Bahrain produces the best race of the WEC so far for AMR

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Round four of the World Endurance Championship from Bahrain yesterday turned out to be one of the best races of the season so far despite the threat of something like an uneventful, monotonous race that the scheduled eight hours could have always produced.

Even for a circuit located in the Middle East, unseasonal weather had already made its mark on proceedings as rain had already passed over the circuit whilst the teams were setting themselves up for Saturdays race with more forecast before the end of the weekend and the Rookie Test that was scheduled for Sunday.

Both Aston Martin Racing and their Partner Team TF Sport had left the last round of the Championship in China with another large haul of silverware after another successful showing in both GTE Pro and GTE Am classes but that success came with a price - reduced fuel capacity across the range and the maximum success penalty ballast (45kg) for TF Sport. Bahrain was therefore always going to be more difficult than before.

Although all four cars showed periodic pace as the event progressed through the preceeding Free Practice sessions, there were always a fear the the new AMR Vantage GTE platform wouldn't be as fast as certainly the new generation of Porsche 911 RSR -19 that the factory team had nor the older generation of 911 that the Dempsey Proton and Project 1 teams ran in GTE Am. That was obviously so for the #90 TF Sport car of Salih Yoluc, Charlie Eastwood and Jonny Adam considering their additional weight as they were now running as the heaviest GTE on the grid.

Qualifying was something of a disappointment for all as both GTE Pro cars would finish at the foot of the class - worse for the #97 car of Maxime Martin and Alex Lynn who would have to start at the foot of the entire grid having had all of Martins lap times deleted for track limit violations. In GTE Am, both the #98 AMR and #90 TF car would at least start from dangerous position of the midst of the grid.

The start of the race on Saturday afternoon was under much cooler conditions that what the teams had experienced earlier in the meeting with an air temperature of just 23 degrees C - no immediate threat of rain but this all added another variable to the equation.

After the chaotic scenes of the opening lap and resulting Safety Car because of several LMP's tangling together there were at some immediate gains as Marco Sorensen aboard the #95 lifted himself up to P3 on the opening lap and Martin had already made up seven places on track. Betterment in track positions was also the case for both Am cars as Paul Dalla Lana and Salih Yoluc lifted themselves up to P4 and P6 respectively.

Throughout the opening stint the #95 of Sorensen would find himself stuck behind the #92 Porsche, slowly but surely dropping off the tail of the Porsche before being called in early by the team for what would turn out to be a pivotable decision by Aston Martin Racing. Martin in the #97 would meanwhile be left out to continue his recovery drive up to the rear of the Pro field.

Getting out of the from his single stint opener, Sorensen would confirm that they started on their Qualifying tyres, tyres that were less than optimum having been flat spotted in Qualifying but it was something that was tried with great success in Shanghai where only an unexpected deflation of a brand new tyre later in the race would put them out of contention. Single stint openers would also be the case for the rest of the AMR runners as Charlie Eastwood stepped into the #90, Alex Lynn into the #97 and a revitalised Ross Gunn into the #98.

By the time these and the remaining runners in GTE had made their stops we saw the first visualisation of what was then going to happen through much of the remaining seven hours of racing as Nicki Thiim assumed control of the Pro class lead (and by some margin) until such time as his tyres would begin to wear off and the fresher rubbered competitors would first catch and then be able to pass him by - all before the his next stop of course!

Having seemingly recovered from his bout of sickness earlier in the week, Gunn soon went about his business in reducing the lead of the #57 Project 1 Porsche before ultimately taking the class lead at the top of the second hour of racing. Eastwood was enjoying similar fortunes as he hauled his heavyweight car up to P3 in class by the time he pitted and swapped back to Yoluc as the Am drivers needed to make up at least 2hours 20minutes of drive time. The #90 car would loose time at this stop due to an undefined issue with their fuel rig!

