The 2021 season of the FIA World Endurance Championship kicked off at Spa Francorchamps, on a cold but dry Saturday.
Toyota Gazoo Racing #7 with Kamui Kobayashi, Mike Conway and Jose Maria Lopez started from Pole Position, in front of their sister car #8 with Kazuki Nakajima, Brendon Hartley and Sebastien Buemi, while Alpine Elf Matmut #36 with Nicolas Lapierre, Matthieu Vaxiviere and Andre Negrao were the third-fastest Hypercar.
United Autosports USA #22 with Filipe Albuquerque, Phil Hanson and Fabio Scherer had taken Pole Position in LMP2, and at the same time the third-fastest car in general. Nyck de Vries, Franco Colapinto and Roman Rusinov were to start from P2 with G-Drive Racing #26, while Racing Team Nederland #29 with Giedo van der Garde, Frits van Eerd and Job Van Uitert had qualified for third place.
Kevin Estre and Neel Jani in Porsche #92 had GTE Pro Pole Position, ahead of Miguel Molina and Daniel Serra in AF Corse Ferrari #52, while Richard Lietz and Gianmaria Bruni in Porsche #91 were third. AF Corse Ferrari #51 with Alessandro Pier Guidi and James Calado were to start fourth, while Antonio Garcia and Oliver Gavin were to start from P5 for Corvette Racing, in their guest appearance.
Ben Keating, Felipe Fraga and Dylan Pereira in TF Sport Aston Martin #33 had Pole Position in GTE Am, ahead of Paul Dalla Lana, Augusto Farfus and Marcos Gomes in Aston Martin Racing #98, and Andrew Haryanto, Marco Seefried and Alessio Picariello in Dempsey -Proton Racing Porsche #88 on P3.
There were four Danish drivers in the race. High Class Racing #20 with Dennis Andersen, Anders Fjordbach and Jan Magnussen had qualified in 13th place among the LMP2 cars, which was 6th place in the Pro-Am category. The team subsequently switched engines when they felt it was lacking speed.
Alessio Rovera, Francois Perrodo and Nicklas Nielsen were to start GTE Am from fifth place in their AF Corse Ferrari #83.
There was drama already before the race. Mike Wainwright in GR Racing Porsche #86 went off the track in Les Combes, in the 10 minutes of warm-up that all the drivers had before the race. The Porsche hit the tire wall so hard that he couldn’t drive on and had to be transported back to the garage. There was so much damage to the car that the team couldn’t repair it fast enough to be able to participate in the race.
ARC Bratislava #44 didn’t join the grid when the team suspected a fuel leak. They couldn’t get the leak repaired, and were thus also out of the race before it had started.
It was a very messy start to the race. The Toyota Gazoo Racing cars braked very early on Turn 1, causing the entire LMP2 field to clump together behind them. This meant that PR1 Mathiasen Motorsports #24 drove up behind JOTA #38 already before Turn 1. On the way out of Turn 1, Phil Hanson in UA #22 was actually in the lead of the race before the hybrid part hit on the way down to Eau Rouge, and Toyota Gazoo Racing #7 came in front again.
By the end of Kemmel Straight, the other Toyota had also come past, using the higher top speed.
On the other hand, Alpine Elf Matmut #36 fell back, and Racing Team Nederland #29 was all the way up in 4th place, before #36 hit back later in the round.
High Class Racing #20 had a trip over the exit area at Les Combes, but Anders Fjordbach was able to continue driving without any problems.
Realteam Racing #70 had an exciting start to the race. Esteban Garcia was supposed to feel comfortable in the LMP2 racer, after several seasons in LMP3, and he had fallen a bit back in the GTE Pro field. Here he was getting stuck and had to dodge into the exit area. Shortly after, there was contact with AF Corse Ferrari #52, which tipped Garcia around. It also caused the #70 a puncture.
Francois Perrodo in AF Corse Ferrari #83 had a good start to the race, and was all the way up in second place in GTE Am.
Alpine Elf Matmut #36 had a big problem getting past United Autosports USA #22, and had to switch to another engine program, to get enough horsepower, to get past – but it took a few laps before Andre Negrao managed to get past Phil Hanson.
The two Toyota Gazoo Racing cars were ordered to swap places, so the 8 went past #7.
Iron Lynx Ferrari #60 ended up in a sandwich where G-Drive Racing #25 and JOTA #38 came striding past on both sides, costing Claudio Schiavoni his right side-view mirror.
Dempsey-Proton Racing Porsche #77 took the lead in the GTE Am race, after 35 minutes of racing. Matt Campbell had driven all the way from the last starting position to P1.
Cetilar Racing Ferrari #47 and Aston Martin Racing #98 had contact in the Bus Stop chicane, which the stewards immediately set about investigating. A few turns later, #47 was off the track again, with Lacorte spinning across the grass.
