Spa Francorchamps

  • 2016 FIA WEC Season Review

    Welcome to our review of the 2016 FIA WEC Championship. Put the kettle on, make a brew, settle down in your favourite chair and enjoy!

    LMP1 Season Review 

    Neel Jani, Marc Lieb and Romain Dumas took the FIA World Endurance Championship crown for the first time with a fifth place finish in the 6 Hours of Bahrain, however this season was by no means easy on the crew. They took the first win of the season at Silverstone after the #7 Audi crew were disqualified, second place at Spa Francorchamps in round 2 before taking a last minute win at Le Mans after Toyota heart break in the dying minutes. With double points at Le Mans, the #2 car held a substantial lead at the mid point, 94 points out of 103 on offer saw them sitting at the top of the championship with a 39 point lead. Le Mans was the turning point for the #2 car, early promising performances were replaced with recurring technical issues, reportedly with the cars hybrid system and a distinct lack of pace. Jani, Lieb and Dumas failed to see the podium again this year. Despite these issues, going in to Bahrain, talking to Neel Jani before the start of the race, he was confident the team had what it took to take the title.

    This fall in pace surely held the door wide open though for the ever consistent Audi team to close the gap and take the lead at some point before the season was out? This season however’ Porsche got lucky. A string of issues for Audi meant they were unable to capitalise on the #2 crew’s bad luck in the second half of the year.

    The #8 Audi crew of Oli Jarvis, Lucas di Grassi and Loic Duval were Audi’s main title hopes this year. They were on the pace and working well together, claiming two victories this season in Spa and Bahrain. Uncharacteristically, Audi were hit with a string of issues this year and as a result, both cars arrived in Bahrain out of the championship. Their pace in Austin was phenomenal but hybrid issues for the #8 and a badly timed safety car took both cars out of contention and gifted the win to the #1 Porsche of Webber Bernhard and Hartley. Mexico was yet another poor race for Audi. The #8 was out in front when Jarvis went off at turn one in tricky conditions. Lotterer then hit the wall during a lock up. Porsche came through to take another solid points hall towards both the teams and drivers championship challenge. Another difficult run to fifth in Shanghai for the #8 further dented their title challenge.

    Toyota came in to 2016 with a brand new car, the TS050. The car was a big improvement on the 2015 TS040, the car was competitive and even took the win on home soil in Fuji. As we headed out to Bahrain, Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi and Stephane Sarrazin were the only 3 drivers capable of challenging the #2 Porsche for the drivers title. Toyota had more than their fair share of difficulty this year though. They were leading the race at Spa before the #5 car broke down and leading the race at Le Mans before heartbreak on the final lap.

    LMP2 Season Review

    The 2016 LMP2 season was dominated by the #36 Signatech Alpine, adding the FIA WEC to their 2014 European Le Mans Series crown. Nicolas Lapierre, Gustavo Menezes and Stephane Richelmi won half the races in 2016 in the Nissan powered Alpine A460 and never once finished outside the top four. They fought hard with the #43 RGR Sport and #26 G-Drive racing cars throughout the season with Strakka and Manor mounting outside challenges in what was arguably the most competitive class of the season. The LMP2 grid was heavily involved in the FIA driver rating changes this year, a number of teams, including the #36 Signatech, found themselves benefitting from "Super Silver" drivers, drivers classified silver but professional drivers rather than amateur racers. Gustavo Menezes was one of those "Super Silvers" who found himself lapping inside the top 10% of the field on a frequent basis. However, it was a dominant performance from the crew and drivers which saw them take the title.

    Silverstone was the season anomaly for the #36 squad with all three drivers complaining of tire ware issues, they took fourth place and their joint worst result of the season. It was one of only two times they would finish off the podium. Their absence from the podium was filled by the newly formed RGR Sport team running the #43 car with Bruno Senna, Filipe Albuquerque and Ricardo Gonzalez who took their maiden victory. One of the standout events of the season however was Spa Francorchamps. Nico Lapierre made a last minute move to pass Pipo Derani around the outside. The Tequila Patron ESM got caught up behind Marino Franchitti’s Ford GT.

