Spa 6 Hours

Without Toyota, the first true endurance world championship sports car race to be held in Europe for 20 years did lose a bit of its shine.

We’d hoped to see a new era of technical innovation launched with a debut face-off between Audi’s e-tron quattro and Toyota’s TS030 Hybrid. But when Toyota was forced to withdraw from Spa because of a testing crash at Paul Ricard, we had to be content with half the story. Could Audi’s stunning hybrid version of the R18 repeat the feats of the R8, R10, R15 and R15 plus and win its maiden race?

Three hours into the second round of the inaugural FIA World Endurance Championship it seemed we had our answer. For the e-tron quattro, it wouldn’t be a fairytale beginning. The more conventional R18 ultra, itself a new Audi prototype developed from last year’s Le Mans winner, would steal its thunder by outpacing its hybrid cousin in a race that started wet, but (surprisingly) would run mostly in the dry.

With a flywheel-driven power boost to the front wheels making the e-tron intermittently ‘quattro’, the new cars flourished with their grip advantage on a soaking track at the start. Allan McNish had scored a brilliant pole position the day before, and now the sister car of André Lotterer set the pace after taking the lead on lap three from Tom Kristensen.

But as the track dried, Marc Gené – making his Audi debut after Peugeot’s sports car withdrawal had left him high and dry – made an inspired decision in his R18 ultra. While the e-trons switched to intermediates, the Spaniard went straight for slicks and lit up the timing screens with fastest sector times.

He handed over to fellow Audi new boy Loïc Duval, who put in a blistering double stint to take the lead from Lotterer’s team-mate Benoît Tréluyer. Then two safety cars split the pair and, by chance, increased the R18 ultra’s advantage, leaving Romain Dumas a clear advantage that he was able to extend over Marcel Fässler during his stints in the leading e-tron.

As for McNish, Kristensen and Dindo Capello, a change of nose thanks to a faulty headlight left them playing catch-up. They would inish at the back of Audi’s four-car train, behind rookies Marco Bonanomi and Oliver Jarvis, and we are left wondering whether rain is the e-tron quattro’s best hope for victory at Le Mans. Then again, perhaps it would be unwise to read too much into this maiden result. Le Mans is always a proposition unlike any other.

To Audi Sport’s credit, the four cars were clearly fighting for position. With a world championship to play for, the driving crews were not about to hold formation, and the team clearly didn’t ask them to. Still, the best entertainment in this historically signiicant race went on behind them.

First of the petrol runners was Rebellion’s Lola-Toyota, which included ex-Formula 1 driver Nick Heidfeld within its line-up. But its fifth place was hard-fought, as Strakka Racing’s HPD ARX 03a starred in the hands of Jonny Kane, Danny Watts and Nick Leventis.

The svelte Pescarolo-run Dome-Judd shared by Sébastien Bourdais and Nicolas Minassian also challenged for the unofficial class on its race debut and the car’s progress will be a point of focus at Le Mans.

The secondary P2 prototype class, designed for privateer teams running both pros and amateurs, is even more competitive and the race for a world championship win in Spa was fought out between four cars for most of the six hours. In the inal minutes it came down between ADR-Delta’s ORECA, driven by former A1GP ace Robbie Kerr, and amateur Simon Dolan in Jota’s Zytek-Nissan. Kerr seemed to have it in the bag, only for a late ‘splash ’n’ dash’ for fuel – with just over four minutes to go – to scupper his chances.

Dolan, who only began racing in 2008 and has been coached all the way by team-mate Sam Hancock, crossed the line to score a memorable and very special victory.

On that last lap, we really didn’t know where to watch. As the P2 drama played out, even greater tension surrounded the outcome of the GTE race. Richard Lietz, sharing a Felbermayr Porsche 911 RSR with Marc Lieb, was under pressure from Gianmaria Bruni’s AF Corse Ferrari 458 Italia. Just 0.6sec separated them as they took the flag – not bad after a quarter of a day of racing. After two rounds, we can say the WEC has got off to a promising start.

It should get even better when Toyota joins the party at the biggest race of them all on June 16/17.

Damien Smith