The opening round of the FIA World Endurance Championship, the Silverstone 6 hours, over the Easter weekend was always going to be a humdinger of a race, and it didn’t disappoint.
From Thursday, the first day of the weekend’s events, the atmosphere was charged with anticipation with Porsche’s re-entry into the top echelons of sports car racing. In fact with three top manufacturers competing for honours in the LMP1 class, security around the Audi, Porsche and Toyota camps was so tight with several heavies posted at each entrance preventing any enthusiastic supporter, or snooper, getting past.
Of these three manufacturers, Toyota had been the quietest as we pointed out in our blog ‘WEC Season Hots Up’ on 4 April, giving some meaning to that expression, ‘still waters run deep’. This led one to suspect that while not much was forthcoming from the Toyota camp, they were quietly getting on with not only developing their car into a serious contender, but into a championship winner. By contrast, Porsche had been making loud statements in the media for the last year with the ‘Our Mission Le Mans 2014’ campaign. Audi on the other hand sought to point out the technical advances of their new 2014 contender, claiming once again that while the car looked very similar in appearance, it was completely new under the skin.
The other classes were almost unimportant in the wake of the looming LMP1 battle, but of course nothing could be further from the truth. While the media’s focus was understandably on the LMP1 contest, the LMP2, GTE Pro and Am classes were extremely hotly contended although the P2 entries were limited to just four cars with seven entries in the Pro class and eight in the Am class in the Silverstone 6 hours.
The first Free Practice session at 11h55 on Friday was interesting in that it gave us a first glimpse of the performance capabilities of the Porsche. At the end of the session, it was Marc Lieb who had the fastest time of 1:44.042 in the no.14 Porsche with the no.1 Audi on 1:44.470, while the Toyota’s time of 1:44.661 provided an even spread at the top of the charts. The two 911 RSRs also headed the GTE Pro class, ensuring Porsche was well placed across the field. Although this was only practice, it was important in that the Porsche had shown its pace.
The second Free Practice session at 15h55 on Friday once again had the three works teams going head-to-head, this time with Audi countering by occupying the two top places, recording a fastest time of 1:43.134, with Toyota a close third and Porsche in fourth place. The third Free Practice session at 09h00 on Saturday saw the two Porsches at the top of the leaderboard, with ex-F1 driver Mark Webber posting the quickest time of 1:42.837, but it would be the official Qualifying session at 12h35 that would determine the starting line-up. You couldn’t have wished for a more even grid position at the end of the day with the no.7 Toyota on pole (1:42.811), the no.1 Audi second (1:42.477) and the no.14 Porsche in third place (1:43.425). The no.51 Ferrari led the GTE Pro cars with the two Porsche 911 RSRs breathing hard down its neck.
A cold wind swept down the start/finish straight as the cars lined up on the grid for the start of the Silverstone 6 hours, the conditions being felt most acutely by the grid girls who were scantily clad in mini skirts. As the minutes ticked away, some photographers made their way to their favourite spots, while others waited on the grid until the last possible moment to capture some close-ups of drivers and team personnel. When it came, the start of the race was as frantic for the drivers (and teams) as it was entertaining for the spectators, as the lead cars jostled for position holding fast to their race lines and forcing attackers to take avoiding action, while others forced their way through the smallest of gaps.
The field eventually settled down until the unthinkable happened on lap 24 when the Brazilian driver, Lucas di Grassi left the track and smacked into the guardrails damaging the front of the no.1 Audi. Close examination in the pits revealed that the chassis had been damaged and the car was withdrawn. As the circuit radio announcer said later, these carbon fibre chassis are not indestructible and if you smacked one hard enough at the wrong angle, then they would inevitably give. For Audi the nightmare continued when André Lotterer slipped into a gravel trap on the wet track on lap 34, the no.2 Audi losing four laps in the rescue operation. Frenchman Benoît Tréluyer then took the wheel but when the rain became heavier, the team fitted intermediate tyres. Just twelve laps later, Tréluyer put a wheel on the slippery, painted kerb as he entered the fast Copse corner causing the back end to swing out and forced the car across the track in the barriers on the inside of Copse. The no.2 Audi then ricocheted across the circuit into the tyre wall on the outside of the track.
