Toyota Gazoo Racing took the opening race of the Hypercar era in the FIA WEC but it was far from a straightforward victory for the defending world champions and their new GR010 HYBRIDs.
Multiple incidents and stumbles for both Toyotas, and a fine first appearance for the Alpine Endurance Matmut squad with its Alpine A480 grandfathered LMP1 saw the French squad lead for a significant portion of the race, forcing Toyota to dig deep and finally take the win courtesy of pace and an ability to run longer on a fuel load.
— WEC (@FIAWEC) May 1, 2021
The No. 8 Toyota for Sebastien Buemi, Brendon Hartley and Kazuki Nakajima emerged the winner, the No. 36 Alpine splitting the Toyotas with Andre Negrao, Matthieu Vaxiviere and ex-Toyota factory man Nicolas Lapierre finishing second, scored a lap ahead of the troubled No. 7 Toyota of Kamui Kobayashi, Mike Conway and Jose Maria Lopez. The latter trio were delayed by contact, a 30-second pit stop penalty after the team released the car early from a fuel stop, a run off track in the closing stages and finally stopping briefly on track in the final minutes with Kobayashi having to reboot the car to run to the flag.
So fractured was the run from the No. 7 that at one point the runway winner in LMP2 — the No. 22 United Autosport ORECA — ran third overall. The defending class champions will still be delighted with their eventual fourth place after a simply spellbinding opening stint from Phil Hanson, the Englishman very briefly leading overall out of Turn 1 on Lap 1 — a very encouraging debut from newly signed Silver ranked Fabio Scherer and with Filipe Albuquerque in dominant form. The result saw the gap to the second-placed car recorded as a full lap and, in truth, it wasn’t too far from the reality on track for much of the race.
— WEC (@FIAWEC) May 1, 2021
Completing the podium were the two JOTA ORECAs, a late penalty for the No. 28 of Stoffel Vandoorne, Sean Gelael and Tom Blomqvist dropping the car back from second and behind the sister car after a fumble with full-course yellow speeds and then a heart-in-the-mouth moment from Blomqvist, who had clearly missed sighting the rapidly approaching Alpine on the run down to Eau Rouge. Both cars lucky to survive the significant side to side contact that resulted, the in-car TV feed of the reaction of Andre Negrao clearly showing the Brazilian’s shock at the contact.
That left the No. 38 of Roberto Gonzales, Antonio Felix da Costa and Anthony Davidson to take second place after a fight back up the order, Davidson, the 2014 WEC drivers world champion in spirited form late in the race.
Fourth overall in LMP2 — and the winners in the new for 2021 LMP2 Pro-Am Challenge for crews featuring an FIA Bronze-ranked driver — was the No. 29 Racing Team Nederland ORECA, the all-Dutch crew of supermarket magnate Frits van Eerd, ex F1 driver and 2016 European Le Mans Series champion Giedo van der Garde, and up-and-coming sports car star Job van Uitert doing more than enough to see off the competition.
The much-fancied Team WRT effort faltered in its WEC debut, a clutch problem leaving them much delayed in the garage while another significant runner, the guesting No. 26 G-Drive Racing Aurus 01, retired after being flagged to the pits from second place with an oil leak.
GTE Pro saw a potentially dominant win from the No. 92 Porsche 911 RSR-19 of Kevin Estre and Neel Jani dented a little by a mid-race right rear puncture, identical failures were suffered by both cars, the sister car also delayed by damage from contact with the No. 7 Toyota.
As it was the pace of Estre — who has been in astonishing form all week at Spa, securing pole position for Porsche by over a second — and the very impressive support from GTE Pro debutant and ex-LMP1 driver Jani was enough to see off a strong attack from Ferrari.
The pair of factory-backed AF Corse Ferrari 488 GTE Evos completed the podium, their finishing order reversed after two drive-through penalties for the No. 52 car of Miguel Molina and Daniel Serra — both for full-course yellow speed infractions — cost the car a minute, and allowed the sister No. 51 car of James Calado and Alessandro Pier Guidi to inherit second place.
The No. 63 Corvette Racing C8.R finished a distant fourth on the car’s European debut, the team struggling with tire temperatures throughout the week. However, the trip will pay dividends in their preparation for Le Mans after a race that was bookended by opening and closing stints from Antonio Garcia, with Oliver Gavin double-stinting in the middle two hours in what was the Englishman’s final professional race after announcing his retirement from professional motorsport on Friday as he prepares to launch his new Driving Academy in Germany to support customers for the soon-to-be-launched European spec Corvette C8.
Another dominant performance from reigning GTE AM champions AF Corse saw Frenchman Francois Perrodo supported by factory Ferrari driver Nicklas Nielsen but it was a long mid-race spell from young Italian Alessio Rovera that dominated proceedings, putting the No. 83 out of reach of the No. 33 TF Sport Aston Martin of Ben Keating, Dylan Pereira and Felipe Praga, the effort would have been far closer, though, without an early race incident that saw Keating pitched off the track after a clash between two passing LMP2s. Juan Pablo Montoya was judged to be at fault in the incident, in which Texan auto dealer Keating did well to keep the Aston Martin out of the barriers as he half spun across the grass and back across the track at Pouhon.
Italian team Cetilar Racing, who moved to the class the year after completing their LMP2 program with an appearance at the Rolex 24 At Daytona, completed the podium after the No. 88 Dempsey Proton Porsche was dealt a time penalty for failing to serve a late-race drive-through, again for a full course yellow infringement.
All in all, the performance levels between the three Hypercars, and between the new top class and the newly reeled-in LMP2s, proved to be far less of an issue that much of the politicking in the lead-up to the race suggested it might be. The newly recast performance windows resulted in traffic playing a much bigger part in proceedings, and the top cars having to work hard to exploit their now narrower performance advantages.
The meeting will be remembered too for a large number of significant incidents in both the two day pre-season “Prologue” test, and in practice and qualifying, multiple cars suffering significant damage. The new Porsche 911 RSR-19 customer cars in particular had a very expensive week — three of the five cars present would not make the race and a fourth required a significant rebuild overnight to make the grid, with two LMP2s also requiring full rebuilds to make the race entry.
Spa is a very popular race venue for the teams and drivers, but on reflection found little favor as a test venue with so many teams having had little opportunity to bed in new drivers and cars, with COVID19 still making travel into and around Europe problematic.
The FIA WEC moves next to Portimao, Portugal for an 8-hour race. The intended location for the season opener is now set to take place in June on the weekend initially planned to host the now also delayed 24 Hours of Le Mans.