Tuesday 19 September 2017

FIA WEC 2017 - 6 Hours of the Circuit of the Americas: Another win for Porsche

Under a blistering Texan sun, 25 cars took the start of the – so far – final Lone Star Le Mans at the Circuit of the Americas just outside Austin. With ambient temperatures well rising above 30° Celsius and track temperatures over 40°, the heat was going to play a big role in this 6 hour race.  Not only on tyre degradation, but also affecting the driving conditions for the pilots with restricted stint durations down to 80 minutes. 

Neel Jani started from pole position and easily kept the lead into the first corner. Behind him Timo Bernhard couldn't hold off both Toyota's, Sébastian Buemi in the #7 and Mike Conway in the #8 slipping by the German into the chase for the lead. Contrary to the race in Mexico where Toyota struggled for pace and couldn't keep up with the Porsches, the TS050 Hybrids were running almost perfect in Texas, keeping the pressure high on both Porsche 919's. After the first round of pit stops both Toyota's were on top of the leaderboard, not changing their tyres and leaving the Porsches to catch up with them.

In the first three hours of the race, Porsche and Toyota switched the lead several times due to different pit strategies and some highly entertaining racing on track.  The duel between André Lotterer and Jose Maria Lopez was one of best we saw so far this season until Lotterer won the fight with his newer rubber.  Halfway the race, the #1 Porsche 919 Hybrid of Neel Jani, André Lotterer and Nick Tandy was in the lead, 5 seconds ahead of the #8 Toyota and the #2 Porsche. The difference between all four hybrids up to then was just 14 seconds.

Unfortunately, the Toyota's couldn't hold on to the high pace they laid upon themselves, and started to fade away in the fourth and fifth hour of the race. That left both Porsches to fight it out for victory, with the advantage leaning towards the #1 Porsche which had lead most of the second part of the race.  Team orders kicked in again at the end though, with the #2 overtaking the #1, now winning its fourth race on the trot in the FIA World Endurance Championship. The #8 Toyota TS050 took third place, 21 seconds behind the winner, the #8 came in fourth another 24 seconds behind. 

Porsche now holds a lead of 73,5 points over Toyota in the manufacturers championship (242 points vs 168,5). In the drivers championship, Timo Bernhard, Earl Bamber and Brendon Hartley now have 159 points (Porsche #2), 51 more than Kazuki Nakajima and Sébastien Buemi in the #8 Toyota. 

Signatech Alpine scored its first victory of the season in the LPM2 class in the #36 Alpine A460. Nicolas Lapierre had a perfect start holding on to the lead and several attacks from both Rebellions behind him.  An hour into the race gave the Frenchman a lead of 5 seconds over the #13 Rebellion and the #37 Jackie Chan DC Racing Oreca's.  The Alpine squad kept their pace high, leaving everyone else a lap down by the end of the second hour. Behind them, the #37 was having a steady race in second, with both Rebellions, the #26 G-Drive and the #38 DC Racing fighting it out for third place. 

The mid-race safety car however melted down the Alpine's lead leaving Lapierre, Menezes and Negrao to do it all over again. At the restart, they held on to the lead and nothing seemed to be able to hold them off their first win of the season. A broken rear light seemed to decide otherwise when Gustavo Menezes had to pit for a new rear bumper, but his lead of over a minute proved more than enough to secure the lead and the win, eventually with at least a lap over the rest of the field.

Behind the Alpine the Rebellions and Jackie Chan Oreca's fought it out for second and third place. Both Rebellions finished on the podium, the #13 in second and the #31 in third place. The championship leading #38 Oreca of Ho-Pin Ting, Oliver Jarvis and Thomas Laurent took fourth place, but again lost out valuable points for the championship. They now hold a 20 point lead over the #31 Vaillante Rebellion. 

Austin wasn't very kind to the Manor team this weekend, who had such a great race in Mexico a few weeks ago. The #24 never seemed able to get on to the pace and finished sixth overall after an anonymous race. The #25 sister car retired by the end of the second hour with mechanical issues after a weekend full of mechanical and electrical gremlins.  The #26 G-Drive Oreca was in contention for a podium finish for a while but eventually fell back after a long stop in the pitlane. 

In the opening two hours of the race, the battle between the #95 Aston Martin, both AF Corse Ferrari's and the #77 Proton Porsche was very fierce with close racing between all 4 cars across the track.  When things started to settle down, both Ferrari's remained on top with an edge for the #71 of polesitters Davide Rigon and Sam Bird. 

Half way the race though, it was the #51 of James Calado and Alessandro Pier Guidi who were in front, with the #71 sister car behind them and Nicki Thiim in the #98 Aston Martin in third place. The #92 Porsche of Michael Christensen and Kevin Estre was flying in the second part of the race after starting from the last row, climbing through the order up to second place with just 20 minutes to go. 

The #51 maintained a comfortable lead to the Porsche, but when a puncture forced Pier Guidi into the pitlane in the final 10 minutes, it seemed like Christensen might still have a challenge for the win. A fast pitstop under pressure from the AF Corse mechanics brought the Italian back out just ahead of the Porsche. Pier Guidi managed to hold off the charging Estre and took the chequered flag in first place, with the second Ferrari in third.

For championship leaders Andy Priaulx and Harry Tincknell, last weekends race was one to forget quickly.  Although the Austin track has always been a tough one for Ford, the #67 GT started from first row in the GTE-Pro class. Priaulx took a hit in the opening lap, tumbling down the order. Problems with the hard tyres made them fall down even more, never able to get back into contention for a podium finish and crossing the line in seventh place. The #67 of Olivier Pla and Stefan Mücke held on to fifth place for most of the race, but lost ground after a stop and go penalty for a safetry car infringement. Ultimately they finished eight in class. 

Paul Dalla Lana, Pedro Lamy and Mathias Lauda scored their second win of the season after their fifth pole position. Dalla Lana lost the lead in the opening laps of the race to Francesco Castellaci in the #54 Spirit of Race Ferrari and fell further back after contact with the #61 Clearwater Ferrari of Keita Sawa. Sawa got the #61 in the lead on which the Signaporese team held on thanks to a strong middle stint of Matt Griffin in the Ferrari. 

Lamy though had one of his best races of the season, proving to be very fast all weekend. He got back to the front of the field after a good 4 hours into the race and quickly went into the lead with the #98 Aston Martin. The Portuguese driver never looked back and immediately reeled off to victory, + 50 seconds ahead of the Clearwater Ferrari. 

The #86 Gulf Racing Porsche had to retire when Mike Wainwright went into the gravel trap and tyre barriers just before the halfway mark.  He managed to get the car back into the garage, but the damage was to severe to continue the race.  

Drama also for championship leaders Christian Ried, Matteo Cairoli and Marvin Dienst in the #77 Dempsey-Proton Porsche 911 when they limped into the pits with under half an hour to go. After some lenghty repairs in the box, they managed to get the car back out for a final lap, stopping just after the finish line and scoring some very important points for fourth place. Proton's problems gave the #54 Ferrari the final podiumspot after six hours. 

Race highlights

Kristof Vermeulen.