The 2015 Spa Six Hours World Endurance Championship
Practice, Qually, Grid Walk… and the Race!
Story by Rajan Jangda of Chequered Flag Media
Photos by Rajan Jangda & John Mountney of Virtual Motorpix.com
April 29-May 1
Practice: Eau no!
The 2015 Spa Six Hours World Endurance Championship. Rain. Spa. It’s something I shouldn’t really be surprised about. The place is notorious for its unpredictable weather and frequent self-lubrication. Rain. Yep, it happened. And not just the short burst that would send Formula 1 fans into convulsions – no -Thursday was a full day’s worth of rain. It was like the perfect Spa cliche.
My first day of shooting Spa at the opening practice session… and it was raining. Luckily I had the necessary waterproofing but it still didn’t save me from the wind which still blew rain droplets sideways onto my lens. The perfect 1/8th of a second shot on the apex of Eau Rouge this weekend was going to be a challenge. Funnily enough, this was the one outside section of the the track that was not a red zone (red zones are no-go zones for photographers).
I found myself being fixated with this corner, but who wouldn’t be? If you got your first chance to photograph it up close wouldn’t you do the same? I’m pretty sure it would be the same with other iconic corners too, like Laguna Seca’s Corkscrew and Bathurst’s Dipper. It would have been fine had I got a full sessions work, but the rain droplets on the lens and the red-flagging of the session left me feeling I had unfinished business. Hence, I was back at Eau Rouge in the second session refusing to play it safe with my shots as usual and settling my score with Mother Nature.
As for the red flag, it took a while for me to find out what was going on. The language barrier with the local marshals meant that I had to wait until I was back at the media centre to find out.
Before the session stoppage I remembered the Toyotas and Audis going out for their individual runs in close proximity. As it turned out, the Toyota of Kazuki Nakajima collided with the back of Oliver Jarvis’ Audi going into Les Combes after which Nakajima complained of back pains. He was taken to Verviers Hospital where it was discovered that he had a fractured vertebra. The impact of the accident had damaged not only poor Kaz, but also the survival cell of his car. As a result the whole car had to be rebuilt overnight and scrutineered the following day.
The incident itself had ramifications not only on Nakajima’s participation in the weekend’s race (in which he was obviously unable to take part), but also Le Mans. Toyota admitted that he “would need a miracle” to return for the biggest race of the year which is now just over a month away. Toyota will be calling on their reserve driver Kamui Kobayashi for Le Mans.
The two sessions were dominated by the Porsches, expanded to a trio of cars in preparation for Le Mans. With Nico Hulkenberg, Earl Bamber and Nick Tandy driving the third, they took no time to get on the pace of their sister cars, even going fastest of all in Free Practice 2.
Toyota continued to struggle for pace as they did at Silverstone, with the remaining #2 car being 3-5 seconds off the pace across both sessions. Despite the obvious pace from Porsche, the bulk of attention was still on the new low drag configuration Audi R18s, the menacing cars looking like a mechanical/aerodynamic hybrid of Predator and Johnny Five – in my eyes at least!
With both sessions being wet it was difficult to gauge the true pace of each of the entries, especially as the weekend was set to be dry. However the Bykolles CLM LMP1 did manage 11th… although it would seem that their struggles may not yet be behind them.
Thursday Free Practice Session
Come Friday afternoon the rain was long gone, replaced with a silky blanket of grey clouds while the sun teased us with a game of peek-a-boo. It would eventually do a Freddie Mercury and break free after qualifying. In the meantime I got over my Eau Rouge obsession and decided to branch out to other parts of the track for FP3 and qualifying whilst snooping around the paddock and pit lane during the support races.
Free Practice 3 finally showed us an indication of who had drawn 21 and who had gone bust. Toyota unfortunately looked to have done the latter being a step being the trident of Porsches and the Audi lineup. Audi surprised all this weekend with a radically new low drag design of the R18 for cars #7 and #8. As expected their third car #9 was running the high down force configuration and was suffering as a result on a power circuit like Spa. It would be interesting to see if Audi used their straggler strategically to hold up their rivals during the race.
Meanwhile at the very front of the pecking order was the #7 Audi heading an Audi-Porsche-Audi sandwich in the top 5 places, with the top two only separated by 0.011. Meanwhile in LMP2, G-Drive didn’t have it all their way unlike at Silverstone. The #47 KCMG Oreca and the #38 Jota Sport Gibson separated the #26 and #28 cars, closely followed by the #36 Alpine and the #43 Sard Morand Morgan, making a promising start to its previously hampered campaign. The #4 Bykolles CLM had escaped the clutches of the GTE class and nestled itself firmly among the LMP2 front runners, so a slight but welcome improvement for the struggling LMP1 car.
