Toyota dominates WEC 1000 Miles of Sebring

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Toyota dominates WEC 1000 Miles of Sebring

Le Mans/WEC

Toyota dominates WEC 1000 Miles of Sebring


Toyota Gazoo Racing scored an impressive, dominant 1-2 victory in the opening round of the 2023 FIA WEC season at Sebring. The Japanese-flagged team’s GR010 HYBRIDs controlled the race almost from start to finish, after AF Corse’s bid to win on the Ferrari 499P’s debut from pole position quickly faded in the opening hour.

The No. 7 GR010 HYBRID of Mike Conway, Jose Maria Lopez and Kamui Kobayashi took the win, finishing 2.1s ahead of the No. 8 sister car of Brendon Hartley, Sebastien Buemi and Ryo Hirakawa. The two Toyotas spent much of the race together on track, but the crew on the pit wall managed the second half of the race to ensure there were no heroics by the drivers that would risk a 1-2 formation finish.

In the end, the two cars crossed the line over two laps clear of the pack, in a race that was relatively subdued up front in the second half. After so much promise and expectation pre-race that Ferrari, and perhaps Cadillac, could challenge Toyota, the race turned out to hardly be a contest. A combination of mechanical issues, incidents, penalties and a lack of ultimate pace prevented any of Toyota’s rivals from keeping close.

“Thanks to Toyota Gazoo Racing in Japan. This was very tough yesterday, but we were strong today — finished 1-2,” Kobayashi said after the race. “Today is just the start. There are big races coming. We need to work and improve, but I am excited by this. It’s so challenging.”

Lopez was upbeat about his change of fortune compared to 2022 — a win this year, rather than ending on his roof as he did at Sebring a year ago.

“The 2023 GR010 is definitely a step forward,” the Argentinian said. “The job that this team has done is amazing, especially after last year. It’s important for me to win today, and it’s great that the team has my back.”

The most competitive race in Hypercar was for the final podium spot, with Porsche, Cadillac and the Ferraris all spending time in and around the top five. There were plenty of exciting on-track battles, including memorable duels between Laurens Vanthoor (No. 6 Porsche) and Alex Lynn (Cadillac) as well as Miguel Molina (No. 50 Ferrari) and Kevin Estre (No. 6 Porsche). The cars looked extremely tough to drive in the Florida sunshine when the tires are worn at the end of a double stint, making for some nail-biting moments.

In the end, the No. 50 AF Corse Ferrari, after a rollercoaster race, finished up a distant third. Antonio Fuoco, Nicklas Nielsen and Miguel Molina all drove well here, but their chances of converting yesterday’s famous pole into victory faltered in the opening laps.

A big off for Luis Perez Companc at Turn 1, in which the Argentinian rolled his No. 83 Richard Mille Ferrari 488 GTE after sliding backwards off track and into the tire barriers, brought out a lengthy safety car period which prompted a strategy gamble from Ferrari. AF Corse brought both cars in, and both lost time getting stuck in their pit boxes in the traffic, emerging sixth and ninth.

They never recovered. The No. 50 was handed a drive-through penalty for overtaking before the start line under the safety car, and then a 5s penalty for a pit infringement. The No. 51, meanwhile, dropped down the order after Alessandro Pier Guidi clashed with Francesco Castelaccci’s AF Corse GTE Ferrari on the run to Turn 13 at the start of Hour 7, which sent him spinning off track and into the No. 56 Project 1 AO Porsche. Pier Guidi had to limp back, have the car repaired, then return to the pitlane serve a penalty for causing a collision. The car finished 15th overall.

It’s a testament to the pace and reliability of the Ferrari 499Ps that AF Corse will leave disappointed with a podium on the car’s race debut, though. The team now knows where it needs to make gains before Portimao and ultimately Le Mans.

Just off the podium was the Cadillac Racing V-Series.R of Earl Bamber, Alex Lynn and Richard Westbrook. The Cadillac had a strong first outing in the WEC and the Ganassi-operated team, like AF Corse, will take positives from this. The team, with only one car in a class featuring four two-car factory efforts, did extremely well and came so close to a podium. In the end it became a chase between Fuoco and Bamber, with Bamber handed a set of four tires and a 9s gap to eliminate in his final stint, but he was unable to reel in Fuoco and crossed the line 10s behind.

“The car was great. The pace was better than we expected, and we took advantage at the end of one of the Ferraris misfortune, but we’re racing for the podium and we gave it all we had,” said Cadillac Racing team manager and strategist Stephen Mitas. “We’ll keep giving it the same effort we’ve given it so far and try to build on this good result.”

Penalties proved costly for the Penske Porsches, winding up fifth and sixth. The car didn’t have the speed over a double stint to stay in the fight — the grip levels from the rear tires on the 963s fell off a cliff towards the end of each stint, appearing to be a handful to drive.

Perhaps the most disappointing performance, though, was from Peugeot Sport, which made its 9X8 debut last season. Both cars suffered major mechanical issues, beginning before the race even started when Loic Duval was forced to pit the No. 94 on the second formation lap with gearbox issues.