With the Bahrain circuit certainly being as equally abrasive as the Shanghai circuit endured by the teams last time, AMR began 'rolling the dice' with the #97 car as they continued to split strategies between their cars by changing only the left hand side at the next stop for Lynn to use.

Ninety minutes into the race we saw what was good about current GTE racing as the top four cars raced nose to tail with one another, everyone on a differing strategy and desperate to make their throw of the dice better than that of their competitors. In the midst of that haste, Lynn would have a moment as a suddenly slowing LMP2 could not be avoided under braking with contact being made, spinning the LMP2 but fortunately no penalty for the #97.

Just before the halfway mark, Race Control announced the first signs of reported rain fall at some point around the circuit but with the temperature of that track asphalt at that time there would be nothing to immediately fear should that rainfall intensify in the short term - which it didn't!!

Drama of another making was soon to occur to the benefit of both AMR and Ferrari as first the #92 and then the #91 factory Porsches both hit trouble of differing issues with both needing garage intervention to allow them to continue. Continue they eventually did but with having both lost more than two laps each both would effectively be out of contention in GTE Pro.

With all AMR drivers warned to stay off the high kerbs, the teams had the benefit of then running P1 and P2 in Pro (#95 then #97) and P3 and P5 in Am (#98 and then #90) as both Jonny Adam and Darren Turner got their first run outs in their respective cars. These would be short auditions as each of their bronze drivers still had at least half a stint to go to make up their minimum times whereas the class leading Project 1 Porsche had already ran out their bronze drivers time in a monumental triple stint at the start of the race. For them, catching and passing the #57 Porsche would be virtually impossible as that car would from then on only feature Pro drivers!

For TF Sport, things started to go uncontrollably wrong just before the six hour mark as Eastwood would return the car back to the garage with (then) reported gearbox and fuel supply issues. The Irishman would later say that although the car was suffering from upshift issues it was the fuel starvation problem that was the real issue. The team would attempt repairs and dispatch Adam back out in the car after a seventy minute stop but after just two further laps it was decided to retire the car to save any further damage. That was a real shame considering their podium filled run in the Championship so far.

At the top of the seventh hour the #95 would make what would turn out to be their final full service stop with Sorensen then back at the wheel to lead the car to the chequered flag having reassumed the lead of the race by virtue of beating the then leading #71 car out of pit lane. Another short Full Course Caution for track debris would raise the excitement of the race to another level especially with the #51 Ferrari right on the heels of the #97 ready for the restart.

Restart - more drama as first the #51 takes position from the #97 car (by driving off track in the process) with the #71 then being pinged for spinning the wheels coming out of their final pit stop. The resulting stop and go penalty for the #71 and instruction for the #51 to 'give the place back' from Race Control cemented the final finishing order as the eight hours of Bahrain came to a close.

P1 for the #95 car of Sorensen and Thiim came as a timely remedy for what happened to them last time out in Shanghai from a similar race leading position. That in turn was backed up by another P3 finish for the #97 crew of Martin and Lynn having showed great patience and character for a crew that started second from last on the grid eight hours earlier.

In GTE Am, whilst the bubble finally burst for TF Sport with their first (and hopefully only) DNF of the season, it was back to the podium for the #98 crew of Dalla Lana, Gunn and Turner after two frustrating races for them in both Japan and China where other cars used them as 'target practice' early on in each.

Those points were enough to lift the #98 crew just above the #90 crew in the GTE Am Drivers Championship with both crews now between 13-15 points behind the Championship leading Project 1 crew. In the World Endurance GTE Drivers Championship table meanwhile, Thiim and Sorensen spring to the top of that table with a 14 point lead thanks to the events 1.5 times points tally with AMR also taking an 11 point lead in the Manufactures table form Porsche.

The next race for the WEC next year will be their first visit to North America in 2020 with the 1000miles of Sebring at the end of March.

Now who said that the WEC wasn't exciting or couldn't be taken seriously???

Photo credits - AMR / TF Sport

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