Toyota win at Silverstone warm up for Le Mans 2014

The season opener for the 2014 FIA World Endurance Championship saw the start of a brand new era in World Sportscar racing, new cars, big name new drivers, new teams – and a most unusual meltdown from the most successful team of the lot!

The weather over the Easter weekend at Silverstone was, predictably, unpredictable and saw the WEC runners (and the ELMS grid that shared the weekend bill) practice, qualify and race in just about all conditions. And they did so in front of a very impressive weekend crowd of 43,000.

Silverstone FIA WEC 2014

For the second year in succession an Endurance racing weekend encounter at Silverstone was red flagged rely due to weather but there could be no argument with Eduardo Freitas’s decision, standing water and racing sportscars don’t mix!

The GT classes saw a resumption of the three way scrap between Aston Martin, Ferrari and Porsche – in the Pro-Am GTE Am class it was a tale of several of the Ferrari teams getting involved in incidents off the track, and the Porsche teams getting involved on the circuit.

Inexperience with the pit lane sped limiter cost 8Star a trio of penalties before mechanical woes stopped the 2013 Team Championship winners a finish, a flash fire during fuelling hit the #61 AF Corse car. Ben Collins took the Ram Racing 458 to to the front and held off 2013 GP2 runner up Sam Bird for several laps.

Silverstone FIA WEC 2014

Both cars though fell back as the Astons pace improved, the Vantages seeming to have the Advantage as the weather worsened.

By the flag it was the #95 all Danish squad with new Aston Martin signing David Heinemeier Hansson joining Kristian Poulsen and Nicki Thiim that took the win ahead of their team-mates Paul Dalla Lana, Pedro Lamy and Christoffer Nygaard in the sister car. The #81 Ferrari completed the podium

GTE Pro looked set to be a Ferrari vs Porsche fight, the Astons initially nowhere, Ram’s class challenge falling victim to a #52 Ferrari with a sticky fourth gear.

Gimmi Bruni and Toni Vilander’s challenge for honours stumbled with tyre choice issues, and a second flash fire for AF Corse, the Ferrari also seemed to struggle the wetter the condition, and that’s what the #97 Aston Martin was waiting for, Darren Turner had kept the car on the lead lap and as the conditions worsened Stefan Mucke made his way up the order and was closing fast when the red flag came out.

Silverstone FIA WEC 2014

He would bring the Vantage home in third, and a tad disappointed with that but the order ahead was a Porsche 1,2, the final order though changed right at the very end as the leading #91 car pitted for wet tyres just seconds before the Safety Car scramble closed the pits. If the race had resumed it would have been a inspired call but instead turned to disaster for the trio that had led well against the sister #92 car, the 911 RSR proving a dominate weapon.

So the #92 car took the win, and extended a remarkable run for the new Porsche, so far taking 4 out of five races it has contested in the WEC and TUSCC.

LMP2 started the weekend with bad news from Strakka and Millennium Motorsport, both locally based teams, both in last minute trouble to prevent them from taking to the track this weekend.

That left four starters but within minutes of the start there wee troubles for both of the SMP Racing Oreca Nissans. The #27 car would be an early retiree with electrical woes, the #37 struggled too but did enough to come home classed and on the podium.

That left the G-Drive Morgan Nissan of Roman Rusinov, Olivier Pla and Julien Canal to take the win after a fine run from the KCMG Oreca Nissan was ruined by successive pitstop rule infringements and the subsequent stop-go penalties.

LMP1 had lost the new Lotus before the race meeting begun, and the new Rebellion R One wasn’t ready either, though the first car shook down on the day before the WEC clan gathered at Silverstone, the team though arrived with their old but perfectly formed Lola Toyotas in grandfathered trim.

The headlines though were all about the three factory teams, and about the return of Porsche in particular.

Silverstone FIA WEC 2014

There was not a lot in terms of overall performance between the three very different pairs of factory prototypes in qualifying, the in-car shots from the GT Cars showing very vividly just how much punch the 1000hp 2014 class has!

The race start showed too that whatever the pre-season billing about energy conservation and fuel management this new LMP1 formula is not short on thrills with the polesetting Toyota and the Audis getting involved in a huge battle, the scrap showing off well that the cars are of broadly even pace over a full lap, but most definitely not of equal pace at every place on the track.

The Porsches dropped back quite quickly at the start and the Rebellion Lolas further back still.

The race leading #7 Toyota was soon under pressure from a charging Andre Lotterer, the Audi looking very strong in the early stages, within the first hour though the attack was down to a single car as di Grassi, told to stay out as the weather worsened, lost control on entirely inappropriate rubber and shunted the #1 car hard, he got a very battered looking car back to the pits but with too much damge, including a broken monocoque to allow the car to continue.

Silverstone FIA WEC 2014

Toyota meanwhile pitted their pair and went for a split tyre strategy, one on inters, the other staying on slicks as Lotterer too stayed out, but was losing around half a minute per lap to others, inkling Nick Heidfeld who was charging in the #12 Lola.

Heidfeld made further progress courtesy of trouble for another factory car, this time the #14 Porsche, pitting with the front left wheel missing and with sparks galore from the dragging corner. That mean a longer stop, the car losing 14 minutes for repairs, then later struggling back with hydraulic issues – game over.

Rebellion too had troubles, their #13 car was another to take an early bath – gearbox failure.

And then there were five! And Toyota looked strong, though Timo Bernhard was doing well in the very tricky conditions, better tyre choice putting him by Wurz and up into second behind Buemi.

Lotterer and Wurz both had spins, the Audi man doing so twice finding the gravel and dropping back even further, behind the Rebellion, Heidfeld on an ‘iron man’ mission and up to fourth.

The recovering Lotterer and the charging Nakajima (in for Wurz) both spun at Becketts as the Toyota came around to lap a clearly out of sorts R18. No apparent harm though for either car, though it agin proved how treacherous the conditions really were.

Silverstone FIA WEC 2014

That was going to be more obvious still by the middle point in the race as Treluyer, in for Lotterer, lost control of the #2 Audi, hit the barrier and was all too soon out of the car and trying to get it back underway, despite a marshall’s protestations that the car had broken steering, after much tearing off of debris and kicking of fouled bodywork the Frenchman rebounded the car, strapped up his belts and some 30 feet later found the car buried in the adjacent gravel trap, the car entirely without steerage, game over for Audi, their first two car retirement since 2011.
From there on in it was about whether the remaining four cars would falter – The Porsche spent a while swapping positions through the pit cycle but clear did not have the pace to challenge, though when the weather worsened it looked stronger than the Toyota.

In truth, as the drivers and teams correctly called for a race stoppage before more damage was done, Toyota dominated this one – Audi said later that the error was made in trying to gain a strategic advantage by staying out – they now have another race before we get to Spa – to build up two cars on new tubs, both Silverstone cars suffering chassis damage.

Porsche will be happy to have got their car home – Webber on the podium with Hartley and Bernhard.

It was a Brit atop the podium though Ant Davidson, Sebastien Buemi and Nicolas Lapierre taking the first win for this trio together. Toyota then are in a, for them, unique position at the start of their third year in the WEC – They’re on the front foot!

Written by Graham Goodwin
Photos by Dailysportscar