It may seem ominous that Toyota Gazoo Racing walked away with the first victory of the 2018-19 FIA World Endurance Championship at the 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps, and with drivers like Neel Jani claiming that “Third is the new first” in LMP1, it could appear that everyone’s fear of the only Hybrid-powered cars walking away with the championship will ring true. But the beauty of the WEC is that there are four classes racing for their own victories, and the battles up and down the grid are definitely going to be ones to watch over the next 14 months.
Toyota have a strong package and an advantage over the rest of the LMP1 grid, but the one thing that has been a sticking point for the Japanese manufacturer is their reliability. If Toyota can keep the cars going, it could be a complete whitewash this year, with them claiming an overall 1-2 at every race. But only the smallest things need to go wrong to see Toyota’s race tumble away from them.
Rebellion Racing appeared to be the best of the rest, holding a strong 3-4 before the #1 car was disqualified from the race. However, SMP Racing were pushing hard throughout the race, and at one point looked to be in a commanding position for the bottom step of the podium. It seems to be the case that, if Toyota fail to finish any of the races this year, there are a few teams who could step up and optimise.
In LMP2, the commanding car was the 24 Hours of Le Mans-only entry #26 G-Drive Racing. Nonetheless, before it was gifted the lead when the #29 Team Racing Nederland car hit technical issues it was having to fight to retain it’s position. Only when they got into clear air was it able to run away with the lead.
It was a shame for the #29 LMP2 car, as it had such a good start to the race. Had the technical fault have not lost them 35 minutes in the garage, the Dutch team would have definitely been the ones to watch and would have most likely been on the podium.
Behind the winning car, the usual suspects found themselves battling for the class podium. Signatech Alpine look to be having a much stronger start to this season than they did last year, looking to win back the championship trophy they held in 2016. Runners up for 2017, Jackie Chan DC Racing, were also pushing hard this weekend. Having lost most of their line-up from last year, only Ho-Pin Tung remains in the #38 to try and secure the championship they very nearly claimed last year.
All the ORECA runners, once again, seem to have a similar pace, which should lead to many nail-biting races of competitive wheel-to-wheel action. Throughout the weekend, it had looked like the Dallara and Ligier runners had a disadvantage, but the #29 crew running the sole Dallara proved, off the line, that that isn’t the case. LMP2 is looking to be one of the closest championships of the Super Season.
Ford Chip Ganassi Team UK and Porsche GT Team commanded the pace this weekend. BMW Team MTEK and Aston Martin Racing both played the ‘new car’ card to explain away why there was such a deficit between them and the other runners, whilst AF Corse refused to make comment. We can only hope that the pace gets closer soon, or the LM GTE Pro championship battle could be a very two horse race.
The GT manufacturers also claim that their focus is on the prestigious Le Mans race. Considering that the 6-hour Spa race is normally seen as the build up race to Le Mans, it can be accepted that the teams are more focused on reliability than speed at this point in the season. The fastest car on the grid cannot win Le Mans if it doesn’t run for the full 24 hours.
BoP was, once again, a talking point on the weekend. With new boys BMW on the grid, there is a concern that their lack of past data in the WEC will compromise them on the BoP weighting. A review of the BoP system was called for over the weekend, with the starting BoP asked to be changed if there appeared to be an unfair advantage to some teams during the first 6-hour race. Further comments on this are yet to be given.
Porsche have brought a strong GTE car to the grid this year, in light of them no longer running an LMP1 team. It seems the German manufacturer is determined to compensate for the disappearance of their Hybrid project with a highly successful GTE season. In both Pro and Am, the 911 RSRs are a force to be reckoned with.
However, never write off Paul Dalla Lana, Pedro Lamy and Mathias Lauda who are very strong competition in the Aston Martin #98. Now in their fifth year racing together, the trio will be looking to retain their championship title this season. Although they had a pace deficit to the Porsches, it appeared that theirs was not as bad as the Pro cars, managing to steal the class win when the Porsches took themselves out of the race. The second Am Aston – #90 TF Sport – performed just as competitively, pushing the veterans of the class for the last half an hour of the race with a lot of pressure for the class win.
Le Mans is the next race on the calendar, and now only just over a month away. All teams will be looking towards that, taking their learnings from this weekend forwards. However, Le Mans is an entity to itself and, as the last two years have proven, anything can happen in the 24-hour race. It could very well be that what we have seen this weekend is completely thrown out the window as the Circuit de la Sarthe runs her own show.