It was a case of ‘what might have been’ as the two LMP1 Porsche 919 Hybrids experienced frustrating delays during the Spa 6 Hour race on Saturday 6 May 2017. Having said that, the two cars did finish with valuable points, and will continue their fight for a third WEC crown at next month’s Le Mans 24 Hour race. For the pair of 911 RSR GTE cars, a faultless race resulted in a disappointing finish for them, and some head scratching will take place back at Weissach this week.
Race day dawned with blue skies and a crisp feel in the air. The stage was certainly set with the #1 Porsche 919 Hybrid on pole, against all expectations. Porsche’s rivals in the top class, Toyota, were clearly the pre-qualifying favourites and no doubt more than just a few eyebrows were raised when Porsche grabbed pole in LMP1.
While the talk was about Porsche’s pole position in LMP1, there was also talk about the fifth and sixth places occupied by the GTE Pro team, but the reason for that was that they chose to conserve their tyres for the race.
The usual pre-race fanfare got underway to entertain the crowds who were at that stage enjoying the sunshine around this legendary race track. While the aerobatics team twirled through the clear skies, the marching band brought order to activities on the grid. As the clock ticked down to the 14h30 start, the anticipation grew, the opinions amongst the journalists and photographers in the media centre could not call it one way or the other.
Before you could say ‘pass me the spanner Fred’ the cars, which had been parked up along the pit wall, were sent off on their formation lap, returning to take up their grid positions as per the qualifying. Then, it was the turn of the pace car to lead them around for the start, and waiting up at the end of the Kemmel Straight, you could here the roar of almost 18,000bhp as the 30-car field were given the green light.
The #1 Porsche led the field up the Kemmel Straight and into the curves at Malmedy. By this stage they had already opened up a sizeable gap on the LMP2 pack, led by the #26 G-Drive Oreca 07. The #71 Ferrari headed the GTE Pro class some way behind the LMP2 cars, and behind them the Am class was led by the #98 Aston Martin.
The order at the front stayed that way for some time, but once Toyota got their nose in front, there was no way they were going to give up their place. The two Porsche 919s gave their best throughout the 6-hour race but both fell victim to different problems. The #2 919 Hybrid of Hartley/Bernhard/Bamber suffered a slow puncture that forced them to pit one more time than planned, and one more than their opposition. The #1 pole-sitting car of Jani/Lotterer/Tandy fell victim to the bad timing of two Full Course Yellow incidents, which set them back.
Apart from these two unfortunate happenings, the pair of 919s ran a well-planned and near-faultless race, which must give the team a lot of encouragement. In the pit garage to watch the race unfold and lend their support were Dr. Wolfgang Porsche and also the head of Porsche Development, Michael Steiner.
Standing under the podium after the race, I found myself next to Fritz Enzinger (completely by coincidence as I had to fight my way through a mass of VIPs and general hangers-on), and although the #2 Porsche finished third in the race, he was realistic and gracious in that they had scored another podium. They probably couldn’t have expected to win the race, and in reality, third is probably where they should have finished given that the two Toyotas ahead of them both featured high downforce aero packages.
Enzinger told me that the gap between their third-place finish and the winner, was 35 seconds, approximately the time the #2 car spent in the pits dealing with its puncture. Motor racing is full of what-ifs, but this was a genuine case of bad luck…although Toyota has had their fair share of that in the recent past too!
The new 911 RSRs have the potential to dominate the GTE Pro class, but for some reason appeared not to be up to the speed of the Ferraris and Fords. If any observation from the trackside while photographing the cars at close-range can be helpful, the two RSRs sounded perfectly in tune lap after lap. It’s an odd thing with these new RSRs. Now with the engine located ahead of the rear axle and the gearbox behind, you would think that they have the perfect recipe for success with improved weight distribution and much better aerodynamics and road holding.
Speaking to the team’s PR boss after the race, he said they just don’t understand why the result was so disappointing. He said that the two cars performed faultlessly, and the pit stops were perfectly executed without any hiccups. The drivers all said that they had no issues on the track that would have prevented them from doing any better. In the end, he said that with hindsight, they would not have done anything any differently because the strategy was correct and all the decisions regarding tyres and pit stops were all correct. At Silverstone they could point to one pit stop that cost them time, but at Spa everything was perfect. Which in one way is a good thing, because it means that the future for Porsche’s GTE cars is only going to get better.
The Porsches finished fifth and sixth, in fact the GTE Pro class ran according to manufacturer – the two Ferraris were first and second, the two Fords third and fourth, the two Porsches fifth and sixth, followed by the two Aston Martins in seventh and eighth place.
In the GTE Am class, Porsche’s fortunes were mixed. The #77 Dempsey-Proton 911 RSR (2015MY), driven by Porsche Young Professional, Matteo Cairoli, Christian Ried and Marvin Dienst, finished second in class having driven a spirited race. Unfortunately the #86 Gulf Racing 911 RSR (2015MY), driven by Michael Wainwright, Ben Barker and Nick Foster, had to retire. Speaking to a team member after the race, he said that the retirement was due to an accident with another car, which in turn fatally wrecked some wiring. The car came to a standstill right on the start/finish line, and was helped into parc ferme, where it stayed.
All eyes now turn to the Le Mans test weekend at the beginning of June, and the 24-hour race two weeks later. Although they haven’t won a race yet, the Porsche LMP1 team have scored valuable points in both races and will go to Le Mans with a mass of data that has been gathered from running their low downforce aero package. They knew that this was a gamble when they made the decision to run with it, but they are all clever boys and know what they doing.
For the GTE Pro team, they have an excellent product, a wealth of knowledge stretching back six decades, so don’t expect them to lie down and do nothing. They will come out fighting in France, and remember, after Le Mans, the new BoP algorithms kick in, which should bring some objectivity to the table. Watch this space!
Written by: Glen Smale
Images by: Virtual Motorpix/Glen Smale and John Mountney