WEC Debrief: A Return To Remember

Following each FIA WEC race, Travel Destinations’ Stephen Kilbey runs through the matters of the moment, re-capping the weekend’s action before looking at what lies ahead in the coming months.

His first ‘WEC Debrief’ column covers the FIA WEC’s return following a six-month hiatus caused by the COVID 19 pandemic at Spa-Francorchamps and some of the pressing topics in sportscar racing as motorsport comes roaring back.

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The more things change, the more they stay the same

Sometimes you just can’t be stopped. Even with a six-month break from racing, huge success handicap penalty, heavy rain and a heap of new protocols to adhere to, the No. 7 Toyota of Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi and Jose Maria Lopez still found a way to win at Spa.

Since Porsche’s LMP1 exit a Toyota victory may seem like standard service, but the No. 7 genuinely wasn’t expected to emerge victorious here. The Success Handicap system, in use this season to help balance the field in LMP1, has served its purpose thus far, allowing privateer non-hybrid LMP1 cars win races outright without relying on miscues or reliability woes from the factory hybrids.

At Spa, the No. 7 was the hardest hit in the Success Handicap table, and could only muster a combined time good enough for a second row spot on the grid, a second and a half off Rebellion Racing’s R-13 which took pole. Had the race stayed dry, then surely Rebellion would have been able to pull off a third win of the season? But the four-wheel-drive systems in the Toyotas, as expected, provided the team with a huge advantage in heavy rain and changeable conditions.

In practice, the TS050 HYBRIDs had far better traction through corners and punch through traffic, while the R-13 struggled for grip, specifically early on when the team reportedly suffered an issue with tyre pressures. To make matters worse a gamble on tyres, putting new wets on with the level of rain reducing, cost Norman Nato, Gustavo Menezes and Bruno Senna further time and ultimately, a chance to truly challenge for anything other than a third place finish.

But even with Rebellion faltering, the No. 7 should still have been beaten by the sister car, on pace at least. The No. 8 of Sebastien Buemi, Brendon Hartley and Kazuki Nakajima, with only a single win thus far this season back at Fuji, had the speed to take a comfortable victory thanks to its more favourable handicap. It took the lead early and powered off into the distance with Buemi at the wheel, but suffered an intermittent fault which caused a loss of hybrid power that ultimately cost the car the better part of a minute during the first half of the race. It left the No. 7 crew with the task of staying out of trouble and making the finish, which they did, with a faultless run, extending their championship lead to 12 points ahead of the Le Mans 24 Hours next month.

“With the success handicap we had, we just assumed we would finish third, maybe second if things went really well. But it’s been a great day and it’s a fantastic result,” a surprised Mike Conway said after the race. He will hope that the momentum will translate into a first victory at La Sarthe for the No. 7 crew.

LMP2 on the other hand, was action packed but served up a rather more predictable result: a United Autosports win.

It must be said at this point that United’s form is simply astonishing. Across both ELMS and the FIA WEC competition, Richard Dean’s team have won five straight races dating back to the Bahrain WEC race last year. The switch from Ligier to ORECA has paid off hugely.

It wasn’t a dominant performance in the race for the pole-sitters, by any means, but when it mattered most towards the end the car was still very much in contention and took control. Granted, Racing Team Nederland’s driver line-up, featuring Bronze-rated Frits van Eerd, meant a victory was always going to require an element of luck up against United’s line-up of Phil Hanson, Filipe Albuquerque and Paul Di Resta. Still, that shouldn’t take the shine of what was nevertheless a hard-fought victory.

RTN’s Giedo van der Garde was easily the driver of the race here however. The Dutchman, with another one of his trademark opening stints drove from the very back of the grid to the lead in the class, and ultimately put the team in contention for a second victory this season. Following Job van Uitert’s efforts, Van Eerd gave his upmost to defend the lead, but was powerless to resist when Di Resta got within striking distance and made the winning move.

