Setting the scene
Host for round two of the 2013 FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC) was the historic Spa-Francorchamps track after the season had kicked off at Silverstone. Due to its proximity to round three, the all-important 24 Hours of Le Mans, the race at Spa has traditionally doubled as a final dress rehearsal. This year was certainly no exception with many teams fielding their Le Mans driver line-ups and both Audi and Toyota running Le Mans-specific aero setups on one of their cars. This was actually the first outing for the 2013 evolution of the Japanese manufacturer's TS030 Hybrid. At Silverstone, the 2012 cars were comprehensively beaten by the latest Audis, so the new car's arrival was overdue. In addition to the protagonists in LMP1 class, the 35-strong field also consisted of a healthy number of LMP2 machines and closely-knit fight in both the GTE Pro and GTE Am classes. With works teams from Porsche, Aston Martin and Ferrari dicing it out in GTE Pro, this was certainly another headline grabber.
Our photographers ventured to the unusually sunny Spa-Francorchamps to capture the WEC 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps from every angle. The result is the following report and an action-packed 220-shot gallery
Squeezed into just two days, the opening Friday featured two 120-minute practice sessions and an hour of qualifying in the evening. The action started at 9 am sharp, on a damp but drying track. Despite the challenging conditions, the opening session was relatively incident free. The session was briefly stopped to retrieve David Heinemeier-Hansson's OAK Racing Morgan from the gravel but the car was back out towards the end and actually set the fastest LMP2 time. At the sharp end of the field, the Audis filled the top three positions, while in GTE Pro, the AF Corse Ferrari (#71) of Toni Vilander just pipped its sister car in the dying seconds. Now fully dried, the afternoon practice session effectively provided more of the same with few incidents and the Audis topping the charts. There was however a small surprise in LMP1 where Nick Heidfeld managed to grab fourth in his Rebellion entered Lola-Toyota ahead of the two factory Toyotas. McLaren test-driver Oliver Turvey clocked the fastest time in LMP2 behind the wheel of the Jota Zytek. With Vilander and Kamui Kobayashi unable to improve on their morning time, it was the sister AF Corse Ferrari of Gianmaria Bruni and Giancarlo Fisichella ahead in GTE Pro. Skilfully driven by Matt Griffin, there was an AF Corse Ferrari quickest in GTE AM as well.
From this season, the FIA WEC rounds, with the exception of Le Mans, have a revised qualifying system. No longer is the grid determined by the fastest outright lap but instead by the average of the two quickest lap times of two different drivers, so four laps in total. What did not change was split up of the prototype and GT classes with the latter out first for their 30-minute session. Silverstone winners Aston Martin Racing were right on it with Bruno Senna and Fred Makowiecki (#98) setting the fastest quartet of lap times. Bruni in the AF Corse Ferrari (#51) stayed out a little longer and in a last lap attempt brought his car's average down to just 0.042 off the Aston's time. In the GTE Am category, one of the Astons topped the charts as well. The prototype part of qualifying was suspended early on after Chris Dyson crashed his Greaves Zytek. He was able to walk away unharmed but the car had to be withdrawn from the race with suspected tub damage. None of the drivers had completed two timed laps, so they had to get back out again after the track went green. This did not affect the Audi steamroller, who filled the first three spots. The pole-sitting R18 e-tron quattro (#1) was nearly a second fastest than the 2013-spec Toyota (#7). In LMP2 the Pecom Oreca Nissan was fastest of all with Nic Minassian and Pierre Kaffer setting the times.
6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps
Under a clear blue sky, the 34 remaining cars got away cleanly for the six-hour race at 2:30 pm. The #7 Toyota with Nicolas Lapierre at the helm had the best start of all and briefly challenged his compatriot Loic Duval in the #2 Audi for the lead. On outright pace, however, the Audis proved slightly quicker just as the practice and qualifying sessions suggested. This was balanced out to an extent by the better fuel consumption of the Japanese machines, which enabled the TS030 to complete two more laps per stint. Partly helped by a safety car late in the opening hour, the #7 Toyota was eventually able to grab the lead during the second hour. A fascinating battle ensued with the #2 Audi of McNish, Kristensen and Duval following right on the tail of Lapierre for many laps. Sadly the close quarters combat ended suddenly when the Toyota made an unscheduled stop. As it turned out the car's rear brakes were overheating because of a failure in the hybrid system's generator. While in energy recovery mode, the generator also takes up much of the braking and the rear brakes are not designed to work on their own. The problem could not be addressed at the track and with the 2012-spec Toyota never quite on pace, this allowed Audi to record a 1-2-3 victory with the #1 R18 leading the #2 and #3 home.
A battle that remained close, despite a myriad of stop-go penalties, was for victory in the GTE Pro class. The two AF Corse Ferraris (#51 & #71) showed improved form early in the race as they managed to grab the lead and managed to pull away slightly. Emerging as their main challenger for class honours was the pole-sitting #98 Aston Martin. Going into the final hour and with all penalties served, the three cars were still only a few seconds apart. Leading the way was the Bruni/Fisichella pairing followed by the V8 Vantage of Senna, Makowiecki and Bell. Third and closing to within a second on the final lap was the other AF Corse Ferrari of Kobayashi and Vilander. A lap behind, the sole surviving Porsche could do no better than fifth. A violent crash of the Oreca 03 Nissan with Antonio Pizzonia at the wheel, which brought out the race's only safety car, robbed the LMP2 class of its Silverstone winner. The similar Pecom car (run by AF Corse) looked set to grab an easy victory until a puncture late in the race called for an unscheduled pit-stop. Fortunately this happened right at the end of the lap and the lead was just enough to keep the chasing Morgan LMP2 Nissan 12.5 seconds at bay. Third was for the Jota Zytek, a further 15 seconds down the order. The day ended three for three for Amadeo Ferrari's AF Corse team, as the 8 Star Motorsports Ferrari grabbed top honours in GTE Am.
In theatre a bad dress rehearsal foretells a good opening night but it seems that neither Toyota or Porsche will draw any confidence from that. Both manufacturers have their work cut out to make up the necessary ground to their respective rivals in the little that is left until the all-important month of June. Although at Le Mans anything can happen, Audi looks perfectly prepared with the three R18s and all nine drivers all performing flawlessly. Unfortunately, Toyota's problems also robbed the race of a real battle for the outright victory. In the wake of the Audis, both the closely disputed GTE Pro and LMP2 classes provided the numerous spectators spread around the 7 km track with plenty of excitement in the basking sunshine. Both these classes will be further complemented at Le Mans and look set to be the most exciting again. We can only hope that the Toyota, already running a low downforce setup, works better and longer next month, and present the defending champions with a proper fight.