In what could have been dubbed the FIA World Endurance Championship 3 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps due to time lost in caution periods, Toyota Gazoo Racing took their sixth consecutive victory at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps with Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi and Jose Maria Lopez.
The race was tormented by heavy rain much earlier than expected, with the first specks falling on the track at the end of hour one. From then it was more a race of survival to keep the cars on the circuit for the 106 drivers rather than a race of speed, only really drying in the final hour. Tyre strategy became much more important as putting slicks on at the right or wrong time could make all the different come the end of the race, something that was discovered by pole-sitting Glickenhaus Racing.
Bitter Sweet Victory for Toyota
The American privateer team led the pack away in the hands of Olivier Pla, with the Alpine Elf Team trying to find a way around the outside of La Source. It was a costly move, allowing both the Toyota to get the run on the French car and demote it to fourth overall and in class. Within the first hour, the pace advantage the Toyotas had was proving too much for the Glickenhaus, but it held the lead impressively and stayed within range of the Toyotas once they had passed to drop it to third.
It was at the end of the first hour that the first of three red flags came out. This was the only red flag due to an incident, as they other two were waved thanks to torrential rain and too much standing water on the track. It was the ARC Bratislava that got unlucky going through Stavelot and pitched into the tyre barriers. Spinning around, Miroslav Konopka nearly collected one of the Toyotas as his LMP2 car came to a halt in the middle of the track. Konopka was fine and got out the car unaided once the red flag had waved.
During this red flag, the rain fell hard pushing the FIA to restart under the Safety Car. But even during this period cars were spinning off, showing that the heavy rainfall and lack of running had made the circuit’s track surface treacherous. It wasn’t, however, the wet track that brought woes to the Toyota garage as a hybrid failure saw the then-leading #8 slowing to a stop on track. Sebastien Buemi managed to get the car moving again after a full reset and electrical cycle trackside, but the second stop brought about the end of the race for half the Japanese garage.
In a race that the sister car would go on to take a competitive win, it really was a day of what could have been for Toyota, leaving a bitter sweet taste to their celebrations.
Glickenhaus were down on race pace compared to their Hypercar rivals, but a miscommunication on tyre strategy saw them switching to slicks too early. This, in turn, put them completely off the pace awaiting a dry line to emerge and forced them to make an extra pit stop, handing second place in class and overall to the Alpine crew. Not only did they lose out in their own class, but due to the pace of the LMP2s on the drying circuit the Hypercar team couldn’t finish any higher than ninth overall.
Rain-Calm One-Two Finish for WRT
The LMP2 class saw the most incidents, and after leading overall for about an hour, WRT finished the race with a one-two in class, three-four overall. It was a great drive through the field from the Realtime by WRT crew, who started ninth on the grid.
Despite the woes of the sister team who were unable to finish after crashing into the barriers, the #38 JOTA took the bottom step of the class podium.
As they did at the 1,000 Miles of Sebring, the class pole-sitting #83 AF Corse started falling down the order in the opening stages of the race, but the car showed much better pace than in America and stayed in the fight for the overall class top ten. They had looked set on a strong finish for them in overall class, dominating the Pro/Am entries alike their performance last time out, when they were handed a three-minute stop penalty for a Full Course Yellow procedure infringement. Very costly, the team managed to just hang on to overall points, beating out Vector Sport for ninth in class.
United Autosports finished fifth and sixth in class, with the Team Penske #5 separating them from the podium finishers. It was a masterclass in the wet from Alex Lynn, who helped, along with team mates Josh Pierson and Oliver Jarvis, to ascend the order after a bad qualifying on Friday. The two Uniteds found each other on track and spent a lot of time lapping around together, but ultimately Philip Hanson, Filipe Albuquerque and William Owen left the sister car behind to chase down Penske for fourth. The gap at the end between fourth and fifth was just two tenths of a second.
Ferrari Victorious in Photo Finish
Having been aware they would struggle on a dry track due to pace deficits on the Porsche and Corvette entries, Ferrari were glad to see the rainfall come across the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps a lot earlier than predicted. With reduced speed on all the cars it gave them the advantage to play a different strategy but also the almost constant caution periods saw fuel saving come much easier and enabled both AF Corses the ability to do one less stop than their competitors.
This put the #51 in the lead of the race with quite an advantage come the final hour, but with the rain gone and the track drying Michael Christensen was storming down the track, the gap shrinking every lap. In a race end reminiscent to the 8 Hours of Bahrain finale last year, The Porsche GT Team #92 was right on the diffuser of James Calado with a clear pace advantage. Calado put in the last five laps of his life, managing to make the Ferrari 488 GTE Evo as wide as possible to hold onto the lead of the race by half a second. With the BoP and pace deficit on the Porsche, this was certainly an unexpected win from the Italian outfit, made all the better when Antonio Fuoco and Miguel Molina drove smooth enough to make it a double podium.
The pole-sitting Porsche took itself out of contention at the first corner of the race as Gianmaria Bruni made contact with the sister Porsche in the hands of Kevin Estre. Fighting hard for class lead, Estre locked up coming into La Source and ended up going too deep into the corner. Making the switchback on the #92, Bruni slipped to the inside line forcing Estre onto the kerbs at La Source’s exit, perilously close to the new gravel trap that has been installed there. The two made side-on-side contact, but it was Bruni who came out worse as damage caused him to lose his rear left tyre and he was forced into the pits. Estre and Christensen went on to finish second in class, whilst Bruni and team mate Richard Lietz were fifth, 20th overall.
It had been a good showing from Corvette who, over the entirety of the weekend had proven they were paced between the Porsches and Ferraris. The clever tactics from Ferrari and the fuel saving achieved dropped Nick Tandy and Tommy Milner from the podium fight, ending a lap down on the top three in class.
Dempsey-Proton Shine on Drying Track
The Am class had looked to be in the hands of Aston Martin, specifically the TF Sport crew as the rain fell and the caution periods continued, but as the track dried in the final hour Harry Tincknell, Christian Ried and Sebastian Priaulx carved through the field in their superiorly paced Porsche to steal class victory. Tincknell was in the car for the final hour and did a fantastic job of closing down and passing both the Northwest Aston Martin Racing and TF Sport to take class victory. In was an end of the race move, however, with the gap between the trio at chequered flag just over two seconds.
Priaulx managed the wet conditions extremely well, keeping the #77 Porsche in a great position to hand over to Tincknell at the end. The race marked Ried’s first WEC win since the 2019 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps and his 11th overall in the series.
The Iron Dames had a race to forget after being spun around at La Source and ending in the gravel trap on lap one. They called out the first Safety Car of the race as they were recovered, but it went downhill from there. Causing two incidents that led to penalties throughout the race and seeming to struggle to keep the car on the track in the wet conditions, they came across the line 30th overall, tenth in class to claim one point for their efforts this weekend. They will certainly be hoping for a better showing next time out at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.