The incident a handful of laps later involving Thomas Laurent also garners a mention here, although for a rather different reason. Van Eerd, blinded by traffic, didn’t see Laurent’s attempt at move for second in the Signatech Alpine up the inside through Blanchimont. The Dutchman closed the door to take his line sending Laurent onto the grass and veering off the track to the barriers on drivers’ right. It was a big hit, so those watching were left relieved that he was able to walk away.

Modern day prototypes continue to amaze on the safety front…

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Porsche power

The Aston Martin-Porsche-Ferrari battle in GTE Pro was simply unmissable. It’s been a similar story for most of the season, but it’s still baffling at times that a six-car field can provide so much entertainment. The current Automated BoP system that governs the class has come into its own this season, keeping everyone guessing throughout every race; no lead has ever been safe.

Porsche eventually took the win – its first at Spa in GTE Pro for eight years. The No. 92 of Kevin Estre and Michael Christensen found a breakthrough in the final hour of the race after each of the three teams held a lead at various points. The evolving conditions and safety car periods kept the field bunched up at key stages, each one finishing on the lead lap.

Aston Martin completed the podium with its pair of Vantage AMRs. Its title hopefuls in the No. 95, Nicki Thiim and Marco Sorensen took second, ahead of the No. 97 which led into the final hour but lost the top spot to an error by Maxime Martin, before being forced in for a late splash that dropped them to third.

The change in order late meant Thiim and Sorensen hold a 19-point lead and have to be considered favourites going into Le Mans, though only by the slimmest of margins. The duo certainly had luck on their side in Belgium, a puncture early in the race could have ended their podium chances. Thankfully the left-rear blowout occurred at the end of the lap, allowing for a quick stop for a fresh set of rubber that didn’t cost too much time.

AF Corse were the biggest losers, the No. 51 looking quick and consistent enough to take the win for lengthy portions of the race. Alessandro Pier Guidi and James Calado though were the first of the two 488 GTE EVOs across the line, but could only muster a fourth place finish (for the fourth time this season), denting their title hopes significantly.

Even so, it wasn’t all bad news for the Italian team as in GTE Am its No. 83 trio of Manu Collard, Francois Perrodo and Nicklas Nielsen took their first win since the season opener at Silverstone, extending their points lead in the process. The Porsche 911 RSRs in the field appeared to have the pace for the majority of the meeting, but the lottery created by late pit stops and safety cars propelled AF Corse to the front after a stealthy run through the five-hour mark.

This all leaves us with a tantalizing prospect for Le Mans next month. You’d be hard-pressed to pick a favourite in either GTE class.

It should also be pointed out too that the simple act of being able to look forward to Le Mans 24 Hours happening marks real progress. Seeing the FIA WEC back in action in Belgium was a huge step forward in uncertain times. The WEC was by no means the first championship back following the COVID-19 lockdowns around the world, but the organisers and team personnel deserve real praise here. ACO racing is back, let’s hope the return of trackside fans will follow shortly…

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The calendar conundrum

On the subject of fans returning to watch WEC racing trackside, the 2021 calendar is currently being formed behind the scenes and it has real potential to benefit keen race-going fans in the UK and continental Europe.

It appears that the schedule will be shorter than usual, with six races being reported following a briefing to the media from FIA President Jean Todt. And the likelihood is that it will comprise of a selection of the more cost-effective races for the teams involved.

What do we know? Or think we know? Well Le Mans will, as usual, be the centrepiece, and the race at Spa-Francorchamps will serve as a dress-rehearsal. Beyond that no other trips are ‘set in stone’, publicly at least.

The WEC remains as keen as ever to return to Sebring in March for a double-header with the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship’s 12-hour race. At present it would be a tough ask, but a lot can, and will, change in the coming months. It’s not a cheap event for competitors, yet it is popular with teams and drivers and there is an element of unfinished business surrounding ‘Super Sebring’ after it was cancelled just days before the start of the event way back in March.

