Stephen Errity, WEC correspondent
Last year's Intercontinental Le Mans Cup LMP2 champions Signatech Nissan have returned in even greater strength to the new WEC this year. After a single-car entry at Sebring, the French squad expanded to two cars here at Spa courtesy of new sponsorship from Russian oil company Gazprom's G-Drive premium petrol brand. The deal brings with it Russian driver Roman Rusinov, who joins Frenchmen Pierre Ragues and Nelson Panciatici in the team's second Oreca prototype.
In the lead Signatech car, Frank Mailleux, who won the ILMC LMP2 title with the team last year, has two new team-mates in the shape of the impressively quick Olivier Lombard and PlayStation GT Academy winner Jordan Tresson. “There are 18 LMP2s this year, so it will be a lot more competitive than ILMC last year,” said Lombard – an observation borne out in qualifying, where the top six in the class were covered by only six-tenths of a second. Jordan Tresson was the second man to win the Nissan/PlayStation GT Academy 'gamer to racer' contest, after Spaniard Lucas Ordonez. He's now joining his fellow winner the LMP2 ranks after initially racing a Nissan 370Z in G Ts. “In the car I always feel like a professional racing driver, but sometimes in the paddock I still have to pinch myself to remember it's not a dream,” he said.
Fellow French team OAK Racing were even busier than their compatriots Signatech at Spa, running a single LMP1 Pescarolo and a pair of LMP2 Pescarolos branded as Morgans in a tie-up with the distinctive British road-car maker. For now it's just a sponsorship deal, but team owner Jacques Nicolet hinted at possible technical collaboration in the future as Morgan looks to move on from its traditional wooden-chassis roots and embrace some of the advanced lightweight materials used in race-car construction. The recently announced second LMP2 OAK is being crewed at Spa by Belgian Bas Leinders, more commonly seen in the Marc VDS Racing GT team, and the young American-based Danish software entrepreneur David Heinemeier Hansson. Both Leinders and OAK team manager Sebastien Phillippe were full of praise for the amateur racer's speed, despite him never having raced at Spa before. They will be joined for the Le Mans 24 Hours by Leinders' regular team-mate, the rapid Belgian Maxime Martin.
Recent F1 drivers Karun Chandhok and Nick Heidfeld have both secured plum seats in petrol prototypes for this year's WEC and Le Mans, but former Force India driver Vitantonio Liuzzi was also spotted in the paddock at Spa, wearing the colours of the Lotus LMP2 team. The Italian is believed to be trying to put together a deal to race for the squad at Le Mans, and was also in Spa as a standby for its regular driver Luca Moro, who has a minor foot injury but has so far not prevented him from driving.
Injuries were a running theme at Spa, but the consequences were rather more serious for Gulf Racing Lola driver and team driver Frederic Fatien. While practicing driver changes in the pitlane on Thursday evening, the Frenchman stepped out of the car awkwardly onto a wheel and broke his ankle, instantly putting him out of this race and the Le Mans 24 Hours. The car's two other drivers, Japanese lady racer Keiko Ihara and French veteran Jean-Denis Deletraz, will race as a duo tomorrow, but a third driver will have to be found for Le Mans in June.