The lead in LMP2 was close to changing as United Autosports USA #22 was a bit slow getting out of their tank stop and Racing Team Nederland #29 was just about to get past – but had to stay behind.
G-Drive Racing #25 pitted with a big hole on the side, after the contact with #60. There was steam coming out of the car, but the mechanics didn’t detect anything and sent John Falb back to the track. How long would there be water left on the car?
DragonSpeed #21 and G-Drive Racing #26 were in contention for third place, and had to pass TF Sport Aston Martin #33 on the same lap. They came three-men-wide down the hill towards Double Gauche, where Roman Rusinov in #26 tried to block Juan Pablo Montoya in #21. Not on Montoya’s watch. So even though he got a pair of left wheels on the grass, he just kept the throttle on, and gave Rusinov a little push back. The problem was just that Ben Keating lay side by side with Rusinov, so the American ended up in a giant spin, but luckily without hitting anything.
Aston Martin Racing #98 got a Drive-through for driving too much outside the white lines. It doubled up when Paul Dalla Lana got a Drive-through for the collision of the Cetilar Racing Ferrari #47.
There was panic at the first pitstop of Toyota Gazoo Racing #8. The team refuelled the car, pulled the hose out, and was about to put it back on when Buemi drove before stopping further down the pitlane – and drove again afterwards.
The stewards were certainly not happy with Juan Pablo Montoya’s driving in DragonSpeed #21, giving him a 10 second Stop & Go penalty.
Corvette Racing #63 had come up to fourth place in the GTE Pro after the first round of pitstop. However, Porsche #91 wouldn’t be left behind, so Gianmaria Bruni used a little bit of bodywork to get past Antonio Garcia.
Team WRT #31 was moving forward in the LMP2 field, with Robin Frijns coming up on P3 after overtaking Roman Rusinov.
High Class Racing #20 had quietly worked their way forward in the race, and was up in seventh place in LMP2, after the first hour’s race with Anders Fjordbach behind the wheel.
DragonSpeed #21 hadn’t finished sharing stickers with G-Drive Racing cars. #25 also drove a bit defensively, and swerved in front of Montoya. However, the Colombian wasn’t aware that it was the second G-Drive Racing car with Roberto Merhi in it, so he did the same payback.
AF Corse Ferrari #83 had taken the lead in the GTE Am, as Alessio Rovera was somewhat more experienced than the Bronze competitors in pretty much all the other Am cars, at the time of the race.
Mike Conway in Toyota Gazoo Racing #7 was very close to driving up behind one of the G-Drive Racing cars in Turn 1, but managed to dodge at the last minute.
G-Drive Racing #25 got a Drive-through penalty for hitting Iron Lynx Ferrari #60 earlier in the race.
Alpine Elf Matmut #36 took the lead after just under two hours of racing. Both Alpine and Toyota had pitted twice – the difference, however, was that Nicolas Lapierre was halfway through his stint.
Porsche #92 had to pit with a puncture on the right rear tire. Exactly the same thing had happened for #91 earlier in the race. That seriously put the German team back on the strategy, where it was now an AF Corse 1-2.
G-Drive Racing #26 got a 5-second pit stop penalty for making an Unsafe Release in a previous pit stop, and for blocking Richard Mille Racing Team #1.
G-Drive Racing #26 had an off-track moment, where Nyck de Vries went through the gravel. But, he got back on the field again by himself.
After two hours of racing, Alpine Elf Matmut #36 was in front of Hypercar, United Autosports USA #22 in LMP2, Racing Team Nederland in LMP2 Pro-Am, Porsche #92 in GTE Pro, and AF Corse Ferrari #83 with Nicklas Nielsen, amongst others, in GTE Am. Even though, Nielsen had not been in the car yet.
High Class Racing #20 was eighth among the LMP2 cars, and the second-best Pro-Am car.
AF Corse Ferrari #54 had climbed up to second place in the GTE Am before Francesco Castellacci handed over the car to Thomas Flohr.
There was a battle for 8th place in the LMP2 category, where Dennis Andersen in High Class Racing #20 tried to keep DragonSpeed #21 with Henrik Hedman, Sophia Flörsch in Ricard Mille Racing Team #1, and PR1 Mathiasen Motorsports #24 behind him.
There was contact between Iron Lynx Ferrari #85 and Cetilar Racing #47. Rahel Frey had just passed Sergio Sernagiotto when she got tipped over. At least it was not Manuela Gostner in the car since she and Sernagiotto live together…
JOTA #38 and Toyota Gazoo Racing #8 were close to crash together on the way down to Eau Rouge, where Hartley in the 8 had to pull back again.
Dennis Andersen in High Class Racing #20 had a half spin on his way out of the Stavelot corner, but he just managed to keep the car away from the crash barrier. Shortly afterwards, he had to take a shortcut across the exit area at the top of Raidillon, since there was a competitor right behind him, who might be considering to get past from the inside.
