Audi Dominates at Spa in the latest round of the FIA World Endurance Championship
Stephen Errity of lendurance.co.uk rounds up the all action from the second round of the World Endurance Championship at Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium and looks at the trends that have emerged from the race as we get ever-closer to Le Mans in June.
Audi debutante Marc Gene, along with 2012 newcomer Loic Duval and team stalwart Romain Dumas, drove their #3 Audi R18 Ultra TDI to victory in the second round of the World Endurance Championship at Spa-Francorchamps last weekend.
Much of the attention at the event was focused on the debut of Audi's new hybrid 'e-tron quattro' car, but the R18 Ultra diesel was also running its first race, as it represents a significant revision of the 2011-model R18 that won in Sebring back in March.
Heavy rainfall on race morning ensured the early stages of the six-hour race would be run on a wet track, but the expected race-long downpour did not materialise and the rapidly drying track proved crucial to the final outcome. Polesitter Tom Kristensen in the #2 hybrid Audi lost the lead to a fast-starting Andre Lotterer in the #1 sister car, which rose from third to lead a hybrid 1-2 by the end of the first hour.
But Lotterer and his fellow 2011 Le Mans winners Benoit Treluyer and Marcel Fassler could only bring the hybrid R18 home in second on its debut, after the advantage of part-time four-wheel-drive in the wet gave way to the diesel R18's superior pace on a dry track in the third hour. It was Gene, initially bringing up the rear of the Audi train in fourth place at the wheel of the #3 car, who had the foresight to maximise that advantage by changing to dry tyres before any of his team-mates.
Sebring winners and Spa polesitters Kristensen, Allan McNish and Dindo Capello had a poor race. They were at a disadvantage from the first pitstops, when the car's front bodywork had to be changed to fix a faulty headlight, but also looked to struggle even more than the #1 car's drivers with the understeer that seems characteristic to the hybrid R18. This allowed Audi young guns Marco Bonanomi and Oliver Jarvis to overhaul them for the final podium position in the #4 diesel.
The result sets up a fascinating battle at Le Mans, as it seems the hybrid Audis do not enjoy the clear advantage over the diesel cars they were expected to have. Whether it's a fundamental issue with the design of the car, or simply a matter of the hybrid crews needing to refine their set-up, remains to be seen – but La Sarthe should provide the answer.
Fans were robbed of the chance to get an idea of Toyota's form ahead of the big race, as the Cologne-based team were forced to miss the Spa WEC round due to a testing crash that destroyed their one available chassis. But the rebuilt car has been testing this week at Magny Cours in France and Motorland Aragon in Spain. Word got around the paddock in Spa that Toyota are bullish about the sheer pace of their TS030 petrol hybrid car, but less confident in their ability to beat Audi over a full 24-hour race. Could we see a blisteringly fast pole position, a couple of hours in the lead, then an early retirement? Or will it be a steadier development run? Perhaps the magic of La Sarthe will be too much to opt for the sensible strategy and Toyota will really let its drivers off the leash...
Elsewhere, Rebellion Racing's fifth and sixth place overall – a clean sweep of the unofficial 'petrol class' – does not tell the full story of what was a very eventful Spa race for the Anglo-Swiss team, who were running the 2012 version of the Lola LMP1 coupe for the first time. The #13 entry, driven by Andrea Belicchi and Harold Primat, was the quicker of the two cars in the early stages, but a mix-up that saw them drive straight through the pitlane, when they had in fact been given a stop-go penalty for jumping the start, wiped out their advantage.
In the #12 car, Neel Jani initially fell back due to staying on wet tyres for too long after the track began to dry, before handing over to ex-F1 driver Nick Heidfeld. The German had an entertaining battle with his fellow former Grand Prix pilot Sebastien Bourdais in the Pescarolo-Dome, before third driver Nicolas Prost had a trouble-free run to the flag in his stint.
The aformentioned Pescarolo had looked like a challenger for fastest petrol when the track was drying out, but suffered electrical trouble in the closing stages that required a 30-minute stay in the garage to repair. Although this car was an undoubted fan favourite at Spa, and will be cheered at every corner by Henri Pescarolo's army of green-clad fans at Le Mans, it seems that the Pescarolo team's limited resources will once again stymie any efforts to challenge for best petrol, or indeed an overall podium. As manufacturer spending on advanced hybrid systems goes through the roof, could Henri have lost what slim chance he had of clinching his sought-after first Le Mans win as a team owner, to go with all his successes as a driver?
