Down on numbers but up on excitement, GTE Pro this FIA WEC season has consistently provided close on-track action through the first four races. And now, after the longest race of the season, which dished up a surprise result, the championship has turned on its head.
Aston Martin proved that even in a Balance of Performance era, you can win races with clever strategy when your car isn’t the fastest. Nicki Thiim and Marco Sorensen were the winning pair this time, in the #95 Vantage AMR. The victory for the Danish duo is their second of the season. It also gives them an 11-point lead in the championship and puts Aston Martin on top of the Manufacturers World Championship points tally for the first time this season.
Aston Martin didn’t have the pace during weekend. During practice and qualifying, at times, they were unable to get their Michelin tyres to switch on, on the hot, humid, Bahrain International Circuit. Oddly, there was only one window, during Free Practice 2 when the ambient temperature fell from over 30 to 25 degrees, that AMR’s drivers were able to extract pace from their car.
During the race, Nicki Thiim was able to get into the lead by the team pitting him early, in the opening hours. This created a train of four of the six GTE Pro class cars into the third hour. Thiim was able to frustrate those behind him for most of a stint, before Alessandro Pier Guidi in the #51 AF Corse Ferrari and Michael Christensen in the #92 Porsche GT Team 911 RSR were able to get past. The floodgates then opened and caused Thiim to drop like a stone to the back of the running order.
But it wasn’t over for Aston Martin. Disaster struck both Porsches before the halfway mark. The head of Porsche factory racing Pascal Zurlinden stated to the media before the race that he was extremely confident in the reliability of its new car, which until the weekend hadn’t competed in a race longer than six hours.
But 30-hour tests without issues, sometimes, don’t translate into bullet-proof reliability in racing conditions. Within 10 minutes Porsche went from being in perfect position to score a double-podium and continue its near-perfect start to the season, to being out of the running for a top three spot with either car.
The #92 911 RSR 19 came into the pits with mechanical trouble first. “Kevin Estre reported some issues with car behaviour in the last two laps, so we had to look at the car, and we’ve had to change a damper,” Christensen said. It turned out to be a damper failure, which would require urgent attention.
Moments later the No. 91 was also forced to pit for hasty repairs after a puncture. Both would drop off the lead lap. “I don’t know what happened as I was out of the car, after the stop Gianmaria (Bruni) reported a puncture, we have damage on the underfloor now. Now the time lost is so much that it’s just about finishing,” Richard Lietz explained.
This left Aston Martin Racing and AF Corse to battle it out for the win. Towards the end of the race there were two battles, one between Marco Sorensen in the #95 Aston and Miguel Molina in the #71 AF Corse Ferrari for the lead, and the other between the #51 Ferrari of Davide Rigon and a hard-charging Maxime Martin in the delayed #97 sister Aston Martin which lost over a minute while making hasty repairs to fix a door and leader light issue. A 1-2 would have been possible if these niggles hadn’t cost them, as Martin and Alex Lynn’s pace once the evening wore on was up there with the best in the class.
Penalties would hobble AF Corse, the #71 receiving a stop-go for spinning its wheels while leaving its pit box, while the #51 would also be handed a drive through for overtaking while exceeding track limits. It meant that in the closing laps both Aston Martins would be given breathing room after lengthy sequences of door to door action, crossing the line first and third.
In Bahrain, reliability issues and perfect drives made LMP1, LMP2 and GTE Am void of action towards the end of the race, but Pro delivered here. Porsche came into the weekend with the sole aim of extending their points lead and heading into the second half of the season with a chance of securing titles before Le Mans. But on this occasion it wasn’t meant to be, thus we have a tight-knit championship battle to look forward to when the WEC season resumes in Austin Texas next February.
Now it is Aston Martin in the driving seat.
Written by Stephen Kilbey
Photography by Dailysportscar