Rahel Frey in the Iron Lynx Ferrari #85 overtook two competitors on the Kemmel Straight – at the same time. First, she passed Satoshi Hoshino in D’Station Racing Aston Martin #777, and a few meters later, Marco Seefried in Dempsey-Proton Racing Porsche #88.
Alpine Elf Matmut #36 made a small driving error at Les Combes, and had to make a trip over the exit area, which cost him three to four seconds. A few laps later, Jose Maria Lopez of Toyota Gazoo Racing #7 made the same mistake.
Team WRT #31 and JOTA #28 had fought for third place in LMP2 in many many laps, with Ferdinand Habsburg in #31 finally passing Sean Gelael in #28. However, JOTA #38 crept up from behind, really wanting to take third place from Team WRT #31. Antonio Felix da Costa in the #38 tried to dive from the inside at La Source, but Habsburg came back and the two drove side by side throughout Eau Rouge and Raidillon before Felix da Costa could get past. Habsburg ended up being the big loser when Giedo van der Garde of Racing Team Nederland also came by, snatching P4 from the Austrian.
Toyota Gazoo Racing #7 once again outbraked itself at the end of Kemmel Straight. However, the Argentinian kept a full pedal through the exit area, and lost no time at all to the competitors.
There was a drama for Team WRT #31 at their fourth pitstop where they had to push the car into the garage due to technical issues. There were clutch problems as they refilled the container in front of the car while checking something in the engine compartment. It cost them 6 minutes and 40 seconds in the pits, thus they dropped down to the last place in the LMP2 category.
There was contact between Porsche #91 and Toyota Gazoo Racing #7 in the Bus Stop chicane, where Jose Maria Lopez got his nose up on the inside, but didn’t manage to get past Richard Lietz. #91 got pushed off the track, while #7 lost the plastic cover over one headlight.
DragonSpeed #21 had a trip over the gravel when Ben Hanley tried a very late dive on Manuela Gostner in the Iron Lynx Ferrari #83, which she, however, denied nicely but firmly, and Hanley, therefore, had to dodge.
Porsche #91 got another puncture on the right rear tire again – was it the same mistake as earlier in the race, or was it after the contact with Toyota Gazoo Racing #7? What was worse was that the puncture had spread some small debris over the track, making it risky for other cars to get a puncture. Porsche changed the rear end of #91, so they got a new, fresh rear bumper and diffuser on.
The race director called for Full Course Yellow, to get the debris removed from the track; a situation that one should always take seriously on such a high-speed track like Spa Francorchamps.
Both Alpine Elf Matmut #36 and Toyota Gazoo Racing #8 chose to pit, and get back on the same pit strategy. Several other teams also chose to do the same – apart from Toyota Gazoo Racing #7.
Team WRT #31 had to come back to the garage when the clutch problems were still bothering them.
Both United Autosports #22 and Toyota Gazoo Racing #8 got a five-second pitstop penalty for an unsafe release earlier in the race.
With two hours left, Toyota Gazoo Racing #7 led the Hypercar category, United Autosports USA #22 in LMP2, Racing Team Nederland #29 in LMP2 Pro-Am, Porsche #92 in GTE Pro and AF Corse Ferrari #83 in GTE Am.
There was contact between Jan Magnussen in High Class Racing #20 and G-Drive Racing #25 with Rui Andrade at La Source, which flipped #25 around.
Toyota Gazoo Racing #7 drove off the track in Turn 7, where Kamui Kobayashi had trouble braking. He braked as hard as he could but couldn’t get the car stopped until he hit the gravel. It triggered a Full Course Yellow as the now formerly leading car was helplessly stuck in the gravel, with the rear wheels spinning around.
It took a lap before he got free, and just as he was back on the asphalt, Alpine Elf Matmut #36 came by at 80 km/h. At the same time, United Autosports USA #22 was right behind, and as soon as the race was restarted, Fabio Scherer was right under Kamui Kobayashi’s rear wing.
The day only got worse for #7, as they also got a Drive-through penalty for the collision with Porsche #91.
High Class Racing #20 joined the list of Drive-through penalty receivers, following the contact with G-Drive Racing #25.
G-Drive Racing #26 had a problem with spilling oil on the track. They had to be pushed back into the garage, with only 80 minutes left of the race. Unfortunately, they had to give up since they couldn’t get the leak repaired fast enough, and get back to the track.
The stewards were busy handing out a bunch of penalties.
Iron Lynx Ferrari #85 got en Drive-through for Track Limits.
Aston Martin Racing #98, Cetilar Racing #47, High Class Racing #20, AF Corse Ferrari #52, Iron Lynx Ferrari #60 and United Autosports #22 all got a Drive-through penalty for not following the rules under the first Full Course Yellow.
