Toyota Gazoo Racing scored a head-turning 1-2 in the third race of the FIA World Endurance Championship season at Spa after a frenetic six hours of racing, which was packed with significant incidents in tricky conditions.
Winning the race — easily the most entertaining of the season so far — held in front of packed grandstands was the No. 7 Toyota GR010 HYBRID of Kamui Kobayashi, Mike Conway and Jose Maria Lopez, which had a near-perfect run.
The win for the pole-sitting No. 7 crew was ultimately set up by a decision made before the race. The team gambled on tires, opting for slicks on a drying track while many runners in the field chose to start on wets.
After Conway slipped back to seventh on the opening lap, an early safety car and no further rain showers meant many cars — including both Ferrari AF Corse 499Ps — took early control but subsequently lost tons of time. They all struggled for grip and had to make a costly extra stop for slicks which split the field and dropped multiple cars off the lead lap.
From there, the No. 7 controlled the race and, despite being challenged late on in the race by the sister No. 8 which started dead last and briefly led in the final hour, crossed the line 16s clear of the pack.
“It was a crazy race with safety cars that kept eradicating our leads. But all my teammates did solid stints. It’s a great team result,” Conway said.
The No. 8’s runner-up place was a hugely impressive result for Brendon Hartley, Ryo Hirakawa and Sebastien Buemi in response to Hartley’s off at Raidillon on cold tires in qualifying.
“It is an amazing result for the whole team and a big recovery job from our car,” Hartley said after the race. “Sebastien made an amazing start in tricky conditions and got through the field cleanly after the team made the right call on tires. That was a big decision, but it was the right one.
“Car No. 7 deserved the victory because they had a little more pace than us today, particularly in the middle part of the race. We went in a different direction on set-up; I couldn’t challenge Kamui in the final stint. We were one set of tires down after what happened in qualifying so we can be very happy to finish second and take these points.”
Third was the No. 51 AF Corse Ferrari 499P, earning a last-gasp podium after James Calado made a move on Fred Makowiecki around the outside at Les Combes on the final lap to deny Porsche a second podium finish in a row.
The top-three finish was a consolation prize for AF Corse. The car had the pace to win here, but the team’s tire gamble failed and No. 50 crashed out late in the race from third position. Antonio Fuoco lost control of the car on the run down the hill to Eau Rouge on cold tires and clouted the guardrail.
The Italian was a passenger in the incident, which saw the car retire on the spot. It was another shunt that put the organiser’s decision to ban tire warmers for this season in the spotlight. Fuoco’s off in the race, Hartley’s off in qualifying and multiple offs for drivers on the formation lap provided evidence that even the best drivers on the grid are getting caught out in cold conditions with stone cold rubber. After the race, the paddock was rife with conversations about this rule change, which at its core has become a safety issue.
For Porsche Penske Motorsport’s No. 5 963, fourth was a fair result considering the ultimate pace of the Ferraris throughout, though the team will leave disappointed that it couldn’t hang on for a podium. More concerning, though, was an apparent electronics failure for the No. 6 — retiring at the Bus Stop after what Laurens Vanthoor described as a “total blackout.” The mechanical issue was one of many for the team this week and is leading to much head-scratching ahead of Le Mans.
Completing the top five in Hypercar was the No. 2 Cadillac Racing V-Series.R which, like the two Ferraris, also started on wets and spent the first half of the race trying to fight its way back into contention.
Cadillac is another brand leaving Spa wondering what could have been. It split the strategy of its V-Series.Rs at the start, which saw the No. 3 guest-entered, IMSA-crewed car start on slicks and emerge as a podium contender in the opening laps.
A violent impact for Renger van der Zande in the second hour at Eau Rouge saw the car retire from heavy damage. The Dutchman, who was running second at the time, was sent flying sideways into the tires, after what Sebastien Bourdais revealed was an electronic power steering failure.
Thankfully van der Zande was fine and was able to bow to the relieved crowd at the Raidillon grandstand before leaving the wreckage.
A shred of good news — RACER believes the tub isn’t damaged from the impact. Sourcing a replacement would have been an extremely tough ask with parts in short supply and Le Mans just around the corner.
Outside the top five was the HERTZ Team JOTA Porsche, having had a very encouraging maiden outing. The team finished one lap off the lead, stayed out of trouble and ran ahead of the factory Porsches for significant periods despite the crew’s conservative approach to the race — a highly encouraging start for the first Hypercar in customer hands. Mission accomplished for this young effort.
LMP2 was effectively a series of sprints set up by the four safety car periods, featuring dramatic battles and intrigue from a handful of cars that opted for varying strategies that kept everyone guessing until the final minutes.
