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FIA World Endurance Championship 6 Hours of Spa 2014

2nd May 2014

Free practice and qualifying report

WEC Spa 2014 - Friday

The first weekend in May, the World Endurance Championship returned to Belgian Spa-Francorchamps tracks again. The format is similar as the last year, i.e. just two-day with two longer free practice sessions on Friday, qualifying in late evening, and just the race on Saturday. Unlike last year, there is no Warm-Up scheduled this time and the six-hour race is scheduled to start at half past two, to end in the darkness.

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Altogether 28 cars made the trip to Spa. Two of them are not regular WEC entrants: a third Audi no.3 running in Le Mans trim, and a Zytek of Jota Team, an ELMS entrant running here before Le Mans just like last year. One team returning from the first race in Silverstone will debut their new cars: Rebellion R-One with a Toyota engine. The team which had just started testing five days before this race meeting and consider this debut more or less just a test session for Le Mans in race conditions. The cars are really nice looking, mostly red with some white stripes, and are probably the best looking cars in the field. Unfortunately, Rebellions are still the only private LMP1-L entrants. The new Lotus is still not racing. However there were some words that the car is present in a truck, somewhere in Belgium. It is still not withdrawn from Le Mans, so there is still a hope, Rebellion get some opposition.

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Free Practice Sessions

The first practice session was started with a rain and it was all wet. Quite happily there was no red flag during entire session; all went quite well despite a slippery track. Toyotas and Audis were at the top during most of the session. Later in the session the rain stopped and the times improved almost every lap. Porsches did not seem to be that quick on wet, only shortly getting their position-signaling light switch off (as third). In the end Audi no.1 was fastest with 2:15, only 0.3 ahead of both Toyotas. Audi no.2 was next and both Porsches were losing about 2 seconds. The Le Mans Audi no.3 was not far behind the regular team but it was felt that it is not at the level of the regular cars - second session proved our feeling.

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During the second session, which was now held almost in dry conditions, all factory cars except the number 3 figured among the top 3 at some stage of the session. For a long time it was Porsche no.14 ahead of no.20 and Audi no.1. Toyotas seems to be a little behind these, however in the middle of the session Toyota no.8 jumped into the lead delegating the Porsches, wearing numbers 20 and 14 to symbol their 20-14 return, to remaining podium positions.

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Unlike the first session, this one was red-flagged, and even twice. For the first time an upleasant accident of one of the SMP bank Oreca cars. Heavy impact into the bariers behind Eau Rouge put the car out of the session. However the damage does not look that devastating as it originally looked on TV and we have some hope that the car can be even repaired for the coming qualifying session. The session red-flag was caused by a huge but lucky spin, also in Eau Rouge, also by LMP2 car. It was Zytek of Jota. We were very afraid the LMP2 field would be reduced even more after the first look at the screen. However repeat of the accident showed there was no contact with the barriers. And surprisingly - despite the session was stopped because of this car, it recovered and Zytek then continued until the end of the practice and even improved to third ahead of one of the SMP Racing cars. A G-Drive car, the only Morgan in the field, did even better and moved to the lead of the class.

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In fact all cars in the LMP2 are desperately needed. The class suffers from Millenium Motorsport team withdrawal from the early season races included and confirmed until Le Mans (sponsorship issues for their two cars). Another team missing from the first two races is a new Dome coupe entered and prepared by Strakka Racing. It is the only closed roof coupe in LMP2 class after Lotus moved (hopefully) to LMP1 and Lola private teams a long gone. The situation for LMP2 coupes is soon to be improved. OAK/Onroak racing is already testing their new coupe, called Ligier, and also Oreca announced their new LMP2 customer car for the next season will be a coupe, targeting also American market - though current imbalance between LMP2 and Daytona Prototype there might reduce interest in new closed LMP2 to be raced over there.

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Now back to Rebellions: It was actually very difficult to take any photos of the cars, since they rarely hit the track, and more we were in the first corner, La Source, and Rebellion running only out and in the pit lane, they never initially never ran through that curve. Later when we moved to Malmedy and Rivage, both Rebellion cars made occasional appearances, especially car no.12, so even some on track photos could be taken. However the results show car no.12 only in the middle of LMP2 pack, while its sister car no.13 had just three laps recorded and no time associated with them.

