SMP Racing ends opening day fastest after infamous Spa rain strikes in FP2

For the first time in the FIA World Endurance Championship’s Superseason, Toyota Gazoo Racing didn’t set the fastest time of the day after SMP Racing stormed to the top spot.

In a dry Free Practice One, ex-Williams F1 racer Sergey Sirotkin set the pace for the Russian squad as he tackled Spa-Francorchamps in a mammoth 1:56.264s - almost two seconds clear of another ex-F1 driver in the sister BR1 - Stoffel Vandoorne. Toyota struggled to match SMP’s rapid pace with Sebastien Buemi’s 1:58.742s half-a-second down on the non-Hybrid LMP1s and Mike Conway a tenth behind that in the #7 TS050. Rebellion Racing claimed fifth and sixth, both R13s 3.4s clear of the returning ByKolles entry, which was slower than the leading LMP2 runners.

In the second session, which was red-flagged four times as the infamous Spa rain turned heavy at numerous points, Toyota found itself back up at the top as Fernando Alonso, in the #8, pulled more than a second clear of Mike Conway as the Hybrid’s four-wheel drive system proved the difference in the wet. The #11, driven to second earlier by Vandoorne, finished the session best of the rest behind the Toyotas this time with Vitaly Petrov doing what team-mate Stephane Sarrazin couldn’t as he aquaplaned off the track earlier in the 90-minute session. Rebellion were fourth and fifth, with ByKolles sixth - a lot closer to the rest of the competition.

Sébastien Buemi – Toyota Gazoo Racing “We are happy to be back and we have good memories from here but it might be a completely different weekend to what we are used to in Spa because, since 2013, I have never experienced a wet race here. Some of the privateers this morning seem quite quick so we will see how it all goes.”

Signatech Alpine and DragonSpeed shared the top spots in the pair of practice sessions as the Michelin runners - the former using the French rubber for the first time - had the measure of their Dunlop-shod rivals. In FP1, Andre Negrao’s 2:03.441s was enough to deny Jean-Eric Vergne the top spot as he put in a strong showing for G-Drive Racing on its return to the WEC with the Aurus 01 - a rebadged Oreca 07. The Racing Team Nederland Dallara P217 split the Oreca domination by claiming third, 0.147s ahead of the DragonSpeed car. It was that car that made the best of the soggy second session as Pastor Maldonado proved himself a league above the rest - 1.613s above to be exact as Matthieu Vaxiviere couldn’t get any more speed out of the Dunlops on the TDS Racing machine. The Frenchman was close to losing second though, as the Jackie Chan DC Racing Oreca finished 0.135s behind in third.

Aston Martin Racing took the top spot in both sessions with its Vantage in GTE Pro. In the lunchtime session, it was the #97 of Alex Lynn and Maxime Martin who took the top spot before the Dane Train #95 of Nicki Thiim and Marco Sorensen swept to first in the latter session. In the first session, Aston Martin was fortunate to hang on to the top spot as Harry Tincknell’s late charge matched Martin’s 2:15.290s exactly but, because it was set later in the session, the Ford Chip Ganassi Team UK machine was classified second. Third went to the BMW Team MTEK BMW M8, splitting the Ford GTs as Porsche and Ferrari propped up the leading GT class.

Maxime Martin – Aston Martin Racing “We have been improving through the season and learning the Vantage car which is new, and we also have a new tyre manufacturer as well [Michelin]. It is getting better and better. For me it is always nice to have a race in my home country so we are looking forward to the race. Belgium has had in the past, and still has, some really good drivers at high levels. Racing at Spa in the 6 Hours or even the 24 Hours has produced great Belgian drivers so it is special.”

The order was upended in the second test, as Gianmaria Bruni finished 0.250s behind Sorensen in the #91 Porsche GT Team Porsche 911 GT3 RSR. Third went to the Lynn/Martin Aston Martin with both the AF Corse Ferraris finishing fourth and fifth. In contrast to FP1, Ford seemingly struggled in the wet with seventh and eighth the best the team could manage, beating only the BMWs.

Porsche took the top spot in GTE Am in both sessions as Ben Barker’s early hot lap put the Gulf Racing 911 on top in FP1, before Matt Campbell did the same for Dempsey-Proton Racing in FP2. In a feat of remarkable symmetry, Ferrari teams finished second in both sessions with Giancarlo Fisichella and Olivier Beretta taking the runner-up spot for Spirit of Race and MR Racing respectively.

Paul Dalla Lana – Aston Martin Racing “This is a place we all like to come to and, in my mind, it is one of the reasons I came into racing because it is such a fantastic circuit. So to come here is great because the fans are so knowledgeable and supportive and it is such a great event. This year we are on the backfoot a little so it will be a lot tougher in LMGTE Am than in previous years so I am not sure about winning number five [in class]. But, even just to have won four in a row here at such a tough race, makes us feel very proud.”