Audi Sport took first blood of the 2015 FIA WEC season, with the #7 R18 of André Lotterer, Marcel Fässler and Benôit Tréluyer winning a thrilling contest from start to finish, shaking off challenges from both Porsche and Toyota. It was a close-knit dog fight to say the least between the three manufacturers, who provided some of the most exciting and clean racing you’ll ever see in a sportscar race.
Porsche led from the start, with the #17 and #18 retaining the top two spots and driving away during the opening segments while the Audis and Toyotas fought each other and traffic trying to desperately take a podium spot and keep in touch with the two leaders.
It wasn’t long before the Porsche’s control of the race started slipping away though. The #17 919 of Mark Webber, Timo Bernhard and Brendon Hartley was forced to retire with a driveshaft failure at the beginning of hour two, while trailing factory runners started to creep back into the race on pace.
Audi were reduced to one challenger after the #8 had to make an extended pitstop because of a clash with the #88 Proton Porsche at Becketts which damaged the bodywork enough to force the mechanics have to perform repairs in the garage which cost the car a lap. Despite never giving up, Löic Duval, Oliver Jarvis and Lucas di Grassi never recovered.
The highlight of the race was easily the titanic battle between the #18 Porsche of Neel Jani and #7 Audi of Marcel Fässler as the halfway mark approached, with the #1 Toyota and #8 Audi (a lap down) joining in briefly at the end of the middle stint to add to the drama.
Lap after lap the two factory cars changed positions while weaving their way through the traffic. It was clean, it was fair, it was exciting and gave everyone watching wide eyes for the good part of an hour with almost no break. Emerging ahead after the squabbling was the #7 Audi, as Lottérer got in and began to drive away at the head of the field.
Toyota and Porsche challenged the lead Audi throughout the remainder of the race, but they couldn’t quite manage to match and beat the pace of the R18 on a consistent basis. Toyota double stinted their tyres, but it wasn’t an effective strategy and Porsche just slowly slipped away.
Late in the race however, it seemed like the running order might see one last shuffle. Fässler in the #7 Audi held a lead of around 40 seconds over the #1 Toyota sitting second, and over a minute on the #18 Porsche that was third during the final hour. Both the Audi and Toyota had to make a splash, handing Jani second as the race wound down, and a stop go penalty handed to the lead Audi for abusing track limits overtaking an Aston gave the Porsche team new life as the deficit was reduced to just 12 seconds with 12 minutes left to run.
‘I was very upset because the penalty came at the end without warning and it would have been fairer to have had time to think about our situation,’ Fässler told DSC after the race. ‘Many times we see these situations and there is usually time to think about how you will deal with it, but if you hear nothing you think everything is ok. I didn’t really know how much time I would need to get out again, they came on the radio to say we could do it and luckily we did have enough in hand.’
Fässler initially let the gap shrink to under eight seconds, but he was able to fend off Jani’s challenge admirably and seal the deal for Audi’s first win since the round at Austin last season.
LMP2 saw G-Drive Racing take a dominant 1-2. Their #26 entry of Sam Bird, Romain Rusinov and Julien Canal led the pair of Ligiers to the line in a race that was ultimately decided in the first hour.
KCMG initially challenged the G-Drive squad in the opening laps, taking the lead briefly, but the Oreca couldn’t keep up, falling back with the rest of the runners in the class, eventually suffering from various set backs and finishing fifth.
Making up the final set on the podium was initially the #30 Extreme Speed HPD, which had a near-faultless run to the flag, it just didn’t have the pace to feature in the race for the win. However, following a post-race technical inspection, the floor was found to be too worn on the car, forcing the organisers to exclude the car from the race. This promoted Strakka Racing to third.
Strakka Racing’s new DOME S103, on its debut showed promising pace, and reliability all weekend. The experienced British outfit will build on this solid performance, and should be expecting to challenge for wins in the LMP2 class sooner rather than later.
The race in GTE Pro was a roller coaster. AF Corse’s #51 Ferrari of Gianmaria Bruni and Toni Vilander took the win, with the #91 Porsche finishing second, but it was a strange affair. Aston Martin’s 1-2-3 stranglehold of the class at the start didn’t last long. The Signatech Alpine went off at Copse, going backwards in a big way into the tyres during the first hour, bringing out two Full Course Yellows, one to retrieve the car and one soon after to repair the barriers – the incident ruined the race for the British marque.
The Astons pitted in the gap between the yellows, so when the second FCY was called, the rest of the class dived in and the trio of Vantages lost over a minute unable to use full race speed. They were just too far back to ever challenge again. So in the end it was a battle between the two 458s and the untroubled #91 Porsche, as the #71 AF Ferrari came home third.
It wasn’t all doom and gloom for Aston Martin though, as the #98 Vantage of Paul Dalla Lana, Mathias Lauda and Pedro Lamy won the GTE Am class, fighting the #83 AF Corse to the flag.
The #50 Larbre Corvette could have challenged, it certainly had the pace; but was punted off the circuit by a prototype which cost them valuable time repairing the car and suffered a penalty for a pit-lane infringement. They came home dead last, handing the SMP Ferrari third.
The weekend had it all, two great sportscar races, drama, good weather, and lots of talking points post race. It’s going to be quite a season, round 2 at Spa can’t come soon enough.