Monday 21 November 2016

FIA WEC: Successful rookie test for Robert Kubica in Bahrain

After his rookie driver test with the ByKolles CLM P1/01 yesterday afternoon in Bahrain, 31 year old Robert Kubica took a few moments to speak about his future racing plans. 

Kubica's fastest time over 27 laps was a 1.47.222, over 2.5 seconds faster than Pierre Kaffer and over 5 seconds quicker than Francesco Dragone in the ByKolles LMP1 in yesterdays test.  Compared to Pierre Kaffer's time in the practice sessions in Bahrain, Kubica was half a second faster. "I had a pretty good feeling in the car today, although it's very different to what I've been driving in the past months. Today was a good opportunity to see if I could be able to drive a car like this. My laptimes were good, but I feel I even could go faster with more time behind the wheel as there was a lot to discover right now". 

More than 5 years after his terrifying accident in the opening stage of the Andorra Rally in 2011, Kubica now feels ready for a comeback to circuit racing. "The first times I went back to a track to test a race car, it didn't feel right" said the Polish driver. "It was tough to drive on track again still recovering from my injuries, and when leaving the circuit at the end of the day it just didn't feel right. This was one of the main reasons why I switched to rally in the past years. Rally has a completely different atmosphere around it, new people, a whole new paddock ... which really attracted me to go there instead of back to circuit racing.  

About his plans for the future, Kubica said he wanted to have a programme for next year ready past October, but that didn't happen until now. "I want to come back to racing but in a truly professional environment, with the right team and the right people behind it, so I'm still weighing out my options". Asked about the WEC and the Le Mans 24 Hours, he said that Le Mans is a unique and very appealing event for any racing driver.  "I haven't seen the race yesterday as I only arrived late night in Bahrain, but for sure the WEC is a very attractive championship with high racing standards. Driving there and at Le Mans in the future would be great. It would take me some time though to become a good endurance driver as it's very different to what I have been up to until now. Adapting to a whole different type of car, racing with 3 drivers with different driving styles, it's all new for me". 

As for now  no programme for next year is known for Kubica. With an encouraging first test in a prototype, who knows if might be some kind of interest to give him a chance to compete in the WEC next year.

Kristof Vermeulen.

FIA WEC: Did Alonso just hint at a switch to the WEC in the future ?

Yesterday evening at the FIA WEC end of season awards ceremony, the retiring Mark Webber was celebrated by the whole WEC paddock.

Webber, who finished his last race on the podium last Saturday, was given the FIA WEC Excellence award. An appreciation for his whole racing career and 3 fantastic years in the World Endurance Championship, giving him the drivers title in 2015 and the manufacturers titles in 2015 and 2016.

© RIP/Arne Simons
In a video, Andreas Seidl, Brendon Hartley, David Coulthard, Alex Wurz, Jenson Button, Fernando Alonso Daniel Ricciardo and Timo Bernhard had a farewell message for the Aussie. The message from Alonso stood out, and might have given a hint to the future of the Spanish driver whose contract ends at McLaren by the end of next season.

This is literally what Alonso had to say to Webber : "You've had a fantastic career, an then now all your success with Porsche. You didn't wait for me there, because it could be nice. But I think you will be around so I will ask you many things when I join your adventure. You're a really great man, and from all my heart, all the best".

For the first time Alonso really spoke out about his future and a possible switch to the World Endurance Championship after his active F1 career. In 2014 Alonso was a guest at Le Mans and waived the green flag for the start of the race. Last year he was a well sollicited guest in the Bahrain paddock at the final race of the season. 

Will we see Alonso in a Porsche 919 hybrid in 2018 ?  And will other drivers join him from the F1 paddock ... at least two have already hinted at a new future in endurance racing. 

Kristof Vermeulen. 

Sunday 20 November 2016

FIA WEC - 6 Hours of Bahrain: Emotional win for Audi in its final race

At the end of an emotional 6 Hours of Bahrain, Lucas Di Grassi, Loic Duval and Oliver Jarves waived the Audi R18 goodbye with a win in its final race. The second place of Lotterer, Tréluyer and Fässler made Audi's success complete. What better way to waive the R18 Hybrid goodbye ? Pole position, fastest lap and a clean sweep on the podium. 

The formation laps started with both Audi's in front of the field. A fitting farewell to the team that raced its final endurance race in the FIA WEC yesterday. When the green flag was waived, Loic Duval kept the lead after the first corner over Neel Jani in the #2 Porsche 919. Timo Bernhard fell back to third place, and would soon be challenged by Fässler in the second Audi.

Misfortune for the Porsche #2 in the first hour after contact with the #78 KCMG Porsche, straight after its first pitstop. Neel Jani had no other choice to come back in again, eventually losing a lap over the leading Audi and rejoining in sixth position. Meanwhile, Marcel Fässler who started fourth, made his way up to second place, before handing over the car to André Lotterer. 

After the second round of pitstops, André Lotterer in the #7 was leading Lucas di Grassi in the #8 by 5 seconds.  A problem with a tire change during the third pitstop, cost the leaders about 11 seconds, dropping them back to second place. Behind both Audi's, the Toyota #5 had been driving in third place for a while, but lost that spot to the #1 Porsche by the 3 hour mark.

In the second half of the race, the Audi's consolidated their lead and never really got into trouble again. The short full course yellow that was called when Dalla Lana stopped his car on the track, gave the Audi engineers the chance to change the pitstop strategy of the #8, which came in under FCY and so easily could hold on to it.  

The final hours of the race were all about consolidating places and bringing the cars home. The #7 Audi had a steady lead of about 20 seconds, not really under pressure of the #8 R18. Behind both Audi's, the Porsche #1 of the retiring Webber and teammates Hartley & Bernhard was comfortable second, ahead of both Toyota's. 

Both Toyota's never were really up to pace during the race, despite getting the #5 in third spot for a while. Surely a bit disappointing after their competitive display in the last races. The #6 never has been in a position to win the race or the championship. Finishing fifth for the #2 Porsche of Neel Jani, Romain Dumas and Marc Lieb was enough to secure the championship. Winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the drivers & manufacturers championship, 2016 has treated the #12 Porsche crew well.

By the end of the race, all attention went to both leading Audi's. Di Grassi brought the #8 R18 Hybrid home, finishing a day with lots of tears and emotions. After all those years, splitting up the whole team feels like splitting up a family. Racing is emotion ... watching the Audi team from close by, and how the complete WEC paddock lived with them from the grid to the podium, even the entire weekend, was unique.  Tears were shed before and after the race, but Audi can be proud of what they achieved over all those years and leave an impressive legacy behind. 

Audi has been active in endurance racing for 18 years. Dominated the sport, had to dealt with rivalry of Peugeot, Toyota and Porsche but always emerged back to the top. An era comes to an end, let's hope this won't be a farewell from Audi but a goodbye and we'll see them back in the WEC or Le Mans at some time.

Gustavo Menezes held on to first place in LMP2 at the start, ahead of Bruno Senna in the #43 RGR Sport. Alex Lynn in the #44 Manor didn't have a clean start of the race and dropped down to fourth in the first lap.  At the back of the field Rene Rast, who started dead last, was flying during his first stint in the #26 G-Drive Oreca. A few laps into the race and Rast was already at the back of the LMP1 field, only to move up further in the order up to sixth place after an hour. 

A different pitstop strategy put Lynn back into third after the first hour. The batlles in the class really began after the third round of pitstops when Bruno Senna put up a fight with Lapierre for the lead. Lapierre managed to hold on to first place and was able to get away from Senna again. With a different strategy the #31 Extreme Speeds Motorsport Ligier got into the lead, letting the pro drivers take the first couple of stints and leaving the am driver 'till the final part of the race. 

After the final round of pitstops, Chris Cumming started to fall down the order, eventually finishing fourth in class. At the front the battle for the lead really got on in the final hour. Rast, Rusinov and Brundle kept on charging through the field and were up to third, right behind the #36 Alpine and Filipe Albuquerque in the #43 RGR Sport who got into the lead earlier. 

In the final 20 minutes, Rast made a gutsy move in turn one, passing the Ligier and stormed off to victory after an impressive race. 

Gianmaria Bruni had the best start in GTE Pro, leading the field after the first corner ahead of both Aston Martins. After the first round of pitstops, the #97 Aston Martin of Jonny Adam & Darren Turner took over the lead from the Ferrari.  A few hours into the race, and both Aston Martins seemed to have everything under control, leading the class ahead of the #51 Ferrari and the #67 Porsche. By the end of the second hour Darren Turner lost his right front wheel, limping back to the pitlane and losing his lead. Repairs to the car (new brake disc and caliper) would put the #97 3 laps down. 

With the #97 out of contention for the win, the #95 now was in front but trailed by both AF Corse Ferrari's. Nicki Thiim and Marco Sorensen kept their cool and started expanding their lead in the fourth hour of the race. After four hours the Danish duo put both Ferrari's one lap down. The #51 Ferrari fought back in the final hour of the race, put in the fastest lap, but ultimately was 12 seconds short to challenge the "Dane Train" for the win.

Thiim and Sorenson crowned themselves GTE-Pro drivers champions of 2016. The manufacturers title ultimately went to Ferrari since the #97 Aston Martin didn't finish higher than fifth after losing their wheel halfway in the race. 

Abu Dhabi Proton Racing took its second win of the year, beating the #78 KCMG Porsche and the #83 AF Corse Ferrari in the GTE-Am class.   Francois Perrodo, Emmanuel Collard and Rui Aguas  in the #83 Ferrari didn't take any risks during the race as they only had to focus on the #98 Aston Martin of Paul Dalla Lana, Pedro Lamy & Matias Lauda. Drama struck however for the Aston crew when just over the 3 hour mark Dalla Lana stopped the car on track. An engine failure ended the race of the championship challengers, giving the #83 AF Corse crew the 2016 GTE-Am title.

Throughout the race, the GTE Am class was hardfought, with 5 of the six cars in class eventually leading the field. The winning #88 Porsche got to the front of the field in the second hour of the race, only briefly to lose that lead again after 4 hours. Khaled Al Qubaisi, David Henemeier Hansson and Patrick Long kept their cool and stayed out of trouble which automatically put them back in front. By the end of the race the #88 Porsche had a one lap lead over the #78 KCMG and the #83 AF Corse. 

Kristof Vermeulen.