In the GTE class it was again a case of whoever was tasked with having to pick a definitive favorite winner, would probably be tearing clumps of their (remaining) hair out with the top eight cars within 1.3 seconds of each other. It looked like it was going to be a Ferrari vs Aston Martin affair. Speaking of GTE, Aston driver Fernando Rees was placed on the naughty step, having been given a fine for overtaking under yellows. (There isn’t actually a naughty step).
Qualifying: The Spa Cliche and the Pole Position Naughty-Step Double
For qualifying I decided to station myself at the end of the Kemmel Straight and Les Combes. The GTE and LMP classes went for two separate 25 minute sessions as per usual, with the GTE cars going first. Despite them being the ‘slower’ class, the GTE cars were still an eye opener through this section with the amount of kerb they took on the first part of Les Combes as some drivers dared to hop the car over them. In GTE Pro the #99 Aston Martin would edge the #51 AF Corse Ferrari by a tenth of a second. This meant that a certain Fernando Rees had achieved the unique pole position and naughty-step double! In GTE Am the #98 Aston Martin took pole from the #50 Labre Competition Corvette by more than a second.
It was then the turn of the LMP cars, which were being driven in an equally aggressive measure by their drivers, being very liberal in their use of the kerbs. Just as I was at Silverstone, I was impressed and thrilled by the speed at which they changed direction, visibly cornering with an almost slight drift like slip angle. In LMP2 the pole was taken by the #26 G Drive Racing Ligier ahead of the #47 KCMG Oreca. The surprise of the session was the #43 Sard Morand Morgan taking third in class. Amazing given their well documented recent troubles and the fact that the Morgan chassis is technically an evolution of a 15 year old Courage C60! The #4 Bykolles CLM actually managed to be quicker than all of the LMP2 cars, but only by half a second.
In LMP1 everyone was expecting a big fight for pole (save for Toyota who were struggling again). The LMP1 equivalent of Mayweather vs Pacquiao between Audi and Porsche if you will. Instead what we ended up with was Mayweather vs Pacquiao vs Hatton between the Porsche team who locked out the first three positions, Timo Bernhard taking pole in the #17. Thirty years after his death right here, Stefan Bellof’s helmet colours were worn by Timo in tribute to his hero. It became one of those moments which in retrospect looked certain to have happened, as if intricately scripted by a higher power, but I think it was more a case of simply being a day that belonged to Timo. It was a perfect outcome for the day regardless of who you were backing.
Grid Walk and The Race: You’re not supposed to blow the bloody doors off!
Saturday morning and it was like a waiting game. Scratch that – it was like two waiting games with no winner except for time and its consumption. The first was the mile long tail getting into the circuit which was compounded by people trying to get into the wrong car park. I’m pretty sure I could have written an article about the gridlock while waiting in the snarled traffic itself. I would have been pulled over by the local plod if I had tried, so instead I tuned out with the rhymes of Tyler The Creator to keep me company/awake. The other waiting game was in the media centre where everyone was going over their routines. Whilst waiting for the clock to strike one and join the collective swarm of humans heading to the grid walk, we all made the most of the free coffee and fruit.
I had my race routine already sorted: end of the Kemmel Straight right after the gridwalk (time permitting); stopping at the media centre after hour 1; heading to Les Combes and shooting all the way to Fagnes; returning again to the media centre; shooting from the only legitimate zone at Eau Rouge and then legging it back for the podium.
Now one thing that would have been on most new photographers and journalists minds in the media centre was trying to figure out what route to take towards the grid. No one really had a clear idea of how they were going to do it and the veterans were giving nothing away. I had my plan sorted. I figured out I’d simply go through the garage of a team which I was getting along with quite well! In the process I conveniently found myself right next to Toyota who were doing a few late practice stops giving me an awesome opportunity.
As we all finally made it to the grid, I let out a suppressed giggle as I clocked a group of lads trying to blag their way on to the grid and getting caught by security. I quickly said hi to a familiar face and got to work. It was the chance to get right up close to the new low drag Le Mans layout Audi R18 e-tron quattro. There was such a mass crowding around the pair of them that for a moment I thought the grid girls were back. Sorry. They were only gawking at the purpose built machines looking for all the world like space ships. Such was the gob-smacked ogling going on, that there was probably a halo of discarded saliva around the cars on the grid surface!
As I got up from taking a shot of Marc Lieb’s helmet resting on his #18 Porsche 919 (sharing with Romain Dumas and Neel Jani) I froze momentarily. “No way it’s him!”. It was the guest of honour, the legendary Jackie Ickx. I quickly captured a shot and legged it as he got swarmed by the other photographers. I almost had Tom Kristensen to myself as he walked the tv media through the new Audi R18 layout. 15 Le Mans 24 Hour victories in two shots!
