Certain things seemed inevitable as the World Endurance Championship circus descended on Spa-Francorchamps. First, given that Toyota had binned their latest hybrid LMP1 prototype at a test session at Paul Ricard, and would therefore miss their planned debut in Belgium, the works Audis would remain untroubled en-route to victory lane. Second, this being a six-hour event on one of Europe’s most challenging circuits, high-speed offs and caution periods would almost certainly come into effect. And thirdly, this being Spa, rain would inevitably play a part. Tick, tick and tick.
Few were surprised when all four Audi R18s hit the top four spots during qualifying, Allan McNish planting the #2 R18 Hybrid on pole on its first competitive outing. Even less were surprised by the 1.5s gap back to the fastest privateer entry, namely Nicholas Prost, Neel Jani and Nick Heidfeld in the #12 Rebellion Racing Lola B12/60. The fact that McNish’s advantage back to Loic Duval in the #3 diesel Audi in second was over half a second though stopped many in the paddock in their tracks. Perhaps this weekend would spring some surprises after all.
These arrived in earnest quickly. The race was barely underway before the #1 hybrid Audi launched past the polesitting R18, Andre Lotterer and Tom Kristensen quickly establishing a hybrid one-two. Holding less fuel, and their handling thus not adversely affected in the slippery conditions, the hybrids started to pull a gap to their diesel-powered brethren. Tyre strategy would soon prove crucial though. A dry line was beginning to appear, but parts of the circuit could yet prove hazardous on the wrong tyres. And the pit stop window was looming fast.
Ultimately slicks were the way to go, and with no further rain anticipated, the trailing #3 began to eat its way back into contention. Kristensen, McNish and Dindo Capello soon fell by the wayside with a broken headlight, the prospect of a stop-go penalty for the #2 team for malfunctioning lights a far bigger hindrance than the pit stop they inevitably made to replace it. One Audi down, the #3 car was back in the game, scything into the 15s gap at a fast rate of knots. Duval was quickly onto the back of Benoit Treluyer in the leading #1 car.
Even despite using the #44 Starworks Motorsports HPD ARX prototype as a mobile chicane, nothing was going to stop Duval from wrenching the lead away from Treluyer. From then on, Duval stole a considerable march, and the #3 was never going to be headed. A solid effort from Duval, Romain Dumas and Marc Gene was enough to secure the trio their first collaborative victory and the first for the endearingly named R18 Ultra.
Despite being more than 46s in arrears to the leading Audi, Treluyer, Marcel Fassler and Andre Lotterer still brought the #1 Audi home for the hybrid model’s first podium on its debut appearance. But for their technical issues early on – plus an off for McNish late into the race, a puncture and a resultant stop-go penalty for a pitlane infringement – the #2 car may well have challenged Oliver Jarvis and Marco Bonanomi in the #4 R18 for third, but were unlikely to do so from three laps back.
After a comparatively quiet run, Prost, Jani and Heidfeld finished victorious in the so-called ‘petrol class’ battle for LMP1 honours, overhauling Andre Bellchi and Harold Primat in the sister #13 Rebellion entry.
Compared with the more processional, higher powered affair up front, victory in the LMP2 class remained unclear for most of the event, aided considerably by driver errors as the race developed. Early leaders John Martin, Robbie Kerr and Tor Graves for ADR-Delta, who had looked set to dominate in the early going, endured a slow pit stop after an on-track contretemps damaged the #25 Oreca 03, dropping them behind Jota’s Simon Dolan and Sam Hancock in the process.
However, having nailed their middle stint and slashed the 25s gap down to 6s, Graves, Kerr and Martin were thrown a reprieve when the #38 Zytek Z11SN was handed a 30s penalty for speeding in the pitlane. The lead would change once again, just five minutes from the flag, when leader Kerr was forced to make a splash and dash for fuel. Victory for Jota, and a cruel blow for ADR-Delta.
Further back in the pack though, greater attention was being paid to the varying amounts of carbon fibre slowly beginning to stack up in the run-off area. Former-Formula One pilot Karun Chandhok got the destructive ball rolling by slamming the #22 JRM-prepared HPD ARX-03a into the wall on his way to the grid, later denting the #25 LMP2’s chances with a misjudged passing manoeuvre.
Philippe Haezebrouck followed suit in the #43 Extreme Limite Norma M200P just twenty minutes into the race. The Frenchman made a much more thorough job at the fourth hour mark by going straight on at the high-speed Eau Rouge, bringing out the safety car. Haezebrouck was unhurt, but the Norma was an insurance right-off. In deference to its fallen LMP2 comrade, the #49 Pecom Racing Oreca 03 connected heavily with the #57 Krohn Racing Ferrari 458 Italia, causing another caution period.
Not about to let the high flying prototypes take all the credit, Luxury Racing’s Frederic Makowiecki incredibly threw his hard-earned pole position away on the warm-up lap, skidding the #59 Ferrari 458 off-track after misjudging his braking point on cold tyres. That didn’t stop the GT1 World Championship regular flying from thereon though, and engaging in a mighty scrap with the #51 AF Corse Ferrari. The GT afternoon however belonged to Richard Lietz and Marc Lieb in the #77 Team Felbermayr-Proton Porsche 911 RSR.
Certainly Spa-Francorchamps had done its best to spice up the order in the World Endurance Championship, and one wonders if the next event – the infamous Le Mans 24 Hrs – will follow suit.