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FIA World Endurance Championship 6 Hours of Spa 2017

4th - 6th May 2016

Event report

Intro

After the Silverstone 6 Hour race the World Endurance Championship race traditionally continues on the first May weekend in Spa, Belgium. It is our 11th RSC visit to this endurance race in a row. This time we are facing the second smallest field during that time. Partly thanks to the unfortunate Audi departure from the championship, partly because of new ideas regarding the LMP2 category - the class, which was strongest during the past few years is now suffering not only in diversity, but even the numbers are down. Even Rebellion move from LMP1 to LMP2 did not help to save the number decrease this year. We will return to this hopefully later. Now on more positive side:

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Practice sessions

This is the first time in the modern WEC history when we can see three factory LMP Toyotas in action. The two standard championship cars, numbers 7 and 8 are running high-downforce bodywork - the same one used in Silverstone, while the third car is in Le Mans low-downforce trim. It was surprising to see the sheets of maximum straight speeds during the first practice days and having both championship Toyotas even behind the entire LMP2 field. Actually the first free practice day, Thursday 4th May, the Toyota no.7 dominated both 90-minute sessions while Porsches finished 2nd and 3rd. Despite rainy weather forecast, it was fine, almost ideal weather so the time at 1:57s and then 1:56s belonged to the best ones ever recorded during the first practice day.

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Lotus CLM, the only other entrant in LMP1, now called Enso, wearing at least third different chassis plate to date, still labelled as LOTUS, was fastest car on the straight, it improved compared to last years, but still was not capable of beating the new, much fastest LMP2 field. Sector times showed that the Lotus was faster than LMP2 cars in sector 1 and 3 where the Spa circuit enjoys long straights. But in the middle part, full of turns, the Lotus lost much more. It is our understanding that the private LMP1 cars should be theoretically faster than LMP2 cars, had they been properly designed and constructed. They are lighter, more powerful and have freedom in development.

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The WEC programme continued today by a third free practice session, as usually just 60 minute long. This time Toyotas dominated top 3 spots and improved the times to 1:55, very close to the absolute qualifying record. In the meantime LMP2s improved from yesterday's 2:04 to 2:01 running at the speed of Hybrids from 2012-2013. As for the manufacturers battle, it was all about Orecas, with a single Ligier (not a WEC regular) the last on Thursday and beating two Orecas on Friday.

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GTE Pro class is actually the only class making an improvement compared to last year. Factory Porsche arrived and faces a competition from factory Fords, Aston Martin and Ferraris. They are all very close and while the first day belonged to Aston Martin and Ferrari seemed to a little back, the next day it was Ferrari 1-2, while Aston Martins appeared to be off pace. Fords kept high standard both days, though never topping the day.

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Qualifying

First out for the 25-minute qualifying sessions were the GTE cars. This session went without any troubles and it ended up with similar outcome as the morning's free session. One Ferrari first then two Fords ahead of remaining Pro Ferrari. Then two factory Porsches ahead two factory Aston Martins. Those were all 'Pro'/professional cars. Behind them the amateur portion of the class. Slight satisfaction for the Aston Martin team might be the amateur pole of their lone car in the class, ahead of a Porsche and a Ferrari, both makes featuring two cars in this class.

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Then the LMP car went out. Five factory prototypes were at the front of the first flying lap, expecting a very close battle but while finishing their first measured lap, a red light appeared as the session was stopped. The reason was an accident of one of the LMP2 Orecas, actually the number 25. The damage was not that big, the car had just to be moved to a safe place and the session was soon restarted. It might have slightly influence the top times. However even though, the former track record from 2015 was beaten by about 1 second with Toyota number 9 (the Le Mans trim car) stopping the clock as 1:53.658. Even remaining Toyotas and the Porsche number one ran quicker than any sports car on this track before.

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In the second part of the session (the final grid positions are actually counted by an average of two qualifying drivers) the Toyota team had a bad luck and some of their potentially best times were ruined in traffic, or by the spinning Lotus. None of the top LMP1 cars actually improved except for the Porsche number 2 - but it was not enough to break into the 1:54s on average, as any of the other Hybrids did. However the Porsche number 1, which was closely second behind number 9 Toyota after the first driver running, set the only time under 1:55 for the second drivers, and it means the pole position for tomorrows race, which starts at 14:30.

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Toyotas are then ordered as numbers 7, 9 and 8, separated by only 0.2 seconds on average. In any case, it is expected they would be very strong tomorrow and are more likely winners than any of the Porsche. Not only they have more cars, but they were quicker during the race track action so far, in every single session set the fastest time and the traffic is not likely to be so strong factor as today's qualifying sessions.

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The rest of the LMP action was about how many Orecas would be beaten by the lone Ligier, and also the only private LMP1 car, as well as the two Alpine-badged Orecas. Firstly, the times did not improved that much compared to the free practice sessions. And secondly, the only Oreca beating Alpine-called Orecas were G-Drive Racing entry, number 26 - actually the sister car of the crashed Oreca, which caused the red-flag causality and remained with. Lotus, called now Enso was beaten by half of the Oreca field, as well as the Ligier, which will tomorrow share the same row with the Lotus being on average only 0.3 slower.

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Race

All 30 present cars gridded under perfect weather, temperatures around 17 °C, dry and sunny, but not hot. Perhaps slightly smaller attendance, though the official figures were 61 000 spectators. But at 14:25 everything was prepared for the formation lap. For the first time we followed the early part of the race from the Bus Stop. With no TV screens around, it took nearly one lap till the positions were revealed to us. The Porsche no.7 took the lead from the Pole Position and created a small gap during the early laps ahead both Toyotas (no.7, no.8). Both remaining LMP1-H cars kept very close to them all and the battle was very exciting, especially when the leaders started lapping GTE field. The leading Porsche no.1 was soon caught and overtaken by high-downforce Toyotas (7 & 8) and then the no.7 ran really well creating a notable lead.

