Battle for Le Mans 2023: why Ferrari can challenge Toyota for the win

Sports Car News

Though it was another Toyota 1-2 at WEC's Spa-Francorchamps round, all the signs are there that Ferrari can mount a fight against the Japanese marque at Le Mans

Toyota Ferrari start WEC Spa 6 Hours 2023

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It looks like we might have a real race on our hands at the Le Mans 24 Hours in June. Ferrari gave much more than a hint at last weekend’s Spa-Francorchamps 6 Hours round of the World Endurance Championship that its new 499P Le Mans Hypercar could be ready to challenge the Toyota hegemony at the French enduro.

Ferrari didn’t win at Spa and it would be a stretch to say that it should or even could have won, but the best of its 499Ps shared by Antonio Giovinazzi, Alessandro Pier Guidi and James Calado did storm back from a lap down to take a last-gasp podium. There were a couple of delays along the way, which explain why the third-placed Ferrari made three more pitstops than the winning Toyota GR010 Hybrid shared by Mike Conway, Jose Maria Lopez and Kamui Kobayashi.

Calado was not much more than a minute behind the winner at the finish, and less than 60sec behind the second-placed GR010 LMH shared by Sébastien Buemi, Ryo Hirakawa and Brendon Hartley. What’s more over much of the second half of the race, the Ferrari was the fastest car on track on a day that Toyota Gazoo Racing Europe technical director Pascal Vasselon admitted that his team didn’t have “fantastic pace”.

Ferrari WEC Spa 6 Hours 2023

Calado demonstrated Ferrari speed towards end of race


The Frenchman was right when he concluded that the result at Spa was “decided in the opening phase of the race”. The two Ferraris were a lap down in little more than one hour, That resulted from the AF Corse-run factory team going for a set-up designed to yield a quick car over what were forecast to be drier and slightly hotter conditions over the second half of the race. It explained the safety-first strategy of starting on wets on a drying track and then the lack of pace on slicks when the track was still damp.

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But it also explained why the Ferrari flew in Calado’s hands over the final two stints on a single set of tyres. The Briton came back from nearly a minute down on Frederic Makowiecki’s Porsche 963 LMDh over the course of the final hour. The team predicted that his pace would bring him up to the Penske-run Porsche the Frenchman shared with Michael Christensen and Dane Cameron on the very last lap. It was spot on: Calado was level with the Frenchman at the end of the Kemmel Straight and breezed around the outside at Les Combes to take Ferrari’s third podium of the season and a first for the No51 entry.

“It seemed that we made a step forward this weekend,” said Calado. “The positive thing as well as the podium is that were on a close pace to Toyota. Without the little things that went wrong, we could maybe have given them a fight.”

The little delays of which Calado talked were a pair of so-called emergency stops when the race was neutralised and the pits were closed. One was to replace a damaged wheel and deflating tyre, the other for a five-second dump of fuel when a full tank was actually required.

Toyota WEC Spa 6 Hours 2023

It may have lacked pace at times, but Toyota’s overall brilliance was demonstrated by 1-2 finish


The sister car shared by Nicklas Nielsen, Miguel Molina and Antonio Fuoco had a much bigger problem, though one any of number of drivers were happy to say was not of Ferrari’s making. Fuoco spun on cold tyres straight out of the pits early in the fourth hour. The ban on tyre heaters, deemed dangerous by many, was a hot topic of conversation over the Spa weekend.

So too was the Balance of Performance. Spa, round three of the 2023 WEC, was the first opportunity for a pre-Le Mans revision, though only to the balance between the LMH and LMDh machinery that come together in the Hypercar class. What is known as the platform BoP was left alone, though the question now is whether it can still change before the race that really matters.

Porsche is saying yes it can and that it is fully expecting a tweak; Toyota is insisting it can’t. The document that governs the new BoP system introduced for this year isn’t in the public domain and there has been no clarification from rule makers the FIA and the Automobile Club de l’Ouest.

A bit of help for Porsche is severely needed. It might have a shout at a podium, but the the reality was that the 963 still lacked pace. And reliability. The second Penske machine retired mid-race when it switched itself off on Laurens Vanthoor. Porsche had no idea what the problem was in the immediate aftermath of the race so complete was the shutdown.

If there is to be a BoP change it would presumably be in favour of the LMDhs, which means help for Cadillac as well as Porsche. Cadillac looked to be in the mix for a podium, a major shunt for Renger van der Zande in hour two ending the chances for one of the Ganassi-run V-Series.Rs, a call on tyres that didn’t pay off limiting the sister car shared by Earl Bamber, Alex Lynn and Richard Westbrook to fifth.

Peugeot took some solace from a clean run for both its 9X8 LMHs, though on pace it was no closer than at Portimao. It has warned us not to expect the lion to roar and the avant-garde contender to come alive at Le Mans.

Porsche WEC Spa 6 Hours 2023

Porsche, still struggling, needs help from BoP change


“We haven’t designed the car for one track, Le Mans or wherever,” said Peugeot Sport technical director Olivier Jansonnie. “The gaps you see between the cars is the same here as in Portimao and will probably be the same in Le Mans as well.”

A fourth Le Mans victory looks beyond Peugeot after 11 years away. After Spa, Ferrari suddenly looks like a genuine contender to take a 10th after an absence of 50 years.

Race Results - 2023 Spa 6 Hours