First ever WEC Hypercar class win goes to TOYOTA GAZOO Racing
The trio kicked off the 2021 World Endurance Championship season with a close-fought victory that means TOYOTA GAZOO Racing has now won in Belgium five years in a row.
New beginning for the WEC
History would be made whatever happened at Spa-Francorchamps, as the championships began with a new-format, six-race calendar that saw the previous top tier of car, the LMP1, replaced with the Le Mans Hypercar, and a new set of technical regulations introduced, resulting in a benchmark lap time of 3:30 at Le Mans. A ‘prologue’ event in late April treated the public to the first showcase of the new Hypercars in racing conditions.
This was also a great chance to iron out any last-minute issues and, crucially, build excitement for the new season. “It’s been a long time since our last race,” said José María López – one of the reigning world-champion #7 team, along with Kamui Kobayashi and Mike Conway – after the prologue. “Endurance is a tough sport and we always feel like we want more laps, more preparation – but my time in the car went well and I felt comfortable. Testing in traffic is helpful; when you are alone on track you use the same line and always brake in the same place. With so many other cars on track, it is good training for the season.”
It was the #7 car that claimed the first-ever Hypercar pole, after Kobayashi drove masterfully during qualifying. But the greatest excitement was yet to come.
Three leaders in six hours
The top three Hypercars were closely matched for the duration of the race: the #7 and #8 in TOYOTA GAZOO livery, and the #36 Alpine car.
On the eleventh lap, the #8 with Buemi at the wheel took the lead – but it would be short-lived as both cars had setbacks at the pit, surrendering the lead to the #36. First, the #7 did not leave the pit cleanly; then the #8 was handed a 30-second penalty for breaking a new regulation on minimum refuelling time.
But the biggest drama was saved until just after the four-hour mark. With the three leading cars just seconds apart, the #7 slid off the track and required a rescue vehicle, dropping it back into third.
Thankfully, there were no issues at the final fuel stop for the #8, which managed to retake the lead ahead of the final section. Nakajima handed over to Buemi in the driver’s seat, and from there it was a case of race management. The Swiss executed this perfectly, finishing the race 67 seconds ahead of the #36, with the #7 completing the podium.
“Learning on every single lap”
With the race complete, the victorious drivers were able to reflect on the first outing for the GR010 HYBRID Hypercar.
“I think as a team we did a really good job in the race,” said Kazuki Nakajima. “The race was tricky for us, we had some ups and downs, but as a driving crew we did what we needed to do. It was so easy to make a mistake because the traffic was difficult to manage and we had strong competition from Alpine and even some of the LMP2s.”
Brendon Hartley added: “As a driver crew we didn’t make any mistakes and we were learning on every single lap. We continue to improve our understanding of the GR010 HYBRID, how we deal with double-stints with this car and the traffic management, which is very different than with the previous car. All I can say is that we are very happy with the first victory.”
The challenge is set to grow even further when the championships progress to the next stage in Portimão on 11-13 June. Along with an extra two hours on the race duration, the teams will also see extra competition on the track, as an additional manufacturer intends to enter a Hypercar. Whatever happens, TOYOTA GAZOO Racing’s defence of its WEC crown is off to a good start.