Text: Rick Kiewiet
Images: Rick Kiewiet, FIA WEC
It's been a quite eventful year in the World Endurance Championship, with close fights, three different race winners in 6 races, and a new manufacturer making his entrance to the series: Peugeot. But 2022 was also the end of not one, but two eras: the GT Pro category seizes to exist a year early (ahead of the start of the new modified GT3 LM category) and the last remaining LMP1, the Alpine (or Rebellion Oreca if you like), is retired. All of the categories were not decided before the final race in Bahrain; none of the categories were dominated by a single team or entry, at least not in numbers. But in the end, it was still Toyota who took both the drivers' and manufacturer's championships, and we can't really say that came as a surprise.
Overall, this perhaps was the year of the big wait; the big wait before the merge of LMH and LMDh, the big wait for a larger field in the highest class of endurance racing which consisted of about 4 to 5 cars on average the last years, and maybe most of all: the big wait for the new clash between Porsche and Ferrari in the highest class of endurance racing. If we, as Prescott Motorsport, look back at the articles that received the most reads over the year, items about the new Peugeot, the new Porsche, the new BMW, the new Cadillac, the new Ferrari of course, but also the announcements of Lamborghini, Alpine, Vanwall and Isotta Fraschini that they (intend to) join WEC, IMSA or both in 2023 or 2024 got most attention.
Jose Maria Lopez is the biggest winner in Sebring, with zero points...
The season started off at Sebring, mid-March. A race that will be remembered mostly for José Maria Lopez' huge crash 3,5 hours into the race. After a contact with the #88 Proton Porsche of Julian Andlauer Lopez bumped into the a tire barrier. With only the nose of the car slightly damaged, the #7 Toyota seemed able to return to the pits. A couple of turns later, at turn 14, the nose gave out and slid under the car making it unable to brake or steer. The car went into the barriers head on at full speed and turned on its roof. Luckily, Lopez was able to walk away from the incident seemingly unscathed.
Lopez' incident largely overshadowed a commanding victory from Negrão, Lapierre and Vaxivière in the #36 Alpine. The grandfathered Rebellion Oreca took pole position, the fastest lap and the race win in a race that was interrupted three times by a red flag, besides the obvious one after the #7 crash, Race Director Freitas red flagged the race in the latter stages twice under threat of lightning and had the race finished under safety car.
A notable fact in LMP2 where only 16-year old Josh Pierson took the win in the #23 United Autosports car, together with teammates Oliver Jarvis and Paul Di Resta. It's also not that Pierson is almost 17: with 16 years, 1 month and 4 days he's the youngest class winner ever in WEC.
The GT Pro race looked a prey for local hero's Corvette, but Lopez' crash and the following red flag proved detrimental to their race strategy. Kevin Estre and Michael Christensen took the win in the #92 Porsche, Tandy and Milner had to settle for second. Gimmi Bruni and Richard Lietz took third in the #92 Porsche. The #98 Northwest AMR of Paul Dalla Lana, David Pittard and Nicki Thiim took the win in the GT Am category.
Another Spa race heavily influenced by...
One and a half months later the WEC circus pitched their tents at Spa. Qualifying had another surprise in store when Olivier Pla secured pole in the #708 Glickenhaus SC007, ahead of the #36 Alpine and both Toyota's. As usual though in Spa, early May, the fickly weather was a big factor during the race. Although we started under dry, even sunny conditions, an hour later it was raining cats and dogs. Ten minutes of rain and we saw the first red flag of the race after the crash of the #44 ARC Bratislava Oreca.
The first red flag indirectly meant Waterloo for the #8 Toyota. Buemi already mentioned over the radio he thought the car didn't restart correctly, half a lap later the car broke down and stopped, lengthening the safety car phase. During the safety car, the rain intensified and a couple of minutes later the race was stopped yet again, on account of rain.
Not long after the restart, with little over three hours on the clock, Alex Brundle aquaplaned of the track to spark yet another red flag. With about 2 hours left, the race restarted yet again, to make up for the previous hours in full. Great battles emerged everywhere on track, most eye-catching the battle for the lead in GT Pro. James Calado in the #51 AF Corse Ferrari led, but had the #92 Porsche literally under his rear wing. The #52 Ferrari was only a second behind. Calado held on to the lead however, in the end being only 0.523 seconds ahead of the Porsche.
