Toyota Gazoo Racing took the opening race of the Hypercar era in the FIA WEC but it was far from a straightforward victory for the defending World Champions and their new GR010 HYBRIDs.
Multiple incidents and stumbles for both Toyotas and a fine first appearance for the Alpine Endurance Matmut squad with their Alpine A480 grandfathered LMP1 saw the French squad lead for a significant portion of the race, forcing Toyota to dig deep and finally take the win courtesy of pace and an ability to run longer on a fuel load.
The #8 Toyota for Sebastien Buemi, Brendon Hartley and Kazuki Nakajima emerged the winner, the #36 Alpine splitting the Toyotas with Andre Negrao, Matthieu Vaxiviere and ex Toyota factory man Nicolas Lapierre finishing second, scored a lap ahead of the troubled #7 Toyota of Kamui Kobayashi, Mike Conway and Jose Maria Lopez, the #7 having suffered contact, a 30-second pitstop penalty after the team released the car early from a fuel stop, a run off track in the closing stages and finally stopping briefly on track in the final minutes with Kobayashi having to ‘reboot’ the car to run to the flag.
So fractured was the run from the #7 that at one point the runaway winner in LMP2, the #22 United Autosport Oreca ran third overall, the defending Champions though will still be delighted with their eventual fourth place after a simply spellbinding opening stint from Phil Hanson, the Englishman very briefly leading overall out of Turn 1 on Lap 1, a very encouraging debut from newly signed Silver ranked Fabio Scherer and with Filipe Albuquerque in dominant form. The result saw the gap to the second placed car recorded as a full lap and, in truth, it wasn’t too far from the reality on track for much of the race.
Completing the podium were the two JOTA Orecas, a late penalty for the #28 of Stoffel Vandoorne, Sean Gelael and Tom Blomqvist dropping the car back from second and behind the sister car after a fumble with Full Course Yellow speeds and then a heart in the mouth moment from Blomqvist who had clearly missed sighting the rapidly approaching Alpine on the run down to Eau Rouge, both cars lucky to survive the significant side to side contact that resulted, the in-car TV feed of the reaction of Andre Negrao clearly showing the Brazilian’s shock at the contact.
That left the #38 of Roberto Gonzales, Antonio Felix da Costa and Ant Davidson to take second place after a fight back up the order, Davidson, the 2014 WEC Drivers World Champion in spirited form late in the race.
Fourth overall in LMP2 and the winners in the new for 2021 LMP2 Pro-Am Challenge for crews featuring an FIA Bronze ranked driver was the #29 Racing Team Nederland Oreca, the all-Dutch crew of supermarket magnate Frits van Eerd, ex F1 driver and 2016 European Le Mans Series Champion Giedo van der Garde, and up and coming sportscar star Job van Uitert doing more than enough to see off the competition.
The much-fancied Team WRT effort faltered in their WEC debut, a clutch problem leaving them much delayed in the garage whilst another significant runner, the guesting #26 G-Drive racing Aurus 01 was retired in the garage after being flagged to the pits with an oil leak. GTE Pro saw a potentially dominant win from the #92 Porsche 911 RSR-19 of Kevin Estre and Neel Jani dented a little by a mid-race right rear puncture, identical failures were suffered by both cars, the sister car also delayed by damage from contact with the #7 Toyota.
As it was the pace of Estre, who has been in astonishing form all week at Spa, securing pole position for Porsche by over a second, and the very impressive support from GTE Pro debutant and ex LMP1 driver Jani was enough to see off a strong attack from Ferrari. The pair of factory-backed AF Corse Ferrari 488 GTE Evos would complete the podium, their finishing order revered after two drive through penalties for the #52 car of Miguel Molina and Daniel Serra, both for Full Course Yellow speed infractions, cost the car a minute and allowed the sister #51 car of James Calado and Alessandro Pier Guidi to inherit second place.
The #63 Corvette Racing C8.R finished a distant fourth on the car’s European debut, the team struggling with tyre temperatures throughout the week, the trip though will pay dividends in their preparation for Le Mans after a race that was bookended by opening and closing stints from Antonio Garcia, with Oliver Gavin double stinting in the middle two hours, this the Englishman’s final professional race after announcing his retirement from Professional motorsport on Friday as he prepares to launch his new Driving Academy in Germany to support customers for the soon-to-be-launched European spec Corvette C8.
“My last race for Corvette Racing and in the C8.R, and it’s been quite a journey. I’m so proud to have won these overalls to represent such an amazing team in Corvette Racing and Team Chevy. To be able to compete here for the final time in the WEC has been very special; Spa-Francorchamps is an exceptional track. The emotion of it has overwhelmed me somewhat, but I’m so proud to have competed for this team for 20 years. I’m proud of that success with so many special people, not only on the race team side but on the road car side. I couldn’t be prouder of what we have all achieved together. Thank you also to all the Corvette fans out there. You’re unbelievable and so passionate… an amazing group that really spurs us on. I can’t thank you enough.”
Another dominant performance from reigning GTE AM Champions AF Corse saw Frenchman Francois Perrodo supported by factory Ferrari driver Nicklas Nielsen but it was a long mid-race spell from young Italian Alessio Rovera that dominated proceedings, putting the #83 out of reach of the #33 TF Sport Aston Martin of Ben Keating, Dylan Pereira and Felipe Praga, the effort though would have been far closer without an early race incident that saw Keating pitched off the track after a clash between two passing LMP2s, Juan Pablo Montoya judged to be at fault as Texan auto dealer Keating did well to keep the Aston Marin out of the barriers as he half spun across the grass and back across the track at Pouhon.
Italian team Cetilar Racing, who moved to the class the year after completing their LMP2 programme with an appearance at the Rolex 24 Hours, completed the podium after the #88 Dempsey Proton Porsche was dealt a time penalty after failing to serve a late-race drive through, again for a Full Course hello infringement.
There were other head-turning performances in the race, the WEC-debuting Inter-`Europol Competition squad were in the midfield mix throughout, Alex Brundle and Renger van der Zande supporting ‘Kuba’ Smiechowski through the baptism of fire and emerging with a creditable fifth position.
After a trying opening stint for Esteban Garcia the real team racing squad rebounded admirably, vaulting back up the order to sixth in LMO2 and second in Pro-Am, a position ahead of the DragonSpeed USA squad.
And in GTE AM Tomonubu Fuji put on a great display at the start of the race too, vaulting up the order in the early stages from the back of the Grid in the #777 Station racing Aston Martin.
All in all the performance levels between the three Hypercars, and between the new top class and the newly reeled-in LMP2s proved to be far less of an issue that much of the politicking suggested it might be, the newly recast performance windows saw traffic playing a much bigger part in proceedings, and saw the top cars having to work hard to exploit their now narrower performance advantages.
The meeting will be remembered too though for a large number of significant incidents in both the two-day pre-season ‘Prologue’ test, and in Practice and qualifying too, multiple cars suffering significant damage with the new Porsche 911 RSR-19 customer cars, in particular, having a very expensive week, three of the five cars present would not make the race and a fourth required a significant rebuild overnight to make the grid with two LMP2s also requiring full rebuilds to make the race entry too.
Spa is a very popular race venue for the teams and drivers, but on reflection found little favour as a test venue with so many teams having had little opportunity to bed in new drivers and cars with COVID19 still making travel into and around Europe problematic.
The FIA WEC moves next to Portimao in Portugal for an eight-hour race, the intended location for the season opener, now set to take place in June on the weekend initially planned to host the now also delayed 24 Hours of Le Mans.