The #8 Toyota Gazoo Racing GR010 Hybrid of Sébastien Buemi, Kazuki Nakajima and Brendon Hartley took a hard-fought win at the 2021 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps. It was by no means plain sailing for the Japanese manufacturer, as the #36 Alpine A480 kept pace with the pair of brand-new works hypercars. The second Toyota suffered a number of issues and finished third.
The new era of prototype racing began with a leap into the unknown at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps. As the green flag was waved, the #7 car led from pole with a gaggle of LMP2 challenges fighting for positions close behind. With the performance between Hypercar and LMP2 reduced significantly compared to the old LMP1 rules, the #22 United Autosports USA Oreca 07 was able to edge ahead of the #8 Toyota on lap one. Order was soon restored, however, as the works Toyotas and the “grandfathered” Alpine LMP1 car established a lead of roughly 30 seconds by the end of the first hour.
By the first pit stops, the #8 Toyota had caught and overtaken the #7 machine and seemed to have a clear advantage on pace. Without the benefit of a hybrid system, the #36 Alpine pitted earlier than the Toyotas – as expected – but managed to remain with touching distance of the lead works cars. In fact, the Alpine led for a significant period of the race after the second round of pit stops.
The second round of pit stops proved costly for the #8 crew. A fuelling error caused #8 car to undercut its minimum refuelling time, which the stewards penalised with a 35-second stop-and-hold penalty. This relegated the #8 machine back into third and gave Alpine and the sister Toyota the upper hand.
At the halfway stage, Alpine led the #7 Toyota by just two seconds, but hour four saw a major shake-up in the order. Firstly, there was contact between the #7 Toyota and the #91 Porsche at the Bus Stop Chicane, from which the lead car emerged apparently unscathed. Then, with 90 minutes of the race remaining, Kamui Kobayashi misjudged his braking point at the Brussels Hairpin and came to a halt in the gravel trap. Some smart marshalling freed the Japanese driver, but the chance of the win had disappeared.
The #8 car had a trouble-free race following its pit-stop foible. Some smart fuel-saving from Nakajima towards the end of the race meant that the new GR010 Hybrid was able to save a pit stop over the Alpine A480 – aided by a full-course yellow period in which cars run at 80 kph. Sébastien Buemi took the chequered flag with a comfortable one-minute advantage.
Porsche domination in GTE Pro
The #92 Porsche 911 RSR-19 of Kévin Estre and Neel Jani completed a dominating win in GTE Pro after a faultless performance. The Franco-Swiss pairing’s only setback was a slow puncture midway through the race. Fortunately, it came towards the end of a regular stint and so had little impact on their strategy.
The second works Porsche of Gianmaria Bruni and Richard Lietz also had tyre trouble to contend with, with two punctures of their own – one as a result of the aforementioned contact with the #7 Toyota. The repair work cost the #91 crew a lap and they would ultimately finish fifth and last in GTE Pro.
Thirty seconds behind the winning Porsche was the #51 AF Corse Ferrari 488 GTE EVO of Alessandro Pier Guidi and James Calado. Third went to the sister AF Corse machine driven by Daniel Serra and Miguel Molina. Antonio Garcia and Oliver Gavin finished fourth and were unable to mark Corvette’s first European race with the new mid-engined C8.R and Gavin’s final race before retirement with a podium.
United Autosports USA class of the LMP2 field
The #22 United Autosports USA Oreca 07 dominated the LMP2 class in an impressive show of strength by the defending champions. Felipe Albuquerque, Phil Hanson and new silver driver Fabio Scherer looked imperious throughout the weekend, topping every single FP session, securing pole, winning the race and setting the fastest lap. So convincing was their performance that they managed to lap the entire LMP2 field except the two JOTA cars by the end of the race.
Second and third went the way of JOTA. However, a drive-through penalty in the final 15 minutes cost the #28 machine of Sean Galael, Stoffel Vandoorne and Tom Blomqvist second place. Instead, the #28 would finish third behind the #38 JOTA Oreca of Ricardo Gonzalez, Antonio Felix da Costa and Anthony Davidson.
GTE Am full of drama
There was plenty of drama and stories in the GTE Am category, as has become customary in the pro-am class. Victory went to the #83 AF Corse Ferrari of Niklas Nielsen, Alessandro Rovera and Francois Perrodo, as the defending champions in the class made a perfect start to 2021.
Second position went the way of the #33 TF Sport crew, who finished 40 seconds down the road and could well have been in contention for the win had Ben Keating not been punted off by a combination of LMP2 drivers Roman Rusinov and Juan-Pablo Montoya in the early stages of the race. Cetilar Racing took a much-deserved podium in their GTE Am debut and were clearly delighted as the podium champagne flowed.
To say that is was a weekend to forget for Porsche would be a massive understatement. Of the five 911 RSR-19s entered in the first round of season, only one would finish and three wouldn’t even start the race! Project 1 bore the brunt of most of the bad luck, withdrawing both of its cars pre-race following accidents at Monday’s Prologue and during qualifying on the Friday.
The #86 GR Racing Porsche failed to make it even to the grid after an accident on a warm-up lap. The most-heartbreaking fate befell the #77 Dempsey Proton Racing machine, which retired with just ten minutes of the race remaining.
The next round of the season sees the teams travel to Portugal for the 8 Hours of Portimão on 13 June.
Click here for a full run-down of the race results.