we were concerned about reliability; now we are concerned about performance.”

In short, Penske said, both the Porsche company and its team were “stuttering” because they “didn’t have the components” they needed.

But another element that stretched Porsche’s resources to the limit was its commitment to customers. It went all out to become the first LMDh manufacturer to get a customer program off the ground, supplying cars to Hertz Team JOTA, JDC-Miller and Proton Competition during the season.

Supplying customers like Hertz Team JOTA from the start has expanded the scope of Porsche’s challenge, but is already paying off. JEP/Motorsport images

“We have not made our lives easy – coming together, building Mannheim, everything from scratch, new cars, customer cars at the same time,” Laudenbach said. “Our challenge was the biggest in the field and we paid the price. But on the other hand, the decision we made was for the long term. It may not pay off in one year, but we are thinking further ahead.”

When asked by RACER whether Porsche would still choose to offer customer cars in year 1 if it could repeat the year, Laudenbach gave a revealing answer.

“If it was the same situation and we knew the complexity of the situation, I don’t think we would be delivering cars to customers in the first year,” he said. “That doesn’t mean it’s the wrong decision to sell customer cars. Yet we are proud of what we have achieved; no other brand has brought this together and delivers real customer cars.”

Looking ahead, the objective is of course to win number 20 at Le Mans. June is the month that will receive the most attention from industry observers and Porsche executives. This is nothing new and all nine factory Hypercar teams will prioritize Le Mans over a WEC title at this early stage of the campaign. This difference is that at Porsche, and also at Penske, success is expected regardless of the scenario.

It is still too early to predict where this WEC season will go. The new LMDh manufacturers have not yet made any major strides and the performance of Toyota and Ferrari in Qatar can perhaps be regarded as a blip. But the signs are that the days of Toyota leading the pack and LMH cars wielding a significant performance advantage in Hypercar may be over.

“We don’t come to the circuit to fill the grid,” concluded Laudenbach. “Hopefully all the work will pay off and show this year that we have made the right decisions.”

The story originally appeared on Racer

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