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FIA World Endurance Championship 6 Hours of Spa 2018

3rd - 5th May 2018

Event report

This year, the Spa WEC became the opening round of the season for the first time ever, after the schedule was dramatically modified compared to the previous seasons - following the Porsche LMP1 withdrawal last year. Actually the Super Season, as it is called now, starts with the Spa 6 Hours and Le Mans 24 Hours 2018 and ends with same two races a year later. Thus two editions of the most famous race in the world become a part of a single championship season, something that has never happened before. The original opener, the 6 Hours of Silverstone race, was postponed until a late summer date.

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The only remaining factory hybrid car team Toyota will now face a completely new opposition from private teams, which emerged mainly from the former LMP2 teams. Equivalence of Technology is now used to balance a performance between hybrid cars and the privateers. Unfortunately the EoT was adjusted after the Proloque in Paul Ricard to bring disadvantage to the private teams. Of course, that factory Toyota with years of experience in endurance racing, years of development and highest resources as well as best driver line up should theoretically beat the opposition quite easily, under standard situation. But rarely anybody, even at Toyota wish, it would be done by a big margin.

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One of the better attractions for this season for hiring former Formula 1 champion, and still an active F1 driver Fernando Alonso to the Toyota camp. Having just 5 WEC races scheduled in 2018 made it easier for the Formula 1 championship to commit to both championships. Now Alonso is not only aiming for a Le Mans win (he should have two attempts) but he also expressed a wish to become a WEC champion as well. Actually he needs to take part in all races, hopefully 2019 races will not clash with the next year F1 calendar, and then there are a lot of factors which of the two Toyota will collect more points during the entire season. Chances for Alonso are really high.

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Free Practice Sessions

The race weekend actually started yesterday, on Thursday with two free practice sessions. One of the most disappointing events was lack of on track running for both Manor entered Ginettas. They did only a single unmeasured lap in all three practice sessions. After missing the qualifying the Ginetta finally announced the reason officially - after many rumours circulated around the Internet. Really the lack of fund supplied by the Chinese TRS team to Manor was the reason, Ginetta did not release the cars for full practice and the cars will be withdrawn from the tomorrow's race. It was claimed that it is only temporary issue and both cars will be present for in Le Mans next month. Hopefully, that is really correct.

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One of the most interesting questions to be answered during the individual free practice sessions was to provide first ideas about the performance of Toyota versus private cars. During the first session really Rebellions and private BR of DragonSpeed often appeared at the top though the session ended up with Toyota 1-2 but the next Rebellion was on 0.2 seconds behind. However the times were nearly 3 seconds off last year times achieved in practice.

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In the second practice the Toyotas set the pace, improved by two seconds and the privateers had no answer. In this practice we saw the first more serious effort of the factory BR/SMP Dallara-built cars, which ran only partly and slowly during the first session matching the pace of better LMP2 cars. However it was the private DragonSpeed-entered BR that was behind the Toyotas, ahead of both Rebellions, which appears to be the best challenge for the Toyota.

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They proved it in the next session, the final 1-hour free practice session on Friday morning. Toyotas concentrated more on the race setup, so in the end it was Rebellion first and third, sandwiching the Toyota no.7. The other Toyota was only 5th sandwiched by the two factory BR/SMP. Former Lotus, later CLM and now Enso thus remained the only LMP1 still not beating the 2-minute border.

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Qualifying Sessions

The first qualifying session for the GTE cars was dominated by two Ford GTs ahead of two factory Porsches. Those cars just confirmed their class dominance from the practice sessions, when just once BMW appeared in top 3, while Ferraris and new Aston Martins Vantages seemed to be really outpaced. Ferrari drivers even claim that they are too slow on straights and something should be done with the balance of performance before Le Mans, otherwise they might be five or seven seconds off pace per lap.

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The prototype qualifying session was full of drama. First of all Ginettas did not appear and soon after the session they confirmed their withdrawal from the meeting following lack of cash flow from Chine to fund the tomorrow race entry. In the first one of the factory BR/SMP stopped behind Eau Rouge with an electrical issue and first red flag interrupted the session while just one Rebellion set a competitive lap time.

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After the session restart, Toyotas soon appeared at the front but suddenly a second red flag was shown. This time the reason was way more serious. Private BR driven by Pietro Fittipaldi, grandson of the two-time F1 champion, lost control of the car in Eau Rouge, hit the barriers at highest speed resulting in substantial car damage and multiply leg fractures elimination the driver from coming Indy 500 race. The car is unlikely to be rebuilt for tomorrow's race due to substantial tub damage.

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The session was stopped for about half an hour, while Pietro was being removed from the car some 20 minutes. Further time was needed for repairs of damaged tyre barriers. After the restart the second drivers' times began filling the sheets and average of two driver made the qualifying order. Toyotas were at the front, two seconds behind them two Rebellions. Remaining factory BR/SMP was another nearly second back in 5th position and the only other LMP1 setting competitive times by both qualifying drivers was returning Enzo CLM Bykolles-entered special. It finally got under 2 minutes as well, actually setting low 1:58's by its best driver.