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In the next session, Rebellion no.13 suffered some electrical issues and never made it to the track. The other cars ran more regularly this time, however on dry conditions, it was beaten by four out of five present LMP2 cars. In qualifying both cars were back on track, car no.12 running regularly, while no.13 did several laps out and in the pits and is listed as not classified (along with the crash SMP Racing car, which was unfortunately not prepared on time for the evening session). We spoke to the team after qualifying and they confirmed both cars should start tomorrow and the goal would be to cover as many laps as possible to gather a lot of data, and of course they will try to bring both cars home, to the finish.

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Qualifying

When we went out the media center, one unpleasant thing became apparent. The track was once again very wet. But since it was not raining anymore, it was clear that the track would be drying and the strategy during qualifying would be more important than usual. Some people may still not be familiar with the current qualifying system, which was implemented only the last season. It bases overall grid position on average of four best laps set by two selected drivers in each car. It was created to force to stay the cars on the track during the entire session as in the past the team did two or three quick laps and usually parked their cars in the garage. Now one driver jumps in, tries to set quickly two fast laps and brings his car to his co-driver, who then does the same. Today, with the track drying, it was worth to try to switch the drivers twice so the first driver can jump back and try to improve his early session laps as the track dried rather quickly.

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GTE cars started on very wet and their times were about 12 seconds off their practice 2 times. Let us talk about them later. LMP session started very interesting with all the factory cars running very closely together, just as if it was the race itself. Porsche, Toyota at the front on the track, Audi seemed watching the on track battle from behind - and actually strategically correct, since there was no point of losing time with on track battle with their opponents. Later Toyota no.8 stepped back from this on track battle, and now with some track room ahead available, set the pace and was provisionally first.

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Audi no.3 was, as usual, a bit slower and also the other Audi seemed lacking a bit on Porsches and Toyota no.8. Car no.14 appeared in the lead. However as Audi no.2 and no.3 were sending back their first driver on now more or less dry track, they delegated so far leading Porsche and Toyota no.7 away from the top. It was very important at which point the drivers changed and then again returned as it was possible to improve one second any other lap only because of the drying track. Final results shows that some cars called the second driver in too early, so that he did not have quite dry track, while some other team returned back the first driver for his second stint too late so that he did not manage to cover two dry quick laps.

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Results clearly show that Audi no.3 had its second driver on still wet at 2:08 and 2:09 (and was 7th, and it would be 7th anyway, it does not seems to be evenly matched with other factory cars). And the results also show that Porsche no.20 and Audi no.1 did not manage to get their first driver back in time so both improved only one of their laps and with the second laps 2:07 for both, these cars were forced to 5th and 6th positions respectively. Of the rest, the Toyota no.7 was usually out of podium position (all four times within a range of 2:02 and 2:03), so the close battle was mainly between Porsche no.14 and Toyota no.8, with the Porsche taking the pole at the very end of the session.

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It was all very exciting, both the position and time improvements, as well as the early close on track battle between the factory cars. Positive sign was the appearance of Rebellion no.13, as well as obvious improvement of no.12 and its sound - it was for the first time quicker than the LMP2 cars, but since the team did not seem to take their racing effort seriously, their first driver with time 2:19 in wet caused that on average all LMP2 cars were classified better - with all their time better matched. The bad sign was a non-appearance of fastest SMP that crashed earlier during the day. The garage was closed but the car seems to be worked on, so still hope to be seen tomorrow.

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GTE classes

Grand Touring car battle were a little overshadowed by the top LMP1 factory battles, however there was a really great competition as well. Three makes represented in both classes more or less evenly appeared in top three quite regularly. Despite Aston Martin seemed a bit off the pace during the free practice sessions, they managed to beat Porsche in the PRO class in qualifying leaving only Bruni/Vilander AF Corse Ferraris at the top. In the GTE Am class it was Ferrari-Porsche-Ferrari-Porsche. Aston Martin a bit struggling on the last two positions with some 4 second gap on the two slower AM Ferraris. We will see how it goes tomorrow, as in the only dry GTE session the amateur Astons did not look that bad at all (though still not among the first four in their class).

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