Overall victory went to the #7 Toyota of Conway, Kobayashi and Lopez, a welcome boost after Lopez' crash a race ago in Sebring. The #36 Alpine finished second meaning they were still in the lead of the championship heading towards the big one: the 24 hours of Le Mans...
Leading up to the 24...
Two big news stories came out leading up to the 24 hours of Le Mans. The first was that Lamborghini would join the Hypercar class in WEC from 2024 with an LMDh. A couple of days later Peugeot confirmed that its new 9x8 Hypercar would debut at Monza. Although it was already known that the rear-wingless hypercar would not debut at Le Mans, as it was not present at Spa for the establishment of the necessary Balance of Performance (BoP), it got the endurance racing world's heart pumping, finally knowing the date of the debut of this extreme concept.
Toyota restores order at Le Mans
With a different BoP as the rest of the season's WEC races, Toyota quickly restored the 'regular' order in Le Mans. During the 24 hours at the Circuit de la Sarthe, there was not a minute doubt that, if they would not brake down, the Toyota's would be victorious for the fifth time in row. And as they didn't ran into (much) technical difficulties along the way, it was no surprise there were two Toyota crews at the top-2 podium steps. This time, it was the #8 who took overall honors, with their first win of the season. Brandon Hartley, Sebastien Buemi and Ryo Hirakawa finished about 2 minutes ahead of the #7 sister-car. Glickenhaus laid claims to the final podium spot with the #709 of Westbrook, Mailleux and Briscoe.
Gimmi Bruni, Richard Lietz and Fred Makowiecki 'finally' won for Porsche again in GT Pro after a near-three year winless streak. But what we'll remember most is how Corvette almost won it. Within sight of the harbor, running comfortably first, they were driven off the track by the #83 AF Corse Oreca LMP2 with Francois Perrodo behind the wheel at that moment.
JOTA won the eventful LMP2 race with their 'Mighty 38', followed by the #9 Prema car of Kubica, Deletraz and Colombo.
Ben Keating, with teammates Chavez and Sorensen, finally managed to win at Le Mans, at his 8th attempt he won the GT Am category in the #33 TF Sport Aston Martin.
New entrants break cover of their 2023 hypercar-class contenders
The period after the 24 hours was the period of the Big Reveals. First it was was Porsche who presented their livery of the 963, paying tribute to the legendary red #23 Porsche 917k that was Porsche's first overall Le Mans winner back in 1970. The "Austrian red" car was then driven by Hans Hermann and Richard Attwood.
A couple of days later, Ferrari presented the first pictures of their new LMH, testing in Fiorano. Most eye-catching part of the car was the rear wing setup, with high vanes connecting the cockpit all the way to the rear wing.
The temple of speed and the weekend of the challengers.
Monza. One of the oldest racetracks in the world, home to the fastest Formula 1 race ever (in terms of average speed), and now also home to the debut of the Peugeot 9x8. "The car without the rear wing", hit the track on Friday and left a remarkable impression. The traction of the car was truly impressive. All though both cars ran into several technical difficulties over the weekend, it left a good impression and showed potential: in free practice the 9x8s only one or two tenths of the pace.
On Saturday it seemed as if this could become the weekend of the Glickenhaus outfit. Romain Dumas drove the fastest lap of the weekend by more than 9 tenths of a second and took pole by a landslide. In the first part of the race, everything went smooth for the American hypercar manufacturer, up until the moment where Pipo Derani was penalized for speeding under FCY-conditions. A couple of laps later, the car suffered an engine failure and was forced to retire.
The #36 Alpine inherited the lead and engaged in an ongoing battle with the Toyota's. First with the #7, a fight that culminated during the 5th hour when Kobayashi made contact with Vaxivière on the start-finish straight and suffered a rear-puncture. In the last minutes of the race, Hirakawa upped the pressure significantly behind the wheel of the #8, but he couldn't come close enough to place a move. Alpine scored his second win of the season, after Sebring, and headed towards Japan as the championship leaders.
