Though it was the third round of the inaugural WEC season you can argue that only with the addition of a second manufacturer – in Toyota – to push Audi at the front of the field did the new series truly come of age.
Over the first six hours, before Anthony Davidson’s aerial departure and Kazuki Nakajima’s bush with the Delta Wing, the battle between the two brands raged, and with exactly six hours of racing on the calendar for this week’s Silverstone encounter the stage is set for what could be the first chapter of the next great rivalry in sportscar racing.
“[Toyota were]disappointingly on the pace if you ask me,” admits Audi’s Allan McNish. “I was sure they were always going to be fast. I think it’s good for us as well as for them because otherwise it would definitely still be a strong battle between our cars but it’s always good to have competition from the outside.”
“I’m very, very happy if it’s close as long as long they finish a nice third.”
Though pared down from the Le Mans strength – just two Audis and a sole Toyota will carry their respective burdens at the Six Hours of Silverstone – if their battles at Le Mans were any indication then this weekend’s skirmish in Northamptonshire could be anyone’s race.
In the week ahead of the race The Checkered Flag took the opportunity to speak to McNish and Anthony Davidson – British flag bearers for the new endurance rivals on their feelings ahead of the race.
McNish, along with co-driver Tom Kristensen now faces racing with the recently retired Dindo Capello. The two remaining men from Audi’s most experience line-up will share an Audi R18 ultra with weekend, the honour of driving the hybrid e-tron quattro going to Le Mans winners Andre Lotterer, Benoit Treluyer and Marcel Fassler.
Davidson, recovering well from his Le Mans crash, meanwhile will be watching from the sidelines. He was never intended to be racing at Silverstone, his Le Mans crash did nothing to change Toyota’s plans. Instead the sole TS030 Hybrid will be shared by Nicolas Lapierre, Kazuki Nakajima and Alex Wurz.
Both Davidson and McNish agree it is Toyota who come into the race weekend in the stronger position, though where that strength comes from is where they disagree.
McNish’s attitude ahead of the race is one of defence, caution and the aim of protecting the World Endurance Championship lead in the points standings where McNish and Kristensen lead their Audi teammates by 6.5 points.
“We come to it with the knowledge that the competition is going to be strong with Toyota coming back,” said the Scot. “They’re going to be pushing with nothing to lose whereas we’re going to have to keep one eye on the championship as well as keep an eye on the race.”
Having had to cancel planned race debut at the Six Hours of Spa-Francorchamps Toyota arrived at La Sarthe in mid-June with only the official test day behind them in terms of public running, and yet in qualifying and the early hours of the race they proved to have not just the pace to match Audi, but to take the lead when Lapierre used the hybrid’s heave under acceleration out of Mulsanne Corner.
That perceived advantage under acceleration could be all the more crucial at Silverstone believes Davidson; “it’s a circuit I think it will suit the car better and the hybrid package better as well on a track where sheer engine power has less to do with it and it’s more about how you get around the corners and how you get onto the straights.”
“Every time we put our foot down out of the corner we get a good surge of power from the hybrid and I think our package seems to be working a bit better than what Audi have, it’s what we realised a Le Mans. One of their strengths seemed to be engine power on the straight with the diesel so I think on a circuit where straights are less important than Le Mans I think it will be even closer.”
Davidson speaks of a Toyota camp confident in the raw pace of their car, if a little disappointed with their results – or lack of them – at Le Mans on a weekend packed with positives.
“For my qualifying efforts to be just a second off pole position on such a big circuit. When you imagine running that around a smaller circuit like Silverstone a second equates to maybe three or four tenths a lap and then you’ve got a race on your hands and we can take the fight to them.”
If Davidson’s ambitions for the team are realised, then McNish’s should be a very happy man.