8 Hours of Portimão 2021
The challenges of endurance racing tend to come thick and fast in the WEC, and they rarely build faster than they did during the inaugural running of the 8 hours of Portimão. For GR racing, it was a chance to return to the track they’d demonstrated armfuls of pace in as a guest entry in the 4 hours of Portimão ELMS race late last year.
The biggest challenge this year, however, would come from tyre life and hot conditions that scarcely compared to November weekend. With track temperature peaking near 50 degrees C, few teams were having a straightforward day maintaining both pace and rubber to last the distance.
Twenty-four hours prior, Saturday’s early-evening qualifying session provided a preview of the intensely tactical battle to come. Portimão, a 4.6-kilometre track shared amongst 17 cars at a time, proved difficult for teams to find the space and momentum to build a clean lap. Despite track temperatures beginning for the six o’clock start, tyres still looked to be losing their magic into their 3rd flying lap.
With fans eagerly excited and teams on a nervous hunt for points and positions, the weekend was set to provide a challenging trial in every category.
At the front of the grid, the No. 36 Signatech Alpine Elf Matmut emerged as a competitive challenger to Toyota’s twin hybrid cars. The French team put in a qualifying time almost a tenth ahead of the number 8 car, proving they had both the intent and pace to fight the reigning champions.
The second weekend in the championship was also a chance for new entrant’s Glickenhaus Racing to join the series in the Hypercar class. Qualifying 11th overall with their number 709 car, the team had perhaps the single most challenging race outside of Le Mans to get early track time and test their machine through a full race weekend.
In the GTE battle, the No. 56 Team Project One narrowly clinched pole position ahead of the Dempsey-Proton No. 77 car. Again, the GTE AM battle emerged as the closest competition on the grid. Each team throughout the top 10 separated by little more than a tenth of a second on average.
For GR Racing, qualifying 10th in their category, Portimão was a chance to jump into the season with both feet and put serious racing kilometres on the car. The 8 hours ahead both promised and delivered on all the track time, challenges, and racing the team had prepared for over a long winter break.
On race day, as we approached an 11 am June start in Portimão, racing chatter shifted to how both the cars and their drivers would fare through 8 hours of blistering heat. The challenge and duration of the team’s November contest was being scaled up in every direction here.
It didn’t take a full lap before the race was brought to life in every category. The pole position Jota car in LMP2, spun by its sister car and relegated to last place. Alpine, making a convincing and sustained bid to hold off both Toyota cars on sheer pace alone.
By the first round of stops, drivers were already complaining of tyres feeling excessively worn and rapidly losing performance. With the race still defined by the minutes rather than the hours run so far, it was clear that teams who could hold out on old rubber would be in a prime spot as the chequered flag fell.
The choice of tyre compound, made before the race, was coming to define the weekend for all teams now. Some benefited richly from conditions, others hampered by them instead. The softer, high-grip rubber proved to be too soft for the excessive heat and abrasion they suffered at the Portimão track. Teams holding the harder compound tyre, while forced to maintain some caution still, went through the race with a distinct advantage in hand.
The No. 86 GR Racing closed out the first hour 9th in its category with 35 laps complete. Shortly after, Ben Barker took the driver’s seat from Mike Wainwright, holding position amongst tough competition and even tougher conditions.
By the end of Barker’s first double stint, the tyres coming off the car looked in perilous shape. Soft rubber on hot track proving to be a dangerous combination. The first half of the race proving as tough as any the team have seen so far.
At half-distance, the dominant efficiency of the Toyota machines looked set to decide the Hypercar battle. The Glickenhaus No. 709 car was badly damaged by a major collision on track but still running after an hour spent on repairs in the garage. A tough test session being made even tougher still.
With cars so densely packed within the comparatively short 4.6 km circuit, running in and amongst traffic and maintaining strong lap times became a challenge of its own. Amongst the racing laps, there was on track scrapes and collisions that left many cars in LMP and GTE battle-scarred and damaged. Remarkably few, however, out of contention entirely.
The latter half of the race saw the GR Racing car excel in pace and handling as conditions began to cool and the car’s softer tyres came to life.
With less than 3 hours to go, the race’s only safety car emerged to retrieve the No. 44 ARC Bratislava from the gravel. Thirteen minutes of safety car running being one of only two short breaks from an otherwise relentless pace. The interruption proved to be an upset to many on-track battles.
For Toyota, it meant a more difficult and less assured battle with their competitors in the No. 36 car. A chance for Alpine to make up lost ground and overtake on track. For the No. 56 team Project 1 and No. 47 Cetilar, it was a chance to reclaim track position and resume their fight at the head of the GTE Am race.
The No. 86 crossed the line in 9th place, taking away more than just a bag full of points from the event. Over eight hours, 271 laps, and more than 1200km of running—the brand new package of car and drivers showed an increase in performance and form set to make formidable competition in the season to come.
It was a particularly notable weekend for the team’s young new driver Tom Gamble who came away from Portugal having completed 99 laps in the car and set some exceptional lap times in every session.
In the Hypercar battle, Toyota took a 1-2 finish with the Alpine car coming home just over a minute behind the 2nd placed No. 7 car. Perhaps most remarkable of all was the recovery of Both Jota cars from their first lap spin to take first and second ahead of reigning champions No. 22 in the LMP2 contest.
In GTE Pro, AF Corse’s No 51 and 52 Ferrari’s took the top 2 spots ahead of the Porsche 91 and 92 cars. In GTE Am, the Cetilar No. 47 took the top step, narrowly beating out the No. 56 Team Project 1.
With two races checked off the six-race calendar, both the pressure and pace continue to climb for all of the WEC entrants. For GR Racing, lessons learnt and insights gained will be some of the team’s most valuable assets in races to come.
Next up, the 6 Hours of Monza awaits—a high-speed challenge in July likely to mimic the setup and preparation taking place for Le Mans following close behind.