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However post-race inspection led to cancellation of all qualifying times set by the faster Toyota. This actually move debuting Fernando Alonso's car to the pole position which would share the front row with the Rebellion no.1, which is the only private LMP1 entry with three platinum drivers - which is actually a standard for Toyota squads. Not only the excluded Toyota will start from the pit lane but it will have to wait till entire field of cars completes the first lap. That would lead only 5 competitive LMP1 cars in front of LMP2 in the opening stages of the race.

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The LMP2 class was completely dominated by Orecas. However the fastest of them is actually the car badged as Alpine. The lone Dallara and lone Ligier closes the LMP2 field, partly due to terrible times set by their second drivers. However even their best weekend times so far would delegate them to the two slowest LMP2 cars.

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Race - Safety Car almost decided the race.

With an hour to go the leading Toyota no.8 with the World F1 Champion Fernando Alonso behind the wheel was in the lead, full 60 seconds ahead of another Toyota, no.7 driven by Conway at this time. Better placed SMP/BR which was in fight for the remaining podium position with both Rebellion for a few hours, hit the barriers in Eau Rouge and instead of FCY (full course yellow) a Safety Car was called in. This destroyed a battle in GTE Pro, devastated a huge lead of Alonso and also delayed on of top 3 running LMP2 cars, which had bad luck to be in the pits just in time of SC arrival - and for some reason was kept behind the red light in the pit lane till all cars overtook it. For several laps that was a nice fight between the Toyotas when Conway was catching Alonso but before trying to overtake him, he had to stop for refuelling. Alonso stayed on the track only one lap later but still was notably quicker back on the track. Since then it seemed as if the Toyotas settled their position and finished in that order without real attempt for the final 20 minutes.

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Ford gained a lot from the last SC period, which deleted the lead of Porsche no.91 and after the restart the Ford was simply a bit quicker. In GTE Am, it was a fight between two Aston Martins. But before the SC the factory no.98 led the TF no.90 quite safely but in the finish it was a close battle, still bringing the class victory to Aston no.98, but only 0.3 seconds ahead of no.90 TF Sport.

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Only LMP2 winning car was not seriously negatively affected by this stupid late race SC period. Guest non-WEC entry of G-Drive Racing dominated late hours of the race with elegance. Jackie Chan DC Racing no.38 nearly lost a chance to fight with the Alpine no.36 for the second LMP2 spot (by being kept behind the red light) but in the end the Alpine lost a lot of time in the final hour so they swapped the positions anyway.

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There were actually two more safety car invasions. One already in the second lap when the GTE Am Gulf Porsche tried to avoid two spinning Ferraris and ended up off the track. There was nearly no damage so it could continue though it cost the team some 5 laps. Another SC was needed when one of the Fords GTE went off in Eau Rouge while running closely behind the sister car and crashed rather heavily. By that time the Fords led the two Porsches, while new BMWs and Aston Martins, as well as the Evo Ferraris were all outpaced. It never changed during the race. The Ford that inherited winning chance from the Safety Cars was followed by a factory Porsche to the podium. The third was best Ferrari, which stole the podium from the second Porsche in the final stages of the race - using the SC help, of course.

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LMP2 race developed into a dominant run of Oreca-built cars (one of them badged as Alpine) but it was not that monotonous from the beginning. Actually the lone Netherland Dallara got soon into the lead and increased the gap from Oreca quite well until the Ford GT crash/2nd SC period. It was hit by trouble (alternator) and lost several laps in the garage, actually losing any chance of fighting the Orecas. The only other non-Oreca entry was out of the game very soon, after an early drive through penalty and then losing two laps in the first hour.

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At the beginning of the race, the sparse LMP1 field at the top (consisted of a single Toyota, one BR, the Bykolles Enso and both Rebellions) provide some battle between Toyota and Rebellions, which actually kept a solid pace, not far behind the leading Toyota no.8, until the first series of pit stop, where the Rebellions were refuelled notably slower than the Toyota. The other Toyota started from the pit lane, one lap back. One SMP BR started last after failing to complete a measured lap in qualifying. Soon the other SMP BR had to the pits and that left only the Toyota, both Rebellions close behind, and the Enso CLM in front of LMP2 field in the early stages of the race. However as the race progressed, all seven LMP1s took the top spots and easily kept ahead of the LMP2 field (though the SMP no.11 lost some laps in the second hour and fully recovered only in the 5th hour to take the seventh spot). As already reported, one LMP1 then crashed while in the surprising fight for podium with Rebellions.

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It was a good race, perfect weather and big crowed. Apart from the two heavy crashes, there was no retirement. But it needs to be seen whether some privateers can really provide a solid competition to Toyotas. This time we had actually 5 cars in the lead lap in the middle of the race. But it all changed during the 4th when Toyotas remained to be the only cars in the lead lap, while one Rebellion was a lap back and the better SMP BR and second Rebellion were now 2 laps back. In the last two hours the Rebellions were classified two laps behind Toyotas, which is much better than privateers could do in the past, but still a big gap to make the races more interesting. The next race is the first of the Le Mans 24 Hour races. Not sure if the EoT would be changed again to give more advantage to private team. Toyota should be theoretically better prepared for a long race but who knows. Last year it was a LMP2 car that nearly took the win and with the Porsche, which caused the first even LMP2 Le Mans win did not happen, out of competition - it may be more open than anybody can think of. Or it might be a Toyota solo in a fashion that Audi did during the early century, 2000 and following few years.

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