8 Hours of Bahrain 2020

Mike Wainwright‘s Gulf Racing returned to the desert to close out the longest and most unusual WEC season at the Bahrain international circuit. Since round 1 in Silverstone, 440 days ago, we’ve seen 48 hours of racing in a series extended further than even the year-long ‘super season’ of 2018.

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The Bahrain circuit is one where Gulf Racing have performed remarkably well at in the past. Their last outing, 11 months ago, saw the team finish with a podium position to bring the first half of the season to a successful close. This time around Belgian driver Alessio Picariello joined Ben Barker and Mike Wainwright to contest an intense season finale.

Cars lined up for the final 8 hours of racing with multiple title battles still alive in GTE and LMP2 categories. Since leaving Texas in February, almost nothing this year has been predictable so far and the next 8 hours were set up to be no different either.

Tough Racing

At 2 pm in a hot desert race, the first laps of running were never going to be easy. Early stints of racing were as much about care and management as they were about outright speed. Tyres were struggling on a highly abrasive track while drivers seemed to be struggling with hot track conditions. Mike Wainwright started first for Gulf from 9th in class, flanked by the Dempsey-Proton cars front and rear.

Turn 1, lap 1, and ultimately the first stint passed by remarkably clean for a field of cars with a whole lot to play for. Aston Martin’s 98 car set off at the front of the GTE AM field, chased down by TF Sport’s number 90 Aston Martin. Gulf were applying pressure of their own on Dempsey-Proton’s 77, hunting out early positions in the race’s closest fought field.

In GTE PRO, Aston were in yet another fight as the 95 applied pressure on the pole position 92 Porsche for the race lead. Already champions in LMP2, the 22 car took-off from the front and looked set to disappear over the horizon. If anyone thought they were about to settle in for a quiet 8-hour closer, they were to be badly mistaken.

Changing Fortunes

The first hour of racing would come to look very, very different to the last. TF Sport’s number 90 looked to have armfuls of pace over AF Corse’s 83 struggling in last. More than enough to secure the championship crown from a leading position. When the 83 received a drive-through penalty to add to their woes, the GTE AM championship battle seemed all but over.

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Gulf found themselves exiting the first hour in 10th with a lot of work still to do.

Next up, Picariello jumped in the car for his first racing stint. Getting behind the wheel in a new team for the racing weekend. You could forgive the young Belgian driver for taking some time to settle in and get up to speed. That wasn’t to be the case. The Le Mans Series champion was off to a lightning start in the 86—making up places over the competition to bring the car to 5th before the end of his first stint.

In LMP2, United were in for a shock of their own as their closest two competitors, Jackie Chan DC Racing and Jota motorsport, appeared capable of pit-stops 4-5 seconds faster than the championship-winning team. Their race was about to get a lot closer and a whole lot tougher.

Desert Sunset

Ben Barker jumped in the car for Gulf racing next as a spectacular sunset fell over Bahrain. The backdrop could have scarcely looked more spectacular if it was scripted in advance. Neither fully dark track, nor fully daytime running, the unparalleled floodlit coverage of the circuit made the event even more unique still.

Conditions which had challenged some and benefited others in the first two hours were beginning to change. The balance was shifting in ways which were making it difficult to predict and even harder to race. A full-course yellow created opportune low-cost pit-stops for many teams—including the Gulf 86. Mike Wainwright took the wheel again and raced into the floodlit night to hold on to a top 5 position.

Throughout the next stint, the number 90 car looked to get both hands on the GTE championship. Needing just a handful of points relative to their competitors, the AF Corse stuck at the back of the field, few would have bet against TF Sport lifting the trophy. Aston’s 98 Led through half-distance with Team Project 1’s 57 close behind. Gulf racing pitted, Picariello taking on another stint behind the wheel.

Track debris forced a safety car just minutes later, providing opportunities for some and traps for others. Taking their chances when they came, Gulf ran out of the period in 3rd position, chasing down championship leaders TF Sport.

Another solid stint from the Belgian driver saw the 86 car take second and apply pressure for first on former F1 driver Giancarlo Fisichella in AF Corse’s sister 54 car. Starting from the rear of the grid, the 86 car was now in a fight for the lead of the race.

Unpredictable Racing

In a reversal of fortunes, the 22 United collided with their competitors on approach to the pit lane. Little damage done, but signs of a momentum shift and a resulting penalty still to come. Fuel problems left the car limping home to end its next stint. Battle for LMP2 victory was shifting to a 2-car contest between the 37 Jackie Chan DC Racing and the 38 Jota.

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In the GTE AM Battle, Gulf set-off into the final two hours leading the tightest contest on track from 1st position. Picariello was back in the car and putting down blistering times to keep the 86 in the fight out front. Behind, the 83 car had fought their way into the race too and looked like strong title contenders once again. TF Sport struggled from mid-race, finding themselves in 8th place and struggling for pace.

The desert race had all but turned on its head. With 60 minutes of a strange racing season left to run, it wasn’t finished yet.

Finding the Flag

It was the Team Project 1 car, Gulf’s closest championship rivals, that were to prove they had the tyres and the pace remaining to come through the field and win the GTE AM race. The 38 Jota car, battling hard to stay in the lead, lost out to a last-minute dive from Jackie Chan DC Racing to take the final win of the LMP2 season. United’s 22 car crossed the line in 6th, enough for two of its drivers to lift the driver’s championship title.

The desert heat had barely cooled into the early evening and neither had the remaining GTE AM battles. The 86 car battled the field to hold a 5th place finish, 2 seconds behind the 54 AF Corse. Four places and 232 laps ahead of where they started 8 hours ago.

As the cars crossed the line they sent-off a turbulent, unpredictable, and exceptionally difficult season behind them. The LMP1 category closed with the Toyota number 7 ahead of the number 8 sister car. Less of a swansong than fans would have hoped, but excitement for the Hypercars of future races and seasons.

Gulf Racing had a send-off of their own too. The final running for this year’s Porsche RSR, replaced by another for the next season to come—whenever and however that may happen in the months ahead. Following 48 hours of racing against dozens of teams across 440 days and 8 tracks, we finally bid farewell to the 2019-20 season and look forward to the racing that lies ahead.

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