Opinion: Silverstone nail-biter proves wrong WEC's naysayers
An entertaining finish to last weekend’s FIA World Endurance Championship opener at Silverstone proved that two LMP1 manufacturers are enough for the series to thrive, writes Jamie Klein.
Toyota arrived at the 6 Hours of Silverstone in the unusual position of being the overwhelming favourite, but the Japanese marque’s route to an 11th WEC triumph was anything but straightforward.
A heavy crash for newcomer Jose Maria Lopez in the #7 Toyota meant the squad’s hopes rested solely on the #8 car of Sebastien Buemi, Anthony Davidson and Kazuki Nakajima, and it was only with 12 minutes left that a pass from Buemi on Brendon Hartley’s Porsche sealed the deal.
The Silverstone paddock and press centre certainly felt less busy without Audi present, and the rather ominous-looking gap between the Toyotas and the Porsches in qualifying will no doubt have left some wishing that a couple of R18s had been present to fill the breach.
But after the arrival of rain spiced up the action from the third hour onwards, the action fans were treated to was certainly a match for more or less anything the Porsche-Toyota-Audi era produced.
In the end, just six seconds split the leading two cars at the flag, closer than every finish from the 2016 season barring Fuji.
Porsche makes up for lack of outright pace
Qualifying had threatened a Toyota whitewash, with the two TS050 Hybrids clearly in a class of their own on the front row with the best of the Porsche 919 Hybrids more than a second back.
Porsche’s Andreas Seidl even admitted after qualifying the Japanese cars would be “untouchable” in the race, and for the first hour it seemed as if that gloomy prediction was bang on the money.
But, as is so often the case in endurance racing, it takes more than out-and-out speed to win the day, and in fuel efficiency and pitwork, it was Porsche that held a decisive edge.
The one area where Porsche went wrong was its call to bring in both its cars for intermediate tyres in the third hour when the rain arrived, but Lopez’s crash at Copse and the subsequent safety car effectively cancelled out the disadvantage of the extra pit-stops to switch back to slicks.
From there, Brendon Hartley did a stellar job to keep the #2 Porsche close enough to Kazuki Nakajima’s #8 machine to be able to attempt a strategic roll of the dice for his final stop.
Granted, a gap of just over eight seconds with 30 minutes left on the clock was never going to be enough to repel an inspired Sebastien Buemi on fresher tyres, but the point was that Hartley and Porsche were strong enough in the closing stages to force Toyota to do it the hard way.
Buemi himself spoke afterwards of how we was shocked that he ended up eight seconds in arrears after his last stop, having expected to be only four behind – a testament to the excellent job Porsche did in the pits – and said the narrow margin of victory “scared” his team.
Check out Timo Bernhard's column:
Even Davidson admitted afterwards that he doubted the win was in the bag until his Swiss teammate crossed the line, the bitter taste of Le Mans last year still in the back of his mind.
"Brendon was flying all weekend, when I saw him out front I doubted Seb would be able to catch him," Davidson admitted to Motorsport.com. "But then the times started to come down.
"Me and Kazuki didn’t go over the pitwall until the car had actually crossed the line! You’ve got to learn from defeat, and I think it's only made us stronger."
Of course, it wouldn’t have hurt to have another couple of LMP1s in the mix – but even during the golden era of three manufacturers, the times when Porsche, Toyota and Audi were all in the mix for the win were few and far between.
Duels between two of the marques the norm at most rounds, with only Spa and Fuji standing out last year as races where all three manufacturers had a shot at victory.
“I’ve been in sportscars since 2010, and most of the time there’s only been one other manufacturer to focus on,” said Davidson, who raced for Peugeot prior to joining Toyota in 2012.
“In 2015 we were nowhere and it was Audi against Porsche. In 2014 Audi was out of the game and it was us against Porsche. It’s normally only two teams fighting each other.
“The dream of having three teams fighting each other is lovely in principal, but rarely happens.”
It’s also worth pointing out that, since the trauma of Audi’s departure last autumn, WEC has gained crucial stability with a series of announcements from the key players involved.
First came the news during the Monza Prologue of Toyota extending its commitment to the championship until at least the end of 2019, allaying fears of a sudden pull-out that could have had dire ramifications for LMP1.
Porsche’s current commitment to the series expires at the end of 2018, but the Weissach marque has been heavily involved in the negotiations over how the class rules will look from 2020 onwards - so it would be a surprise if it doesn't renew its WEC vows in the near future.
And then on race day morning at Silverstone, FIA president Jean Todt was on hand to announce the governing body had renewed its deal with the Automobile Club de l’Ouest to promote the WEC for a further three years, despite the absence of a third manufacturer.
The final piece in the puzzle, then, will be to nail a set of LMP1 rules for 2020 that will entice Peugeot back to top-flight sportscar racing. But even if the French marque ultimately doesn't return, the LMP1 field is still set to swell in the years to come.
At Silverstone, Ginetta made known its intention to eventually sell six chassis to customers to race in WEC, and is optimistic of having three on the grid next year - potentially swelling the privateer LMP1 ranks to six when combined with the two-car Dallara/BR Engineering project.
Further down the grid, the GTE Pro field should be 10-strong next year, thanks to BMW's arrival, while Lamborghini, Corvette and McLaren all remain linked to future programmes. Saturday sprint races, which are being considered for next year, will only make the allure for those brands stronger.
Plenty of observers were quick to write off WEC's future post-Audi, but events at Silverstone - both on and off track - showed their predictions to be premature. Now its short-term future has been guaranteed, the series can focus on plotting its course for 2020 beyond and ensuring long-term success.
Bernhard column: Giving Toyota a run for its money at Silverstone
Hanley replaces injured Vaxiviere for Spa WEC race
Opinion: Silverstone nail-biter proves wrong WEC's naysayers
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