The Spa Francorchamps circuit was bathed in beautiful sunshine today and the second round of the FIA’s World Endurance Championship delivered excitement and drama throughout the full six hours for the large crowd.
After Qualifying yesterday, Roberto Merhi was starting third in the LMP2 class, with Will Stevens fifth on the grid.
At the start, Roberto was tagged into a spin from behind at La Source, and the resultant damage was later to cost the team a potential victory. Will started brilliantly though, completing the first lap in P2. Roberto slipped down to P11 after the spin but had worked his way up to P4 by the first pit stop.
At the first driver change, the team turned number 44 round quickly, enabling James Jakes to take number 44 car out in P1, and he held that position for his entire double stint. Richard Bradley took over number 45 and returned to the track in P5 before moving up the field.
At the next stop, car 45 had a slightly longer time in the pits, as the rear bodywork was deemed to be too dangerous to return to the track and the team had to fit the spare rear bodywork, dropping Richard back to P5 again. A good second stint saw him climb up to P3, and for a brief period the two Manor cars were running P1 and P2 before the second driver change.
Halfway into Tor Graves’ first stint, he radioed that he had a brake problem, and was instructed to drive slowly and safely to the box. The team investigated and replaced the front left disc and caliper, but the lengthy stop effectively dropped car 44 out of contention.
Matt Rao continued the good progress that his team mates had made, taking car 45 up to P2 again, and briefly held the lead when the leading Alpine pitted.
With about an hour to go, a GT car crashed at Raidillon, leaving the circuit covered in debris. The engineers immediately called both cars in as the safety car came out, and Roberto and James took over 45 and 44 into P3 and P9 respectively.
Just before the safety car was due to come in, the engineers decided to call 45 in for its final fuel stop which would allow it to run to the end of the race. A dramatic chase ensued after the safety car came in with approximately 45 minutes to run, but a drive through penalty for Roberto, judged to have driven through a red light on leaving the pits, made the chase more difficult.
Roberto took up the challenge though, reducing the gap to the leaders steadily, squeezing through a non-existent gap into third place just seconds before the fireworks signified the end of the race. At the end of the race, the first four LMP2 cars were covered by less than six seconds, showing how competitive the class is.
James Jakes made a final stop for fuel a few laps before the end, and brought the car home in eighth place to complete the team’s first two-car finish in the WEC.
John Booth, Team Principal
“I think everyone has some mixed emotions today. We’ve seen both of our cars running in P1, and car 44 was in the lead for a considerable part of the race. Although we could view it as unlucky not to win LMP2, I prefer to think of it as a massive achievement for a team that barely existed three months ago to be standing on the podium of a World Championship event. Also we shouldn’t forget that both cars were still running strongly at the finish, I’m very pleased with that. We still have a lot to learn though and we will keep working hard to improve in all areas. Our next stop is Le Mans and that will throw an entirely new set of challenges at us, but we will approach the race in the way we always do and look to perform well in what is going to be a very strong LMP2 field.”
Roberto Merhi, Driver Car 45
“It is a bit of a mix of sensations for me. With the pace we had I wanted to win and think we could have done. The hit we had at the start compromised our race, as we had to stop for repairs and we must have lost over a minute with that. It made it difficult but both Richard and Matt drove really well, we were in a very good position after the last stop. Then we got a drive through, although for me I’m sure the light was green. Many thanks to the team, everyone worked really hard and prepared a very good car.”
Matt Rao, Driver Car 45
“I’m happy but disappointed. Happy to be back standing on a podium, but disappointed that we are not standing higher on it. We had the pace to win and we can definitely improve on this result. It’s a shame that 45 won’t be at Le Mans but for the rest of the season I think we can be competing for the podium on a regular basis.”
Richard Bradley, Driver Car 45
“We can be very happy with the team’s performance today. We clearly had the fastest car and although a few things went against us. It’s an incredible achievement to have the team working at this level in such a short time, everyone in the team has done a fantastic job and can hold their heads up high.”