The expected challenge from the HPD teams failed to materialise, with the exception of a very strong early stint from Danny Watts in the Strakka Racing car, which eventually finished seventh in the LMP1 class. The second HPD in the race had a more chequered afternoon, as Karun Chandhok spun the JRM Racing car while driving to the grid, putting them on the back foot all race. Solid recovery drives from veterans David Brabham and Peter Dumbreck got the car back into the class top 10 at the end of the race. Both Strakka and JRM will be hoping to be nearer the sharp end, mixing it with the Rebellions and maybe even a struggling Audi or two come Le Mans.
In LMP2, guest teams from the European Le Mans Series (ELMS), racing in the WEC at Spa after their championships' second round at Zolder was cancelled, were right in the mix. The eventual class winners were Britons Sam Hancock and Simon Dolan in their Jota Sport Zytek Nissan. A 30-second stop/go penalty in the closing stages made their win less certain than it would otherwise have been, but a late splash-and-dash fuel stop demoted polesitters and long-time class leaders ADR-Delta to second.
Third in class went to Jota's fellow ELMS team Murphy Prototypes, who also suffered a penalty during the race, but the pace and consistency of Kiwi hotshoe Brendon Hartley and experienced Brit Warren Hughes in particular kept them in the hunt right the way through. Fourth-place LMP2 finishers Bas Leinders and David Heinemeir Hanssen had run as high as second during the race in their Morgan-badged OAK car – testament to just how competitive the most closely-fought class of the day was. Company boss Charles Morgan was there to see the car fighting at the front, and he seems determined to make a big splash for the iconic British manufacturer at Le Mans.
Even with a modest five-car field, the GT Pro class provided its customary entertainment at Spa. First, polesitter Fred Makowiecki spun the #59 Luxury Racing Ferrari 458 on the formation lap, setting himself up for an aggressive recovery drive that saw him fighting hard with the AF Corse 458 of Italian duo Gianmaria Bruni and Giancarlo Fisichella by the third hour.
But in the meantime, fourth-place qualifier Marc Lieb had used the Team Felbermayr Porsche 911's superior traction in the wet to pull out an impressive lead before handing over to co-driver Richard Lietz for the second half of race. Yet the result would not be settled until the final corner, as the AF Corse Ferrari's strategy meant it needed one fewer pit stop than the Porsche. There has now been a nail-biting, down-to-the-wire finish in this class at both the 12 Hours of Sebring and Six Hours of Spa – so fans should expect more of the same at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
British interest in this class at Le Mans will centre around the works Aston Martin team, back in GTs after a troubled foray into the prototype ranks last year. The team were on a roll after a very promising debut for the new V8 Vantage was cut short by a loose wheel in Sebring, and star driver Darren Turner fought his way into the class lead at Spa. But reliability problems struck again, and the car had to retire early with a gearbox problem. Can the niggles be fixed in time for La Sarthe so the Aston's potential can be realised at the most important race of the season?
Like LMP2, the GT Amateur class at Spa was dominated by guest teams from the ELMS. The French IMSA Performance Matmut squad's Porsche 911 led from start to finish as they got all-important mileage under their belt in preparation for Le Mans. Nicolas Armindo was particularly impressive in the wet first stint, but consistent mistake-free running from gentlemen drivers Raymond Narac and Anthony Pons was just as important to the overall victory.
Gianluca Roda, Christian Ried and Paolo Ruberti underlined the supremacy of the Porsche in damp conditons with second place in the #88 Felbermayr car, ahead of Matt Griffin, Marco Cioci and Piergiuseppe Perazzini, driving the first Ferrari home in this class in third place. Their AF Corse car is also an ELMS entry, and the full-season WEC teams in the class, such as Larbre Competition (Chevrolet Corvette) and the American Waltrip and Krohn Ferrari outfits, will be looking to get back on terms at Le Mans.
Despite the changeable conditions and challenging track, the Spa WEC race was free of major incidents – with one exception: Phillipe Haezebrouck crashed the #43 Extreme Limite Norma-Judd heavily at Eau Rouge, bringing the safety car out for several laps. The car was badly damaged and must now be considered doubtful for Le Mans 24, opening up the possibility that the #32 Lotus LMP2 car that raced at Spa will be moved up from its place on the reserve list.
Overall, Spa gives us lots to look forward to at Le Mans: a fascinating intra-team battle at Audi as established and new driver lineups and diesel and hybrid cars jostle for supremacy, the unknown quantity of Toyota, a high-quality petrol LMP1 field that will fight hard right behind the Audis, an extremely competitive LMP2 category with at least six cars in contention for the class win – not to mention the fan-pleasing, too-close-to-call racing of the GT classes that we've all come to love over the past few years. Yes, the overall winner come Sunday will in all likelihood be an Audi, but most of the other positions down the field are anything but a foregone conclusion.
Interested in coming to Le Mans this June? We have a last few places available in our private campsite at the Porsche Curves. Call us now on 0844 873 0203 for more information.
All photos courtesy of Jake Yorath at l'Endurance.