Last weekend in August Silverstone circuit rocked to the tune of more than 16,000 horsepower when the 35 contenders took to the Northamptonshire track in the fourth round of the World Endurance Championship.
For yours truly, the event began on Thursday evening with a Toyota interview for a magazine feature, followed by some cheeky snaps of the teams unpacking the transporters and setting up station for the weekend. Friday morning started with an early interview with Porsche at 09h30 and then it was up to the media centre to set up the laptop, secure a locker and have a general catch-up with fellow scribblers and snappers. The first of the three free practice sessions got under way on Friday at 11h30 and again at 16h00, both sessions under leaden skies but at least the day was dry with the temp hovering around the 18°C mark. There were some surprises at the end of Friday’s two practice sessions, firstly in LMP1 the fact that Audi finished one and two was no surprise with the Toyota in third after the morning session, but the petrol-engined HPD Honda was ahead of the Toyota at the end of the day.
The lead LMP2 car was the #38 Zytek Nissan Z11SN while second went to the #35 Morgan Nissan with the #49 Oreca 03-Nissan in third. Unsurprisingly the lead car in GTE Pro was the #51 Ferrari 458 Italia with the #77 Porsche GT3 RSR in second and the #66 Ferrari in third. At the top of the GTE Am class was the #61 Ferrari followed by the #99 Aston Martin and the #88 Porsche GT3 RSR. The Krohn Ferrari was disappointingly down in sixth place. The day for me ended with another interview at 20h00, this time with Honda.
It rained cats ‘n dogs at 05h30 on Saturday morning but by the time things started to happen around the pits (08h30) the weather was again looking promising. However, the heavens opened again around lunch time just as the Formula Renault 3.5 race got under way and by the end of the first lap the field had been reduced to half causing the race to be red-flagged. Fortunately the 11h00 WEC practice was run under dry conditions, but qualifying was held on a wet track although overhead it was now dry but great care was still needed for the GTE cars as it was all too easy to step out of line and so lose out on a good grid place. The #77 Team Felbermeyr-Proton Porsche GT3 RSR pulled an excellent lap out of the bag to surprise the Ferrari camp when it took pole in the Pro class followed by a pair of Ferraris. In the Am class, it was the #98 AMR Aston Martin Vantage V8 that took class pole ahead of a Porsche and a Ferrari.
In the LMP1 prototype class, as expected, Audi grabbed the first two places with the #1 R18 e-tron quattro ahead of its stablemate, the #2 R18 Ultra followed by a hard charging #7 Toyota TS030 less than a second behind the pole sitter. In LMP2, it was the #42 Greaves Motorsport Zytek that held class honours ahead of the #44 HPD Honda and the #25 Oreca Nissan. All in all, it was a very civilised affair with no major mishaps. So the stage was set for a thrilling race on Sunday with the grid more or less just as everyone had expected.
The wind blew very strongly all Saturday night but the morning dawned with no threat of rain and with less than two hours to go before the big race, the Audi camp took a collective sharp intake of breath when Allan McNish left the track momentarily when he hit a damp patch on the track during warm up (08h55-09h15). He came back in to hand over to Tom Kristensen after just a single lap (planned three laps) because with TK due to start the race it was more important to give him seat time before the start. McNish dashed up to the Audi monitoring tent at the pit wall closely pursued by a TV camera, but the Scotsman hopped into the tent and promptly slid the door closed behind him shutting out the prying eyes of the camera, and no doubt any chance of eves-dropping on the discussion between him and the engineer.
The Toyota went out very late during warm-up and promptly set the fastest time but warm-up is not about setting quick lap times or changing set up, that would have been done during practice, so to try and set a lap record is rather pointless as the grid positions have already been set anyway. Two LMP2 cars had a coming together with one being left stranded in the middle of the circuit bringing out the red flag but as it was just about the end of the session anyway, the cars all filed into the pits. There were a few angry faces in the pitlane after that session.
At the 12h00 start, it was the two Audis that shot into the lead hotly pursued by the Toyota, and this time, unlike at Le Mans, the Toyota car could not be shaken off, and in fact after twenty minutes of tight racing the Japanese contender took the lead. At 13:49 the #2 Audi driven by Kristensen came in for its pit stop, McNish jumped in and went out and almost immediately a slow right rear puncture forced him to return to the pits to change the offending tyre. At about the three hour mark the #1 Audi e-tron quattro took the lead followed by the #7 Toyota and the #2 Audi, a position that the three held right through to the end.
The fight in LMP2 went down to the wire with first, second and third in class all finishing on the same lap. Class honours went to the #25 ADR-Delta Oreca-Nissan with the #44 Honda-powered Starworks Venezuela car in second and the #26 Signatech Oreca-Nissan in third place. This was payback time for Oreca who had lost out to Honda at Le Mans just two months earlier.
Ferrari had an iron grip on the GTE Pro class taking both first and second place (# 51 & 66) with the #97 Aston Martin Vantage V8 in third spot. In the GTE Am class, it was again Ferrari (#61) that took the laurels followed by the #50 Corvette and the #88 Porsche in third. The #57 Krohn Ferrari was fourth in class but an infringement by the Corvette team saw them disqualified elevating the Krohn car into third. No doubt the Krohn team will gladly take a podium any which way they can, but they might have preferred it to have been as a result of a good duel on the track.
In the end it was a dry race in which there were very few incidents and spins, all of which helped Audi to wrap up the 2012 World Endurance Championship after just four races. The Audi Hybrid won by a margin of 55 seconds from the second-placed Toyota, also a Hybrid but quite different in concept to the Audi which required six pit stops to the Toyota’s eight.
Sports car racing is certainly at the forefront of technical innovation when it comes to the transfer of technology from the race track to everyday production cars. The LMP2 class for instance is powered by engines which must be production-based, while the GTE class consists of easily identifiable grand touring sports cars prepared for the race track. Toyota are arguably the world leaders in hybrid passenger car production and taking this technology racing is the best way of proving the durability of such systems, while the same argument can be put forward to support its quattro and hybrid technology.
Giving the sports endurance racing series World Championship status will help to lift both the profile and the popularity of sports car racing, and this can only serve to benefit road safety of production cars while providing top class entertainment around the world.