2021 FIA World Endurance Championship, Francorchamps, Belgium. Photo © John D Stevens.

The World Endurance Championship (WEC) is back, changed, but just the same in that the 6-hours of Spa-Francorchamp delivered both an enthralling strategic struggle and on track action to re-assert its position as a premium asset of the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile & Automobile Club de L’Ouest. The birth of the Hypercar category was christened with its inaugural victory for Toyota, United Autosports confirmed their LMP2 credentials and both Porsche and Ferrari cam away victorious in the Grand Touring categories. 

#36, ALPINE ELF MATMUT, Alpine A480 – Gibson, André Negrão (BRA), Nicolas Lapierre (FRA), Matthieu Vaxiviere (FRA). 2021 FIA World Endurance Championship, Francorchamps, Belgium. Photo © John D Stevens.

The Toyota GR010s led for much of the race but the first event of the 2021 season showed some further practice and attention to rule revisions is required to ultimately succeed. The margin of performance looked comfortable for Toyota until one Nico Lapierre, once of their team, took the helm of the #35 Alpine A480 – Gibson. Kamui Kobayashi, of the leading #7 Toyota, added to the challenge at the five hour mark out-braking himself into the gravel at Bruxelles. The remaining stop strategy made victory a close run thing until 30 mins from the end when the #8 Toyota GR010 of Seb Buemi was finally able to take a 40-second lead to the chequered flag.

Hisatake Murata, Toyota Gazoo Racing Team President commented: “Today was a strong start for our next generation of Racing Hybrid technology but we are still learning and improving with our GR010 Hybrid. It has not been the smoothest week for the team at Spa but this has highlighted areas to improve so we will work hard to do this before the next race, and particularly before Le Mans.”

#8, TOYOTA GAZOO RACING, Toyota GR010 – Hybrid*, [Hybrid Class], Sébastien Buemi (CHE), Kazuki Nakajima (JPN), Brendon Hartley (NZL). 2021 FIA World Endurance Championship, Francorchamps, Belgium. Photo © John D Stevens.

What impressed us most was that the difference (six v seven stops) between old world carbon tech in the Alpine and the shiny new hypercar of Toyota Gazoo racing was the hybridisation, efficiency and economy proved to be the difference in this race, and race-breed technology truly finds its way still from the racing programme to the road cars Toyota produce, Bravo! 

#22, UNITED AUTOSPORTS USA, Oreca 07 – Gibson, Philip Hanson (GBR), Fabio Scherer (CHE), Filipe Albuquerque (PRT). 2021 FIA World Endurance Championship, Francorchamps, Belgium. Photo © John D Stevens.

The podium for LMP2 was led by the crowned kings of the category, United Autosports; Filipe Albuquerque, Phil Hanson and new lad Fabio Scherer reigning supreme. We will take a closer look, but Phil Hanson’s pace was remarkable, and if United Autosports do not step up to the top-category, expect manufacturers to be calling him soon for their Hyper Programmes. Second and third was a measured and timed run for the two Jota Sport crews, #28 & the ever-mighty #38, these guys know Spa! Whilst the Racing Team Nederland won the first WEC LMP2 trophy dedicated to a Pro/Am line-up.

#31, TEAM WRT, Oreca 07 – Gibson, Robin Frijns (NLD), Ferdinand Habsburg-Lothringen (AUT), Charles Milesi (FRA). 2021 FIA World Endurance Championship, Francorchamps, Belgium. Photo © John D Stevens.

There were many honourable mentions, the #26 G-Drive challenged but succumbed to an oil leak, and #31 Team-WRT was well on its way to emulating its European Le Mans Series (ELMS) winning debut when a clutch issue brought it considerable time in the pit box.

#92, PORSCHE GT TEAM, Porsche 911 RSR – 19, Kevin Estre (FRA), Neel Jani (CHE). 2021 FIA World Endurance Championship, Francorchamps, Belgium. Photo © John D Stevens.

The #92 Porsche triumphed from category pole after that fabulous lap from Kevin Estre on Friday. This brought ‘new boy’ Neel Jani a debut win in category, he may be one to watch 😉 The Pro Porsche RSR-19s seemed susceptible to rear-right punctures which had a more significant impact on the #91 with multiple stops for a change. That left the way clear for the AF Corse Ferraris now for 2021 in numerical order, #51 and #52, to take the remaining steps of the GTE-Pro category.

Special mention for the retiring Oliver Gavin who brought the #63 Chevrolet Corvette C8.R to European shores for his swansong performance. Oliver has been on the scene for over 20-years and whilst hanging up his professional overalls we still recognise a glint that may see him enjoying his legacy for a good many years yet. His initial plans involve a European Corvette Driving School so that is a very good start to life after professional racing, chapeau Sarge!  

#63, CORVETTE RACING, Chevrolet Corvette C8.R, Antonio Garcia (ESP), Oliver Gavin (GBR). 2021 FIA World Endurance Championship, Francorchamps, Belgium. Photo © John D Stevens.

AF Corse, in addition to the double Ferrari podium in GTE-Pro, completed a hat-trick with victory in GTE-Am for the #83 of Francois Perrodo, Nicklas Nielsen and Alessio Rovera. A much deserved second in category went to #33 TF Sport Aston Martin of Ben Keating, Dylan Pereira and Felipe Fraga. A replacement car (from the TF Sport’s ELMS stable) was rushed to Spa overnight from Blighty, no mean feat post-Brexit, after the WEC-equivalent was destroyed in a Prologue crash, and almost met the same fate due to some monstrous driving by former F1 ace Juan Pablo Montoya on entry to Pouhon, which saw Keating show his skills as a locked-up drift king!

Ben Keating  commented “We had a very positive weekend and I have to thank the team for some seriously superb work because we had an excellent car this weekend. I think we have proved that we will be a very tough proposition this season and to start with a pole and a strong result like this gives us some nice momentum before we head to Portugal.”

#33, TF SPORT, Aston Martin Vantage AMR, Ben Keating (USA), Dylan Pereira (LUX), Felipe Fraga (BRA). 2021 FIA World Endurance Championship, Francorchamps, Belgium. Photo © John D Stevens.

Finally, third place in GTE-Am went to the “pretty car” of Cetilar Racing in the hands of Roberto Lacorte, Giorgio Sernagiotto and Antonio Fuoco. A late drive-through to Dempsey-Proton’s remaining Porsche, #88, converted into a 23 second penalty, handing a podium finish for Cetilar’s debut performance in the category with the Ferrari 488 GTE EVO.

#47, CETILAR RACING, Ferrari 488 GTE EVO, Roberto Lacorte (ITA), Giorgio Sernagiotto (ITA), Antonio Fuoco (ITA). 2021 FIA World Endurance Championship, Francorchamps, Belgium. Photo © John D Stevens.

It is great to be back and we look forward to the next outing for the World Endurance Championship on the 13th June, as the 8 Hours of Portimao takes up the traditional slot for the 24-Hours of Le Mans.