Belgian sports car squad, Team WRT, are well known for their escapades in 24 Hour races, having won the 24 Hours of Spa multiple times and multiple titles in the GT World Challenge Europe series. For the 2021 season the pushed forward and moved in to the FIA WEC, taking on the LMP2 category with an Oreca 07 Gibson.
Making their 24 Hours of Le Mans debut this weekend the team entered two cars with Robin Frins, Ferdinand Habsburg, and Charles Milesi in the #31 car and Yifei Ye, Louis Delétraz and Robert Kubica in the #41 car.
It was a strong start to the weekend for the team as the #41 car made it through to Hyperpole, taking second in class, while the #31 secured eleventh place in class, an impressive feat for the team in the biggest class on the grid of twenty-five entries.
After starting the race under the safety car due to the torrential rain prior to the race, the two cars avoided the on-track incidents in the opening stages of the race, securing solid positions in the top-six.
During the seventh hour there was drama for three of the main opponents getting caught up in separate incidents, the resulting safety car period benefitted the team, moving #31 car in to the lead, followed closely by the #41.
Strong pace throughout the night and no incidents for the team saw them continue to lead the way through to the morning. With three hours to go there was a change of position at the front of the class as a longer pit stop for the #31 car, caused by faulty air jacks, saw them drop to second place, with the #41 moving in to the lead.
Heading in to the final moments of the race it looked set for an historic 1-2 for the Belgian squad, but as we are constantly reminded, Circuit de la Sarthe can be a cruel place to be when there is still time on the clock.
The last lap saw heartbreak for the #41 car with Yifei Ye behind the wheel, a broken throttle sensor meant the leader would grind to a halt, dropping down the order. Robin Frijns in the #31 car had to push to the end of the race, working his way through traffic for a dramatic finish as he weaved through the GT cars, crossing the line just 0.727 seconds ahead of the second place car. Due to the competitive nature of the class the #41 would drop down to nineteenth in class as the race ended.
The only saving grace for the team was that the #31 car was the one car eligible for FIA WEC points, and as a result of the race saw them move in to second place, just one point away from the leaders.
High on the emotion of winning but also losing out on a 1-2, Team Principal Vincent Vosse commented, “It’s a fantastic day, to come to Le Mans for the first time and win is incredible, the entire team has done an outstanding work. Of course, there is joy and sadness, as it was a big disappointment to see car #41, which had the victory in its pocket, stop with one lap to go.
“It is simply cruel, and luckily, our other car was second, but it is difficult to fully enjoy such a success when you have a situation like that. Still, it is an amazing day for the team, which has done a tremendous job, since the preparation of this race and the throughout the entire week. If I have to judge from the number of messages we are receiving, we have really achieved something.“
Robin Frijns who brough the #31 car over the line for victory explained how hard it was to take the win, “It was our race to lose but at the end, it was our race to win… incredible! It started quite bad for us, I lost time and places in the first two laps in the heavy rain, I was struggling with the car, then things went in our direction and everything was fine during the night and out of the night, until this issue with the car jacks. As we couldn’t change all tyres, the balance of the car was awful, then we got hit by a Porsche and it was even worse. In the meantime, our sister car was flying and the last lap drama, which got us back in the lead. There are mixed feelings in the team, but that’s racing. At the moment, I am just exhausted…”
Ferdinand Habsburg added, “Le Mans winner, that doesn’t sound as bad line in my resume… I think it earns some beers, a good schnitzel and a big hug with my family… It has been a great week, a 24 Hours is a very long race, as we found out, and we gave our absolute everything in every moment. When you see the final gap was 7 tenths of a second, you realize every heart beat counted. It’s just awesome and I am so happy to be part of Team WRT and looking forward to many more great moments such as this.“
“It’s been an amazing race, it’s hard to describe what I feel at this moment, everything went well throughout the week, the team did a great job and we managed to win, despite the trouble hitting the two cars. Now, it is time to enjoy the moment and then to think about the last two races of the season.” said Charles Milesi.
Heartbroken Yifei Ye tried to sum up the race after he got back to the pitlane, “It was an eventful race, I was leading the dream until the dream broke apart… It was a long race, with Louis and Robert, we took good care of the car, and made it to the top a couple of hours from the end, when I was at the wheel.
“I was as nice to the car as you can be, avoiding the kerbs, just focusing on bringing it home, but sometimes it is not meant to be… I don’t know what happened, everything stopped… I feel sorry for everybody in the team, everyone has done a wonderful job. Congratulations to our team mates and now let’s look ahead, we still have an ELMS campaign to focus on…”
Robert Kubica had little to say after coming so close to winning, “Losing it like we lost it is not nice, but that’s what it is… Congratulations to our sister car and to the team. Our race was uphill, we had a few issues, but could take the lead, and then this final blow… I think we have lived almost everything Le Mans can give…”
Louis Delétraz added, “I am devastated by the outcome, but first of all, I want to give a massive thank you to our crew, to Robert and Yifei, for the fantastic job, and to congratulate our sister car and the team. We missed the 1-2, but it is a fantastic debut at Le Mans for Team WRT. On our side, we did everything right, were able to cut back, we were leading with a big gap and despite what happened at the end, everybody saw that. There are no regrets and we’ll certainly remember this one. We will come back stronger and now let’s focus on winning the ELMS.”