Toyota seems unstoppable ahead of Le Mans

Some traditions may annoy us, but the fact that the Spa six-hour race has been the final “practice” before the Le Mans 24 Hours is something well established and respected which has been the norm for years. This time round, the battle was as hot as ever with three Toyotas fighting two Porsches at the top. Add to the equation the complexity of managing just four sets of tires (plus two "Joker" sets) for the whole weekend on a track that’s really hard on tires, and you get the picture of a thrilling race.

Toyota cited the stability of the rules as the main incentive for the German-Japanese outfit to bring out a third TS050 to help in their decades-old desire to win at Circuit de la Sarthe. Until then, though, the No. 9 was present at Spa-Francorchamps in the Ardennes and poised to be driven by Nicolas Lapierre, Stephane Sarrazin and Yuji Kunimoto. This car was also fitted with the low-downforce package as was the case for the two 919s from Porsche. The difference was, however, that Spa, with its super fast first and third sectors, is much more fit for a setup with less drag. This meant that Porsche was, in theory, to close the gap on Toyota even more than they did at Silverstone, making for an electrifying six-hour race.

Continue reading for the full story.

The Race for the Pole

Despite Porsche’s low-downforce setup and its better suitability to the Spa-Francorchamps circuit, it was Toyota that dominated all three practice sessions.

Lower down the order, a bit of variety was added in LMP2 where ELMS-bound Tockwith Motorsport brought their Ligier JS P217 to fight the sea of ORECAs, albeit some with Alpine branding. Their run was lackluster and they were out quite early but it will get even better at Le Mans where we’ll see Dallara and Riley/Multimatic make their World Championship debuts.

The FIA WEC used a little backdoor in their new-for-2017 automatic BoP system to hit the Ford GTs for the Belgian round as Chip Ganassi’s cars received a four-liter reduction of their fuel tanks. The officials said that fuel capacity is not part of the automatic system and, as such, it can be altered by the human element when deemed necessary.

There isn’t much to report from the GTE-Am before Spa, other than that Jack Leconte’s Larbre Team announced their third driver for Le Mans and an additional race for the French outfit, but in the ELMS and not the WEC. The third driver in question is ex-Aston-Martin Racing man Fernando Rees who was a regular with the team until 2013.

2017 6 Hours of Spa Francorchamps - Race Report
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2017 6 Hours of Spa Francorchamps - Race Report
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Despite Porsche’s low-downforce setup and its better suitability to the Spa-Francorchamps circuit, it was Toyota that dominated all three practice sessions. The German manufacturer, however, geared up for qualifying and Andre Lotterer, arguably Team Joest’s quickest wheeler, alongside Neel Jani put the No. 1 Porsche 919 on pole with an average of 1:54.097, in the process beating all three of the Toyotas that lined up in second, third and fourth. It marked the first time that a driver got pole for two works P1 teams in the WEC. It was also Porsche’s 16th pole which beats Audi’s record after just three years since the team’s debut in 2014.

Toyota’s best pairing, that of Kamui Kobayashi and Mike Conway, who were also bound to drive solo without Jose-Maria Lopez who wasn’t cleared to drive at Spa, put down a 1:54.693 average

Toyota’s best pairing, that of Kamui Kobayashi and Mike Conway, who were also bound to drive solo without Jose-Maria Lopez who wasn’t cleared to drive at Spa, put down a 1:54.693 average. They were followed by the No. 9 car with the low downforce package and the No. 8 just behind. Porsche’s other 919 only started from fifth after a mistake by Brendon Hartley in the Bust Stop chicane.

G-Drive Racing’s ORECA managed a 2:01:601 average to take the LMP2 pole, aided by Alex Lynn’s 2:01.253 which was in fact quicker than Allan McNish’s pole lap in the works Audi R18 E-Tron Quattro in 2012! G-Drive beat Signatech, Rebellion and Manor Racing in what was a close fight with so many identical cars lined up. The other Manor entry, No. 25, suffered a crash at Speakers corner where Vitaly Petrov lost the rear of the car and caused a red flag due to his accident. After the restart, ByKolles’ Dominik Kraihamer spun the CLM at the Bus Stop but was not collected by anyone, the No. 7 Toyota jinking right in avoidance.

2017 6 Hours of Spa Francorchamps - Race Report
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AF Corse’s Davide Rigon and Sam Bird combined to take the GTE-Pro class pole in their Ferrari with an average of 2:15.017, enough to best the No. 66 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing UK car. Ford also had its second car on third and Aston-Martin again proved highly uncompetitive with the best Vantage starting from seventh.

