The winningest marque in the history of the French 24-hour race will be back at it in less than three years

The Formula 1 World Championship has drawn to a close last weekend but, in the aftermath of the season’s 17th Grand Prix, it wasn’t Max Verstappen’s dominant victory that has gathered most of the headlines as, once again, sports car racing came to the fore with the announcement that Porsche will return to the sharp end of both the FIA World Endurance Championship and IMSA’s Weathertech Sportscar Championship in 2023 with the German automaker set to run a prototype built around the LMDh rules that will also be sold to customers.

Porsche will be back, merely six years after it last left the scene

Porsche Returns To Le Mans And IMSA In 2023 with LMDh Prototype
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Porsche is a staple in the world of long-distance racing. Without trying to blow things out of proportion, we think it’s fair to say that no gearhead can picture a world where Porsche isn’t involved in some form or another in either GT racing or prototype racing. Ferdinand Porsche’s company has been at it since the dawn of the ’50s and, in the ensuing decades, has built a sterling reputation highlighted by no less than 19 outright wins in the most famous endurance race of them all, the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

It is, then, no wonder that the news that Porsche will be back, attempting to add to that tally of victories in three years’ time, went around the world in no time, much like Audi’s announcement that it too will return to sports car racing with an LMDh machine, a program that’s set to kick-off in 2023 as well.

We’ve covered the crystallization of the LMDh formula over the past year or so quite closely and you can check out our in-depth review of the ruleset here as well as some news regarding key players Peugeot and Glickenhaus. But, before you check out these stories, bear with us to find out what Porsche’s new program entails and what drew the Stuttgart-based automaker to Le Mans once again, especially given that VAG Group colleague Audi is also onboard.

Here’s what Porsche told us

Porsche Returns To Le Mans And IMSA In 2023 with LMDh Prototype
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The news that Porsche would, indeed, develop a car capable of once again battling for overall honors at Le Mans and elsewhere first broke out in the German media, StN.de sitting down to chat both the program’s CDO, Michael Steiner, and the Boss of Porsche Motorsport, Dr. Fritz Enzinger. The two Porsche higher-ups effectively highlighted the importance of both the broader usage that the LMDh platform will enjoy over the now-defunct LMP1 class, as well as the fact that running an LMDh program will cost less than a third of what was needed to enjoy success at the peak of the LMP1 hybrid era, between 2014 and 2017.

"The new LMDh category allows us to fight for overall victories with a hybrid system at the Le Mans, Daytona, and Sebring classics – without breaking the bank. The project is extremely attractive for Porsche. Endurance racing is part of our brand’s DNA," said Oliver Blume, CEO at Porsche AG, in a statement quoted by Dailysportscar.com that echoes the words of his colleagues over in the motorsport department.

Porsche Returns To Le Mans And IMSA In 2023 with LMDh Prototype
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Porsche said that it looks forward to joining both the FIA World Endurance Championship and the IMSA Weathertech Sportscar Championship, the LMDh acting as a throwback of sorts in sports car racing since it was pretty much the norm back in the day that you could race your car just about anywhere you wished around the globe due to the rulesets being broadly similar on either side of the Atlantic and/or Pacific. That was very much the case during the ’80s and ’90s when the Group C formula was welcomed in both Europe and the USA, as well as Japan, meaning that a Porsche 962, for instance, could tackle IMSA’s Camel GT Challenge, the Japanese Sports Prototype Championship, and the World Sportscar Championship without requiring extensive modifications.

Likewise, the original set of LMP1 rules that stemmed from the LMP900 rules of the new millennium were part and parcel of the American Le Mans Series, the European Le Mans Series, and the Japan Le Mans Challenge. However, with the American series becoming one with NASCAR’s Grand-Am Championship in 2014, the LMP1 category became an FIA WEC-exclusive. But, even throughout most of the Le Mans Series era of the ’00s, the 24 Hours of Daytona was off-bounds. The last time that a top-flight prototype built to the same set of rules could tackle Sebring, Daytona, and Le Mans was in 2002, the last year that the SRP1 class (broadly identical to the American and European LMP900) was part of the Grand-Am Championship.

