Building on the success of the last year's Intercontinental Le Mans Cup (ILMC), Le Mans organisers ACO and the FIA joined forces to create the FIA World Endurance Championship. With Toyota stepping up with a hybrid LMP1, the WEC looked set to get off to a great start, until Peugeot, out of the blue, announced the suspension of their endurance racing program with immediate effect in January. All of a sudden that left Audi as the only seasoned manufacturer in the top class. Toyota were set to join the WEC from the second round but a big accident in testing forced the Japanese manufacturer to postpone their new car's debut.
The venue of that second round was the universally-loved Spa-Francorchamps circuit was and whether it was in 1000 km or the current 6 Hours form, 'Spa' has been a set fixture on the endurance racing calendar for decades. In recent years the race has also served as the final serious test before the all-important 24 Hours of Le Mans and this year was no exception. Not in the least for Audi, who rolled out two 'new' cars; the diesel-hybrid R18 e-tron quattro and the R18 Ultra, which was basically the manufacturer's 2011 car updated to the latest specification. What did bode well for the WEC was the fact that, despite various other withdrawals, a full entry of 42 cars were present. Among them was the updated Dome S102.5 in the caring hands of Henri Pescarolo's team and driven by former Peugeot pilots Nicolas Minassian and Stephane Sarrazin.
We were trackside throughout the event with this action-packed 190-shot gallery
as the result.
Being Spa, it was hardly surprising that rain was expected for all three days but apart from a few drops, we were spared on the first day. So under dry but chilly conditions, the 42 cars hit the track just before noon on Thursday for the first of three free practice sessions. This was the first opportunity to see just how the new hybrid Audi stacked up against the more conventional R18, and the rest of the field. As expected the four German machines were quickest with Bernard Treluyer in one of the hybrid R18s, which was separated by just 4/10s. The Toyota-powered Rebellion Lolas were a further 2 seconds back, closely followed by the Dome. The only serious incident was an off from Nick Leventis in the Strakka Racing HPD ARX-03a, which prevented the team from taking part in the second practice.
With an 18-car entry, LMP2 was the most densely populated class of all. The most popular chassis/engine combination was the Oreca 03 powered by Nissan's V8. Pecom Racing's example was quickest in first practice, closely followed by a Judd-engined Lola and the LMP2-spec HPD ARX-03b. Divided in a 'Pro' and 'Am' categories, just 14 GTEs cars were entered. In the five-car Pro category one Porsche and one Aston had to take on three Ferraris, which proved slightly faster over the 7 km track. The Am category saw the IMSA Performance Porsche edge ahead of rivalling Ferraris and Corvettes.
The order set in the first practice was virtually unchanged in the remaining two free practice sessions. Late in second practice, the Status GP Judd-powered Lola suffered a heavy crash at the daunting 'Eau Rouge' corner. Fortunately driver Alex Simms was not hurt but the damage occurred was so severe that the team had to withdraw from the race. A brief shower passed through during the final session but it was not enough for the teams to switch to intermediate or rain tyres.
Under threatening skies, qualifying kicked off just after 3 pm on Friday afternoon. For the first 20 minutes, the track was reserved for the GTE cars. In the Pro class, the Luxury Racing Ferrari confirmed the earlier pace with Fred Makowiecki setting the fastest time ahead of the AF Corse Ferrari and the works Aston Martin. Marc Lieb, fourth in the only Porsche in the class, complained about traffic after the session but also doubted if he could have matched the Ferraris' pace. It was the other way around in the Am category with Nicolas Armindo topping the tables in the IMSA Performance Porsche.
Next up were the prototypes with what was, realistically, a four-car battle for pole. Allan McNish eventually came out on top with the e-tron quattro R18. Amazingly, it was his first pole at Spa in his long career. Rebellion was best of the rest with the first of their two Lolas, piloted by Neel Jani. Having recovered from their accident a day earlier, Strakka Racing was sixth, courtesy of another stellar lap from Danny Watts. In LMP2, it was a different Oreca-Nissan on top this session; the ADR-Delta entered example with John Martin behind the wheel. James Rossiter was second in the Lotus-liveried Lola Judd ahead of Sam Hancock in the first of the two Zytek-Nissans.
