#7 Toyota takes first victory in Europe in dominant 1-2

Mike Conway, Jose Maria Lopez and Kamui Kobayashi took their first European victory for Toyota Gazoo Racing as they headed a 1-2 in the opening FIA World Endurance Championship round of the year at the 4 Hours of Silverstone.

At the start, the two Hybrid machines powered away from the field with Sébastien Buemi leaping ahead of Conway on the run into Abbey for the first time with the two Rebellion cars unable to keep up with the Toyota TS050s. The Japanese squad didn’t get chance to make much of a gap though, as the safety car was called for on just the second lap as Paul Di Resta ground to halt on the pit straight in the United Autosports Oreca 07.

As the race went green again, disaster struck the #6 Team LNT Ginetta G60 as Charlie Robertson found himself driving a three-wheeler as the right-rear Michelin broke away from the car coming through Woodcote. He managed to limp the car back to the pits, but a puncture just ten minutes later lost more time for the British manufacturer. In another accident beyond the team’s control, the #6 was clipped by Miguel Molina’s AF Corse Ferrari heading into Maggotts, causing the prototype to go off-track and lose time. The Ferrari 488 GTE Evo was forced to retire as Molina spun into the armco at Becketts. At the front of the field, Toyota’s comfortable 1-2 was assisted for incidents and penalties befalling both the Rebellion Racing R13s. When the heavy rain shower struck just after 90 minutes completed, the #1 car hit the fuel rig as it slipped into the concrete-surfaced pit box on slick tyres. That cost it time as the team was forced to jack the car up to spin it into the right position. The #3 lost time to the leaders as it was slapped with a five-second stop-go penalty for a technical infringement. While they lost a chunk of time to the Toyotas, they still finished on the last step of the podium.

Ahead of them, the lead battle between the Toyotas played out in the pits. Just before the halfway mark, both TS050s pitted at the same time to swap their wets for slicks with the #7 enjoying the quicker pitstop as the #8 had to be slightly repositioned once it came in. Despite Kazuki Nakajima closing in during the final 20 minutes, Lopez had enough time in hand to hold on to take the first win of the 2019/20 season. The #1 Rebellion lost time late on, with the car pushed into the garage for an inspection with less than ten minutes remaining, dropping it to fifth in class. That promoted the #5 Ginetta into fourth.

In LMP2, an outstanding move going into Maggotts decided the class battle in Cool Racing’s favour as Nicolas Lapierre swept round Job van Uitert’s long-time leading Racing Team Nederland Oreca with an hour remaining to take victory on the team’s WEC debut. The race was playing out very much in the Dutch team’s favour before then, as Giedo van der Garde moved up to fifth overall at the start - passing both the Ginettas - and proceeded to hold onto the position throughout the numerous pitstops when the heavy rain came. However, after Lapierre’s decisive move on Uitert, the Nederland crew couldn’t offer any response as the Frenchman powered off down the road. The Dutch team was also relegated from second on the final lap as Frits Van Eerd’s valiant defence was unpicked by Signatech Alpine’s Thomas Laurent.

The Frenchman was all over the back of Van Eerd at the start of the lap and finally made the move stick as they went down the Wellington Straight. Cool Racing’s victory was made more remarkable by the fact that the team was unexpectedly without their third driver Alexandre Coigny who was involved in a big crash in Saturday’s ELMS race. That meant Lapierre and Antonin Borga shared the driving, becoming the first two-driver crew to win in the LMP2 class since 2012 with Borga also taking victory in first WEC event. Fourth in LMP2, with a full complement of drivers, was the Jackie Chan DC Racing Oreca. Will Stevens was at the helm for a strong charge going into the final hour, but he couldn’t make up the gap quickly enough to challenge for a podium. The same could be said for the Jota team that finished fifth, less than half-a-second behind the Jackie Chan entry as Antonio Felix Da Costa powered his way up through the field but needed one more lap to pass Stevens.

In qualifying, AF Corse was the team to beat in GTE Pro, whereas Porsche was left to contemplate what might have been. By the end of the four hours, it was a complete reversal as the Ferrari squad’s challenge fizzled out and the Manthey-run Porsche 911 RSRs powered to the top. As well as Molina’s crash in the #51, the sister #71 struggled almost from the word go as the team lost a huge chunk of time in the opening 30 minutes after James Calado was forced to pit his 488 with a puncture. That, combined with the time it took the Brit to limp the car back to the pits, dropped them well down the order finishing in fourth - the last of the classified runners. Capitalising on that was both the #91 and the #92 as a clean run and near-perfect pit strategy pushed them both up the order. It was the former that took victory as Richard Lietz and Gianmaria Bruni put their disrupted qualifying behind them - after Bruni lost time with a puncture - to hold off a late charge from Kevin Estre and Michael Christensen. Estre and Christensen’s rise up the field was a testament to their clockwork-like work throughout the race as they perfected their pitstops and then cranked out quick lap after quick lap. Claiming the final spot on the podium - despite frantic work on the grid with mechanics scouring the engine bay of the Vantage GTE - was the #97 Aston Martin Racing entry of Alex Lynn and Maxime Martin. Starting third, the pair battled through the rain and avoided the mishaps that befell their rivals to take a hard-fought third place.

Francois Perrodo claimed a first win in three years, Emmanuel Collard a win in his first race full stop in two years, and Nicklas Nielsen took his first WEC victory as they provided AF Corse with something of a silver lining as they swept to GTE Am glory. Much like Porsche’s success in the sister Pro class, a lot of the trio’s victory was owed to sensible, smart driving with pit strategy also being spot on for the Ferrari team. Their push to the top was helped by a remarkable move from Nielsen. He swept around the outside of Ben Barker’s Gulf Racing Porsche at Stowe in the final hour as he powered up into the lead. Second went to the Aston Martin Racing team of Paul Dalla Lana, Darren Turner and Ross Gunn despite a number of dramas for the new line-up in the #98. Just before the halfway mark, Turner appeared to struggle to get out of the pits with the car reluctant to pull away. While it didn’t lose the team a huge chunk of time, it stopped them from being able to close the gap to AF Corse - even with Gunn’s rapid stint in the final hour.

Third went the way of another Ferrari, the #70 MR Racing car of Motoaki Ishikawa, Olivier Beretta and Kei Cozzolino which held off a late push from Barker’s Gulf Porsche to take a hard-fought podium in a class that was shook up by the heavy rainstorm necessitating a dash into the pits to fit wets. The biggest losers in that regard was the #90 TF Sport Aston Martin which started on class pole. Losing time after a spin for Salih Yoluc when he tried to overtake Egidio Perfetti’s Team Project 1 Porsche at Village, the pit strategy of their rivals also factored against them as they crossed the line in seventh - behind the Porsche 911 RSRs of Gulf Racing, Dempsey-Proton Racing and the aforementioned Team Project 1 entry.

The next round of the World Endurance Championship heads to Asia for the Six Hours of Fuji on October 4, 5 and 6.