Round 1 of the 2017 World Endurance Championship (WEC) was held at a cold Silverstone motor racing circuit over the Easter weekend, 14-16 April. Now in its sixth year, the WEC has grown in both stature and efficiency and is run over a total of nine races from Europe to the USA, Mexico, the Far East and the Middle East.
All eyes were of course on the top LMP1 teams, reigning world champions Porsche and the very determined challengers, Toyota Gazoo Racing. The ByKolles entry, while competing in the LMP1 class, did not pose a realistic threat in that class, in fact seven of the nine LMP2 cars out-paced the #4 ByKolles car in the race (I checked, and rechecked, this fact several times to make sure that it was correct).
This year, the LMP2 class has been given a power boost by the regulators. For the first time in the WEC, the LMP2 cars will run with a 600bhp 4.2-litre naturally aspirated Gibson V8, and lap times were around 3 seconds a lap quicker than last year. This meant that in theory they should have been a lot closer to the LMP1 cars than before, but the LMP1 cars were also quicker this year, so the gap only narrowed very slightly. Also, new this season for LMP2 is the spec chassis and although four chassis manufacturers have been selected by the WEC, only the Oreca 07 chassis will be in action this season in LMP2.
Looking at the best race laps for the LMP2 class last weekend, seven of the nine competitors were within a second of the class winner, the other two were just slightly slower. All nine cars were classified at the end of the race, which says a lot for the reliability of the new Gibson engine in its first outing. Throughout the six-hour race, spectators were treated to nose-to-tail racing in this class, sometimes with up to four cars running in a group for many laps.
Eyes were also keenly focussed on the GTE Pro class, where there were many factors at play. Bearing in mind that Porsche did not run a works team in the WEC in 2016, so their new 911 RSR was given its first European outing at the Northampton circuit last weekend. Although these cars had run in the two long distance season-opening races in the US, namely the Daytona 24 Hour and the Sebring 12 Hour, it was still early days for the Stuttgart manufacturer. The cars performed well in the American races, but European conditions are quite different, and so this was a testing time for the Stuttgart team. By all accounts, the two RSRs ran well, until the #92 stopped on the circuit with flames coming out of the engine cover.
Last year’s GTE Pro winners, Ferrari, were obviously favourites at Silverstone and many expected a good tussle between the Italian marque and Ford. The fans weren’t disappointed as the cars wearing the Blue Oval badge took the fight to all in the class. Aston Martin were runners up in class in 2016 and so with Porsche’s new car added into the mix, a thrilling race was expected. In Porsche’s ‘meet the team’ event on Saturday afternoon, the drivers and team manager were quick to point out that their qualifying time was slower than what they would have liked, but they were saving their tyres as opposed to going all out for pole. This was confirmed in the race with the #91 car making up seven places as it moved from seventh on the starting grid, to actually lead the race at one point.
Intermittent light rain livened things up a bit during the race, but it was never heavy enough to become an issue. The LMP1 Porsches pitted for intermediate tyres, but many teams stayed out on slicks. Having said the rain wasn’t a problem, it did result in the biggest shunt of the meeting, as the #7 Toyota which by the team’s own admission had a handling issue, and slammed into the tyre wall on the outside of Copse. The driver, José María López, put a rear tyre on the wet paint on the outside the track, and combined with the car’s suspect handling, it was enough to send the car on its way into the tyre wall. All credit to López who was able to get the car back to pits where the crew spent 66 minutes putting it back together again for Mike Conway, who re-joined the race down in 26th place.
Aston Martin certainly didn’t look to be on song all weekend, and were qualified in third and fifth places on the grid, the top spots being filled by Ferrari and Ford. In the race, the Aston Martins looked to be struggling, and a brief chat with John Gaw (Managing Director, Aston Martin Motorsport) after the race confirmed this. Gaw told me that they struggled with their tyres which were still the same spec as used by them at Bahrain last year, and they just couldn’t get them up into the optimum operating temperature window.
Aston Martin’s fortunes were dealt another curved ball late in the race, when the ByKolles LMP1 car tried an overtaking manoeuvre on the inside of the circuit just at the exit to the pit lane. At that very point, the #97 Aston Martin of Jonny Adam was turning into the pit lane for a diffuser change, and the ByKolles hit it in the rear. Both cars were damaged but the Aston Martin was able to continue, although it required another stop later to tape up the bodywork to make sure the car got to the end of the race in one piece. John Gaw told me that it didn’t change their result as a manufacturer, as the two Aston Martins were running one behind the other, and they just swapped positions.
As the race drew to a close, things began to hot up on the track. With just seven minutes to go, Brendon Hartley was leading the race in the #2 Porsche when Sébastien Buemi in the #8 Toyota dived down the inside as the two cars turned into Luffield. This was the move that clinched victory for Toyota, but in many ways, it was an excellent result for Porsche to be so close at the end of the race when they had run with a low downforce aero package. It proved to the Stuttgart team that their cars were well set up, finishing just 6.173 seconds behind the winner after six hours of intense racing.
Fritz Enzinger, Vice President LMP1 said after the race, “This was a thriller for us as well as for the spectators. Due to our decision for the low-downforce aero package, as expected we couldn’t be a threat in qualifying. Therefore, we are even happier about today’s second and third place with such a marginal gap to the winners. Our low downforce aerodynamic package now has its most difficult race behind it.”
A thrilling finish was in store for the GTE Am teams as well as the #61 Clearwater Racing Ferrari muscled past the #98 Aston Martin Racing, to win by just 1.768 seconds. As the Ferrari made its move on the Aston Martin, a loud cheer went up in the media centre as the Ferrari supporters made their feelings known. The #77 Dempsey-Proton Racing Porsche 911 RSR (2016) of Porsche Young Professional Matteo Cairoli who joined forces with his German teammates Christian Ried and Marvin Dienst, to claim third place after a dramatic final lap.
There were 24 finishers from 27 starters which is an excellent result. The #54 Ferrari (GTE Am), #4 ByKolles (LMP2) and the #92 Porsche (GTE Pro) did not finish the race.
The next race is the 6 Hours of Spa on 6th May, and Virtual Motorpix will be there to bring you all the exciting news.
Written by: Glen Smale
Images by: Virtual Motorpix/Glen Smale and John Mountney