Porsche Returns To Le Mans And IMSA In 2023 with LMDh Prototype
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We took the time to turn back the clock in order to emphasize the fact that the LMDh rules allow for a much-needed setup where a car can be truly international as it’s being recognized as legal by a variety of governing bodies. That’s been the case for some 14 years down in GT racing with the globally acclaimed and globally accepted GT3 formula and, likewise, in touring car racing with the TCR formula but it has not been at the top of the prototype racing ladder.

So, we know that Porsche is keen to be back in the game because the new cars will be cheaper to run, will offer more exposure to Porsche given the ability to showcase them in both North-America and the Euro-Asian region, and because there are quite a few interesting players already building their own cars, but what we don’t know is what Porsche is actually planning to bring to the table.

We explain in the story centered around the LMDh formula that is linked above that LMDh is, by and large, akin to DPi 2.0. DPi - the initials stood originally for Daytona Prototype International - strived to achieve what LMDh will now achieve but failed to bridge the gap between the European LMP2 class and what it had to offer, and, on the other side of the aisle, the needs of American teams and automakers. Over in the US, manufacturers beg for race cars that consumers can identify and this boils down to both the design of the cars and the engines powering them. LMP2 ticked neither of those two boxes as they were made by four specialized manufacturers in Dallara, Multimatic, Ligier, and ORECA, and they all featured the same Gibson V-8 engine.

Porsche Returns To Le Mans And IMSA In 2023 with LMDh Prototype
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The compromise that the FIA, ACO, and IMSA found is the current DPi formula which sees re-bodied LMP2 cars that are quicker than their standard, unmodified brethren race in the States powered by manufacturer-specific powerplants. The initial plan was to allow for DPis to race at Le Mans too but ACO didn’t like the fact that they’d be able to battle for overall wins and cast a shadow on both the non-hybrid P1 cars and the P2 cars. That’s why all of the parties involved have been hard at work in the past three years to harmonize everyone’s desires.

With the harmonization seemingly done (read LMDh will race together with LM-Hypercar in the FIA WEC), Porsche was able to return.

We told you already that Porsche is tight-lipped when it comes to the specifics of the program or, in other words, we don’t know whom it is that Porsche will end up partnering with. That’s important because LMDh, just like DPi, is quite restrictive in that the basis for your prototype must be the product of one of the four chassis makers. You either start off with a Ligier, an ORECA, a Multimatic, or a Dallara. If you want to make a bespoke chassis, you quit LMDh and join the LM-Hypercar ranks. Industry sources have thus far hinted towards the possibility that both Porsche and Audi will end up working with Multimatic, the Canadian company that has built the Ford GT GTE race car and also is behind the Riley-badged P2 car. Multimatic, too, is running Mazda’s DPi effort as the Mazda is based on the Multimatic chassis. Joest and Multimatic ran the Mazda program together up until the end of 2019 and, as you surely know, Joest has been running Audi’s prototype cars ever since there has been such a thing and the team also ran Porsches in the past. So, here’s the link for you between Audi/Porsche and Multimatic.

Porsche Returns To Le Mans And IMSA In 2023 with LMDh Prototype
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Another piece of the puzzle is found underneath the rear deck, immediately behind the driver and that’s the engine. If the now-mandatory hybrid system will be standard across all LMDh cars, the engines will be manufacturer-specific in another nod to the DPi rules. Porsche is purportedly considering to desert the legendary flat-six engine and, instead, develop a version of the twin-turbo V-8 that you can find in the Cayenne SUV (a 4.0-liter engine that develops 541 horsepower in the non-hybrid Cayenne Turbo).

Important too is that Porsche won’t limit itself to running a pair of Works-backed cars which was the case all throughout the lifespan of the 919 Hybrid program. Instead, Porsche strongly considers the possibility of selling cars to customers, Head of Porsche Factory Motorsport Pascal Zurlinden making a point to Sportscar365.com that, "in the ’80s and ’90s, it was nearly standard to have customers in the top class, even fighting against the works teams and winning the biggest races." The Frenchman argued that. "If a Porsche wins, we are happy. So with this project, it could go back to our tradition or DNA." The last time that Porsche sold one of its prototypes to private outfits it was the LMP2-spec RS Spyder that raced in the hands of Dyson Racing, Team Goh, Essex Racing, and Team Muscle Milk-Pickett Racing among others.

