The first race of the 2018 WEC season certainly didn’t disappoint. From the starter’s green lights, right up until the chequered flag, the excitement hit a high point and didn’t once wane. This was truly a WEC battle in the Ardennes.
Under bright sunshine, the race got underway at 13h30 sharp. The starting grid was altered as late as Friday night when the pole sitting #7 Toyota had its qualifying time cancelled due to an infringement in the paperwork. Quite how one set of paperwork for two identical cars has an error on it when they get filled out and submitted together was the source of some discussion in the press room. But the penalty for this was that the #7 car had to start the race from the pit lane after the first lap had been completed, and the #8 Toyota was promoted to pole position in its place.
The safety car was already called into action on the first lap when the #70 Ferrari spun at Les Combes and in the ensuing kerfuffle, the #86 Gulf Racing Porsche driven by Michael Wainwright, was shunted into the tyre barriers. Only two marshals were available to push the Porsche that was wedged into the rubber barrier that held the tyre wall together. As they couldn’t push the car very far, the crane was brought in to assist. The Porsche was lifted over the barrier and about to be put onto the recovery truck, but fortunately Wainwright had remained in the car, and he told the crew to put the car down on the service road. Once on the road surface, he proceeded to scuttle down the service road and back onto the circuit through an opening at the next marshal’s post. All of this of course took an age to carry out, and this set the #86 team back right at the start.
At the end of the first hour, the #91 Porsche RSR (Lietz/Bruni) was lying down in sixth place in class, with their team mates in the #92 car (Christensen/Estre) in ninth place. Both cars seemed to be performing well enough, although early in the race the #92 was fitted with a plaster on the front left splitter. This superficial damage was the result of some light contact with another competitor, and the precaution was taken to tape it up to prevent further delamination of the carbon fibre splitter. This didn’t affect the car’s performance in any way.
2017/2018 Qualifying comparison for the works Porsches:
|Car No.||Drivers||Qual. time||Start Pos.|
|#91||Richard Lietz/Fred Makowiecki||2:16.862||5th|
|#92||Michael Christensen/Kevin Estre||2:17.010||6th|
|#91||Richard Lietz/Gianmaria Bruni||2:13.034||3rd|
|#92||Michael Christensen/Kevin Estre||2:13.352||4th|
Just after the end of the first hour, the #67 Ford (Harry Tincknell) suffered a similar fate to Pietro Fittipaldi in the #10 LMP1 Dragonspeed car during qualifying on Friday. As Tincknell negotiated Eau Rouge to the right and began to climb the hill, his car broke left and he collided with the tyre wall in much the same place as the Dragonspeed car had done on Friday. The impact with the Ford was severe, but the driver climbed from the car and after the race it was declared that he had suffered nothing more than bruises but was well shaken. The cause of the accident was still under investigation as the day drew to a close.
In the GTE Am class, starting from pole position, the #77 Porsche RSR had a battle on its hands with the #98 Aston Martin and with the #56 Team Project 1 which was hot on the heels of both front runners. WEC debutant Egidio Perfetti in the #56 Porsche began to pile the pressure on Christian Ried (#77 Porsche) and Mathias Lauda (#98 Aston Martin) and moved up into second position after the first half-hour. “My performance at this stage gave me additional confidence for challenges ahead,” Perfetti said.
At the end of the first hour, the second of the Dempsey-Proton Porsches, the #88 RSR, was lying in third place. Then, technical problems forced Patrick Lindsey into the pits for an unscheduled stop, dropping the #56 Project 1 Porsche down to fifth place while the #86 Gulf Porsche was seven laps down on the class leader, as a result of the opening lap incident.
The second hour brought changes in GTE Pro, as the #91 Porsche was up at the top of the class with the #92 car in third place. The two works Porsches looked to be in great form as they reeled off lap after lap, as the two cars held these same positions through the third hour, the fourth and the fifth hour.
But back to the second hour of the race, and it was all change in the GTE Am class. The #77 and #88 Dempsey-Proton cars were locked in third and fourth places, while the Team Project 1 had dropped down to eighth place as a result of a collision between Egidio Perfetti and a competitor, resulting in the need for longer repair work. The Gulf Porsche was still last in class but had made up a lap after its early altercation with the tyre barrier.
As the race approached the halfway mark, the #77 RSR slipped further back to fifth place while the #56 Team Project 1 RSR was on a march, and lay in sixth place at this point. As the race moved into the fourth hour, the first four places in GTE Am were filled by two Aston Martins and two Ferraris. The #88 Dempsey-Proton RSR had slipped to seventh place with a faulty fuel pump, and the #86 Gulf Porsche was one place further back.
While things remained the same in GTE Pro after five hours, the game of musical chairs started up once again in the Am class. The #77 Dempsey-Proton RSR moved back up a place to fourth, the #88 RSR moved up to sixth place, while the Gulf Porsche moved to seventh. The big mover was the #56 Team Project 1 RSR which dropped to last place in class. This is how the positions remained in the GTE Am class to the end.
In the final hour was when it all happened in GTE Pro. Driving the #66 Ford GT, Oliver Pla overtook the #91 Porsche in Eau Rouge in the most daring overtaking manoeuvre of the race. Both cars tore down the hill past the old pits, door handle to door handle, with hardly a hair’s breadth between them. As they approached Eau Rouge, the Porsche was on the left side of the track and therefore had a slight edge over the Ford. But as the two cars followed the second curve to the right the Ford had the advantage and just managed to hold the lead. The two cars made this move as one, almost as though they were attached at the wing mirrors. The Porsche though was forced wide as they topped the ridge at Raidillon, and moving over the gritty outfield the car damaged its tyres which had already done a double stint. This remarkable, race-changing move and a duel for the history books, was right on the mark with 45 minutes left to run.
The two works Porsches were then running in second and third places, but with his tyres damaged, the #91 Porsche slowed and was soon overtaken by the #92 sister Porsche. This move settled the top two positions but the race wasn’t over yet, as the #71 Ferrari was locked in a bumper-to-bumper tussle with Richard Lietz in the #91 Porsche. Over the final three laps, the Ferrari in fourth place, harried the Porsche through every corner. As the pair of cars approached the Bus Stop complex, the Porsche had the inside line with Ferrari on the outside of the right turn, but as the two cars followed the track to the left, Davide Rigon in the Ferrari ran wide and over to the right, making contact with and pushing the Porsche off the circuit towards the pit wall. This aggressive move by the Ferrari, as the cars started their final lap, forced the Porsche in the rough once again, and Lietz was unable to recover from the attack. This allowed Ferrari to move up into third place and the #91 Porsche dropped to fourth, which is how the cars finished.
And so, the first race was brought to a close. Of the six Porsche 911 RSR race cars on track today, only one made podium which was the #92 works car that finished second in the GTE Pro class. All-in-all, that amounts to a somewhat disappointing result on paper, but the timing sheets don’t tell the whole story just as the score card in golf has no column for ‘comments’. Tyres certainly played a part in the final placing of the #91 car.
In the GTE Am class, the #86 Gulf Porsche was more than a second faster than the next car in class during qualifying – where did the team find that extra speed? But a pit lane speeding penalty during qualifying certainly set them back at the start, when they were forced to start at the back of the field. Their destiny was then sealed after that first lap accident, but despite these frustrations, team owner, Michael Wainwright, was fairly philosophical and accepting about the whole episode.
The #56 Team Project 1 RSR gave a good account of itself on its WEC debut. Although a top-placed finish was out of reach because the problems suffered by the team, the drivers still came out of the first race of the season in a positive mood. “We performed well and if those issues hadn’t happened we may have been able to finish on the podium,” said Porsche works driver Jörg Bergmeister. “It was important to secure some championship points despite the problems, as they could play a key role at the end of the season. We can definitely build on this performance.” It should be remembered that this was the team’s first race in WEC, and it was acknowledged that that they were learning as much about the new car as they were about working together as a team in the WEC.
“It was a great start to our WEC adventure,” said US driver Patrick Lindsey. “It’s not the result we had hoped for and that we could have achieved. But considering it was my first race in the WEC, I am still happy. That being said, we still have a lot to learn.”
After holding first and third places, the #77 and #88 Dempsey-Proton RSRs disappointingly dropped down the order to finish in fourth and sixth places respectively. But the Dempsey-Proton Racing team has the experience in both the driver and technical departments to overcome this setback, so you can expect a strong comeback at the next race.
So, it isn’t all doom and gloom, but lessons will be learned from this race by all teams and taken to Le Mans, which is only a month away. Hopefully you have your tickets sorted for the 24 Heures du Mans, if not, Porsche Road & Race will once again be there to bring you all the news and interviews.
Written by: Glen Smale
Images by: Virtual Motorpix/Glen Smale & John Mountney