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Toyotas were then slightly prevailing Porsches during the race, the car no.7 was really shining. But the biggest influence on the actual race results can be assigned to two FCY (full course yellow) periods. Both times, the FCY was introduced just after Porsche no.1 and Toyota no.7 had already pitted, and with the rules ignoring the fact that under FCY, the cars on the track complete much smaller distance then under full race speed, while the time in the pit lane does not change, it is a huge advantage when a team can pit under FCY. Before those two periods Toyota no.7 was actually in a big lead, and at the same time Porsche no.1 was ahead Porsche no.2. After the first FCY, the Toyota no.7 could still return to the lead ahead of the sister car no.8 while the Porsche no.2 took the third overall. But after the second FCY, effectively the same affect, created a decisive lead for Toyota no.8, while Porsche no.2 appeared ahead of faster Toyota no.7. And then it was a battle for most of the second half of the race. The Toyota no.8 was never caught again, but the Toyota no.7 had to fight the second position back against the Porsche no.2. During the last hour this was decided - though early pit stop for no.8, let Porsche no.2 or also Toyota no.7 in the lead but considering the pit stop intervals, it was clear that no one is able to beat Toyota no.8 if nothing unexpected happens. In the end the Toyota no.7 was closing the gap very quickly, but we assume there was no plan to risk actual battle between the two Toyotas in the final minutes.

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Porsche no.2 finished third, losing a lot time in the last hour. However this car actually set the best lap (1:57.638). Porsche no.1 was put out of podium contention after the second FCY, but still finished in the lead lap. Remaining Toyota no.9 did not work well and after keeping in touch with the rest of factory cars during the first hour, it soon faded away and finished decent 5th but two laps back. Maybe the biggest surprise of the race was quickly and reliably running Lotus (Enso CLM) which used the first 8 laps of the race to overtake all leading LMP2 cars and then ran away from the LMP2 field keeping the sixth position for entire race.

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So the best LMP2 car finished only 7th, and this success of the LMP1 machinery is unlikely to be repeated this season. There is no other car planned to be entered, while the third Toyota is expected only for Le Mans - so theoretically this is the only race when we can have LMP1 on top 6 positions - but could they all really survive 4-times longer race without any issue? Well, the only Ligier was no danger for the Oreca armada as it was already penalized before the start by Thursday decision, which mandated the car for drive-through penalty during the first 10 laps of the race. The Ligier team decided to pit in the second lap. But for some further infringements, it pitted two more times during the first 10 laps. Likely for speeding in the pit lane. In the end, the sad day for the Ligier team ended 10 minutes before the end of the race when it turned to the pits and retired while safely ahead all of the GTE cars. It was actually one of only two retirements during the six hour race. The other retirement was Gulf Porsche from the GTE Am class, which actually stopped at the track and was the cause of the first full course yellow (FCY). An incident of a LMP2 Oreca no.28 was the reason of the second FCY. The Oreca hit the barrier but after releasing from the gravel, it could continue to the pits and finished the race well. Ahead of all GTE cars and also ahead of another Oreca LMP2, the number 37. This got a spin in famous Eau Rouge, hit the tyre wall - we saw entire incident, and it was great to see the car recovering itself without outside help and could continue the race after quick repairs.

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The LMP2 was won by G-Drive Oreca, ahead of Rebellion Oreca and Jackie Chan DC Racing Oreca. Alpines were only fifth and sixth in the class.

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GTE class started as a very close battle between two Fords and Ferraris. Ferrari no.71 led two Fords for many laps. After the first series of pit stops, the Ford no.66 took the lead over. But the other Ford hit by one of Rebellion Orecas and dropped down the GTE Pro field behind both factory Porsches and even behind both rather outpaced Aston Martins. But soon the two Ferraris dominated the class while Ford no.66 completed the GTE Pro podium, with the other Ford recovering to forth. While Aston Martins did not work well in the GTE Pro class, the only Aston Martin on GTE Am easily won the class leading from the start to the finish. Early in the race there was a fight for second between Proton Porsche and Spirit of Race Ferrari, but later the Porsche secured the second place facing no real competition, while the third place went to other Ferrari, the one entered by Clearwater Racing from Singapore.

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Final results:

1st no.8 Toyota TS050 Hybrid (Sébastien Buemi/Anthony Davidson/Kazuki Nakajima)

2nd no.7 Toyota TS050 Hybrid (Mike Conway/Kamui Kobayashi/José Maria Lopez)

3rd no.2 Porsche 919 Hybrid (Timo Bernhard/Earl Bamber/Brendon Hartley)

4th no.1 Porsche 919 Hybrid (Neel Jani/Andre Lotterer/Nick Tandy)

5th no.9 Toyota TS050 Hybrid (Stéphane Sarrazin/Yuuji Kunimoto/Nicolas Lapierre)

6th no.4 Enso CLM P1/01 Nismo (Oliver Webb/Dominik Kraihamer/James Rossiter)

7th no.26 1st LMP2 (G-Drive Racing - Roman Rusinov/Pierre Thiriet/Alex Lynn)

8th no.31 2nd LMP2 (Vaillante Rebellion - Julien Canal/Nicolas Prost/Bruno Senna)

9th no.38 3rd LMP2 (Jackie Chan DC Racing - Ho-Pin Tung/Oliver Jarvis/Thomas Laurent)

17th no.71 1st GTE (Ferrari 488 GTE - Davide Rigon/Sam Bird)

etc.

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