Toyota Victorious in the Desert

Toyota made it five wins for the season in Bahrain with a nail-biting victory in the 6 Hours of Bahrain ahead of the two factory Porsche 919 Hybrids. It wasn’t all plain sailing for the Japanese manufacturer though, with the championship-leading #8 car driven by Anthony Davidson and Sébastian Buemi suffering alternator issues two hours in. The #47 KCMG Oreca-Nissan took the LMP2 class victory. In GTE, the #51 Ferrari of Gianmaria Bruni and Toni Vilander triumphed in the Pro class, while the #95 “Danish Dynamite” Aston Martin took the spoils in GTE Am.
LMP1: In a race filled with strategy and intrigue, it was the two Toyota TS040s of Sébastian Buemi and Alex Wurz that made the early running, making their way past the pole-sitting #14 Porsche 919 Hybrid on lap five. A full-course yellow for debris collection on lap 17 threw pit stop schedules out the window, with all of the leading cars choosing to stop except the #14 Dumas-driven Porsche. The Toyotas quickly established a substantial 30-second lead, with the drivers’ championship-leading #8 car around eight seconds ahead of the #7. Surprisingly, the Audi R18 e-tron quattros driven by Marcel Fässler and Lucas di Grassi were the quickest cars outright, with Fässler and then Lotterer setting a string of fastest laps. However, the team from Ingolstadt was unable to retain the pace over the course of a stint.

Drama then hit the #7 Toyota with Anthony Davidson now behind the wheel. The Brit was told to pit after just ten laps of his stint with an alternator problem on lap 57 and would go on to lose half an hour while the problem was fixed. It was a major blow to Toyota’s hopes of wrapping up the manufacturers’ championship, and the title is set to go down to the wire at the last round in Brazil.

With the #7 in trouble, Porsche grasped the initiative and kept in touch with the leading Toyota of Wurz, Stéphane Sarrazin and Mike Conway. It was a game of cat-and-mouse on the pit stops, and with the Porsche #14 out of kilter with the rest of the field after stopping during the full-course yellow, it was unclear how the strategies would play out until the last half an hour. As the cars completed their final stops, the battle for the lead was on a knife edge, with Alex Wurz in the #7 car coming out of the pits just in front of Neel Jani in the #14 Porsche. Wurz trailed the leading #20 car with Mark Webber at the wheel by just over 30 seconds, but it was due one last stop.

Webber’s splash put him just over twenty seconds behind the Toyota, but the Australian was unable to make up the one second per lap that was required and Alex Wurz took the chequered flag for the #7 car’s first victory of the season. The two Porsche 919 Hybrids rounded out the top three, but they may be left wondering what might have been after the early strategy call on the #14 car. Despite a sixth-placed finish, Anthony Davidson and Sébastian Buemi also wrapped up the FIA World Endurance Drivers’ Championship and will race as the #1 entry in 2015.

In the privateers’ class, the #9 Lotus CLM P1/01 was unable to complete a lap in the hands of Pierre Kaffer, stopping on the exit of turn five. This left the Rebellion R-Ones unchallenged and, with no mechanical troubles to speak of, the Swiss-entered prototypes had a clean run to secure a third successive 1-2.

LMP2: There was also drama in the much-vaunted showdown between SMP Racing and G-Drive Racing for the LMP2 teams’ title. Starting from pole, the #26 G-Drive Racing Ligier JS P2 Nissan driven by Olivier Pla was sluggish as the lights went out and lost the lead to Nicolas Minassian in the #27 SMP Racing Oreca 03 Nissan. Worse was to come too, as Olivier Pla veered right coming out of turn three and made contact with the SMP Racing sister car of Kiryl Ladygin, braking the right rear wishbone.

It was damage limitation from then on for G-Drive, with Pla, Roman Rusinov and Julien Canal looking to score as many points as possible in the championship battle. However, as day turned to night, it was the Dunlop-shod #47 Oreca Nissan of KCMG that seemed more comfortable in the cooler conditions, duly catching the leading SMP Racing car. It was relatively plain sailing from then on for the KCMG car, which gave Matthew Howson and Richard Bradley their second win of the season and Alexander Imperatori a maiden class victory.

The #27 SMP Racing Oreca Nissan driven by Nicolas Minassian then suffered an ignominious exit with smoke pouring from the rear of the car with just 15 minutes remaining. The Oreca Nissan appeared to be suffering from a gearbox issue, but with championship points at stake, SMP sent Minassian back out in an attempt to finish the race.

GTE Pro: If the LMP1 battle was a story of strategy and tactics, then the fight in GTE Pro was a veritable game of chess. It soon became clear that the Porsches, Ferraris and Aston Martins were strong at different phases of the race, with the Ferrari suffering from harder tyre wear towards the end of the stint and the Aston Martin looking to capitalise by babying their tyres. The #91 and #92 Porsche Team Manthey cars put the disappointment of qualifying behind them, and belied their poor one-lap qualifying pace by sticking with the #97 Aston Martin Racing entry and #51 Bruni-drive Ferrari. In fact, once the first pit stops had shaken out, Porsche were looking at a 1-2.

As we have come accustomed to in this form of racing, there was barely anything between the manufacturers in GTE Pro, with the lead changing hands countless times. The two main protagonists at the head of the field were the #51 Ferrari 458 of Gianmaria Bruni and Toni Vilander and the #97 Aston Martin V8 Vantage of Stefan Mücke and Darren Turner. Out of the final stops, Darren Turner in the #97 Aston Martin Racing V8 Vantage was released from the pits and set to “kill” in an attempt to hunt down the #51 AF Corse car with Toni Vilander at the wheel. Early on in the stint, it didn’t appear that the Aston had the pace to catch the Ferrari, but #51’s tyres began to degrade with just 20 minutes left in the race and the gap at 12 seconds.

Incredibly, the race win was only decided in the final moments. With Darren Turner bearing down on Vilander in the Ferrari, the gap came down to under 2 seconds but it wasn’t enough for the #97 car and Bruni and Vilander secured their fourth victory of the season.

GTE Am: It was another story of Aston Martin domination in GTE Am. The “Danish Dynamite” #95 Aston Martin of Kristian Poulsen, David Heinemeier-Hansson and Nicki Thiim even mixed it up with the Pro cars in the early phase of the race. Apart from one incident of contact under braking while lapping the #90 Ferrari 458 with Michele Rugulo behind the wheel, the #95 car had a relatively trouble-free run and wrapped up a fourth victory of season relatively comfortably. The only threat was the sister car #98 driven by Paul Dalla Lana, Pedro Lamy and Christian Nygaard, but a stop and hold penalty for a pit lane infringement put paid to their chances.

Image source: Walter Schruff