Hybrids miss out on Spa victory


Audi’s new hybrid R18 sports prototype fell short in its quest for a debut victory in the World Endurance Championship on Saturday, as the e-tron quattro’s more conventional sister stole the limelight at the Spa Six Hours.

The R18 Ultra, a development of last year’s Le Mans winner, had the edge on the innovative hybrid during a race that was run mostly in dry conditions, against the usual expectations of the picturesque Ardennes region.

Marc Gene, who has switched to Audi in the wake of Peugeot’s withdrawal from sports car racing, found himself with a victory on his team debut, alongside fellow team new boy Loic Duval and Romain Dumas.

The fastest of the e-tron quattros, driven by reigning Le Mans champions Marcel Fassler, Andre Lotterer and Benoit Treluyer, set the pace during the wet conditions in which the race began, but fell back into the clutches of the R18 Ultra in the third hour, by which time the track was fully dry.

The hybrid had claimed an impressive pole position on its debut, thanks to an inspired qualifying performance by Allan McNish in the car he was sharing with regular team-mates Tom Kristensen and Dindo Capello.

At the start, Kristensen led from pole as the e-tron quattros looked to build an advantage on the wet track, but it soon emerged the eight-time Le Mans winner had no answer to Lotterer, who hit the front on lap three and opened up a 14-second gap before the first pitstops.

Kristensen was then delayed by a change of nose forced on the team by the failure of his left bank of LED headlights, dropping the e-tron behind Gene’s R18 Ultra.

Lotterer, now running on intermediate Michelins, looked comfortable at this stage. But the lap times of Gene, who had switched to full slicks, began to fall and it became clear that as the conditions improved so did the non-hybrid R18. The Spaniard, whose brave choice of going straight for dry tyres put his car in contention for the win, handed over to Duval, and the former ORECA Peugeot man then put in a great double stint. He closed in on the lead car, now driven by Treluyer, and the lead changed hands as the race approached the half-way mark.

In the fourth hour a pair of safety car periods broke up the action and had the knock-on effect of increasing the lead car’s advantage. Dumas took over from Duval in a position that would not be threatened. Fassler, now in for Treluyer, said: “The safety cars were critical and split us from the leading car. Before we were about 15 seconds behind, but after we were more like 40 to 50 seconds down.”

Behind the leading pair, McNish had put on a charge in an attempt to make up for Kristensen’s nose-change delay. But he could make little impression during a stint which included a quick trip through the Stavelot gravel, and when Capello took over the Italian could not stop the second R18 Ultra of Marco Bonanomi demoting him to the back of the Audi quartet. For rookies Bonanomi and team-mate Oliver Jarvis, a podium ahead of the illustrious trio of McNish, Kristensen and Capello was a great result.

The Rebellion Lola-Toyota coupe of Neel Jani, Nick Heidfeld and Nicolas Prost proved ‘best of the rest’ and the first petrol car home in fifth, ahead of the Strakka Racing HPD ARX 03a of Jonny Kane, Danny Watts and Nick Leventis.

The new Pescarolo-run Dome-Judd coupe ran as high as fifth in the hands of Sebastien Bourdais and Nicolas Minassian, but a spell in the garage during the fifth hour pushed it down to 15th at the flag.

Typically, the lower classes provided the best racing of the day. The well-supported P2 class for the less powerful prototypes featrued a four-way scrap through most of the race, and it came down to a pair of British teams in the closing minutes.

Robbie Kerr looked set to take the flag first in ADR-Delta’s ORECA-Nissan, only for a late stop for a splash of fuel to blow it all. With just over four minutes to go Kerr had no choice but to pit, handing the victory to Simon Dolan and Sam Hancock in Jota’s Zytek-Nissan.

Dolan had little idea of the situation because his radio to the pits was on the blink. Afterwards, a delighted Hancock reflected on a pitlane speeding penalty that had almost cost them dear.

“I tried to select first gear to pull away, but it wouldn’t go in, so I had to get away in second and tripped the limit,” he said. “If we hadn’t had that penalty it would have been much easier at the finish.”

He also paid tribute to Dolan. “He’s the real star. He only started racing in 2008 when I began coaching him and four years later he’s winning his class, at Spa, in a world championship race.”

There was even greater drama in GTE as Richard Lietz fended off a charging Gianmaria Bruni on a thrilling last lap. The Felbermayer Porsche crossed the line just over a second ahead of the AF Corse Ferrari 458 Italia. Incredible, after six hours of flat-out racing.

Next stop for the World Endurance Championship is the big one: Le Mans, on June 16/17. Audi’s 1-2-3-4 was never in doubt, but there are plenty of questions still to be answered about the race-winning potential of the e-tron quattro R18. Toyota’s TS030 HYBRID will join it on the grid in France, adding to the intrigue as the WEC heats up nicely in its inaugural year.

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