Looking Ahead to the FIA WEC 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps
After months and months of intrigue and speculation, the FIA World Endurance Championship’s 2018/19 ‘Super Season’ is finally here. This weekend, the teams and drivers will head to Spa-Francorchamps to kick off the season with the traditional Le Mans dress rehearsal in the Ardennes Forest. But with so much new technology up and down the order, just what can we expect? Will it deliver and what should we be keeping an eye on as the countdown to the 86th edition of the Grand Prix D’Endurance enters its final stages?
Up at the front, the LMP1 class looks completely different, and far bigger, than it did in 2017. In fact, what we have, for better or for worse, is the biggest LMP1 field in the FIA WEC’s six-year history. It is packed with privateer cars, fresh and still unproven, and just two hybrid entries from Toyota after Porsche’s withdrawal. But don’t let the lack of factory competition for the Japanese marque put you off. This is very much a David vs Goliath situation, and there is still far more questions than answers at this time.
Toyota’s big news story this year, isn’t concerning the car. Instead, the headlines surround the driver crew which will feature two-time Formula One World Champion Fernando Alonso. It is no secret he’s coming this year, and it is no secret that he is taking on the FIA WEC as part of a ‘Triple Crown’ run. But just how will he fare? Well, we don’t know yet, but what we do know, is that his supreme talents in an F1 car aside, when he stepped into an IndyCar last year he was quick straight away. You would also think that his performance at Daytona this year (for his sportscar debut) would give a good indication. But his car wasn’t up to the task, resulting in a rather quiet run to the finish for the Spaniard. Time will tell just how quickly he can adapt to what is a very different style of driving required in LMP1 H.
Can Toyota’s pair of mildly-revised TS050 HYBRIDs be challenged by the slew of private competition? In truth, especially at this stage, it seems unlikely. There is still plenty of creases to be ironed out in the class’ EoT (Equivalence of Technology), and in the new cars themselves. So we may have to wait a little before we see the true potential of SMP and DragonSpeed’s BR1s, CEFC TRSM’s Ginettas, ByKolles upgraded CLM and Rebellion Racing’s R-13s. The FIA WEC Prologue though, was if nothing else, encouraging; Toyota setting its fast times running outside the rules, leaving some hope for a competitive race at the start of the season.
Who should we be looking to at this stage to challenge for the final podium spot? SMP Racing and Rebellion Racing look to hold the advantage at this stage in the pace department. The Russian BR1 AER’s look quick, and at the Prologue they didn’t suffer any major troubles. Not surprising, as the car, designed by Dallara, has had the most running of the new breed, and has a good set of drivers to get the most out of its cars. This will include Jenson Button this year, but unfortunately not until after the Spa round.
Rebellion meanwhile, was unable to get its pre-season test programme underway before the Prologue, due to the lead time from ORECA of its new Gibson-powered chassis. The team, has been out testing since the trip to Paul Ricard, but its R-13s are still very new. The pace appears to be there, so it’s all down to durability this weekend in Belgium if the Swiss-flagged effort is to leave with silverware at this early stage. Elsewhere, ByKolles, DragonSpeed and CEFC TRSM showed flashes of what is to come in France, but there is still a long way to go for all three teams. The focus at this stage is very much on using Spa as effectively as possible as preparation for Le Mans, which is going to be a far harder, but more important task in the long run.
While LMP1 may hold the most interest to those in the stands, let’s not forget that there is plenty to look for in the other three classes too. GTE Pro is stacked. Now with the addition of a full BMW factory effort, the category is 10-cars strong, and oozing talent. While little has changed at Ferrari, Porsche and Ford in the off-season, that is by no means a bad thing. With the added value of BMW’s new M8 GTE and Aston Martin’s new Vantage, with fresh driver crews, there’s going to be a real fight for the podium spots this year.
Both new cars set to grace the class have been out testing for months now, and have completed some serious mileage. Both cars look strong, not bullet proof, but certainly further down the line in their development than you might expect considering neither have a FIA WEC start to their name.
Aston Martin’s driver crew sees two newcomers set to debut at Spa; Maxime Martin, who’s astonishing performance at the 2013 Nurburgring 24 Hours still lives in the memories of many, and Alex Lynn, who’s won races in GP2, LMP2 and in DPi. Both are rapid, and are already up to speed with the car and their new surroundings. BMW meanwhile, will start the season with a quartet of FIA WEC new-boys: Martin Tomczyk, Nicky Catsburg, Tom Blomqvist and Antonio Felix Da Costa. There’s no weak link there, it is hot-shoe central in the BMW garage!
Then there is both the LMP2 and GTE Am classes which are set to deliver quality racing all season long, as they did in 2017. LMP2 has variety, with a Dallara P217 from Racing Team Nederland (driven by none other than Dutch hero Jan Lammers at Spa and Le Mans) and a Ligier JS P217 fielded by Larbre Competition. That means we don’t have an an ORECA spec-class, instead we have a division with three of the four LMP2 global chassis present, and two tyre brands, with Michelin entering the class to go head-to-head with Dunlop.
DragonSpeed’s 07 Gibson may well prove to be the class of the field. At the Prologue it ran fastest, courtesy of a rapid lap by the polarising figure that is Pastor Maldonado, the Venezuelan signed up for his sportscar race debut at this weekend too, with Mexican Roberto Gonzalez and Frenchman Nethanael Berthon.
GTE Am meanwhile, may have been consistently the best class on the wheel-to-wheel racing front in 2017, and that could well be exacerbated this season, as the car count has grown significantly to nine cars, up from five last year. There is plenty of familiar faces in the class too. Aston Martin Racing return as champions with the same line-up and the older, rumbling V8-powered Vantage, Clearwater Racing looks to be everyone’s favourite team again with its all-chrome Ferrari 488, and the ageless Jorg Bergmiester rejoins the series with Team Project 1 – the most successful Porsche one-make team, which expands its programme with a debut FIA WEC run this year. As unpredictable as ever in 2018/19, GTE Am should continue to throw some real surprises throughout the season. At the moment, going on the form from the Prologue, which saw the new Porsche 911 RSRs in the class look clearly faster in pure lap time, it’s advantage Stuttgart. But with BoP set to be tweaked throughout, nobody is crowning any winners just yet.
So sit back, and enjoy the ride. This weekend, the FIA WEC, with its new look grid and new calendar is back, and some might say, better than ever. The new era, starts now.
Written by Stephen Kilbey
Photography by Dailysportscar