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WEC/Le Mans

Why Sebastian Vettel is testing Porsche's Le Mans challenger

by Valentin Khorounzhiy
5 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

Four-time Formula 1 champion Sebastian Vettel's much-hyped test in the Porsche Hypercar is clearly no mere novelty outing.

The PR win for Porsche in having Vettel - whose popularity only grew through his stints at Ferrari and Aston Martin after he won four F1 titles at Red Bull - in one of its Porsche 963s is an obvious one, yet that could be covered off with a simple demo run.

Sebastian Vettel tests the Porsche 963 at Aragon

Instead, Vettel's mileage at Spanish venue Motorland Aragon was clearly a very serious undertaking, both as part of Porsche's pre-Le Mans 24 Hours test programme and for Vettel himself.

In announcing the test, Porsche already specified that Vettel had undergone an extensive simulator training programme and ran prep laps at Porsche's test track at Weissach - a 1.57-mile circuit around two times shorter than Aragon.

What went down in the Aragon test

Sebastian Vettel tests the Porsche 963 at Aragon

Whatever mileage Vettel accrued at Weissach will have been dwarfed in comparison by the Aragon running, in which Vettel logged 118 laps.

Porsche described his running as "two double stints", presumably meaning two separate runs that started on a full fuel tank and included a full refuelling.

This came as part of what it had described as specifically a continuous 36-hour test, aimed at replicating endurance racing conditions.

For Vettel's stint, Porsche said, there were not "any problems".

Sebastian Vettel tests the Porsche 963 at Aragon

"After the seat adjustment, the simulator session and the roll-out in Weissach, I already had a good feeling," said Vettel.

"Driving the Porsche 963 on the track here in Aragon - that was definitely fun.

"I first had to get used to everything and find my rhythm. The driving experience is different simply because of the roof over your head, as well as dealing with the higher weight and the tyres."

Sebastian Vettel tests the Porsche 963 at Aragon

With other Porsche works drivers naturally in attendance as part of the test, German publication Auto Bild reported that Vettel was soon on pace with long-time Porsche campaigner Laurens Vanthoor.

"He [Vettel] came out of the car with a smile which is all good," said Jonathan Diuguid, managing director of the Porsche Penske team operating the marque's programme.

What next?

Sebastian Vettel tests the Porsche 963 at Aragon

The scope and the preparation for the test - and its integral position in Porsche's preparations for its biggest race of the year - hint that Vettel's integration here had at least some competitive prospects in mind.

"Aragon is one of the few places in Europe where we can run around the clock and gives us an opportunity to run 36 hours straight in preparation for Le Mans. The quite long back straight that gives us the top speed of more than 300km/h [186mph] we see on the Circuit des 24 Heures," said Diuguid, underlining the importance of the test.

Publicly, both Porsche and Vettel - who has largely stayed away from motorsport competition since his F1 retirement - have been careful not to indicate any designs on any competitive follow-up here.

Vettel stressed in the lead-up to the test: "This will be a new experience for me. We will then see what happens next in this respect - at the moment there are no further plans for the future.” He then emphasised after the running that the primary motivation behind his outing was "my curiosity" - which was "so great that I had the idea of trying it out myself".

Porsche higher-ups, meanwhile, emphasised the value of Vettel's feedback and experience as being applied in the test.

Sebastian Vettel tests the Porsche 963 at Aragon

Equally though, it is clear racing together has not been publicly ruled out, whether it is longer-term or much sooner than that.

Porsche has a total of six entries in the Hypercar class at Le Mans this year - three of them customer cars (the Jota one even has another F1 champion, Jenson Button, among the confirmed drivers) and the other three factory Porsche Penske entries.

The customer car line-ups are all confirmed. But one of the Porsche Penskes, the #4 (its IMSA SportsCar Championship car as opposed to its two full-time World Endurance Championship entries), only has one of the three drivers confirmed in Mathieu Jaminet.

In terms of drivers, in addition to Vettel the Aragon test includes the full WEC crews and Porsche's rising star Thomas Preining, who won the DTM title last year.

But that list doesn't even include its IMSA names like Felipe Nasr, Nick Tandy or Dane Cameron, so there will probably be no shortage of Porsche drivers vying to fill out that #4 roster for Le Mans - which, of course, doesn't mean Vettel won't ultimately be favoured over them.

Porsche's track record

Nick Tandy, Earl Bamber and Nico Hulkenberg win the Le Mans 24 Hours in 2015

You will remember that Porsche has relatively recent experience in fielding a German F1 driver at Le Mans - an active F1 driver at that.

It ran Nico Hulkenberg in 2015 as part of its third LMP1 car, and the crew Hulkenberg was part of won the whole thing outright.

LMP1, of course, was a very different beast to the modern Hypercar class, and Porsche's 963 (built to LMDh rules as opposed to Hypercar rules, which means it uses an LMP2-based chassis, built in Porsche's case by Multimatic, and a standard hybrid system) faces different competition at least in terms of sheer numbers.

But it's had a remarkably successful start to 2024 so far, winning the Daytona 24 Hours and finishing 1-2-3 in the WEC opener in Qatar.

Porsche's #6 963 Hypercar below the podium at the WEC season opener in Qatar
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