Porsche has moved to cover the impending graduation of Nick Tandy and Earl Bamber to LMP1 by hiring Laurens Vanthoor from Audi and Dirk Werner from BMW. James Newbold explains why it’s more than just another driver announcement.
Rewind the clock back to the 2016 Le Mans 24 Hours in June. With all 10 of Porsche’s factory GT drivers already in action, Proton-Dempsey Racing were pressed into a stop-gap solution to partner Richard Lietz and Michael Christensen in the form of BMW-contracted Philipp Eng, the reigning Porsche Supercup champion. The total dominance of Ford and Ferrari meant Eng was the least of Porsche’s concerns, even before driveshaft problems cost the No. 77 several laps. But remarkably, it wasn’t the first time Porsche had been overstretched.
— Proton Competition (@ProtonRacing) June 19, 2016
In 2015, a clash between the IMSA meeting at Laguna Seca and the 6 Hours of Spa – where Tandy and Bamber were getting their first taste of LMP1 in a third 919 Hybrid – meant Christensen was obliged to give up his chance of winning the WEC GT Drivers title and pull double duty at Laguna alongside Patrick Pilet and Jorg Bergmeister. Lietz moved across to partner Fred Makowiecki in No. 92, while his regular No. 91 car finished third in the hands of Porsche junior Sven Mueller and then-McLaren factory driver Kevin Estre.
Understandably, it was a predicament that the Stuttgart manufacturer were anxious not to find themselves in again, particularly with a return to the WEC with two cars planned for 2017, so Saturday’s announcement that Laurens Vanthoor and Dirk Werner will join the already-confirmed Mueller as factory drivers next year should come as little surprise.
But as well as fixing what threatened to become an annual problem, it also serves as a statement of intent. After a tough year for the outgoing 911 RSR, Porsche is pulling out all the stops – including pursuing some of the top talents in the sport – to give the radical mid-engined 911 RSR the best possible chance of success when it hits the track for the first time at Daytona.
— Racing GT (@RacingGT) November 18, 2016
Porsche’s stockpiling of talent is nothing new – since the start of its LMP1 programme in 2014, new blood was needed to fill the void left by Messrs Dumas, Bernhard and Lieb, and some of GT racing’s brightest prospects were cherry-picked for the task at hand. Former Carrera Cup France champion Makowiecki was poached from Aston Martin in somewhat acrimonious circumstances, while Christensen and Bamber were promoted from within and Estre, a former champion of the French and German Carrera Cup, was successfully lured from McLaren.
And in Audi standout Vanthoor, the ultra-experienced Werner and highly-rated youngster Mueller, Porsche now has three more highly-motivated talents on hand to assist with development, freeing up Pat Long, Wolf Henzler and Bergmeister to focus on customer racing. That’s quite a luxury to be able to afford.
Each of the new signings has a point to prove. For one, Vanthoor has made no secret of his desire to race in LMP1 someday and following the termination of Audi’s P1 programme, a switch to sister brand Porsche makes perfect sense. It also presents the Belgian with the chance to realise his long-stated dream of racing in America, where he will join Estre in the No. 912. Intriguingly, it won’t be the first time the pair have been team-mates, having raced together for Oak Racing at Le Mans in 2015.
The perennially-underrated Werner is another intriguing addition to the line-up. The 35-year-old is seeking a fresh challenge after a seven-year stint at BMW (including two years in the DTM) that is perhaps best summed up by the 2015 Spa 24 Hours. Alongside Maxime Martin and Augusto Farfus, he was in position to deliver Marc VDS a long-awaited first win at the event, until transmission failure after 19 hours opened the door for Nick Catsburg, Lucas Luhr and Markus Palttala to take the plaudits in the sister car. Werner actually began his career at Porsche, winning the Carrera Cup Germany in 2006 and taking two Grand-Am GT titles with Farnbacher Racing before his BMW career began in 2010. Joining 2015 IMSA champion Pilet in the No. 911, he’ll hope that the change of scene brings about a revival in fortunes as it has done for ex-colleagues Andy Priaulx and Dirk Mueller at Ford this year.
Porsche Family 2017 pic.twitter.com/dJtiVjYk37
— Patrick Pilet (@PatrickPilet) December 4, 2016
Sven Mueller too comes with good pedigree, having become only the fourth man after Frank Stippler, Rene Rast and the aforementioned Eng to win both the Supercup and German Carrera Cup in the same season. However, both were not without a large slice of good fortune. The Supercup title looked to have slipped away after a poor qualifying run at COTA, until chief title rival Matteo Cairoli was struck down by a rare mechanical failure while leading. Then, a penalty for avoidable contact with Jeffrey Schmidt in the Hockenheim finale threatened to hand the Carrera Cup title to Christian Engelhart, before a timely Safety Car allowed him to make up the lost ground. Still only 24, if Mueller can iron out the mistakes, Porsche will have a formidable prospect at its disposal – we already know he’s a dab hand around Daytona. His 2017 programme has yet to be decided.
Then, there’s the elephant in the room. Despite winning outright at Le Mans and taking the World Endurance Drivers championship, a disappointing end to the season saw Romain Dumas ousted from LMP1, but a return to GT racing where he made his name could give the experienced Frenchman a new lease of life. How he fares will be one of the many fascinating subplots to the 2017 season.
With more strength in depth than ever before, there can be no excuses for Porsche on the driving front next year. Now the contractual side is sorted, we won’t have to wait too long before the car gets to do the talking…