6 Hours Of Spa-Francorchamps
For 6 months the iconic Rolex clock has stood still over racetracks and pit-lanes worldwide. An interval lasting longer than some racing seasons. 172 days since the last chequered flag dropped we were once again racing through the valleys and hills of the stunning Belgian landscape.
If teams were searching for a return to the norm after a strange year of chaos—Spa was, in retrospect, the wrong place to look. In qualifying, Rebellion took a handy pole position at the front of the grid, 8/10ths ahead of championship leaders Toyota. In LMP2, the number 29 Racing Team Netherlands car started from the rear as timing prevented the car from setting a second lap time.
Racing luck and good fortune weren’t on the grid for the 86 Gulf car either as a compromised lap saw the cars average pace reach well below potential for 27th place. With pace leading cars and points hungry teams mixed throughout the field, Friday’s running proved to be an appetiser to a thrilling Saturday race still to come.
Spa-Francorchamps is often listed amongst the world’s great racing circuits. In part, because of legendary corners such as Eu Rouge and Blanchimont. In part, because of the difficult bankings and vast elevation changes drivers experience throughout the lap. In large part too because of the intense and ever-changing weather of the surrounding Ardennes forest.
With less than an hour to go the final ingredient of a magical Belgian recipe was added into the mix. Rain fell as if a downpour switch had been flipped in race control. Cars were struggling on track simply making their way round to the grid.
The race, it was decided, would begin behind the safety car. With rain still falling, albeit lighter than before, 29 cars began working hard to return water back into the sky.
Mike Wainwright took the difficult opening stint for Gulf, getting racing underway after 15 minutes of running. If drivers were feeling rusty, out of practice, or in need of a warm-up after a long enforced hiatus—there were no symptoms on show here.
Each and every car looked to be relishing conditions which seemed near-on impossible from outside the cockpit. Wainwright made up one position in the first racing lap and took another from a struggling GTE Pro not long after.
Both Toyota cars immediately took positions from the Rebellion at the front.
Testing Times In Difficult Battles
As the one and only race to come between lockdown and Le Mans, Saturday’s six hours was the first and last chance to see what teams and machines could achieve in anger. As a test of skill, temperament, organisation, and equipment you could scarcely order up better conditions for the day.
As racing got underway, for the first time on a dry track, battles for position boiled over fast. Ben Barker took the wheel for Gulf, piling on expertise and pace to bring the team rapidly up through the field.
Surprisingly, it took over an hours racing and the introduction of dry weather tires before a safety car was needed once again. The 98 Aston Martin requiring only track-side recovery from the gravel trap. For fans, a 20-minute reset and closed-up field weren’t at all unwelcome.
By the end of Barker’s first stint, the Gulf car had climbed from eighth place to lead the class. In LMP2, the last-placed number 29 Racing Team Netherlands were performing mirror image feats, climbing from last on the grid to lead their category too.
At the next round of stops Andrew Watson climbed into the Gulf as more rain began to pour down. With 3 and a half hours left to run the safety car was called again to temper impossible track conditions.
A Two Race Kind Of Day
The field was released again with 3 hours racing to go. While the first 3 hours were dominated by ever-changing conditions, the next 3 were gearing up for clear sunshine and a track growing steadily faster with time.
GTE AM presented the most turbulent field on track by far. The pole position Dempsey proton had fallen from first to last and returned back through the field once again. Gulf had climbed from last to lead the category before rain began to fall.
Damp kerbs and wet track off the racing line made the next hour of running the most treacherous high-risk portion to come.
The Gulf car was amongst many to be caught out by damp lines and slick tires. Quick reactions and a lighting recovery saved the car, narrowly, from the waiting gravel traps. In rapid fashion, with no small amount of skill, the nose was back facing the direction of travel once again. A handful of positions being the only penalty paid for the tough conditions out on track.
With 80 minutes left to run, the number 36 Signatech Alpine wasn’t so fortunate. A dramatic high-speed crash through Blanchimont saw Thomas Laurent collected by the barriers. The young driver thankfully walked from the incident without major injury.
The field was released from the fourth and final safety car with an hour of racing left. The final run, a one hour sprint to the line.
Racing luck struck the Gulf team one more time as Mike Wainwright concluded his final stint to hand over the car to Ben Barker. Mechanical issues kept the team stuck in the pit during the most crucial minutes of the race. A 30 second stop rapidly turned into a 4-5 minute repair.
Racing For The Win
As a sighter for the upcoming Le Mans race, Spa had many small victories wrapped up in one 6 hour contest. Throughout the field reliability was exceptional. Even in the face of atrocious conditions and difficult racing, only one car remained unclassified.
Despite Toyota’s electrical gremlins, ByKolles sensor issues, and Gulf’s pit repairs, no mechanical failures resulted in complete racing retirement. Having run in rain, cold, heat, and sun most teams will be counting off the positives from a remarkably tough contest.
A difficult challenge for the team, Gulf have plenty of positives to take into the closing races of the season. Remarkable pace from the car and its drivers in a tightly contested grid being far from the least.
The 2020 WEC running of Spa-Francorchamps was a race which had everything at once while looking, on paper, like a traditional WEC outing. Toyota took the race 1-2 at the front while the pole-position number 22 car took the LMP2 crown. Porsche GT took the GTE PRO win with AF Corse securing the AM category.
Yet, beneath the surface, the race was anything but ordinary. What could have been simple, valuable, essential data collection for the run-up to Le Mans became one of the most hotly contested and difficult battles of the year so far.
We’re back racing once again and for fans, drivers, and owners alike it turns out to be everything we’ve missed and more.