How the WEC delivered on its long-awaited return to racing

The FIA World Endurance Championship returned to racing at the 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps with a more-than-exceptional display of multi-class action.

Fantastic. The word that I would use to describe the WEC’s return to racing since the Lone Star Le Mans nearly six months ago.

When the WEC left COTA in February, the race was not too action-packed overall, but included a few good fights in the GTE-Pro and LMP2 categories.

The 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps saw a great deal of wheel-to-wheel action at all the iconic corners at Spa. The fans were also treated to battles for the lead, and even strategic battles between the teams.

This piece will digest a handful of the race’s main talking points, what they mean ahead of Le Mans, and how the WEC’s return was a successful comeback after a long while.

Speaking of the weather…

As mentioned in our preview piece prior to the 6 Hours of Spa, the weather would be a factor as rain was a prediction, and Spa delivered on it.

Even though the weather display was not (and was not predicted to be) as dramatic as the race last year, a vast amount of rain fell down at the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps and was one of the key elements that helped make the racing interesting.

In advance of the race itself, rain had been falling since earlier that morning. This would mean that the cars would face wet weather conditions for the first time in 2020, with the Eurasia Motorsport team making a WEC debut in the rain.

With a safety car leading the start, it was not until the fourth lap when the green flag dropped.

The safety car led the first four laps – Credit: FIA WEC / Marius Hecker

Behind the curtains of spray from the rain, there were battles emerging quickly and mainly in the LMP2 and GTE-Pro classes.

The weather later intensified after a brief transition to damper conditions.

During this period, teams were gambling with pit-stops as some (like the #7 Toyota, #22 United Autosports, and #38 JOTA) pitted for slicks until this light/wet conditions turned into heavier rain; others opted to go for the wets.

A spot that caused bother for a number of these cars was Turns 12 and 13.

The #22 and #38 went off at this complex that shortly precedes build-up of high speed towards Blanchimont.

Both cars made the same mistake as they went off on the grass on their out-laps on the slicks, as the dry line had not emerged fully yet. They swiftly made re-joined the track.

Shortly after, the #98 GTE-Am Aston Martin Racing of Paul Dalla Lana went off at T13 (Pif Paf corner) and got stuck in the gravel trap.

The heavy rain kicked around 30 minutes after this moment, with its first drops reportedly (and unsurprisingly) at T12-13. The #57 Team Project 1 and #54 AF Corse battled, and the #86 Gulf Racing took the lead off the #56 Team Project 1 in the meantime.

The heavier showers kicked in as dozens of cars fought wheel-to-wheel. The safety car was deployed again with just over three and a half hours remaining as the rain grew intense and drivers complained of their lack of grip.

Only at the end of the race did a small period of sunshine appear.

Trouble for Toyota GAZOO Racing…

It had been since the Lone Star Le Mans in which Toyota had driven amongst on-track competitors, but had completed a three-day test at Circuit Paul Ricard a few weeks in advance of Spa.

They tested what would debut at Spa, which was the latest Le Mans (low-downforce) package on their TS050 Hybrids.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Fellow LMP1 rivals Rebellion and ByKolles went to Spa with their high-downforce packages – the two aero-packages that LMP1 teams are allowed to be developed in the WEC.

Besides the near-six month wait for racing, and claiming a 1-2 finish (not achieved last year), the #8 car encountered issues throughout the race that were associated with its energy-recuperation element of its petrol-hybrid powertrain.

The car failed to brake efficiently, meaning it was unable to draw in kinetic energy into the batteries.

Sebastien Buemi, who first encountered the issue, visibly ran wide at a number of corners, while Brendon Hartley experienced the same issues later on in the race.

This is a big issue for Toyota, one they should be treating with the utmost severity post-race in order that they can iron out the issue ahead of the 24 Hours of Le Mans next month.

The 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps acted like a preparation for Le Mans for almost all of the teams on the grid, and it helped uncover an area to work on for the Toyota GAZOO Racing team.

This example proved the argument on how important the 6 Hours of Spa is, in the words of Buemi, as it took its traditional schedule to precede Le Mans.

A learning curve for Eurasia Motorsport…

The team run campaigns in Asian Formula 3, Asian Le Mans Series, and the Lamborghini Super Trofeo Asia championship.

As of the 2019-2020 Asian Le Mans Series, where they’ve been running their Ligier JSP217 LMP2, they’ve achieved four podiums and a pole position (by Roberto Merhi).

The driver crew of the #35, who have just been confirmed for Eurasia’s Le Mans lineup, were Nick Foster, Roberto Merhi, and Nobuya Yamanaka.

Credit: FIA WEC / Marius Hecker

They qualified second-to-last in LMP2 with an average time of 2m18.997s, in account of a mistake by Yamanaka after he missed the braking point into the bus-stop chicane on a flying-lap. He also had a lap cancelled after exceeding track limits into Turn 15.

