WEC's return to racing and the magic of Spa

Saturday, August 15, 2020

The historic race track at Spa Francorchamps in Belgium has throughout its prestigious history never failed to amaze in terms of the races it produces but every now and again, the micro-climate weather systems that the local geography produces also goes a long way in adding to that magic and this weekends return to racing for the World Endurance Championship was certainly no different.

Last year of course we saw a landscape covered in snow on race morning before we saw that thaw out to leave a bright but chilly start to that years 6 Hours of Spa only to see numerous weather systems to come through to frankly sought the 'men from the boys!'

After weeks of continuous high temperatures, race day today saw about a fifty percent reduction in the ambient temperature from earlier this week as well as an earlier arrival to the expected rainfall which more than dampening down the circuit in the hour before the green flag. A COVID-19 instigated change in grid procedures also saw the cars take in two sighting laps (for the benefit of not have driven on a wet circuit at the World Endurance Championships return to racing this weekend) before essential engineers only were permitted on the grid before the formation lap.

The starting order within the GTE Pro class had already been switched about as the #92 Porsche had had its pole position reinstated on appeal over night meaning that the #97 and #95 Aston Martin Racing Vantages stepped back to P2 and P3 respectively. In GTE Am, the #98 AMR car would still start in P4 ahead of the #90 TF Sport's P6 position as the field was lead away for the first of four laps behind the Safety Car before the race went to green.

Issues for the four AMR cars came quickly apparent as both cars understeered off at Bruxelles, each losing out on track position in the process as the track conditions quickly worsened and the levels of spray decreased visibility amongst the trees. Next time around the #98 of Paul Dalla Lana locked up into the same corner as both Maxime Martin and Marco Sorensen went wide at and that error sent the Canadian back to the rear of the pack by the time he recovered.

In fact it soon became apparent that all four AMR's were struggling for front end grip as each of Martin, Sorensen, Dalla Lana and Salih Yoluc (aboard his #90 TF Sport GTE) suffered from persistent understeer even as the circuit slowly dried out with the GTE's heading towards their first stop. Whilst the three factory supported cars all double stinted their drivers, TF Sport swapped out Yoluc for Jonny Adam with Yoluc later commenting that the "car was not seeming to have a lot of grip at the moment - were hoping for the rain to stop and the track to dry as the car was suffering from a lot of understeer".

With parts of the circuit drying out quickly, Dalla Lana was dispatched from his first stop on slicks but the change in elevation around the back where the track was still wet and caught him out with some snap oversteer to spin off backwards into the gravel trap on the outside of turn 13 bringing out the Safety Car again for his extraction from that place of danger.

Twenty minutes of race time was lost to that recovery and the resulting wave around before the race got back to full speed again with the #98 now last and three laps down as the rain began to fall again. Things then appeared to go from bad to worse for AMR as the #95 car with Nicki Thiim now behind the wheel came in with a rear nearside puncture - luckily it wasn't too from from pit entry so not to much time was lost and no structural damage was sustained on the car.

With two hours gone and with heavy rain again expected and advised by Race Control, Alex Lynn's #97 car had moved up to P2 again after overtaking the #92 Porsche before nearly losing it again at Bruxelles. Augusto Farfus's entree into the WEC and Aston Martin Racing would see him quickly revisit pit lane to serve a drive penalty for speeding in the pit lane - rubbing salt into their wounds of earlier.

Then the rains came again, this time much more heavily and Race Control had no choice but to neutralise the race with the introduction of the Safety Car again. By the time clearer skies were next seen above the circuit, the race clock had clocked down a further thirty minutes.

With the race leaders have pitting behind the Safety Car, that allowed the GTE leading #51 Ferrari and the #97 AMR to take restart the race but at least they had relatively clear visibility as they rushed up through Eau Rouge as Lynn pushed the AF Corse car had for P1 and Thiim pushed the sister #71 Ferrari for position in P4 but they was something different about these two cars as opposed to earlier - but there was no visible improvement in the #90 TF Sport car. That was later put down to an earlier incorrect choice in tyre compounds and pressures on the factory cars at the start that induced this obvious understeer issue.

Charlie Eastwood got his first taste in the race at the four hour mark as Adam returned the #90 to pit lane from P3 in GTE Am, having slowly plugged away at the gaps ahead and used the Safety Car restarts wisely. Ross Gunn also joined in the proceedings aboard the #98 car just as Thiim forced the #92 Porsche into an error from where the Dane assumed the race lead for the first time.

The remaining time in the race for Eastwood would become something of a lonely one with only a stoop watch for company as he struggled to overcome the forty second deficit to the car ahead and maintain the twenty three seconds to the car behind. The #97 would report brake issues as they made their penultimate stop.

With about eighty minutes remaining, a high speed accident for the #36 Signatech Alpine LMP2 car at Blanchimont brought out an immediate Safety Car as the prototype half rolled on impact with the tyre wall. Fortunately the driver was able to walk away from the wreckage unaided although a visit to the circuits Medical Centre was a must considering the velocity of impact.

During this final lull in proceedings, the #95 car would pit for their final time just after the top of the final hour - the #97 would stay out but it was soon announced over the airwaves that they would have to stop and again for a splash and dash. The Safety Car also meant that the gap infant of Eastwood had all come back down to nothing as he reclaimed the P3 position hard earned by Adam earlier in the race.

Going into the final twenty minute of the race, Martin would lose the class lead as he out braked himself in La Source but however they managed fuel - they would have to pit at some point as the #95 car was told not to pass their team mates on track for position. Pitting with just seven minutes remaining, the #97 was able to exit again just ahead of the chasing #51 Ferrari and #91 Porsche and retain that gap for the next three laps.

Subject to official confirmation, the 6Hrs of Spa would finish with the #95 AMR Vantage taking P2 in GTE Pro with the #97 not too far behind in #P3. Despite their early issues the TF Sport crew dug deep to turn around a likely low finish with a P3 finish in class while the #98 earned some points with their P9 finish but were left to consider what might have been.

Points being all very important as usual as the Championship now makes the lonely trip over to France for the 24 Hours of Le Mans in September - a race that will now be held behind closed doors!

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