The Ardennes forest weather is no respecter of effort or reputation.
For weeks, Europe has been gripped in a long period of hot and sunny conditions, so it was almost natural that within an hour of the start of the latest round of the World Endurance Championship, the heavens would opened up, and deposited so much water that the #36 Signatech Alpine of André Negrão went into a spin on the straight going downhill into Eau Rouge, and Ben Keating in the #57 Project 1 Porsche lost control at the bottom of Eau rouge, and just missed the barrier on the outside of Raidillon. Both recovered to be able to take their positions on the grid, but the stop/start nature of the rain over the first half of the race would affect every team's plans and strategies.
For Rebellion Racing, the change of conditions would prove to be their undoing for the entire race. After topping the charts for all three practice and then the qualifying session to claim pole position, they would continue to hold this position only for the four laps run under safety car conditions as, on seeing the green flag, both of the Toyotas and the Bykolles in LMP1 would pass them within two kilometres of the startline. From there, they would run a lonely race, off the pace in the rain due to a lack of wet weather tyre knowledge and incorrect pressures being used, and only able to show their speed when the track fully dried, Gustavo Menezes getting fastest lap on lap 92 in the fourth hour.
They did gain third place at the finish, following a late race mechanical issue with the Bykolles, but it was clearly not the result they were hoping for, even if the car performed reliably.
By then, the 4 wheel drive systems of the Toyotas had taken them out of sight to the rest of the field, lapping the entire field for another one-two finish. The decisive moment that decided the finishing order was when a software glitch meant the #8 car, with Brendon Hartley aboard, could not return to full speed immediately following a pitstop, and some forty seconds was lost before the fault cleared itself. This together with the same car not taking wet tyres during one of the early pitstops when conditions were changing gave the win to the #7 Toyota of Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi and Jose Maria Lopez over the sister car.
The Bykolles had a quiet return to WEC racing, having not competed since Le Mans 2019, and the team were working towards a reliable run when they were forced to pit during the last hour due to a mixture sensor failure which in turn caused a broken exhaust. They lost them thirty minutes in the garage for repairs, before returning to the track for the last laps of the race.
In LMP2, the #22 United Autosport took yet another win in the class, although the star of the class was the stellar drive by Guido van der Garde who took the car from the back of the grid, after no time was set during qualifying, to challenge and take the lead during the second hour. From there to the end, these two cars would trade leading positions until the end when the driver strength of the #22 team would prove too strong.
Another contender at the finish should have been the #36 Signatech Alpine team who had steadily worked their way towards the head of the class, and Thomas Laurent was involved in two significant moments, both within minutes of each other.
The first was after pitting the Signatech a lap before the United Autosports car, so that everything was already at full temperature when he came upon the #22 car, with Paul Di Resta now aboard, exiting the pits. For the entire run from La Source, through Eau Rouge to the top of Raidillon, the two cars were side-by-side, neither car giving an inch, before the #36 finally pulled ahead, only for the positions to be reversed again at La Source when Di Resta took the inside line.
The second and more serious moment was when Laurent was chasing down the Team Nederlands #29 with Frits Van Eerd aboard. As they exited the Paul Frere corner, they had one of the Ferrari GTE ahead and overtook it, the #29 going to the right and the #36 to the left. But as both cars approached the left hander at Blanchimont, Van Eerd attempted to take the racing line, only for both cars to apparently touch, and the #36 spin to the right, hitting the tyrewall hard and almost somersaulting before landing back of its wheels. Thankfully Laurent was able to walk to the ambulance after being extracted by the medical team, but this non-finish brought to an end for the team a sequence of consecutive point scoring finishes in the class that started back in 2015.
In GTE Pro, five of the six car field took turns in leading the class, each of the three manufacturers having spells in the different conditions to come to the front. In the heavy rain, it was the #51 Ferrari who came from last in qualifying to lead, the car's balance giving their drivers confidence, especially through corners like Bruxelles, while the Aston Martin and Porsche cars would overrun under braking, but as the conditions dried so the order would reverse back. Battles would continue throughout the entire six hours, the #92 Porsche of Michael Christensen and Kevin Estre taking a five second victory over the #95 Aston Martin of Marco Sørensen and Nicki Thiim, and less than two seconds would cover third, fourth and fifth at the chequered flag.
GTE Am was equally as unpredictable, the Porsches of Gulf Racing, Project 1 and Dempsey-Proton Motorsport taking turns in the lead. But through it all came the #83 AF Corse Ferrari of François Perrodo, Emmanuel Collard and Nicklas Nielsen, Nielsen's stints in particular proving to be decisive. Second went to the #77 Dempsey-Proton Porsche, with the #90 TF Sport Aston Martin taking a steady third place to maintain their challenge in the championship.
The next round is the Le Mans 24 Hours, being run over the weekend of 19th/20th September.
Report: Steve Tarrant
Photo: Marius Hecker & John Rourke/AdrenalMedia.com