Silverstone will surely feature too? A mainstay on the WEC schedule since the inaugural season, a return to ‘Home of British Motorsport’ is a relatively easy race to manage, both in terms of logistics and cost.

The question beyond that becomes, how many of the remaining races on the calendar will be held outside of Europe? F1 is currently touring the continent as part of its flexible 2020 calendar which continues to grow as the season wears on. Is there any reason to believe the WEC couldn’t follow suit and become firmly European next season? It would be significantly cheaper, and easier to tweak should travel restrictions continue to cause headaches. Lest we also forget that the ACO has plenty of experience putting on events at a slew of European circuits with the European Le Mans Series….

European-based fans keen to explore some of the best circuits on the continent could very well be in for a treat in ’21!

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Hypercar’s silver lining

It’s strange to think that the original debut of the Le Mans Hypercar category was set for next month, yet here we are, still in the midst of a season that should have finished two months ago. It’s not all bad news though. Delaying the debut of the FIA WEC’s top class may prove to be a blessing in disguise, as it has given Toyota, Glickenhaus and ByKolles additional time to prepare their new cars.

Toyota being ready is paramount for the championship and its health. While it would have ultimately found a way to attend the season opener from the original calendar, it has admitted to Travel Destinations that it wouldn’t have been a comfortable experience, with extremely limited testing for its car between Le Mans and the opener at Silverstone.

Now, with an additional six months until its debut to play with, and the team spending much of the lockdown making progress, the GR Super Sport Concept is set to be truly ready for the 2021 season, whenever it starts. Travel Destinations understands that bodywork for the car already exists, with the first chassis set to be built up the week after Le Mans next month before its testing programme begins in October.

Whether the extra time to ready the car will translate into reliability and pace from its debut onward remains to be seen, though the crew behind the scenes are far more confident in their ability to hit the ground running than they were at the start of the year.

It’s a similar situation for Scuderia Cameron Glickenhaus, which is committed to racing in the WEC next year with two of its new 007s. The aero design is currently being put through its paces in a windtunnel, ahead of a full chassis being built up for circuit testing. Jim Glickenhaus himself had previously revealed that the team would be unable to make the start of the 2021/22 season, with its debut then expected to come in the race at Kyalami next year. Thankfully, with the calendar now torn up, it now has a chance to be there from the beginning and take the fight to Toyota with its Pipo Moteurs-powered challenger.

Glickenhaus has publicly stated recently that it plans to debut the car at Sebring next March for what would serve as the team’s home race. Wouldn’t it be something if the BoP works as planned in the class and the unpredictable nature of multiple new chassis being put to the test on such a punishing circuit ended up creating a shock result for the plucky American manufacturer?

Who else is set to join the party? Lest we forget that ByKolles remains committed with its own Hypercar from next year, and Peugeot Sport is slated to return to the top-level of sportscars in 2022. Little is known of the current status of ByKolles’ Hypercar, nonetheless its return to WEC action at Spa last weekend (albeit with its rather fragile CLM LMP1) should be considered encouraging.

Pegueot has also been quiet, though news on its progress is expected sooner rather than later. It isn’t yet clear whether or not it has decided to compete in Le Mans Hypercar or the parallel LMDh formula (which will see manufacturers able to compete with the same car alongside Le Mans Hypercars in the WEC and the top class of IMSA) with its new model in the WEC. Industry sources have indicated to Travel Destinations that a Hypercar is and has always been the more likely of the two, especially as there now appears to be potential for the debut of the LMDh ruleset to be pushed back a year to 2023 and the French make is still planning for a 2022 debut.

That’s all still a long way down the line. For now we still have the 2019/20 WEC season to finish! Next stop, Le Mans…

SK

Images courtesy of Toyota Gazoo Racing, Porsche Motorsport, United Autosports, Scuderia Cameron Glickenhaus & dailysportscar