2:18.659 was the average time between Paul Dalla-Lana and Pedro Lamy that replaced the frowns on the AMR boys’ faces with smiles. That’s because it was good enough for Aston-Martin Racing’s 46th class pole, beating Porsche and Ferrari in the process.

LMP1

The race on Saturday got underway fairly clean, if we are to ignore a couple of cars outbraking themselves into La Source.

The race on Saturday got underway fairly clean, if we are to ignore a couple of cars outbraking themselves into La Source, including the No. 9 Toyota. With Sarrazin out of the way, Lotterer was able to lead first time through Raidillon. His lead, though, wasn’t to remain forever as both Buemi and Conway eventually went by, as did team-mate Brendon Hartley towards the end of the first hour.

Three hours in and it was the same story at the top. Toyota’s No. 7 and No. 8 entries led with ease over the Porsches, with the German squad unable to benefit from better pitwork like it did at Silverstone. Their similar and even, at times, inferior pace didn’t help the matter either. The Conway/Kobayashi car was leading while the top Porsche was almost a minute down on the leader. The other Porsche was running fourth only ahead of the No. 9 Toyota which was still making up ground after the mistake in Turn 1 of Lap 1.

Things were, however, on the verge of a turnover. Just before the third hour mark, the number 7 made a scheduled stop which would ultimately lose them 45 seconds with no fault of their own. That’s because, moments after completing the stop, a caution period was deployed handing the advantage over to the No. 8 Toyota Gazoo Racing-entered prototype.

2017 6 Hours of Spa Francorchamps - Race Report
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2017 6 Hours of Spa Francorchamps - Race Report
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The mid-race moment proved pivotal for the race’s outcome as the No. 8 managed to keep ahead to score the victory with drivers Sebastien Buemi, Anthony Davidson and Kazuki Nakajima.

The caution period also helped the Porsches which made up some ground, also helped by cooler conditions that benefitted the 919 Hybrids. However, the German outfit soon faded as the race moved on to its latter stages and Toyota regained its 1-2. The mid-race moment proved pivotal for the race’s outcome as the No. 8 managed to keep ahead of its sister car until the end to score the victory with drivers Sebastien Buemi, Anthony Davidson and Kazuki Nakajima. Mike Conway and Kamui Kobayashi came home just two seconds behind thanks to a late-race surge of pace. It was the first 1-2 for the team since the Chinese round of the WEC in their season of dominance, 2014.

Porsche’s trio of Timo Bernhard, Brendon Hartley and Earl Bamber finished on the last step of the podium, missing out on their chance of winning because of an incident in the Bus Stop chicane between Hartley and ex fellow team-mate Romain Dumas. Brendon tagged the rear of the Alpine No. 36 driven by Dumas under braking while the No. 2 car was actually in the lead of the race. The crash prompted Hartley to dive to the pitlane for a new nose which lost the trio buckets of time. The other Porsche finished fourth ahead of the No. 9 Toyota and the CLM which, now on Nissan steam, managed to pull together a flawless run to cross the finish line ahead of all of the LMP2 runners.

LMP1 Top 5 Results

Pos No. Team Drivers Car Laps
1 8 Toyota Gazoo Racing Buemi/Davidson/Nakajima Toyota TS050 - Hybrid 173
2 7 Toyota Gazoo Racing Conway/Kobayashi Toyota TS050 - Hybrid 173
3 2 Porsche LMP Team Bernhard/Bamber/Hartley Porsche 919 Hybrid 173
4 1 Porsche LMP Team Jani/Lotterer/Tandy Porsche 919 Hybrid 173
5 9 Toyota Gazoo Racing Sarrazin/Kunimoto/Lapierre Toyota TS050 - Hybrid 171

LMP2

Talking about P2, G-Drive Racing’s pole proved to be a sign of things to come in the race for the team as Alex Lynn, Roman Rusinov and Pierre Thiriet just about control the proceedings to win by over 60 seconds. It wasn’t easy, though, as the rubber was put to a very hard test as proved by Roman Rusinov’s first stint. The Russian started the car and built up a clear lead over Romain Dumas, only to lose momentum towards the end of the hour thanks to overly degraded tires at all four corners. Seeing this, Alex Lynn, who did a triple stint aboard the No. 26 car, decided to be extra gentle on the inflatable stuff. As such, he was able to triple stint his right-side tires thus giving the team a clear advantage over the opposition. He pinpointed to his experience in single-seaters as a basis for his superior understanding of rubber degradation.

