“We gained experience of working with [tyre supplier] Michelin, working with Le Mans downforce levels, working out the compromises around the lap and what effect temperature fluctuations have – the kinds of things that our opponents already know.
Porsche has tailored its 919 Hybrid to cope with the specific demands of Le Mans, not least the bumps and ruts carved into the road by the heavy goods vehicles that pound it for 51 weeks of the year, the sustained full-throttle loads required for 70 per cent of each lap and the ‘heave anchor’ braking zones at Mulsanne Corner and Arnage.
“There’s no talk whatsoever about looking after the car too much,” says Webber. “World Endurance Championship events are 1000km sprint races and these days Le Mans is four of those races back to back.
"If you’re still in contention near the end of the race, there might be an element of pacing to hold position, but if there are places to be gained, the car will still need to perform at a high level. And the Porsche is great; the brakes, engine and gearbox are just amazing.
“Even if it remains dry, the track will change so much during the race. With the Michelin tyres, as the rubber gets laid down on the track, the grip keeps on improving. In recent years, with the Pirellis in F1, that never really happened because the tyres were ‘plastic’ and the rubber never went on to the track. Back in the old days of F1, we used to see the condition of the track really ramp up, changing the conditions and the balance of the car; that’s what’s happening in sportscars and I’m having to get used to it again.”
The latest Le Mans rules restrict the amount of fuel that each car can use each lap, placing an emphasis on energy efficiency and pushing factory teams towards hybrid power systems. However, precisely which form of hybrid they choose is open to a fair degree of interpretation, and Audi, Toyota and Porsche have all chosen different solutions.
Porsche’s answer is to use a 2.0-litre, four-cylinder turbocharged engine as the primary power source, augmented by two energy recuperation systems – one that harnesses excess exhaust gases and another that recovers braking energy on the front axle. The systems store power in a lithium ion battery pack and can be deployed to give a power boost that drives the front axle, making the 919 Hybrid temporarily four-wheel drive.
Webber can already sense the benefits of the hybrid system. “It is quite fascinating how we use that at certain points around the lap,” he says. “Having raced rear-wheel-drive cars for my whole career and now having drive on the front axle, it’s actually a beautiful feeling to come out of the corners a lot more positively with the four-wheel drive system.”
Porsche’s approach has shown promise so far. At Silverstone, Webber, Hartley and Bernhard finished third, but the Australian reckons that the ensuing race at Spa – where they retired with technical problems but their sister car led for a long while – was more indicative of the 919 Hybrid’s true pace.
“At Silverstone, we did a great job with tactics and tyres in the wet and we got a good result where other people made some errors, whereas in Spa, we were the ones who dropped the ball here and there, but we were very, very quick,” he says.
The backbone of Porsche’s approach to Le Mans is to develop the complicated hybrid systems in-house – a strategy that, it feels, will accelerate the transfer of the technology into its road car range.