WEC Season 9 Opener: 6 Hours of Spa 2021
The 9th season of the WEC launched at the iconic Spa-Francorchamps circuit in the last week of April this year. Alongside changes to the 6-race calendar were long-awaited changes to cars, categories, and their regulations. The most visible change, the introduction of the Hypercar category, is just a hint at the much larger shifts that have brought in new teams, new drivers, and challenges to the 2021 campaign.
Within GR Racing, there were yet more changes taking place. The team were heading into the season with a new driver, 19-year-old ELMS LMP3 champion Tom Gamble, and a new car in the form of the latest edition of the Porsche 911 RSR 19.
Joining Gamble in the car this year are team principal Mike Wainwright and the team’s veteran driver’s Ben Barker, setting out in his 6th season of the FIA WEC championship. An exciting season to be a part of, the 2021 season is set to hold as much promise and excitement for GR Racing as it does for fans.
For two days in the week leading up to the season opener, 35 cars got their first race miles on the clock and a chance to see what they and their competitors could do around the 7-kilometre track.
Throughout four sessions over two days, the pace of the prologue continued to get faster and faster. Cars, their drivers, and the track were rapidly bedding into a new era of racing.
GR Racing closed the first day’s running after 67 racing laps and a time of 2:16.088. Elsewhere on the grid, LMP2 champions United Autosports and LMGTE Pro Champions Porsche were demonstrating a pace of their own that hadn’t eased at all over the winter months.
There was more good news on day two as the No. 86 car gained another seconds pace to sit 4th in class during the morning session. With 144 laps complete and barely more than a second separating the top 10 GTE Am competitors, the prologue gave us a tantalising glimpse of a densely packed and highly charged season ahead.
As the race weekend opened and free practice got underway, lap times continued to fall across every category. The track looked to be improving as drivers found more and more confidence in their machines. The No. 86 GR Racing found its way into the two-minute fourteens as competition, expectations, and pace were continuously dialled up.
In the much anticipated Hypercar battle, Toyota were just starting to show their hand after a steady introduction to the category. Both the No. 7 and No. 8 cars were now showing pace that could lead the field, but they were far from uncontested.
The 3rd Hypercar in the race, the No. 36 Alpine Elf Matmut, and the No.22 United Autosports LMP2 were both within striking distance of the reigning WEC champions.
Included amongst changes to this year’s regulations are also changes to the qualifying format. For GTE Am cars in particular, the old way of pace-setting—calculating an average across two drivers—has been shelved in favour of a solo effort from each car’s bronze rated driver.
A new 10-minute shoot out for track position and lap time was to prove to be an event-filled format in its very first outing.
Three minutes into the session, the No.77 Dempsey-Proton Porsche lost control climbing up through Raidillon, spinning off and collecting the tyre barrier with a heavy thud. Its driver, Christian Reid, walked away from the car, thankfully uninjured by the impact.
With running red-flagged and no times logged yet, the session was reset with a little under 7 minutes to go. Then, immediately as running got underway, the No.56 Team Project 1 Porsche had a carbon copy incident with Egidio Perfetti behind the wheel. Both drivers unharmed by their high-speed incidents.
Ten minutes of qualifying became a 6-minute shoot-out for position with each driver left just enough time for two flying laps amongst the crowd of LMGTE Pro and LMGTE Am cars.
With Mike Wainwright qualifying for GR Racing, the No, 86 car climbed to 8th in class with a time of 2:18.813.
Elsewhere, the No. 92 Porsche GT continued to dominate the GTE Pro battle, over a second ahead of its field. In the Hypercar field, Toyota locked out the front row with the No. 22 United Autosports securing 3rd place against the No. 36 Alpine.
There were armfuls of races to watch and plenty of action to spectate for the 6-hours to come on Saturday.
At The Race
Race circuits typically fall into two categories. There are newly designed tracks with abundant run-off, large margins for error, and chances to recover trackside. Spa is not one of these tracks. Spa is old school, narrow, and bordered by gravel and barriers barely a meter from the tarmac. Spa, in short, holds punishment in waiting.
Last year the track claimed two cars in wet conditions before the race got underway. This year the No. 86 GR Racing car frustratingly became the 3rd Porsche to drop out in just 24 hours. Team owner Mike Wainwright described the issue as “very disappointing but these things happen”.
As the green flag dropped racing got underway, the on-track action promised by the early season build-up didn’t disappoint.
United Autosports No. 22 car fought with the LMH contenders, at one point leading the race, before the Hypercars could deploy their immense power resources to climb to the top of the hill in first and second.
In LMGTE Am, the No. 77 Porsche fought its way back into contention after an overnight rebuild. Despite tall odds—the Dempsey-Proton car ran in fifth early doors and looked strong contenders for a podium position.
As cars settled into race distance, the LMGTE Pro battle was dominated by tyre strategy more than most. The No. 92 Porsche extended its lead to 26 seconds in the first half of the race, chased by the AF Corse Ferrari’s behind.
Throughout the race, the No. 36 Alpine LMH was able to put in a strong performance to stay within striking distance of the Toyota Hybrid machines. Searching for a mistake, a glitch, or a mechanical issue—Alpine were ready to pounce given slight opportunity.
Eventually, opportunity came. The No. 7 car, suffering a heavy collision and slew of mechanical or electrical issues in the later hours, fell to 3rd position. The No. 8 car held off to secure the win.
In a similarly fated opening race, GTE Am’s latest entrants, Cetilar, secured 2nd place to the No. 83 AF Corse Ferrari. The No. 77 Porsche that had initially recovered through the field, was forced to retire with 138 laps complete.
The No. 22 car held off its competitors to secure another win with a performance that looked as if it could challenge Toyota for overall 3rd at points.
While new cars, new regulations, and new teams are often expected to create a recipe for attrition and retirements, the 2021 opener to the 9th season of the WEC saw 29 of the 31 starting cars classified with 6 hours on the clock.
Looking Ahead to a Season to Come
For the No. 86 GR Racing, it was a week filled with all of the hard work, preparation, and training with none of the pay-off in the close fought-battles and chase for position they’d expect to be involved in.
With five rounds still to go, starting with Portimão in June, there’s plenty of racing laps left in the 2021 calendar to apply the skills, experience, and knowledge gained in the early hours of the season.