Raining in the Ardennes

Updated: May 11

Last weekend saw the second round of the FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC) at Spa – Francorchamps in Belgium. The race was held over 6 hours on the fast and spectacular circuit, and was very much a preview for next month’s Le Mans 24 hours. Not having seen the current breed of endurance racers, it was a good opportunity to make a trip to Belgium and take in the atmosphere.

Spa is nearly everyone’s favourite Grand Prix track, and probably one of the most challenging. It is certainly the longest currently in use, although for the WEC it is not as long as Le Mans. Fast sweeps and steep inclines and descents through the forests, with some tight chicanes makes for a big challenge for the drivers, and spectacular viewing for spectators. Add in some of Spa’s famous rain, and you have a real event!

First impressions of the Spa track did not disappoint. The sweep downhill from the first sharp corner (La Source) through the famous Eau Rouge looked fantastic – much steeper and more dramatic than it appears on TV. The corner has been slightly reprofiled over the winter, and a magnificent new grandstand has been constructed overlooking the corner – giving a superb view of the action. Entry tickets included two days admission, full access to all the grandstands, and a pit walk each day, and they were reasonably priced. The spectator is well served with plenty of food and drink outlets, including serving the famous “frites et mayonnaise”.

The WEC organisers are working hard to present their series to the public. Having a number of classes and different types of cars can be somewhat confusing, but the car numbers are shown in different colours for each class, and each car is fitted with three lights on the flanks – race control remotely illuminate one light on the class leader, two on the class second place, and three lights on third in class so spectators can follow the race!

Promotion was top notch – an hour before the race, the cars were lined up on the starting grid, staggered like the traditional Le Mans grid of the 50s and 60s – a variety of bands and performers entertained the crowd, and freebie tee shirts were fired into the main stand!

The premier class in the WEC is undergoing some big changes, with the introduction of what are called “Hypercars”. Over the past few years this LMP1 class (Le Mans Prototypes1) has been poorly supported, and this new initiative is creating a lot of interest, and although at Spa the class only had four runners, some big names will be entering later in the season and into next year. More on this later. LMP2 by contrast has very well supported – all teams running Oreca chassis and Gibson engines – a host of colourful prototypes with some well known names driving – including some with GP experience.

The two GTE classes, for professional and for amateur drivers, complete the runners – a spectacular mix of Ferraris, Porsches, Aston Martins and a sole Corvette.

The race started in bright sunshine, the 37 cars completing a formation lap and making an earth shaking rolling start, the pole sitting Glickenhaus getting the break on the two Toyota Hypercars and the sole Alpine. In GTE, one of the works 911 RSRs spun into the new gravel trap at La Source – it got further than one of the amateur class Porsches, which rotated exiting the chicane BEFORE the start. For several laps the two works Toyotas stalked the Glickenhaus, before pulling moves on it in successive laps.

Sitting in the main stand opposite the pits, we were puzzled by a sign hung out saying wet track – it was dry in front of us and the sun was shining. A glance at one of the big screens showed cars speedboating through spray – this being Spa, the rain had arrived on the other side of the track! Some cars pitted for rain tyres, some stayed out, some spun, one crashed – leading to a red flag. The remaining cars lined up on the start straight – some changed tyres, and after several minutes the race was restarted. The rain continued to move around the circuit, eventually arriving at the start finish area, and one more red flag was required after one of the LMP2 cars had a big off at Blanchimont , fortunately the driver was OK.

One of the works Toyotas retired on one of the restarts, and the Alpine moved ahead of the Glickenhaus for second place. The remaining Toyota reeled off the laps and claimed a well deserved win. A furious battle raged in LMP2 between the Prema Orlen Team (Italian) and the German WRT team. In GTE Pro there was a great race long battle between the AF Course Ferrari and one of the works Porsches, only decided after the six hours was up in the favour of the Ferrari, thanks in no small part to the British driver James Calado.

So a weather disrupted race, but an interesting one. The WEC will benefit from more entries in the top class LMP1 (Hypercars). Porsche are entering the category and have contracted no less than Penske to run their operation. Penske ran a LMP2 car in this race to gain experience for next season. It is likely two Porsche Hypercars will be supplied to private teams as well. Peugeot are also returning to the category, and are already testing their car – hopefully it will run in later rounds this year ahead of a full challenge next year. It is also likely that another American team will join in the fun – probably under the Cadillac brand. Add in Alpine and of course Glickenhaus and there could be quite a battle up top.

Le Mans next month will probably be dominated by the Toyotas, but the winner could come from one of the many LMP2 cars should the Toyotas hit trouble. Next year it will be totally different with several more big class cars challenging. All in all, a noisy, colourful and fast spectacle!

The track revisions will impact on this year’s F1 Grand Prix – particularly the introduction of a wide gravel trap at La Source. It gets pretty crowded into there on the first lap, and where previously cars have run out wide over the generous hard run off area, now they will be contained in the narrow track, if they run wide they will risk being beached in the gravel. It will be interesting – it’s a short run down to this first corner, and the pack will be bunched up.