Eventually winning the class was the No. 41 Team WRT ORECA of Rui Andrade, Robert Kubica and Louis Deletraz, which beat the pole-sitting No. 23 United Autosports ORECA in a battle on pit lane when both cars came in for a late splash while dicing for the lead.
United, and specifically Tom Blomqvist, will be frustrated by the second-place finish. The Briton was mercurial on the drying track at the start of the race and put the team in a comfortable position out front. For periods he was so fast he found himself amongst the leading Hypercar pack.
Unfortunately, the safety cars nullified the lead and dropped the No. 23 down the order, forcing the team to spend a lengthy portion of the race battling back to the front, only to miss out by 6s following the duel between its pit crew and WRT’s at the end.
“When you’re fighting and in the lead, it’s easy to be disappointed coming so close,” Blomqvist’s teammate Oliver Jarvis said. “But with the way the race went, P2 is an excellent result. We were unlucky to lose our 45s lead due to a safety car, but the team made a fantastic pit-stop call later in the race to jump back up the order. So we leave with good points.
“Our Portimão win and second place here is building nicely towards Le Mans. Credit to the team, they did a fantastic job.”
The No. 23’s misfortune should take nothing away from the No. 41’s result, though. This was a much better outing for WRT in every aspect in front of its home fans.
“After the first safety car we thought we were out of the race because we were so far back, more than a minute behind the leaders,” admitted Andrade, who took the start in the car on slicks. “I bottled the start, dropping to P8 before fighting back to P3, it was not the easiest set of conditions.
“So seeing the second safety car come out and bringing us back into the fight was amazing. Robert and Louis then did a great job to get us back.”
Inter Europol finished third after a lengthy battle in the final minutes between Albert Costa and Andrea Caldarelli in the No. 9 Prema Racing ORECA. Costa helped the Polish team score its first podium in the WEC with a bold move on Caldarelli at Les Combes with five minutes to go.
It capped off a cunning race-long strategy which saw the team save fuel and a fresh set of tires for the end. The team seemingly came out of nowhere after looking down and out early in the race when it was forced to pit under green flag conditions while its competition hit pit lane under full course yellow. Fabio Scherer again showed pace, all the more impressive when its strategy became clearer late in the race.
Behind the No. 9 Prema Racing ORECA was the No. 22 United Autosports ORECA which did well to recover from Phil Hanson’s spin into the barriers on the formation lap, costing the car speed early on and forcing the team to change its nose.
Prema’s sister car, meanwhile, was in contention throughout and led in the fifth hour during Mirko Bortolotti’s stint. A crushing three-minute stop-go penalty, handed to the team after it completed a routine stop under a safety car period when the pit lane was closed, cost the car two laps and dropped it to 10th.
GTE Am was similar to LMP2, with countless battles and multiple cars building a lead and then losing it through either misfortune or errors.
Richard Mille AF Corse would emerge as the winning team. The No. 83 crew of Alessio Rovera, Lilou Wadoux and Luis Perez Companc didn’t put a foot wrong and quietly moved to the front as the race wore on.
With the victory, 19-year-old Wadoux notably becomes the first female driver to take an FIA WEC class win.
“It’s something I am really proud of,” reflected Wadoux, who received a round of applause from the drivers and media in the post-race press conference. “This is also really important for the points in the championship.”
Ultimately the No. 83 crew took control as the other contending cars struggled to find a rhythm, including the championship-leading No. 33 Corvette Racing C8.R which powered to the front during Ben Keating’s stint at the start before conditions improved and the Texan had to box for slicks, dropping the team out of the top five.
The ORT by TF Sport Aston Martin, which started from pole, and the D’Station Racing Vantage also lost time due to errors. The ORT Vantage received a penalty for crossing the white line at the pit exit. D’Station meanwhile had its race, which started so well, ruined by a penalty for a dangerous moment from Tomonobu Fujii. The Japanese driver, who led in the opening hour, banged wheels with the Iron Dames Porsche and ran Sarah Bovy off the road on the exit of La Source on the run down the hill.
In the end, a mistake-free run from the winning trio made the difference and Rovera found himself in the No. 83 tasked simply with managing a lead of around 30s in his stint, which he did with relative ease.
Nicky Catsburg in the recovering Corvette was unable to chase down Rovera in the final stint but claimed an impressive second place for Corvette Racing after a titanic tussle with Charlie Eastwood in the ORT by TF Aston. The fight between Catsburg and Eastwood was thrilling and went all the way to the line, with Catsburg putting on another defensive master class to hold station.
Just off the podium, the No. 88 Proton Competition Porsche snatched fourth from the Iron Dames example at the very end of the race, when Harry Tincknell fought his way past Michelle Gatting amid the other battles podium places in the three classes with time-expiring.
Next up for the FIA WEC teams is the centenary edition of the Le Mans 24 Hours, set to be held on June 10th and 11th.