Wednesday 11 May 2016

FIA WEC - 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps : LMP1 Race review

56000 spectators, Spa-Francorchamps under the sun and temperatures up to 24 degrees ... all was set for a great race in the Belgian Ardennes last weekend. After Porsche's domination in qualifying, setting everyone else back for at least 1.9 seconds, it seemed like they were in for “a walk in the park” on Saturday. 6 hours later, with a classic endurance race passing by, things turned out differently ...

Both Porsches had a faultless start, Hartley leading his 919 Hybrid first in La Source, followed by the #2 sister car with Marc Lieb at the wheel. After almost six laps, Lieb runs into trouble with the #2 car. A problem with the hybrid system meant they couldn't deploy all of their hybrid power for the remainder of the race. At that time, bringing the car home without losing too much time was the challenge for the team. Little did they know, they'd be finishing on the podium after 6 hours. Laptimes went up significantly and the #2 Porsche fell down to sixth position.

After the first pitstops, Sebastian Buemi took the lead in his Toyota #5, doublestinting his tires. At that point Buemi had already been in a frantic battle with Di Grassi in the Audi #8 for second place. Side by side through La Source and Eau Rouge, Di Grassi even overtaking on the grass at Blanchimont, before losing its place again at the chicane. (Endurance) Racing at its best, fighting for every inch on the track.

Timo Bernhard took over in the #1 Porsche, lapping faster than Buemi and ready for another breathtaking battle for first. Until disaster stroke for Bernhard as he collected a puncture in lap 37, causing damage to the body work. Webber takes the car over, but also has a puncture about 10 laps later. This one causes more substantial damage, keeping the car in the garage for 1h40' and out of contention for a place on the podium.

With both Porsches and Audi #7 in trouble, Toyota held on to the lead in the #5 TS050 of Anthony Davidson, S├ębastien Buemi and Kazuki Nakajima. Davidson, almost a lap ahead of the Audi #8 which was in second position halfway the race, looked comfortable in the lead. After 3 hours, Toyota occupied P1 and P3, Audi in second and the handicapped #2 Porsche in fourth. The Audi #7 meanwhile fell down to 15th overall after a several visits to the pitlane due to a damaged floor and air ducts that had to be cleaned.

Behind the factory teams, both Rebellions were holding on in fourth and fifth position, 1 and 2 laps behind third place. Rebellion already got onto the podium in Silverstone, if the factory cars keep on hitting trouble in the second half of the race, they could have a chance to be up there again in Belgium. Mechanical woes hit the ByKolles #4 again, keeping it in the pitlane for a while and dropping to 18th overall.

The second half of the race started with the fourth placed #6 Toyota unlapping itself from the second placed Audi #8. Would Toyota – racing in high-downforce trim instead of the low drag Germans – be able to clinch a surprising first and second at the end of the race ?  Unfortunately, no ... Minutes later the #6 TS050 of St├ęphane Sarrazin, Mike Conway and Kamui Kobayashi was pushed into its garage with an engine problem, forcing it to retire due to engine/electronics failures. The Porsche #2 was now up to third, and both Rebellions ready for the podium if trouble strikes again at the factory teams.

Marcel Fassler charged hard in the #7 Audi R18 to make up the time lost in the pitlane, too hard ... after contact in the chicane he had to come in again with damage to the front bodywork, losing more time in the pitlane and received a drive through penalty for causing a collision. By the end of the race, Fassler made contact again in La Source, finishing with a right front damaged R18. The Porsche #1 came back out again with a bit more than 2 hours to go, on the edge of being able to complete 70% of the winners distance to score some important championship points.

Just when you thought Toyota had everything under control and was going for a well deserved victory, drama struck again.  With a few minutes over an hour to go, the leading #5 Toyota started smoking from the rear. An engine problem forcing the leading car into the pits, only to come out again at the end of the race. Drama for Toyota losing both cars with mechanical issues in less than 2 hours. The Audi #8 now takes the lead, ahead of Porsche #2 and the Rebellion #13.

Despite the safety car after Mucke's crash on the Raidillon (more about that in our LMP2 & GTE race review), nothing really changed anymore in the final hour of the race. A bit of commotion though when the leading Audi #8 was pushed into the garage under the safety car. Audi declared later this  was a scheduled stop, they now could do under the safety car without losing time.

After 6 hours of racing, the Audi #8 of Lucas Di Grassi, Loic Duval and Oliver Jarvis took victory in the Ardennes, 2 laps ahead of the #2 Porsche 919 Hyrbid and 4 laps in front of the #13 Rebellion R-One. The second Rebellion came in fourth, 6 seconds ahead of the #7 Audi. ByKolles completed the top 6. The first win for this trio together in an Audi, and the first for Di Grassi and Jarvis in the WEC.

Toyota brought out the #5 again in the last lap of the race, completing the lap solely on hybrid power, scoring important points in the championship and securing second place. A premiere in the WEC, and probably in motorsport, as it's believed this was the first time ever a car has completed a lap completely on hybrid power. After the race, the #5 TS050 got a four lap penalty, because Nakajima didn't meet the minimum drive trime. 

It seems like the LMP1 teams all have quite some work to do ahead of Le Mans. More than ever, reliability is going to be crucial next month, and with each factory team fielding “only” 2 cars at the start, there's almost no room for error. In the past years, more than once the third car took victory at La Sarthe. Rebellion is having a dream season so far, twice on the podium and second in the constructors standing, ahead of Toyota and Porsche. If they are as reliable at Le Mans as in Spa and Silverstone, they might be in for a surprise !

Roll on June, this could be an epic one (again) !

Kristof Vermeulen.