2017 6 Hours of Spa Francorchamps - Race Report
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The No. 31 Vaillante-sponsored Rebellion Racing ORECA finished second on the road ahead of the No. 38 Jackie Chan DC Racing entry. The other Rebellion car was fourth followed by the two Alpine-branded prototypes and the Manor squad.

LMP2 Top 5 Results

Pos No. Team Drivers Car Laps
7 26 G-Drive Racing Rusinov/Thiriet/Lynn Oreca 07 - Gibson 160
8 31 Vaillante Rebellion Canal/Prost/Senna Oreca 07- Gibson 160
9 38 Jackie Chan DC Racing Tung/Jarvis/Laurent Oreca 07 - Gibson 160
10 13 Vaillante Rebellion Beche/Heinemeier Hansson/Piquet Jr. Oreca 07 - Gibson 159
11 36 Signatech Alpine Matmut Dumas/Menezes/Rao Alpine A470 - Gibson 159

GTE-Pro

GTE-Pro proved to be an intra-team affair between the No. 51 and the No. 71 AF Corse-entered Ferraris.

GTE-Pro proved to be an intra-team affair between the No. 51 and the No. 71 AF Corse-entered Ferraris. The pole-sitting No. 71 of James Calado and Sam Bird won the duel but it the other 488 GTE did not go down easy as Amato Ferrari’s boys were not afraid at all to make contact, which they did many times over. There was also a tense moment down Kemmel straight that, for the older folk, might be distantly reminiscent to the 2000 Belgian GP when Michael Schumacher “used” Ricardo Zonta to pass Mika Hakkinen on the exterior braking for Les Combes. Calado did something similar as he drafted the two then-leading Fords and went by both of them on the outside to snatch the class lead. The two American cars proved to also be the best of the rest in the Pro field but suffered problems that took them away from the fight for victory.

No. 66 of Pla/Mucke/Johnson finished third after losing pace in the second half of the race in comparison to the Ferraris. The other GT was kneeled down by fuel priming issues which stopped the car in its tracks twice: once at pit exit and another time at Eau Rouge. This meant that both Derani’s and Tincknell’s brilliant drives were overlooked by the end results that showed them in P4 – only after Andy Priaulx passed Fred Makowiecki on the outside, too!

GTE-Pro Top 5 Results

Pos No. Team Drivers Car Laps
17 71 AF Corse Rigon/Bird Ferrari 488 GTE 151
18 51 AF Corse Calado/Giudi Ferrari 488 GTE 150
19 66 Ford Chip Ganassi Team UK Mucke/Pla/Johnson Ford GT 150
20 67 Ford Chip Ganassi Team UK Priaulx/Tincknell/Derani Ford GT 150
21 91 Porsche GT Team Lietz/Makowiecki Porsche 911 RSR 149

GTE-Am

Aston-Martin Racing’s No. 98 car won in GTE-Am seemingly with ease despite receiving a 10-second penalty for a pitlane infringement. It was also Pedro Lamy’s 15th class win with Aston-Martin on his 60th start for the British team.

Matteo Cairoli, Christian Ried and Marvin Dienst finished second for Proton Racing in the #77 Porsche 991 GTE ahead of Clearwater Racing which followed on from their Silverstone success with a fine podium finish. The class, however, was only made up of four competitors which looked dismal given that it is, in theory, the gateway to the WEC since it’s the cheapest category of the four.

GTE-Am Top 5 Results

Pos No. Team Drivers Car Laps
25 98 Aston Martin Racing Dalla Lana/Lamy/Lauda Aston Martin V8 Vantage 146
26 77 Dempsey-Proton Racing Ried/Cairoli/Dienst Porsche 911 RSR 146
27 61 Clearwater Racing Mok/Sawa/Griffin Ferrari 488 GTE 145
28 54 Spirit of Race Flohr,Castellacci/Molina Ferrari 488 GTE 144
N/C 86 Gulf Racing UK Wainwright/Barker/Foster Porsche 911 RSR 4

Full Results

You can check out the full results from Spa-Francorchamps here.

What’s Next?

Up next is the event that needs no introduction... the 24 Hours of Le Mans which will take place in just 40 days. Before that, however, we’ve got lined up the Le Mans Official Test Days later on this month.

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