    The #36 car quickly found themselves back on the top step of the podium next time out at Le Mans, an incredible performance from the team considering Richelmi and Menezes were in their debut Le Mans and Menezes, who at 21 years old, had never completed a 24 hour race before. All three drivers put in a remarkable performance, Menezes especially who pulled out a quadruple stint in the early hours of Sunday morning to keep the car in site of the podium. A strong drive from Nico Lapierre, who had taken victory just one year before helped the team take the flag.

    A third straight win for the crew at the Nurburgring, round 4 in July, continued to build their lead. RGR Sport took victory in Mexico with a fitting win, driver Ricardo Gonzales the official promoter of the event took the top step of the podium on home soil. Alpine returned to the top of the podium at the Circuit of the Americas with three races left to run. The team took the title in Shanghai finishing second, wrapping up the title with one race to spare, they were never really under threat.

    G-Drive put on a strong showing in the final three races of the season, taking  a hat trick of wins for Roman Rusinov and Alex Brundle. They were joined for two of those wins by former Manor F1 driver Will Stevens, with Rene Rast stepping back on board for the final outing in Bahrain. Rusinov had trouble in Mexico which cost the team the win with a catastrophic brake failure in the final hour. Despite the team coming from the back of the grid to take the win, RGR managed to secure second place in the championship.

    GTE-Pro Season Review

    Aston Martin Racing headed in to the 2016 FIA World Endurance with a heavily upgraded Vantage GTE. They were up against the new Ferrari 488GTE and the new Ford GT run by Ford Chip Ganassi Racing UK. Porsche opted to take a year out to focus on the 2017 car, however, Dempsey-Proton Racing ran a customer team Porsche.

    Aston Martin’s Nicki Thiim and Marco Sorensen proved themselves more than capable of the challenge, taking the drivers championship in Bahrain with a win in the #95 car. The teams championship however, went to Ferrari, marking a successful first year for the new 488 GTE. The 488 had some big boots to fill. Ferrari own the 2012, 2013 and 2014 GT Manufacturers title with the hugely successful 458 and two drivers titles in 2013 and 2014. The 458 also won Le Mans in 2012 and 2014. No >pressure then.

    Aston Martin stalwart Darren Turner began alongside them at the start of the season, the trio claiming a podium at Silverstone behind the AF Corse Ferraris which dominated the race. Sam Bird and Davide Rigon dominated the race in the #71 Ferrari ahead of Gimi Bruni and James Calado in the #51 which also had to serve a three minute time penalty for an engine change between qualifying and the race. It should be noted, that Bruni set the quickest ever GTE time around Silverstone this year, the first driver to break the 1:59 barrier, going 2.5 seconds quicker than his previous record.

    Disaster struck for the team at Spa, Nicki Thiim was spun in to the barriers by an LMP2 car and came to a rest on his roof at Courbe Paul Frere.

    Ferrari capitalised, however a late engine failure for Calado stripped Ferrari of the projected 1-2 finish they were after. The charge came to a stop at Le Mans though with severe mechanical difficulties. Fourth for the GTE-AM AF Course however gifted the team 24 points, a valuable contribution to the teams title chances.

    Despite not making the podium at Le Mans, the trio took points as the second placed WEC entered car. Both the #51 and #71 cars failed to finish and Aston Martin took the championship lead. Ford put on an incredibly dominant performance at Le Mans which saw them bring home three cars in the top four. The #82 Ferrari of Fisichella, Vilander and Malucelli spoiling a Ford front three lock out with a second place. This dominance would see a BOP adjustment later in the season.

    After Le Mans, Aston Martin had a reshuffle of their driver line up which saw Turner swap to the #97 car. Thiim and Sorensen took third place behind the dominant Ferraris before taking third place in Mexico. Turner and Stanaway took the first AMR win of the season in Mexico which put Turner in to the championship lead. Thiim and Sorensen finally took their first win in Austin at the Circuit of the Americas which put them at the top of the table with three races to run and a 12 point lead. Fords dominance returned for Shanghai and Fuji, taking 1-2 finished in both races ahead of #51 Ferrari of Gimi Bruni and James Calado. Heading in to the final race of the season, AMR had a 12 point lead. Turner and Adam set identical qualifying laps to take pole in the #97 before the #95 took the race and a second win of the season.