Tréluyer climbed out of the car and despite the marshal’s best efforts to get the driver to abandon the car, the plucky Frenchman insisted on trying to rescue the stricken car and return it to the pits. At first Tréluyer removed the front nose section and dumped it over the tyre wall, then he set about tying up all the loose wires and cables by securing them under the windscreen wiper. He then got back in the car and started it, all the while with the marshal trying his utmost the get him behind the tyre wall, but even the threat of the JCB circuit rescue vehicle could not deter the Frenchman in his quest. To his credit, he did get the car going again, but after slewing sideways in the gravel he came to a grinding halt because the right front wheel had been all but torn from its suspension in the car’s first impact. Full marks to Tréluyer’s determination in trying to get the car back to the pits in order to secure a possible finish, but this car was beyond continuing.
Next it was the turn of the no.14 Porsche to experience some problems, and this car first lost a wheel and then suffered a damaged gearbox. All the while the Toyotas soldiered on and it became quite clear, even when the rain was falling, that the Toyotas were superb when exiting the corners with the help of their new 4WD hybrid system. Even when the Audis were still on the circuit, the speed differential between them and the Toyotas, when exiting the slow Loop section and heading onto the Wellington Straight, the Toyotas were significantly quicker.
In the GTE Pro stakes, although the no.51 AF Corse Ferrari was on pole in class, the two works Porsche 911 RSRs were in a class of their own. By comparison, looking at the 911’s performance at last year’s Le Mans 24-Hours, they won their class but this result was perhaps helped by the Aston Martin’s accident on the Sunday afternoon. However, their performance on Sunday at the Silverstone 6 hours was entirely convincing. The no.91 and 92 cars circulated with precision and ran seemingly without fault. It just shows what the experience of a full race season can do for a team.
In the GTE Am class, the nos.95 and 98 Aston Martins dominated, perhaps a fitting end to their race, seeing as the team was celebrating its tenth anniversary back in racing as a works team. Ironically in the LMP2 class, the no.47 KCMG car received a penalty for speeding in the pit lane while leading the class, which then pushed them down to second place where they finished the race…a totally unnecessary and avoidable mistake. This allowed the no.26 G-Drive Racing Morgan/Nissan to win the class.
Although the race was peppered with showers, the cold weather and heavy clouds always hinted that more substantial rain was never far away. Due to the heavy rain that fell in the last hour, the race was red flagged at 17h35 after several laps behind the safety car, bringing proceedings to a premature end. The standing water around the circuit was significant enough for it to be considered dangerous and with the light fading fast and the amount of spray being thrown up, it was considered the right decision. No doubt the Toyota team were ecstatic about the decision because this meant that with 167 laps completed, they occupied both first and second places, with the no.20 Porsche 919 Hybrid in third place.
Taking a step back for a moment, one needs to consider the significance of the Porsche results, because a third place finish in the 919’s first competitive outing is no small achievement. Factor in two new drivers, being Mark Webber and Brendon Hartley, and this result becomes all the more notable. Looking back through Porsche’s prototype racing history, they had an awkward birth with the 917 (in 1969) and the 956 (in 1982) didn’t win first time out (although this was down to fuel and regulations), and so it was not really feasible to expect them to do so this time. Added to this was the completely new powertrain, a 2-litre V4 unit, a configuration that had come out of the blue, taking many Porsche enthusiasts by surprise. There were some who felt, with the extremely difficult driving conditions towards the end, that the Porsche drivers in the no.20 car were instructed to hold station and bring the car home, safe in the knowledge that they had a podium in the bag if things stayed as they were.
The Toyotas produced the perfect result at the Silverstone 6 hours, their cars performed reliably and undoubtedly showed that they had the pace of the Audis. The Porsches also showed that they had the legs to take it to Audi and Toyota, which all bodes well for the rest of the season. The next race at Spa on 3 May will be tremendously exciting and with the Le Mans 24-Hours just around the corner, 2014 will certainly be an exciting year. Bring it on!!
Written by Glen Smale