Mehri’s flying lap was also cancelled due to exiting the track limits at Turns 7 and 19. The average for the car dropped as a result.

In fairness to them, many drivers had their times affected and cancelled by exceeding strict track limits across the whole field; there were 13 registered occasions in the LMP qualifying session alone.

In the race, the Eurasia encountered an eventful debut that tested them in a variety of areas under pressure.

With the likes of a 10-second-time-penalty (for crossing the solid-white line on pit-entry), a spin from Yamanaka, a gearbox issue that had them make a repair, in addition to the weather conditions, they still persevered onto the end to the finish the race.

This wave of perseverance shouldn’t be surprising, owing to the team’s grand experience in the endurance discipline, but it will be a great learning curve in the meantime as they turn their heads towards next month’s Le Mans 24 Hours.

A hat trick of WEC victories for United Autosports…

The #22 United Autosports claimed a third WEC consecutive victory at the 6H Spa, following the previous Lone Star Le Mans and 8H of Bahrain wins.

The team had just won ELMS’ 4 Hours of Spa in LMP2, and won their previous round at Circuit Paul Ricard in LMP2 and LMP3 – Filipe Albuquerque and Phil Hanson were part of all the said LMP2 victories.

As viewers could immediately see, the battles in LMP2 were fierce from the moment the green flag dropped.

It first appeared that the #22 United Autosports of Filipe Albuquerque would set off dominantly after establishing a lead.

The #29 was making its comeback through the field too after starting at the very back of the field.

Eventually it started fighting the #22 United Autosports for P2, and for a while at that.

Later on, a battle between the #36 Signatech Alpine of Thomas Laurent against the #22 for the lead.

Adding in the element of multi-class racing meant the racing was relentless.

In my own opinion, the single most favourable highlight of the 6 Hours of Spa, especially amongst the battles in LMP2, was when Paul Di Resta exited the pits only for Laurent to take him side-by-side at Eau Rouge; the commentators’ live reactions spoke for themselves.

It was unfortunate for Laurent to have his car into the barriers only 40 minutes from the end in what looked like an unpleasant crash. It was the only retirement of the race.

United Autosports had the right to leave Spa smiling as they lead the LMP2 teams’ standings at 120 points, and the #37 Jackie Chan DC Racing sits behind on 98 points.

Richard Dean, Team Owner and Managing Director at United Autosports, gave his initial thoughts on their win:

“This is slightly unbelievable.

“I don’t know if we are elated or a little bit stunned with the run we are on at the moment.

“We definitely can’t get complacent.

“We have been in this business long enough to know these runs don’t happen very often and don’t last so we have got to keep working hard at it but also enjoy it while we can.”

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Going wheel-to-wheel in GTE-Pro…

There may only be three manufacturers racing in the WEC (Aston Martin, Ferrari and Porsche), but they all fought hard throughout the race to put on a great spectacle.

I do not remember this much of a fight, with such consistency throughout the race at COTA, but I was in awe rather than in any form of confusion to question it all.

The fighting happened from the beginning in the pouring rain, as the #97 Aston Martin defended off the #92 Porsche until the next lap, when it ran wide at Bruxelles (right-hander) and the #92 went by.

This being the GTE-Pro category, the roles were switched around between the attacking and the defending.

Needless to say, the six Pro cars fought throughout as a focus on pit strategies became evermore during the changing wet to dry to wet track conditions.

The GTE-Ams also put on a show just as exciting.

The GTE-Pro battles were a constant throughout the race – Credit: FIA WEC / Marius Hecker

The #51 AF Corse in the hands of James Calado fought a battle for fourth with the #91 Porsche.

They went door-to-door in a great battle that left the fans unable to predict who would take fourth.

Just when the duel couldn’t be more intense, the #97 Aston Martin of Maxime Martin made a quick five second splash-n-dash pit-stop for fuel, only to just come out ahead of the previously mentioned battle.

For the final five minutes, it was an intense fight between the trio for the third step on the podium with Martin defending off the Ferrari and the Porsche.

It was a delight to see all three Pro manufacturers represented in this fight for P3, even though I remorse over last year’s Pro battles involving BMW Motorsport and the Ford Chip Ganassi Racing teams.

These were just some of the talking points and the amount of close racing throughout the six hours were a delight to behold.

The WEC made a step back into racing, as one of the most recent world championships to do so.

That step was not only successful, but a fantastic silver lining in the dark cloud that this year has become across the globe, upon the world of motorsport and many more.

Next month’s 24 Hours of Le Mans will certainly be a different race without a few iconic entries, such as a couple of Porsches and for the first time in 20 years, Corvette Racing.

The most obvious differentiation from the past will be the lack of spectators for the first time and it will make for a divergent Le Mans but done respectively so in purposeful nature.

Before then, it appears only the best thing to do to savour what was the 2020 edition of the WEC 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps.