With four races down in the 2019-20 FIA World Endurance Championship, it’s time to reflect on what has been a chaotic and intriguing opening half of the season, and what to look forward to for the rest of the campaign.
Round 1: 4 Hours of Silverstone
When the circus rolled into Silverstone for the opening round of the season back in September for a shortened four-hour event, many were quick to assume that Toyota’s balance of performance deduction would bring the LMP1 field much closer together. And to an extent, those people were correct. But when qualifying came around, the #7 Toyota TS050 of Kamui Kobayashi, Mike Conway & Jose Maria Lopez claimed a dominant pole position ahead of the sister #8 car of Brendon Hartley, Sebastien Buemi & Kazuki Nakajima, with the Rebellions and Ginettas following in close proximity. In GTE Pro, the #51 and #71 Ferrari AF Corse cars outpaced the Aston Martins and Porsches to lock out the front row in a reduced field after BMW and Ford departed the series.
At the start of the race, the Toyota pair moved into an early lead, pulling away slowly the Rebellions. Meanwhile, the Ginettas were being attacked by LMP2 cars and losing lots of time in trying to repass them. Soon enough, the predicted rain hit the race, and chaos ensued. Multiple cars attempted to stay out on slicks, including the lead Toyotas, but this was not the best strategy. When the rain did stop, an accident between the #6 Ginetta of Oliver Jarvis and the third place GTE Pro #71 AF Corse Ferrari driven by Miguel Molina brought the safety car out once again.
The Toyotas assumed control again as a fierce battle raged in LMP2, with newcomers Cool Racing taking the lead from Signatech Alpine and Racing Team Nederland. In GTE Pro, the remaining #51 Ferrari overhauled the Porsches to claim the top spot as the track began to dry – but not for long. The Ferrari received a drive-through penalty late in the race, letting the chasing Porsches back through. Overall, it was Toyota’s day as the Japanese marque claimed a one-two finish to kick off the eighth season of the World Endurance Championship, with a Porsche 1-2 in GTE Pro.
Round 2: 6 Hours of Fuji
WEC arrived at Fuji Speedway for Round 2 on a surprisingly beautiful autumnal Saturday for qualifying, and it was the Porsches that dominated both categories to take pole position in both GTE Pro and Am. In LMP2 the #37 Jackie Chan DC Racing claimed pole, but all eyes were on LMP1 to see if the balance of performance would hinder the Toyotas after their win in Silverstone. The answer? Not so much. The #8 Toyota of Brendon Hartley, Sebastien Buemi and Kazuki Nakajima led an all-Toyota front row ahead of the solitary Ginetta and Rebellion cars.
At the start of the 60th WEC race, the Toyotas led the pack down into Turn 1, before the Ginetta of Egor Orudzhev tried an audacious move to try and snatch an early lead, unsuccessfully. The Rebellion of Bruno Senna snatched second place from the #7 Toyota and set after the lead car, right before being caught out in traffic and eventually having to settle for third in class. In GTE Pro it was a close affair as the two Ferrari’s led early on, closely followed by both Porsche and Aston Martin cars. It wasn’t too long before the Aston’s long run pace began to show as they took a commanding lead and set off in 1-2 formation.
A full course yellow for debris just as rain threatened sprang a surprise on the field as cars scrambled for pit stops in all four categories, but it was those that stayed out on slick tyres who made the right call as the track dried quickly. During all of this, Racing Team Nederlands’ Nyck de Vries put in one of the stints of the season so far to claw back a huge deficit, snatch the lead and take victory in LMP2. The #90 TF Sport Aston Martin took the honours in GTE Am, while the #95 Aston Martin won the GTE Pro class to make it a clean sweep for the British manufacturer. In LMP1 it was the #8 Toyota that struck back after being beaten by the sister #7 in Silverstone, levelling the championship after two rounds.
Round 3: 4 Hours of Shanghai
Arriving in Shanghai for round three, it quickly became clear that we would see the first example of a heavily handicapped balance of performance in LMP1. Rebellion and Ginetta held a pace advantage over Toyota for the first time, and would threaten to become to first non-hybrid car to win a WEC race since the inaugural 12 Hours of Sebring in 2012. The characteristics of the Porsche suited the flow of the Shanghai circuit well and took pole in both GTE Am and Pro. Silverstone winners Cool Racing took pole in LMP2, but the real surprise was in LMP1 as the #1 Rebellion took a sensational pole position, a whole 1.2 seconds faster than the rest of the field. The Toyotas were languishing down in 4th and 5th after the balance of performance adjustment.
There was an air of excitement on race day as everyone waited for the first true challenge to the hybrid dominance that has engulfed the WEC for the last 7 years. The drama began almost immediately as the lights went green, with the pole-sitting Rebellion not getting away, allowing both Ginettas and the #8 Toyota to leapfrog into the Top 3 before Turn 1. Not for long though, as the Ginettas were both given a drive though penalty for jumping the start. This allowed the #8 Toyota back into the race, but it was no match for the Rebellion, which was surging through the field after a poor start from pole. The #1 Rebellion of Bruno Senna, Gustavo Menezes and Norman Nato took the first non-hybrid overall victory in the World Endurance Championship since Sebring 2012.
In GTE AM, the Aston Martins dominated with the #90 TF Sport car leading and eventually taking victory in the class. The Leading #95 Aston Martin in GTE Pro had a severe tyre delamination, causing a FCY and gifting the class win to the #51 Ferrari AF Corse of James Calado and Alessandro Pier Guidi. In LMP2, it was the #38 JOTA Sport car driven by Antonio Felix da Costa, Anthony Davidson and Roberto Gonzalez that took the honours.
Round 4: 8 Hours of Bahrain
When WEC arrived in Bahrain for the final race of 2019 and the half-way mark of this season’s championship, one thing was for sure – the balance of performance in LMP1 was creating a three-way fight for honours. The regulation has certainly drawn its critics, but it’s given the non-hybrid cars a chance to race for overall victory. Rebellion and Ginetta have proven to be more than a match for the might of Toyota on multiple occasions in the opening three rounds. Qualifying under lights provided some interesting action as the cars shimmered in the desert night, and it was the #57 Project Porsche of Ben Keating & Larry ten Voorde that claimed pole position in GTE Am. In GTE Pro, Porsche locked out the front row, with the #91 car of Gianmaria Bruni and Richard Lietz taking pole from the #92 car in a dominant display. In LMP2, United Autosports claimed their first pole position of the season, with Paul di Resta and Phil Hanson setting the benchmark times. Once again, Toyota didn’t make the front row in LMP1. The Rebellion of Bruno Senna, Gustavo Menezes and Norman Nato took pole by just 0.014 seconds from the #5 Ginetta. We were in for an intriguing eight hours of racing the next day.
The drama began almost immediately, as the front row drivers of Rebellion’s Bruno Senna and Ginetta’s Charlie Robertson tangled into Turn 2, causing chaos behind and allowing the #7 Toyota to take a comfortable lead. After the opening lap shenanigans, the Safety Car was scrambled to clear the debris in the first sector. The lead #7 Toyota extended its lead after the safety car period, and it would eventually become a Toyota 1-2 victory – and an extended championship lead – after the sole Rebellion lost two laps with a gear synchronisation issue and both Ginettas ran into trouble.
It was a closely fought battle in the GTE Pro class all day and night, with Ferrari, Porsche and Aston Martin all staying within a few tenths of each other for the majority of the eight hours, until the #95 Aston Martin emerged victorious. The #57 Project One Porsche that took a dominant victory in GTE Am, securing their first win of the season. In LMP2, the #22 United Autosports car took their first win of the season.
The next round of the WEC Championship is the 6 Hours Lone Star Le Mans at Circuit of The Americas on February 23. WEC stays stateside for the 1000 miles of Sebring on March 20 before heading back to Europe for the 6 Hours of Spa on April 25 and then the final race of the season, the 24 Hours of Le Mans on June 13-14 in what promises to be an exciting conclusion to this year’s championship.