Furthermore, JOTA #28, Racing Team Nederland #29, Realteam Racing #70 and AF Corse Ferrari #52 got a Drive-through penalty for the same offence under the second Full Course Yellow.
There was contact between JOTA #38 and Alpine Elf Matmut #36 on the entrance to Eau Rouge. Luckily, they were side by side without any damage on the cars, so they both could drive with unchanged speed up the hill.
Toyota Gazoo Racing #7 almost made the same mistake again in Bruxelles corner, exactly where Kobayashi had a run-off earlier.
There was a drama for the leading Alpine Elf Matmut #36, when they got a slow puncture with 39 minutes left of the race. Luckily, they had to pit anyway and could drive to the finish without more stops. But the question was – should the new leading Toyota Gazoo Racing #8 also pit one more time, or would they have enough fuel to the end of the race?
The two JOTA cars fought hard for second place in LMP2, where #28 just had their nose in front, while a flying #38 approaching from behind.
Dempsey-Proton Racing Porsche #77 stalled at the end of Kemmel Straight, where afterwards Jaxon Evans slowly rolled down the hill towards Bruxelles, and then it was over.
Anthony Davidson’s eagerness to catch up with his JOTA teammates was just about to end in the tire barrier when he hit a curb in the Jacky Ickx corner. The car jumped and he could barely keep it out of the tire wall.
Evans failed to bring the car back to life, triggering a Full Course Yellow so that the Porsche could be pulled into safety.
While Toyota Gazoo Racing #7 had to pit for fuel again, #8 was so confident of being able to finish that they just drove past the pits, even though they had an opportunity to get in, refuel and get out again in the lead.
In the middle of the FCY period, #7 suddenly stopped in the middle of the field, and Kobayashi had to reset the electronics, which took almost half a minute before he got it going again.
JOTA #28 got a Drive-through penalty for contact with Alpine Elf Matmut #36. Which meant, they would lose second place to their teammates.
Although United Autosports USA #22 had almost a minute lead, Filipe Albuquerque pushed so hard that he went off at Bus Stop during an overtaking of TF Sport Aston Martin #33.
Four minutes before the finish there was a drama as DragonSpeed #21, Corvette Racing #63 and Dempsey-Proton Racing Porsche #88 had driven too fast during the previous Full Course Yellow. That meant #88 lost a podium in GTE Am, and #21 lost second place in LMP2 Pro-Am, while #63 could luckily hold on to their position in GTE Pro.
Toyota Gazoo Racing #8 with Sebastien Buemi, Kazuki Nakajima and Brendon Hartly won the race, ahead of Alpine Elf Matmut #36 with Andre Negrao, Matthieu Vaxiviere and Nicolas Lapierre, while Toyota Gazoo Racing #7 despite the problems could finish third with Mike Conway, Jose Maria Lopez and Kamui Kobayashi.
In the LMP2 category, United Autosports USA #22 with Fabio Scherer, Phil Hanson and Filipe Albuquerque finished first, followed by JOTA #38 with Roberto Gonzalez, Anthony Davidson and Antonio Felix da Costa, while JOTA #28 with Tom Blomqvist, Stoffel Vandoorne and Sean Gelael finished in third place.
Amongst the Pro-Am cars, it was Racing Team Nederland #29 with Job van Uitert, Giedo van der Garde and Frits van Eerd who crossed the finish line first, in front of Realteam Racing #70 with Norman Nato, Loic Duval and Esteban Garcia, and DragonSpeed USA #21 with Henrik Hedman, Ben Hanley and Juan Pablo Montoya in P3.
The GTE Pro class was dominated by Porsche #92 all day with Kevin Estre and Neel Jani. AF Corse Ferrari #51 with James Calado and Alessandro Pier Guidi was second, AF Corse Ferrari #52 with Daniel Serra and Miguel Molina third, Antonio Garcia and Oliver Gavin in P4 with Corvette Racing, and Porsche #91 with Gianmaria Bruni and Richard Lietz in fifth place.
The GTE Am category was won by AF Corse Ferrari #83 with the two defending champions Nicklas Nielsen and Francois Perrodo, as well as their new teammate Alessio Rovera. TF Sport Aston Martin #33 with Ben Keating, Felipe Fraga and Dylan Pereira finished second, and Cetilar Racing Ferrari #47 with Antonio Fuoco, Roberto Lacorte and Sergio Sernagiotto was third.
It was the end of an absolutely fantastic opening race. This seems to indicate a very close race in the new Hypercar category, although there were some who had doubts about the concept. And the fact that they only win with one and a half laps from the LMP2 category means that they have to be on their toes all the time, no matter how many cars there are in the Hypercar category itself.
The next round of the FIA World Endurance Championship 2021 will be run on Sunday 13 June at the Portimao track in southern Portugal.