Perfectly on cue, the first of the predicted rain came just a few minutes after qualifying.
6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps
On race-day morning, it was still raining heavily, so during the warm-up the teams got their first taste of a wet Spa during warm-up. Audi was fastest again as the slippery track caught out several drivers and unfortunately the #61 AF Corse Ferrari suffered its second accident of the weekend. It was not possible to repair the 458 Italia in time for the race, leaving an even 40 cars to start the 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps.
Conveniently, it stopped raining less than an hour before the race, which left a very slowly drying track due to the low temperatures. Perhaps benefiting from the quattro all-wheel drive system, the two hybrid Audis quickly pulled away after a remarkably clean start. The other Audis also easily ran away from the rest of the field, which was more closely knit. For most of the race the top petrol contenders were the Rebellion Lolas, Pescarolo's Dome and the Strakka HPD. Electrical problems eventual dropped the Dome down the order, handing the best-of-the-rest position to the two black and gold Lolas.
As always, the LMP2 class proved a real race of attrition with both mechanical issues and accidents dropping cars down the order. The latter usually involved GTE cars as the current generation LMP2 cars struggle to pass the similarly powered cars on the straights. Making the least mistakes was the Jota pairing of Simon Dolan and Sam Hancock with their Nissan-powered Zytek. Having taken the lead in the third hour, they just managed to stay ahead of the ADR-Delta Oreca 03 despite incurring a stop-and-go penalty. Third was for the Murphy Prototypes Oreca, after a fight back through the field following a penalty early in the race.
GTE Pro pole-sitter Fred Makowiecki faced an uphill battle after a spin on the formation lap but thanks to a spectacular fight back was leading the class after the first hour in his Luxury Racing Ferrari. Aston Martin's Gulf liveried V8 Vantage had taken early lead but due to a gearbox failure the glory was very short (11 laps) lived. Having taken over from Makowiecki, Brazilian Jaime Melo slid off the track in the first placed Ferrari, handing the lead to the Felbermayr-Proton Porsche and the AF Corse Ferrari. These two cars were involved in a very close battle until the finish, which eventually saw the Porsche team of Marc Lieb and Richard Lietz take the win with a margin of just 0.628s after a late charge from Gianmaria Bruni in the Ferrari. In the GTE Am category, Porsche managed to clinch a one-two victory with the IMSA Performance entered GT3 RSR taking the win ahead of the other Felbermayr-Proton Porsche and one of the AF Corse Ferraris.
From the start, it was clear that the outright victory would be Audi's unless something completely unthinkable would happen. It didn't, so the only question remained, which of the four R18s would cross the line first. The #2 hybrid Audi had taken the early lead but issues with one of the headlights caused it to drop down the order as a new nose had to be fitted. A deciding moment was the switch to slick tyres on the #3 Audi of Loic Duval, Romain Dumas and Marc Gene. Substituting for the injured Timo Bernhard, the Spaniard was at the wheel at the time and quickly closed the gap to the leader. In the third hour, Duval managed to overtake his team-mate and compatriot Benoit Treluyer at the La Source hairpin. Slightly helped by the various safety car periods, the #3 Audi built up a healthy lead and eventually crossed the line 46 seconds ahead of the #1 e-tron quattro. The #4 R18 Ultra finished third, ahead of the #2 hybrid R18, both just a lap down from their victorious team-mates. The gap between the winners and the fastest petrol car was a full 4 laps. For reasons not entirely clear to us, the #2 Audi won the Michelin GreenX challenge, which meant that all four Audi squads were allowed to join the podium celebrations.
Despite the prediction of poor weather on race day, an impressive crowd of 31,000 flocked to the ever spectacular Spa-Francorchamps track. They were treated to a relatively incident-free race. Unfortunately most of the close battles were fought down the order with the LMP2 and GTE Pro classes as the most closely disputed. Hopefully, Toyota's imminent arrival will provide Audi with some competition but it is unrealistic to expect the Japanese manufacturer to immediately challenge the seasoned German squad for outright victory. Next up for the FIA WEC is the 24 Hours of Le Mans in June.