This past weekend saw the birth of a new class, the start of a new season, cool but dry track conditions throughout the meeting, but with all four classes won by established names. So was it just business as usual? Not a bit of it.
Toyota were amongst the first to commit to the new class, the first to show their car, and now compete with the new car. They might have finished first and third, having started first and second on the grid after qualifying, but it was no easy walk in the park. Partly this was caused by new car fragility, the braking system catching both cars out numerous times with the need to use the escape road at Les Combes, before a major off by the #7 car at Bruxelles corner finally delayed it sufficiently that it dropped back behind the #36 Alpine. But there were also uncharacteristic mistakes made by the team, the #7 car being released before the mandated refuelling time had elapsed on one occasion, resulting in the car taking a 30 second pitstop penalty, and an on-track collision with the #91 GTE Pro Porsche resulting in a further pitlane drive-through penalty.
While the worst of the issues afflicted the #7 crew, the #8 squad of Buemi, Nakajima and Hartley managed the situation better and came through with a more consistent run by all three drivers. This was aided by the regulations applied to the #38 Alpine, the car 'grandfathered' into this season's championship which has to refuel more as a part of the equivalency ruling. Even so, the Alpine spent much of the middle portion of the race in the lead, forcing the Toyotas to push on despite their problems, before the Toyota's pace finally gave it the edge in the run to the chequered flag.
Brendon Hartley, in summing up the achievement, said, “It’s a great feeling to start this new Hypercar era with a victory. It didn’t come without some challenges but in the end we delivered the right result. As a driver crew we didn’t make any mistakes and we were learning on every single lap. We continue to improve our understanding of the GR010 HYBRID, how we deal with double-stints with this car and the traffic management, which is very different than with the previous car. All I can say is that we are very happy with the first victory. It was a proper race, it was a challenge, but it was a lot of fun.”
No doubt the issues in the GR010-Hybrid will be eradicated with time and running, but it is safe to say that the team will not be sitting easy on their laurels between now and the next round at Portimao in June.
Hisatake Murata, Team President, said after the race, “What a dramatic and unpredictable start to this new era for our team. We all hope that Hypercar will become an extremely competitive class and this race lived up to the expectations of fans around the world. We faced several difficulties but thanks to a big effort from the mechanics, engineers and drivers we began this new chapter in endurance racing in the centre of the podium."
In what amounted to being yet another dominant performance in the class, the #22 United Autosport led the way, with fastest times at every practice session, qualifying, and race, and even having the audacity to both initially take the lead of the race from the Toyotas after the first corner and then later held a overall podium place ahead of the delayed #7 Toyota for a while, before the status quo was restored. The regular drivers of the #22, Filipe Albuquerque and Phil Hanson, were joined by WEC newcomer Fabio Scherer who completed the hardwork done to bring the car home for his debut win, which is also the team's fifth LMP2 win at Spa out of the last five events at the track, across both WEC and ELMS championships.
Team Principal Richard Dean said of the win, “A dream start in defence of our title. We have a new line up with Fabio, who performed really well, a really impressive debut and he’s only going to get stronger, which will only help the team get stronger as the season goes on. It was a pretty dominant performance in every session so I couldn’t be happier.”
The #28 and #38 cars of the JOTA Sport team cam through the pack to claim second and third places in a stealth like performance, having qualified a lowly (against their past standards) sixth and seventh in class. The #28 squad appeared to be the faster of the two teams, but were forced to take a penalty following a potentially disastrous moment when Tom Blomqvist failed to see the then leading Alpine attempting an overtaking manouver while running into Eau Rouge, and both cars getting away with just side to side contact.
Other worthy mentions within the class go to Racing Team Nederland’s line-up of Giedo van der Garde, Frits Van Eeerd and Job Van Uitert who took fourth place and the first Pro/Am class trophy, and the local WRT Racing who again impressed the class regulars with their speed and performance only their second LMP2 outing (the first being at the recent ELMS race at Barcelona), before a clutch bearing forced a long pitstop that took them out of contention.
ARC Bratislava’s Ligier JS P217 Gibson did not take up their place on the grid due to an internal oil leak that was discovered during the 10-minute warm-up session prior to the race, meaning the only non-Oreca was not present in the race.
The #92 Porsche 911 RSR-19 of Kevin Estre and Neel Jani took a flag to flag victory which made it look easy, but a puncture early on, which also occurred on the sister car, meant they had to be be on their guard for the whole distance to keep the Ferraris at bay. Newcomer Jani, having his first GT race after years in the prototype category, was able to come to terms with using his mirrors to watch the faster cars approach and overtake him, something he was previously not used to. But, as he remarked later, "when Kévin had to pit earlier than planned due to the puncture, we were a bit concerned at first because I had to save some fuel during my stints for tactical reasons. But a caution phase helped us at the right moment, so it was no longer an issue. It went well for me.”
For the #91 car, it was a case of a difficult race, with several punctures, bad luck overtaking traffic and finally an accident with the #7 Toyota that destroyed the rear of the car, and resulted in a lengthy pitstop that took the car out of contention.
The pair of AF Corse Ferraris finished on the same lap at the end due to the leading Porsche's fuel saving but were never in contention for the win on this occasion. But it could have been closer, had the #52 car not picked up not one but two drive through penalties for not slowing quickly enough when full course yellow periods were twice called by race director Eduardo Freitas.
An honourable mention must go to Oliver Gavin who came out of retirement to have one more race for the Corvette team, and help it in its preparations for Le Mans. Team mate for the weekend Antonio Garcia said it motivated him to 'give it all' for Gavin's send-off podium, but sadly it was not to be, the car finishing a steady fourth place, off the pace of the regular class runners.
The AF Corse #83 Ferrari took an emphatic victory with only the #33 4 Horseman Aston Martin able to finish on the same lap. The gap might have been closer, but for a wild ride while Ben Keating was aboard the Aston while being overtaken by a pair of LMP2 who literally drove him off the track on the run down to Pouhon, and it took literally every metre of the tarmac outside the corner to bring the car to a spinning halt.
Third in class should have gone to the leading Porsche, the #88 Dempsey-Proton Racing car, but like so many others, they were hit with a drive through penalty, this time for constant abuse of track limits, which they did not take before race end, so were assessed with thirty seconds being added to their race time that dropped them from third to fifth.
This promoted the #47 Cetilar Ferrari to third, first time out in class, and the second AF Corse #54 to fourth.
Most of the Porsche entries in the class were badly affected, both of the Project 1 cars not being able to enter, losing the first car during the previous weekend's prologue, and withdrawing the second after qualifying due to heavy damage sustained, and the GR Racing car having an accident on the way to the grid which could not be repaired in time.
Finally, in a taste of what might have been, the #77 Dempsey-Porsche, which sustained heavy damage during qualifying, recovered from the back of the grid to be leading the class after just sixteen laps with Matt Campbell aboard. Sadly the the rest of the run to the end didn't continue in the same vein, the car eventually grinding to a halt on the circuit with an electronic issue, and was not officially classified at the end.
The second round of the 2021 WEC is the 8 Hours of Portimão, which will take place at Circuit Algarve in Portugal over the weekend of 12-13 June.
Text: Steve Tarrant
Photos: Toyota Gazoo Racing and FIA/AdrenalMedia.com