Last weekend’s 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps delivered plenty of action to kickstart Season 9 – let’s take a look back on the opener.
The world of sportscar racing was already in motion since IMSA’s 24 Hours of Daytona at the beginning of the year, but it took three delays until the FIA World Endurance Championship could kick off 2021.
The initial Prologue and opener was set to be at Sebring in March, until changed to Portimão in April, and then a rejigged calendar situating the 6 Hours of Spa at the beginning of May – and an off-season of nearly six months.
So, did the overdue opening race deliver on the drama and action? The answer was not so…but the whole week served it up well and good!
Here are some of the numerous key talking points and moments from the Prologue/6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps.
The new Hypercar-LMP2 pace and BoP debacle
Before we got into the six hour race, there were two days for the Prologue which involved four sessions of testing across two days for everyone.
And throughout these sessions, the 14-strong LMP2 field were frighteningly similar if not surpassing the pace of the two Toyotas and the Alpine in the new Hypercar category.
During the morning session of the Prologue, the fastest Hypercar (#8 TGR) set a personal best of 2m06.896s in comparison to the dominant United Autosports USA Oreca 07 with a 2m04.968s.
This LMP2 dominance on the time-sheets emulated major speculations that the Alpine Toyotas were held back too far on the BoP, but this failed to take in the the context of pre-season testing and the ‘sandbagging’ that Toyota would be doing.
Indeed it was a steadily reducing sandbag across the week. The times unsurprisingly got faster but Toyota were adamant not only to hide their pace from all spectators, but the Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO) delegates regulating the BoP measures.
It was just fun and games, but remarkable and bizarre to see the Japanese marque ‘sandbag’.
Low and behold, the ‘sandbags’ were removed (metaphorically-speaking) as the Toyota’s qualifying lap-times became 3-4s faster than in pre-season testing.
Read more on the Prologue sessions:
During the race, it was evident that the LMP2s could give chase but only briefly to the Toyotas, and only up to 20 minutes for the #36 Alpine Elf Matmut. It took three-and-a-half hours for the #22 to fall a lap behind the Hypercars.
There was a sense that a battle could have really emerged for the overall win, even if it was not to be the case. The Alpine asserted swift pace but had to make an extra pit-stop which cost it a fight to the checkered flag – but the chance was still there.
The ACO may have got the BoP better than expected, but they are far from done as they will need to consider all of the Hypercars (both pure LMHs and LMDhs) that enter.
The 24 Hours of Le Mans in August will be the utmost important race where they cannot mess it up!
United Autosports continuing dominance momentum
This year’s LMP2 field is certainly the most competitive yet with an increased flux of talented drivers and new teams.
The Anglo-American team led a dominant campaign last year in all of their sports car racing commitments, as three championship titles and a class-Le Mans win suggest so.
Perhaps it’s no shock that they topped all of the 6 Hours of Spa sessions.
Filipe Albuquerque was clearly on a roll at the prime of his motorsports career by getting the #22 on the third overall spot in qualifying, beating the #36 and claiming an outright fastest time in sector 2.
In the race, Phil Hanson began the race on which they would go to dominate.
The Briton briefly led the race after the La Source hairpin, but only for a couple of seconds before splitting the Toyota duo up the Eau Rouge-Raidillon complex.
Hanson kept on putting incredible laps that were tenths of the Hypercars and gave it his all to fight with the faster #36 until they passed at La Source.
The Portuguese protagonist stepped into the car and extended their strong lead, largely unchallenged by their LMP2 rivals.
FIA WEC debutant Fabio Scherer had his first taste of endurance racing in the middle of the race and got to experience what it was like to chase Kamui Kobayashi in the #7 for P3 overall.
For context, the Japanese reigning LMP World Champion just suffered what later emerged as a brake issue and lost himself the lead after getting stuck in the gravel, thus found himself only metres ahead of a debuting Swiss driver during a FCY.
Nevertheless, all the #22 crew did their bit for a well-deserved victory – the team’s sixth consecutive FIA WEC victory and the fifth at Spa across both the ELMS and the WEC.
The end of an era – Oliver Gavin retiring from professional motorsport
Five Le Mans 24 Hours class-victories. Five Daytona 24 Hours class-victories. Five Sebring 12 Hours class-victories.
Plus four American Le Mans Series GT1 titles to name a little more.
Oliver Gavin is one of the most successful drivers in sports car racing, and a childhood hero of mine to watch in the Corvettes over the years.
For many fans of this discipline, it will be the end of era as Gavin calls time on professional racing with a successful career to look back on.
— WEC (@FIAWEC) May 1, 2021
The weekend was his 402nd race with Corvette Racing where he began almost 20 years ago and shared a car with fellow works regular Antonio Garcia for the first time.
The Spaniard ran the first two hours and the final two hours whilst the Briton settled for a two-hour stint in the middle of the race.
Corvette Racing’s C8R had never raced in Europe before, so it was a nice surprise to see it mix in the GTE-Pro category even if they ran a quiet race.
And that was how Gavin would have wanted it to be as he continues his 20-year works partnership with Chevrolet into his new driving academy that will launch later this October.
Redemption for TF Sport, D’station Racing and Iron Lynx – Disaster for Team Project 1
Amongst the surprisingly great amount of crashes during the Prologue was from Ben Keating in the GTE-Am #33 TF Sport.
The Texan is one of discipline’s respected bronze-rated drivers and debuted this year not only at a new team, but his seventh different GTE car.
A crash into the tyre barrier at the top of Eau Rouge seemingly put their Prologue to a halt with just 18 laps for that car completed.
Thankfully Tom Ferrier, Team Owner of TF Sport, made some calls to get their European Le Mans Series AMR Vantage GTE over from the UK to Spa overnight.
— TF Sport (@OfficialTFSport) April 27, 2021
Their fellow debuting D’station Racing team, backed by TF Sport, had a similar crash at the same spot. An immense repair job was made overnight for the FIA WEC debuting crew and sought redemption as to even make into the remaining sessions and into the race weekend.
Ben Keating even got the #33 to class-pole position and secured P2 in the race whilst the #777 fought their way from the back of the field to secure seventh.
A third mention for the #85 ‘Iron Dames’ Ferrari who crashed during the second day of the Prologue and opted to bring one of their ELMS cars in like TF Sport. The team’s spirit was high and strong to make the most of the opening race weekend as FIA WEC season debutants.
Others were not so lucky. The week was a difficult pill to swallow for Team Project 1 after both of their Porsche 911 RSR GTEs did not compete at in the main race.
In short, their #46 were one of the crashes on the first day after completing only 13 laps in the morning session and just two in the afternoon before their moment.
Despite their best efforts, Team Project 1 wanted to repair the chassis in time for the second round in Portimão next month.
The #56 car suffered a crash on its outlap during qualifying in the hands of Egidio Perfetti due to cold tyres. That car did not make the full repair job overnight thus concluding a week to forget for Team Project 1.
Needless to say, there were plenty of notable moments from the opening round of the 2021 FIA World Endurance Championship.
The Hypercar era has officially begun and there was action from the three other categories too to make this a robust return to the season.
The next stop for the WEC circus is the 8 Hours of Portimão on June 13 which should continue the momentum of racing action if the past five ELMS attendances are anything to go by.
What were your notable moments from the 6 Hours of Spa? Let us know in the comments section below!