Toyota reigns at Fuji
If Monza was the race of the challengers, then Fuji would have to be the race of Toyota. In their home race, the Japanese outfit had a near perfect weekend: topping all free practices, locking out the front row after qualifying and finishing the race in positions 1 (the #8, with Hartley, Buemi and Hirakawa) and 2 (the sister car of Lopez, Nakajima and Conway). The battle for the last podium spot was won by Alpine drivers Vaxivière, Lapierre and Negrão, meaning the #8 and #36 would head to Bahrain tied at 121 points. Compared to Monza, Peugeot got a bit closer to Alpine and ran into less technical problems. It was able to put up a fight against Alpine, though Toyota was a bit too far away.
There was a lot more excitement in the LMP2 category, where Frijns, Galeal and Dries Vanthoor emerged as winners. It was close between both JOTA-cars and the #31 WRT, but a smart strategy by the Belgians gave them the win. Like Toyota, AF Corse Ferrari claimed a dominant victory in GT Pro: the #51 of Calado and Pier Guidi finished ahead of the #71 of Molina and Fuoco.
History returns to Le Mans...
Biggest news in the run up to the season finale in Bahrain was the presentation of Ferrari's new Hypercar that will challenge the 2023 24 hours of Le Mans: the 499P. The car looks elegant and fast, the livery pays homage to Ferrari's history at Le Mans, specifically to the 312P of the seventies.
Another big announcement was made by Iron Lynx, who will team up with Lamborghini and run their LMDh cars from 2024. The cooperation with Ferrari will end by the end of 2022.
Bahrain finale: the #7 wins the 'battle', the #8 wins the 'war'.
As far as you can speak of "battles" and "war" between the Toyota's of course... After being able to put up a fight against the Toyota's all season, the #36 Alpine was not able to compete with the Japanese hybrids in Bahrain. The contest for the win was one between the #7 and the #8, won this time by the former driven by Mike Conway, Kazuki Nakajima and Pechito Lopez. They simply had the best pace this race and were allowed to win, as a 2nd place for the #8 was also enough to claim the World Championship drivers' title.
Most remarkable was another step up made by Peugeot, as they were able to split the Toyota's in qualifying: the #93 started from the front row. Both 9x8's were able to follow the Toyota's in the early stages of the race, before their reliability proved an issue yet again. Let's hope the technical issues can be conquered over the winter.
In LMP2, the JOTA #38 of Antonio Felix da Costa, Will Stevens and Roberto Gonzalez finished 3rd, which was enough to secure the LMP2 Drivers' title. The race, with multiple cars competing for the win, was in the end won by Robin Frijns, Sean Galeal and René Rast in the the #31 WRT. Josh Pierson, Oliver Jarvis and Alex Lynn came in second in the #23 United Autosports car, their best result since the opening race at Sebring.
The GT Pro title was won by James Calado and Alessandro Pier Guidi for AF Corse Ferrari. The final hour of the race was tense, as a gearbox issue meant it was all but sure the #51 would finish. The gearbox held, barely, and the car made it to the finish. Since direct rivals Kevin Estre and Michael Christensen could get higher up the podium than 3rd in the #92 Porsche, this meant it was enough to secure the title. Nick Tandy and Tommy Milner finished the race 2nd, closing the year on a high in the Corvette C8.R. Miguel Molina and Antonio Fuoco won the race by a lap in the #52 AF Corse Ferrari.
In GT Am, Keating, Chaves and Sorensen only finished fourth, but it was enough to secure the GT Am title in their #33 TF Sport Aston Martin.
Next year, all eyes will be on the new hypercar entrants. The two Toyota's, two Peugeots and one or two Glickenhaus' will be joined by two (later in the season three of four) Porsche's, two Ferrari's, a Cadillac and perhaps the Vanwall and Isotta Fraschini hypercars. This might add up along the season up to 15 cars in the highest class of Endurance Racing. The addition of cars counterweighs the loss of the 5 GT Pro cars as the class seizes to exist. Beyond 2023 the future looks even brighter, with Lamborghini, BMW and Alpine joining the WEC and the launch of the new GT3 LM class, opening the championship to even more manufacturers there are now. We can't wait... On to next year!