How Porsche decided to return to prototype racing

It seems like only yesterday we received the shock news that Porsche would end, one year ahead of schedule, its factory involvement in the LMP1 category of the FIA WEC. In its final season, the Germans once again won everything with the last iteration of the 919 Hybrid bagging both the victory at Le Mans and the world titles. Since then, everyone’s been trying to guess what it would take for Porsche to once again come back to where it seemingly belongs. Back in March, Porsche told us that and LMDh program is still on the cards which later morphed into a statement that informed us about the board’s active consideration of such a program. Then, immediately after Audi made its intentions of contesting the FIA WEC and selected IMSA rounds with an LMDh car, Porsche concisely said that its own evaluation is still ongoing.

Now, enjoying the calmness given by the certainty that Porsche is doing it, let’s look back at the winding road that brought us to where we are now.

Porsche Returns To Le Mans And IMSA In 2023 with LMDh Prototype
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The first step is to look at Porsche’s vision for the mid-term future. As R&D man Steiner put it, "Porsche focuses on three different drive concepts: fully electric vehicles, efficient plug-in hybrids, and emotional combustion engines," and all have a place in Porsche’s motorsport efforts. That’s why Porsche hasn’t followed Audi and BMW in quitting form Formula E and, furthermore, that’s why Porsche recently launched a brand-new 911 Cup car and has sold a dozen 2019-generation Porsche 911 RSRs that will tackle the 2021 season in private hands.

The LMDh car will be the link between the two as the car’s engine, be it that of the Cayenne or another one, will be aided by KERS as per the regulations. The KERS, which is developed jointly by Bosch and Williams, will give out 40 horsepower meaning that Porsche still needs to find almost 50 ponies if the Cayenne engine is the one that will go in the car since the output cap is set at 630 horsepower across both LMDh and LM-Hypercar. The power cap and the application of Balance of Performance (BoP) to keep the two formulas close together also played in Porsche’s decision.

"The more manufacturers you have, the better it is. But LMDh also gives the chance for private teams who can also fight for overall [wins]," underlined Zurlinden before adding that, "if you have a grid between ten and 15 cars to start with, I think it’s a good number to have really nice fights. But it could become even bigger."

Porsche Returns To Le Mans And IMSA In 2023 with LMDh Prototype
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Relevant, too, is the non-bespoke chassis that lowers cost. What is more, if it’s true that both Audi and Porsche will choose the same chassis supplier, then the costs will be driven down even more with many chassis components being interchangeable and, thus, manufactured in bulk for both programs. Selling customer cars also helps make the economic model of an LMDh program even stronger, especially since Porsche has a wide number of devotee teams that might jump at the opportunity of running their own LMDh cars with the Porsche crest on the nose.

"We believe is that LMDh is much more cost-efficient [than LM-Hypercar]," said Zurlinden. "With a balance of performance, which is a huge work with FIA, ACO, and IMSA, but also from all the manufacturers involved, who are working openly and closely to get the closest racing, with that in place we didn’t see a reason to go for LMH, for us LMDh is the right formula." This, it must be said, is a formula that will remain unchanged over a period of five years, the rule-makers finally acknowledging that stability is paramount to a successful formula.

Looking down the road, we think Porsche’s expectations regarding the addition of more manufacturers will prove correct although this may come at the expense of the already frail GTE class that’s on its last legs Stateside (where Corvette is the only name committed to the entire 2021 season while BMW/Ferrari/Porsche entries will show up sporadically, targeting the more prestigious events). Talking about Ferrari, the Italian automakers may still be evaluating an LMDh program although other makers including Hyundai may provide the surprise in the coming months. In any case, we’re certainly on the brink of an era that may become golden if everything goes according to plan.

P.S. Watch this space for an upcoming story on the goodies hiding underneath the skin of Peugeot’s take at a modern prototype as well as news surrounding a current DPi contestant that may join the LMDh freight in the future.

Michael Fira
Associate Editor and Motorsport Expert - fira@topspeed.com
Mihai Fira started out writing about long-distance racing like the famous 24 Hours of Le Mans. As the years went by, his area of interest grew wider and wider and he ever branched beyond the usual confines of an automotive writer. However, his heart is still close to anything car-related and he's most at home retelling the story of some long-since-forgotten moment from the history of auto racing. He'll also take time to explain why the cars of the '60s and '70s are more fascinating than anything on the road today.  Read More
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