It really has been a trip to Sebring to forget for the French brand, which had neither the pace nor the reliability to be in the mix for even a top five. Both made it to the end, but the No. 93 ended up 31st, and the No. 94 was 32nd. Next time out in Portugal, on a track that is less aggressive than Sebring, you’d expect the 9X8s to be more of a force, but there are no guarantees. Much work is required to get in shape for Le Mans.

The remaining two entries from the non-hybrid boutique manufacturers, Glickenhaus and Vanwall, had races to forget as well. Glickenhaus’ 007 had its engine cut out, retiring after just 62 laps. The Vanwall had a better time, though it could only muster a 30th-place finish, after collisions and a suspension issue cost the new Gibson-powered Vandervell 680 chunks of time.

The Hypercar contest may not have been a classic, but it’s early days for the new-look field. It also served as a strong reminder of just how strong Toyota is. There was plenty of chatter ahead of this race about Toyota’s ability to continue winning against renewed opposition after multiple seasons without major factory opposition. It’s clear that Toyota Gazoo Racing is a well-oiled machine, and the organization’s decade of experience in the WEC makes it extremely hard to beat. The competition will have to be faultless.

In LMP2, HERTZ Team JOTA’s No. 48 ORECA of Yifei Ye, David Beckmann and Will Stevens stormed to victory in dramatic fashion, in a car that’s only due to compete in LMP2 until Spa. There, the team is expected to debut a customer Porsche 963 in Hypercar, scaling back its P2 effort to a single car.

It was a commanding performance from the trio, who led most of the second half of the race — one turned on its head in the fourth hour when United’s No. 23 ORECA retired. In the opening hours the pole-sitting No. 23 from the Anglo-American team built a comfortable lead and was lapping the back of the field until Josh Pierson, in the midst of a superb stint, pulled off at the side of the road, the car losing power.

The race was blown wide open, allowing the No. 48 to take control at the front. It was an impressive run, which almost ended with a disappointing second-place finish after Stevens had to take a splash in the final hour and dropped to second.

Prema’s No. 63 inherited the lead and Mirko Bortolotti looked set to steal the win with the sun setting, but he had to pit with just a couple of laps left, dropping the car to third behind the No. 22 United ORECA. Aside from the disappointing finish, it was a near-flawless run from Bortolotti, Doriane Pin and Daniel Kvyat, who should have title aspirations after a performance like this.

“We knew it would be close,” admitted Stevens. “We had to change our strategy and do a triple at the end. We knew it would be tight. I didn’t think Prema would have to stop, so I was super happy when they did. It’s a strong start to the year. we start as we mean to go on.”

The No. 22 United Autosports ORECA (Filipe Albuquerque, Phil Hanson, Frederik Lubin) fought hard for a second-place finish, salvaging something for the team, doing much to lift the mood.

The Inter Europol ORECA had an impressive, metronomic run to fourth, finishing ahead of the No. 41 WRT ORECA that completed the top five.

GTE Am was a similar story to LMP2. The car that looked set to win hit trouble, changing the race.

In this case, it was the Iron Dames Porsche. The all-female trio of Michelle Gatting, Rahel Frey and Sarah Bovy, who started from pole, benefitted early from being in the pits during an FCY and held a lead of over half a minute when Bovy handed over to Frey. Unfortunately, the lead wouldn’t last long, as Frey made an error at Turn 1, going off track on the exit, ripping the rear bumper and diffuser off the car.

Frey limped to the pits for repairs, dropping the car down the order, the team forced to switch to recovery mode and spend the remaining hours fighting their way back to eighth. It wasn’t a fairytale first race for Iron Dames with Porsche, but the team looks set to be a force to reckon with.

The No. 33 Corvette Racing C8.R of Ben Keating, Nico Varrone and Nicky Catsburg took the class victory on the US factory team’s home soil and on its GTE Am debut.

Keating set this victory up, the Texan the class of the Bronze drivers in the field; his performance, in trademark fashion, so strong that the team went almost unchallenged after the drama for Iron Dames in the first half of the race. Varrone, on his Corvette WEC debut, was also extremely impressive, completing an iron-man triple stint during the race.

“Ben did a great job with the start and in his first three stints,” Varrone said after the race. “He got us to P2. Then I jumped in the car for three hours, which was tough. Then I handed it over to Nicky, who is a legend. We all know that he knows what to do. He brought it home safely and now I can’t be happier!

“This was a very difficult race for me. I had to do a triple stint in the middle. I’ve had to do a triple stint at Le Mans, but I have to say that Sebring is much more difficult! Ben did a great job at the start to get the car to me. The track was changing a lot during the whole race, so we had to figure out what was happening. Corvette Racing did a great job with that. They did a great job all week long. It’s a dream come true.”

Keating beamed at the result along with his teammates.

“It’s so special to defend home turf. This is the only home race for us, so it’s special to perform well here,” he stated proudly. “All of us didn’t make mistakes, which is great as it’s mayhem out there. Everyone else had some problem or another. It’s a nice way to win.”

The gap to the second place No. 77 Dempsey Proton Porsche was almost 90s at the finish. The Porsche contingent pushed hard and climbed the order, taking second right at the end. With six minutes to go, the No. 57 Kessel Racing Ferrari pitted for a splash, dropping to third agonizingly close to the end.

AF Corse’s No. 21 Ferrari finished fourth with the Iron Lynx Porsche in fifth.