After all the talk in the FIA World Endurance Championship paddock at Spa-Francorchamps about the performance levels of the Le Mans Hypercars compared to the LMP2 class runners, Toyota’s pair of GR010 HYBRIDs finally found the speed required to pull clear of the pack and lock out the front row in the first WEC qualifying session of the 2021 season.
The FIA WEC Prologue test and practice sessions saw LMP2s regularly match and better the pace from the brand-new GR010s, prompting Toyota to push for further performance reductions for the ORECA 07s on the entry to separate the categories. But when the chips were down and all cars were sent out on a 10-minute low-fuel run in the FIA WEC’s new qualifying format, the Hypercars in question ran significantly quicker than the LMP2s.
Kamui Kobayashi became the first driver to put a Le Mans Hypercar on pole in the new era, with a 2m00.747s, putting the No. 7 almost two seconds quicker than the LMP2 pole time.
The first-ever Hypercar pole lap in the #WEC history goes to @TGR_WEC (Toyota GR010 – Hybrid) and @kamui_kobayashi (2:00.747). Strap yourself in, for an insane ride! #WEC #6HSpa pic.twitter.com/e54Wogn3C0
— WEC (@FIAWEC) April 30, 2021
“I think at the beginning of the week we were struggling with speed, but with low fuel we found pace. I’m pretty happy, as we expected it to be tougher but we achieved a good lap time. It’s a great job by the team,” said Kobayashi after the session.
“The race will be a different story because this new car is much heavier than the LMP1 Hybrid from last year, so tire degredation will be difficult over six hours. But we are students — every lap we are learning. The car is completely different.”
The sister Toyota GR010 HYBRID will start second, after Kazuki Nakajima reeled off a 2m01.277s, which was half a second off the pole time but still over a second clear of the LMP2 pole-sitting United Autosports ORECA.
The only other competitor in the Hypercar class, the Alpine (formerly a Rebellion R-13), was unable to challenge the Toyotas on this occasion. Frenchman Nicolas Lapierre drove the car in the session and had just one shot at glory at the end of the 10-minute burst. The former Toyota factory man could only muster a 2m02.652s to go fourth fastest, behind the quickest LMP2 in the field.
United’s No. 22 ORECA set a rapid time courtesy of Filipe Albuquerque, who posted a 2m02.404s to put the British team on top ahead of the race.
“It was really nice. Really happy with this lap — we are doing a really good job and started well at the Prologue very confident,” said Albuquerque. “We have been P1 in all the sessions so we needed to seal it in qualifying. In the cold the car felt the best.”
The No. 26 G-Drive Racing Aurus will start second after a late charge from Nyck de Vries fell short. Former teammate Giedo van der Garde put Racing Team Nederland’s ORECA third in the category with a 2m03.435s.
The No. 70 Realteam Racing ORECA and No. 25 G-Drive Aurus will start fourth and fifth in the category respectively.
Before the LMH and LMPs set their time, the GTE classes headed out on track for their session and it was Kevin Estre who set the pace to put the No. 92 Porsche 911 RSR 19 on pole position in Pro. The Frenchman’s first time was by far the quickest in the class and good enough for pole, but he wasn’t finished there. His second time of 2m11.219s was a sizable improvement, and put him 1.2s clear of the other four cars in the class.
“It was an amazing lap — a new lap record for GTE cars around here. And not easy conditions now, it’s cold so hard to get the tires to work,” said Estre’s teammate Neel Jani after the session.
Sharing the front row with the No. 92 Porsche will be the No. 52 AF Corse Ferrari, after Miguel Molina set a 2m12.351s in his 488 GTE Evo. His second lap split the two Porsches and pushed the No. 91 911 to third, Richard Lietz finishing up less than a tenth off Molina.
The No. 51 AF Corse Ferrari will start fourth, ahead of the single Corvette Racing C8.R which was steered by Antonio Garcia in the session. The Spaniard pushed hard and looked on the limit on his second flying lap in the session, but a 2m13.106s wasn’t enough to challenge the full-season GTE Pro cars. Corvette has struggled for pace thus far this week — will its fortunes turn tomorrow during the race?
The GTE session was heavily interrupted by two big incidents by Am runners before any drivers managed to set a competitive time.
Christian Ried was first up, hitting the tires hard at Raidillon in the No. 77 Dempsey Proton Porsche, heavily damaging the front, rear and left-hand side of the car. The German lost the rear on the curb heading up the hill, sending him into a spin and veering off into the tires on driver’s right.
Second was Egidio Perfetti, who went off in almost identical fashion to Ried at Raidillon in the No. 56 Project 1 Porsche. He too suffered a hefty impact but was able to walk away unscathed.
Whether or not either car can be rebuilt in time for the race is an unknown at this point. However, Team Project 1 appeared to be confident that its crew could rebuild its 911 RSR overnight in time for the race when questioned by FIA WEC TV pit reporter Duncan Vincent after the incident.
Once the action got going, the TF Sport Aston Martin of Ben Keating managed to top the times, the American in his first session as a TF Sport driver setting a 2m14.660s to lead the other Bronze-rated drivers.
Second on the grid will be the No. 98 Aston Martin Racing Vantage AMR, Canadian Paul Dalla Lana setting a 2m15.615s which initially looked good enough for pole. Nevertheless his best time was good enough to put him and his teammates on the front row, making it an Aston Martin 1-2 in the process on the British marque’s first WEC race weekend without a factory team racing in GTE Pro.
Best of the rest was the No. 88 Dempsey Proton Porsche of Andrew Harayanto, who was unable to get into the 2m15s like the Aston Martins.
The 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps, the opening round of the 2021 FIA WEC season, is set to start at 1:30 p.m. local time on Saturday.