    Bruni and Calado lost vital points this season and despite finishing on the podium in every race they finished, including a win at the ‘Ring, DNF’s at Spa and Le Mans took them out of contention for the title. They did however, finish third ahead of both the Fords who finished half a point apart, Muecke, and Pla having the slight advantage over Tincknell and Priaulx. Ford took two victories this year and max points at Le Mans enroute to third in their first season back in endurance racing. Three cars in the top four at Le Mans meant they scored max points, whilst two second places at Fuji and Shanghai meant the #66 bested the #67.

    GTE-AM Season Review

    The stats show that the #83 AF Corse Ferrari 458 was not the quickest car in class. They took one win this season but finished every race and claimed 50 points at Le Mans. They took six second place finishes, only failing to take the podium in Austin. The #98 Aston Martin Vantage was notably quicker. The car with Paul Dalla Lana, Pedro Lamy and Mathias Lauda at the wheel took six pole positions including the final race in Bahrain, and five wins. Unfortunately, they took hard knocks at Le Mans and Mexico,not finishing either race. Pole position under the night sky of Bahrain gave them hope.That margin of hope however was incredibly small. Collard, Aguas and Perodo just needed to finish, they crossed the line third whilst the engine failed on the #98.

    The #88 Abu Dhabi Proton took victory on the WEC’s first visit to Mexico and again in Bahrain. The retirement of the #95 gave second in the championship to Al Qubaisi and Heinemeier Hansson. With Klaus Bachler replaced by Patrick Long at Le Mans, Al Qubaisi and Heinemeier-Hansson again came close to beating the Ferrari for the top WEC-registered team, but a late charge from Collard saw the Frenchman take second spot in the final hour, which resulted in a decisive 14-point swing.

    The Porsche crew came on form in the final race, Pat Long put pressure on Lauda which saw the #95 spin, Long then lead the rest of the way fending off Wolf Henzler in the KCMG Porsche. The #78 took their fifth consecutive podium in Bahrain but after technical infringement at Nurburgring and technical failure at Silverstone, they were out of the running. Gulf Racing had a solid performance across the year with some big improvements seen across the season for Ben Barker, Adam Carroll and Mike Wainwright.

  • Le Mans Classic pushes Jenson's button

    At 38, Jenson Button is still more than young enough to race at the Le Mans 24 Hours for the first time. But the fact he is choosing to make his debut at La Sarthe this summer in a Group C Jaguar at Le Mans Classic, rather than the contemporary race itself, tells you much about where his head is at right now.

    The 2009 world champion stepped away from the pressure cooker of Formula 1 at the end of 2016, and although he made a return with McLaren at Monaco last year as a ‘super-sub’ for Indy 500-bound Fernando Alonso, it was very much a one-off. Button subsequently confirmed he is now officially a retired F1 champ.

    Jenson Button

    Image courtesy of lemansclassic.com

    Since then, his racing focus has switched to the fantastic Super GT series for high-powered and spectacular endurance racers in Japan, a country for which he holds a deep affection and affinity. He made his series debut for Honda last August in the Suzuka 1000Kms and is about to embark on his first full season in an NSX GT for Team Kunimitsu, starting at Okayama this weekend (April 6/7).

    Le Mans? He’s never shown much enthusiasm for the place when asked about it – which he was on occasion during his F1 sunset years at McLaren. In fact, you would have been forgiven for interpreting his coolness as a surprisingly dismissive attitude to the great race.

    But should we be surprised he’s been enticed to come out to play at the fabulous Classic meeting on July 6-8? Actually, no.

    For one thing, his mates have clearly talked him into it. Jenson will be driving for JD Classics, the Essex-based historics emporium for whom his friend Alex Buncombe regularly races. For another, Button is enough of a blue-blooded racing enthusiast to be curious about sampling the glorious 8.4-mile circuit, but without having to face the mass attention an entry in the 24 Hours proper would clearly inspire.

    Then also consider that age once again: Button is a true child of the 1980s.

