In his final race for Toyota Gazoo Racing, Kazuki Nakajima brought home the GR010 Hybrid Hypercar to take the final victory of the season. It was a dominant race from the #8 crew, but the points deficit was too much for them to over hall to take the championship from the sister team in the #7 car: Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi and Jose Maria Lopez.
The race itself for the Hypercar class was a fairly straightforward one. Nicolas Lapierre in the #36 Alpine Elf Matmut entry had an incredible start, diving up the inside of both the Toyota machines to take the lead going into Turn 1. However it wasn’t due to last as the pace of the Toyotas had the sole LMP1 car being reeled in almost as quickly as it darted away. To add insult to injury, Lapierre suffered a gear shift issue that forced the car into the garage for six laps. Any hope the Alpine team had of challenging the Toyotas for the final win of the season disappeared as they had to focus on fighting back up through the field. They made it back to overall P3 with two hours to go, a position they weren’t challenged for nor looked like progressing from at all between then and the chequered flag.
There was a scare for the leading #8 Toyota when Brendon Hartley, mid way through the race, also suffered a gear shift issue. The car was struggling to select gears when shifting down. Luckily, a quick steering wheel change at the driver change over solved the issue and they went on to win the race from the sister car by 7.351 seconds.
Once again, Team WRT showed incredible race craft as they dashed from seventh on the grid to claim the triple (FIA World Endurance Championship LMP2 champions, European Le Mans Series LMP2 and 24 Hours of Le Mans LMP2 winners) with race victory at the Bapco 8 Hours of Bahrain. Not only did they climb up the grid from seventh to take the championship and race victory, but they dominated the field with a staggering 1m14s lead at the chequered flag. It has been an amazing performance from the rookie team who have certainly shaken themselves of the ‘underdog’ label.
The tightest battle in class was between the two JOTA entries, battling for second on the podium. With the points gap between second and third not enough for Antonio Felix da Costa, Roberto Gonzalez and Anthony Davidson to overtake the sister team in the championship, it was a battle of pride over anything else. Davidson, in his last professional race – he announced he would be retiring from racing after the 8 Hours of Bahrain – was definitely up for the challenge and was egging Da Costa on when he climbed out of the car for the last time to hand the #38 JOTA to the Portuguese driver for the final stint.
Da Costa didn’t hold back, driving aggressively to make the pass on the #28 sister car. In his mission, he forced the championship-battling and GTE Pro lead-fighting AF Corse off track in a bid to not lose too much time on the #28 passing through traffic. It was a bold move when the pass came to be for second in class, with Da Costa teetering on the edge of track limits in his fight against Tom Blomqvist,. He made the pass, it was deemed legal, and the #38 took second on class podium ahead of the #28 of Blomqvist, Sean Gelal and Stoffel Vandoorne.
Filipe Alberquerque was almost involved in the podium fight as well, as the battling duo of JOTAs had enabled him to close the gap between them. Once Da Costa had made the pass, however, the two JOTAs sprinted off meaning that the #22 United Autosports had to settle for fourth on the grid, a position they have occupied a lot this season.
Racing Team Nederland came home sixth in class but first of the Pro/Am entries, meaning that Frits van Eerd became the first WEC LMP2 Pro/Am Champion.
Without a shadow of a doubt, the most intense battle of the race was easily the LM GTE Pro lead battle, where Porsche GT Team #92 and AF Corse #51 were nose to tail to decide the outcome of the GTE Drivers’ and Manufacturers’ championships. Incredibly, throughout the eight hours of racing, never was there a gap bigger than three seconds between the two championship-fighting drivers. It was clear from early on in the race that this was going to be decided in the final moments of the eight hour event.
Porsche, with their three man team, placed Michael Christensen in the car for the final stint, the only driver of the three in the car who did not have the drivers’ championship on the line. With the points margins so close, a one-four from either team would be enough to take the title, and Porsche were holding a stable one-three with ten minutes to go. But Alessandro Pier Guidi was not about to give the #92 an easy ride to the finish, and was staying within eight tenths of a second to the class leading car (#92), and closing.
With six minutes to go, Christensen broke early for a corner, having to let an LMP2 car pass on the inside, and caught Pier Guidi out. Not expecting the Porsche to slow so early, the Ferrari went straight into the back of the Porsche, spinning Christensen off where it stopped facing the wrong way. The Porsche driver kept the engine running and was able to rejoin, but was now eight seconds down the road.
A quick decision from the Race Stewards meant the race was back on: Pier Guidi had to hand the position back to Christensen and they could carry on battling for the final four minutes of the race. This seemed like the best and logical decision and an impressively quick one made by the Stewards. Pier Guidi slowed to let Christensen passed, but Christensen pit.
This is where the point of contention comes into play. Porsche firmly believe that, even though they pit, the Ferrari should have let them passed on track. Ferrari believe that, as they slowed and showed intent to let the Porsche pass before the Porsche pitted, the instruction to let the Porsche passed was overturned. To add more confusion to the matter, the lap after the Porsche pit, the Ferrari pit – both for a splash of fuel to see them to the chequered flag – meaning that Pier Guidi would not have lost that much time in letting the Porsche pass. But it is clear that Ferrari believed their decision was correct, and Porsche believed the position should have been handed back.
The biggest shame is that what was set to be an exhilarating race to finish the season in the GTE Pro class was stolen from the spectators as both teams instructed their driver to hold stations because what they were doing was correct. Porsche didn’t try to come back and fight Pier Guidi – finishing 3.2 seconds down the road from the AF Corse – and the Ferrari didn’t slow to enable a battle in the final minutes of the race. Pier Guidi took the chequered flag first, supposedly taking both the drivers’ and manufacturers’ championships in the process.
After spending most of the race trailing behind the podium fight, the #52 AF Corse car came across the line third, a lap up on the second #91 Porsche.
As it stands, Ferrari, James Calado and Pier Guidi are champions in both the Manufacturers’ and Drivers’ championships, but these are both officially marked as ‘provisional’ whilst the other championships have now had their winners confirmed. It can be confidently said that the end of this has not yet been heard.
TF Sport started the race with a mission to win LM GTE Am, but an early race incident that saw them returning to the garage with a puncture really dropped them out of contention. However, it looks like it wouldn’t have mattered anyway as the #83 AF Corse crew of Fracois Perrodo, Nicklas Nielson and Alessio Rovera claimed a dominate class victory, 55 seconds ahead of second-placed #77 Dempsey Proton Racing. The podium was completed by Team Project 1 #56 Porsche, which has been rumored to not be returning to the WEC next season.
The 2021 season has come to a close with five of the seven champions confirmed and crowned after six races across two continents. The championships have been hard fought with most coming down to the season finale which was a championship decider not to be forgotten.
Next season, the WEC looks to be returning to a four-continent season with more wheel-to-wheel action, daring overtakes and hard battles throughout the season. Six races remain the number for 2022, but with some old classics returning to the series it certainly should be a season worth tuning in to. Make sure to stay up-to-date with TheCheckeredFlag as we get set for another year of endurance racing.