Our second trip to Spa in the 2018/2019 Super Season takes place at a time when the teams, across all four classes, have built up a considerable depth of experience and momentum in the championship. This time last year we had a dry race with brilliant sunshine from beginning to end, but the forecast for the race tomorrow is for winter temperatures with rain and even snow. Our Spa 6 Hours preview will give you an insight into what we can expect tomorrow.
It will come as no surprise to learn that Toyota led the LMP1 championship table by a country mile (151 points) from Rebellion Racing (98 points). In the LMP2 class, it was a different matter with the cars much closer together. Here, the #37 Jackie Chan DC Racing car has 130 points with the second placed #36 Signatech Alpine Matmut car with 125 points.
In the GTE Pro class, Porsche are well ahead of the rest of the field with 227 points, followed by Ferrari on 127 points. Project 1 (Porsche) lead the GTE Am class with 103 points with Spirit of Race (Ferrari) second on 78 points. The Porsche works team has really come on in leaps and bounds with the new mid-engined 911 RSR, and with the BoP being calculated more objectively than before, they are feeling the benefits. This has also filtered down into the GTE Am class where the Porsches are coming out on top more frequently than before.
Free Practice 1
FP1 was held from 12h00 to 13h30 on Thursday in dry, mild conditions. As can be expected, there was very little to read into the lap times, and even the #8 Toyota only posted the third quickest time with its sister car, the #7 Toyota one position further back.
I had decided, along with several other photographers, to position myself at the bottom of Eau Rouge for the start of the session, moving up to the top of the hill as the session progressed. Very long story short, a new ‘red zone’ had been imposed there, which had not been communicated to those who needed to know. The long and the short of it is that photographers are no longer permitted to get that classic shot of the cars coming down the hill towards Eau Rouge at the start, or at any stage of the race for that matter. However, life moves on and you must do what you can, when you can.
The session was used by most teams as an opportunity to just get their cars set up and out on track, as Spa was the first European race of the year, and the cars had just been unpacked after the Sebring race. This being the situation, the cars were simply given an outing to provide feedback to the teams.
Free Practice 2
So where does this leave the prospects for success by any of the teams this weekend? It is certainly too early to give any meaningful answers to that question, as this would amount to no more than speculation. Even the FP2 session, which has just finished, was red flagged three times, as this afternoon was characterised by persistent rain. While that in itself may not reveal any advantages, this wet FP2 session would serve as a valuable foretaste of what to expect in the race on Saturday.
The FP2 session of course saw the two Toyotas at the top of the timing board, with a two second gap back to SMP Racing in third place and the two Rebellions in fourth and fifth pace in LMP1. Top of the LMP2 class was the #31 DragonSpeed car driven by Gonzalez/Maldonado/Davidson. But it is in the GTE Pro and Am classes where all the interest is because that is where the racing is tighter and people can identify with the cars on the track.
In the GTE classes, the teams will be watching the other class competitors very closely, being careful not to reveal too much in case it should show an advantage too early, or negatively affect their BoP. So this is where much of the race attention will be focussed, as the competition in the LMP1 class will likely be for third place and lower.
Free Practice 3
FP3 was run in totally dry conditions on Friday morning, and this encouraged many drivers to give it everything they had, judging by the number of late braking incidents at the old Bus Stop, rather unimaginatively known today as The Chicane. At the top of the timing sheets were the two Toyotas again, they simply swapped places with each other in FP3 with the #7 car now on top. SMP Racing was again in third place. DragonSpeed had been dislodged from the top spot in LMP2, its place being taken by the #26 G-Drive car.
Where previously the Aston Martins had been showing good form in GTE Pro, it was the two works Porsche RSRs that shone during the session. At the end of the FP3 session Porsche were lying first and third in the Pro class, separated by the #67 Ford. The sharp end of the Pro class looked like this: Porsche-Ford-Porsche-Ford-Ferrari-Ferrari. Competition in the GTE Am class was also extremely high, and here the Porsches were rampant. It was the #88 Dempsey-Proton car ahead of the #77 sister car followed by the #81 BMW, with the #56 Porsche in fourth place.
Once again, the running for Qualifying was in the dry. As can be expected, the fight for the top of the GTE Pro charts was intense, and where the two BMWs were in the top two positions, they had just been given notice, and the two works Aston Martins now headed the leader board, but the situation remains very fluid. With just nine minutes of the 25 minutes left to run, the order was BMW, Aston Martin and Ford. Interestingly, both the #91 and #92 Porsches have had their laps ‘excluded’ from the session for abusing the track limits on those laps.
Leading the GTE Am class, with just six minutes left to run, the TF Aston Martin leads with the #77 Porsche in second. But with less than a minute to go, the #88 Porsche headed the Am class followed by Aston Martin and the #56 Project 1 Porsche in third place. As happens so often in racing, the pole position is snatched out from under the nose of those who feel they have done enough, and this happened with the #90 TF Aston Martin who will start the race at the head of the class. The #88 Dempsey-Proton Porsche will start second with the #56 Project 1 Porsche in third place. The final Qualifying positions in GTE Pro will see the #67 Ford starting on pole, while the two Porsche RSRs are down in seventh (#92) and eighth (#91) places.
The #70 MR Racing Ferrari (GTE Am) hit the tyre wall very hard at the start of the session, having completed just one lap, and is looking like a very ‘used’ car when it was returned to the pit lane. The team will have their work cut out to repair that for the race tomorrow.
The LMP1 Qualifying session was really broken into two sub-groups, the two factory Toyotas, and the rest. While the top position will be a Toyota, it is just a matter of which one it will be. For the best of the rest, it is a tussle between SMP Racing and Rebellion.
The LMP2 class is a very tightly contested class, with all the cars being basically the same. Here #26 G-Drive car has upset the Jackie Chan party, whose two Oreca 07 Gibson cars are sitting in second and third place in class with five minutes to run. The G-Drive car was a good six-tenths of a second quicker than the quickest Jackie Chan car, which prompted a quick photo pose in the pit lane for the #26 drivers with five minutes still to run – perhaps a little presumptuous.
The #4 ByKolles car stopped on the start/finish straight with less than five minutes left in the session, which brought out the red flag. Light rain has started to fall which will liven things up a little should the session be restarted. It should be noted that with the proceedings halted, the #17 SMP Racing car currently lies in third place with the #3 Rebellion car in fourth by almost a second.
With the session being restarted and with light rain falling sufficient to make the going treacherous and with just a few minutes left to run, it is unlikely that the order will change. With the final Qualifying session now over, it will be the #7 Toyota that starts the race tomorrow in pole position followed by the #8 sister car and the #17 SMP Racing car in third.
These are the known facts, what is still an unknown is the weather for race day. Currently the forecast is for +7/-3 degrees Celsius temperatures with an 83% chance of rain. The locals are talking about snow overnight, so we shall see what the day brings. Either way, it will be an interesting race.
Written by: Glen Smale
Images by: Virtual Motorpix/Glen Smale