    As a kid, he and his beloved old man (the late and much missed John Button) were avid Alain Prost fans. F1 was all they could think about back then. Still, Jenson couldn’t have missed the super-powered Silk Cut TWR Jaguars – especially when a sister chassis to the XJR-9 he’ll drive in July famously won the 24 Hours to national acclaim exactly 30 years ago. In 1988, Jenson was a racing-mad, impressionable eight-year-old.

    Make no mistake: with more time on his hands now he’s done with F1, the chance to drive a Group C Jaguar will certainly be pushing his, er, buttons (sorry…). Whether he’ll ever be tempted to try the 24 Hours for real is another matter – and might well hinge on what he makes of the place in July.

    But if he ever does to decide to make a commitment to the 24 Hours – and as an ex-F1 champion he’d surely be a welcome addition – it wouldn’t technically be his first entry into a big international twice-around-the-clock classic. Back in 1999, Button was a budding star in British Formula 3 when a sponsor diverted his F1 focus for a weekend to make a cameo appearance at… the Spa 24 Hours.

    Back then, Belgium’s own version of Le Mans was still run for saloons rather than GTs as it is today and admittedly wasn’t exactly in the midst of its greatest era. But even if it was only run for underpowered ‘Superproduction’/Group N 2-litre hot-hatches and rep-mobiles, it was still a loud and clear bleep on the radar for sponsors and car manufacturers.

    Fuel company FINA had a proud history at the Spa 24 Hours, and with a new campaign backing Renault’s Promatecme-run British F3 campaign for which Button was racing, made sure his contract included a three-line whip for the Spa enduro.

    A pair of BMW 320is were entered under the FINA banner by Italian Gabriele Rafanelli, a true Italian racing gent best known for previously running BMWs in Europe under the respected Bigazzi banner. Rafanelli was now running his own FINA-backed team in Formula 3000, but was more than happy to return to more familiar territory for one weekend.

    His F3000 aces were gregarious Belgian David Saelens (very quick and very funny, especially after a beer or three) and highly likeable Czech and future Aston Martin Le Mans regular Tomas Enge (who would sadly earn infamy in 2002 for losing his F3000 title after testing positive for marijuana). Button would join the pair at Spa to form a junior trio in one of the smart looking 320is.

    Experience was clearly lacking for such a race, but this was a potent line-up. And when they qualified 12th, hopes must have been raised at FINA that their investment in young talent was about to pay off. Sadly, Button wouldn’t even get to turn a wheel in the race itself.

    A fuel leak not only forced Saelens to retire the car early on, it almost gassed him. Fumes in the cockpit left him physically sick, leaving Enge and Button facing an early trip home. From what I remember, Jenson wasn’t exactly overcome with disappointment.

    I happened to be at that race working on a story for a magazine and knew Jenson quite well having followed him to his British Formula Ford and Festival double in 1998. He was a pleasant, uncomplicated lad back then. Yes, hype already surrounded him, but Dad John was always there to keep him grounded. I experienced their natural father-son bond that weekend in a hospitality tent when John quietly rebuked his boy for an uncharacteristic moment of arrogance. Still only 19, Jenson clearly had some growing up to do – and John wasn’t about to let him forget it.

    Earlier on, I’d caught up with Jenson sitting on a wall at the end of the pitlane before a practice session. He was on his own, looked a bit lost and seemed genuinely pleased to see a familiar face. During our brief chat he made it clear that while he loved Spa, driving what amounted to little more than a lightly tuned road car held little interest for him.

    Funny to think that within a year, he would have concluded an unremarkable F3 season with Renault and FINA – then be handed a dream test for his old hero Alain Prost, who was grappling with the unhappy challenge of running his own F1 team as the century turned.

    Prost’s car was uncompetitive, but Alain saw enough of Jenson to be deeply impressed. He made a recommendation to Frank Williams, who was running out of options in his search for a replacement for the disappointing Alex Zanardi – and the rest is history…

    The cameo in a saloon at Spa was soon forgotten, and a torrent of time and racing has now passed since that weekend nearly 20 years ago.

    Now with the perspective of an F1 life well lived, Button might be about to soften his attitude to 24-hour races. If anything can change his mind, it will surely be that Jaguar on the greatest circuit of them all.

    Damien Smith, former Editor of Motor Sport Magazine