Under a deck of clouds Audi took their second victory of the FIA World Endurance Championship season in as many races. A promising qualifying result of Porsche looked to have settled the win before the race even began. Audi, however, had other plans: the brand from Ingolstadt battled hard with the team from Weissach, going home victorious in a thrilling 6 hours of Spa-Francorchamps.
A pattern is emerging: the Porsche 919 Hybrids with their high capacity hybrid system are unbeatable in qualifying. Unsurprisingly yet impressive were the first three positions that Porsche occupied on the starting grid in the Belgian Ardennes. The dominance was so overwhelming that it became Porsche’s race to lose.
When the lights went green the three white cars took off like rockets, trailed only by the three Audi and two Toyota LMP1’s.
Audi’s #7 R18 e-tron quattro raced by André Lotterer, Marcel Fässler and Benoît Tréluyer sported the Le Mans-spec aero package, reducing the car’s drag and subsequently increasing its top speed. All it really did was keep the R18 from being swarmed by Porsches on the straights.
What made the real difference was the superiour tyre management of the R18 over the 919. As the #17 and #19 Porsches hit trouble, it was the trio of Romain Dumas, Neel Jani and Marc Lieb that was left to hold off the charging #7 Audi. Double-stinting his tyres while simultaneously fighting with Porsche, Lotterer took over the lead following a round of pit stops well into the second half of the race. Although Jani managed to overtake Tréluyer later on, Audi triple-stinted the tyres on the Frenchman’s R18, recovering enough time by spending less time in the pits to bring home the win with a gap of a mere 13 seconds.
The win in LMP2 went to Jota Sport. The Brits described it as a perfect race, a statement with which you can’t argue: the Gibson 015S-Nissan was fairly unchallenged in the team’s first WEC race of the year. Only the G-Drive OAK Racing Ligier-Nissan posed somewhat of a threat, but that threat was neutralized when the French-run Russian team saw their engine explode.
Once again it was AF Corse Ferrari up front in the GT category. But without the luck that brought them the victory three weeks earlier in Silverstone, the Italian team couldn’t beat the Aston Martin Racing Vantage of Fernando Rees, Alex MacDowall and Richie Stanaway. A late penalty took the Ferrari team out of contention for the win when superstars Gianmaria Bruni and Toni Vilander were just seconds behind the leading Vantage.
With the 24 hours of Le Mans approaching, the tables are turned. Unlike last year, Audi now goes into the grand race as the ultimate favourite. But with Porsche’s high top speed, is the 919 Hybrid perhaps best fitted for the French road course, where tyre wear is less of a factor? After al, Porsche was never very far away from Audi when the chequered flag flew, neither here or in Silverstone.
Toyota, however, is a sitting duck at this point. Even when the squad from Köln wasn’t haunted by technical issues, the TS040 Hybrid couldn’t even keep up with its LMP1-H counterparts.
Next up is the test at Circuit de la Sarthe in preparation of the 24 hours of Le Mans on 31 May, followed by the big race in the weekend of 13-14 June.