Like Silverstone, the gridwalk had the ongoing pattern of two seemingly different worlds: the LMP1 end of the grid and everyone else in terms of crowding. The new Le Mans style row and start formation adds to the chaos stretching the classes apart on the grid. Having gone to the GT end of the grid, I returned back to the LMP1 cars to catch a certain Aussie bloke.
He then took my camera to take a selfie! Mark Webber nicked my camera! (He didn’t really, but he loved the idea and credit to him for playing ball).
Race Day at Spa – The Grid Walk
Most head towards La Source hairpin for the race start, but I originally wanted to go to the end of the Kemmel straight. Then I remembered the snails pace of the photo shuttles. I realized that I wouldn’t get there on time given that I would have to somehow find my way to the outside of the circuit via the underpass and then find an unlocked gate. The marshals for some bizarre reason thought it was a red zone.
Instead I decided to head to the entry of Eau Rouge – another area which was plagued with the locked gate/red zone issue. I was in luck this time: it was unlocked, so I decided to use this as my vantage point for the start of the race.
Now before we venture further into this report, it’s worth noting that I will mainly be reporting my understanding of what happened as a photographer track side. I’d rather say what I understood to have happened as opposed to regurgitating what a thousand other publications will.
Back to the start of the race. I was having to turn my head to the page of the cars so quickly that I’ve probably ended up with a neck a few millimetres thicker than when I departed England. The TV just doesn’t do it justice, nor does reading about it and nor does watching on-boards or YouTube videos. The Porsche 919s were so quick through there – even the GT cars were blistering – that on full tanks they sent sparks 10 meters into the air as they bottomed out at Eau Rouge. Such a welcome change compared to the puff of saw dust you’d get from the other cars.
I wouldn’t have wanted to be any of the Audi drivers at the start with the sparks flying at their windscreens. On lap one as the eight LMP1 cars streamed through Eau Rouge nose to tail, it was a similar story to Silverstone. The leading Porsches pulled away until the #19 Porsche in the hands of Nick Tandy collided with its #91 GT counterpart at Fagnes. This of course meant a lengthy trip back to the pits for repairs and a drop down the order.
The #18 Porsche of Dumas/Jani/Lieb was engaged in a race- long battle with the #7 Audi R18 of Fässler/Lotterer/Tréluyer, the two cars trading places well in accordance with sods law which dictated that the passes always occurred at a part of the track where I wasn’t! The ebb and the flow of the battle was that the Porsche could pass the Audi on pure power while the Audi could use it’s agility to run four rings around the Porsche in the tighter sections. Little did we know that we were seeing a racing version of the weekend’s prize fight. Ultimately the Audi would win despite being the slower car, taking advantage of its better pace when double-stinting its tyres. Toyota were more or less left to fight amongst themselves by the look of things.
Meanwhile the other two Porsches hit their own problems, most notably the #17 of Bernhard/Webber/Hartley during my own scheduled stop at the media centre (I made two stops at the media centre during the race to change batteries and refuel the memory and caffeine). With Brendan Hartley at the wheel, he overshot the bus stop chicane but somehow managed to thread the car through a gap in the tyre wall on the outside of the chicane, through the marshals post and then out of an equally narrow gap on the other side!
While this was going on the #9 ‘old spec’ Audi of Albuquerque/Bonanomi/Rast was finding it’s own problems. One of its doors decided to self-destruct in spectacular fashion and I was again left wondering where the hell the #4 Bykolles CLM of Trummer/Liuzzi/Klien had gone. Another re-occurrence from Silverstone was the visible amount of speed the LMP1 cars carried around the track. The GT cars were also impressively quick for cars with a more ‘full’ size. If you ever get to go to Spa, be sure to visit Les Combes, Pouhon and Fagnes to see (and feel) the cars mind bending speed through these turns…. phenomenal!
In LMP2 the WEC boys were beaten by the #38 Jota Sport Gibson from ELMS, after a race long fight with the two G-Drive Ligiers The #26 car fell by the wayside on lap 123, while the #43 Sard Morand Morgan – also mixing it with the aforementioned three cars – surprised us all. It had been quick straight out of the box and claimed third on the podium, putting the team’s early season dramas well behind them.
Aston Martin won both GTE classes with the #99 car coming out on top in the Pro class after a race long duel with the #51 AF Corse Ferrari. The top three cars in the class were all within less than 20 seconds of each other throughout the majority of the 6 hours and were routinely trading places. The #51 AF Corse did a metaphoric “Old Yeller” to itself via a pit stop infringement resulting in a one minute penalty that would cost them a podium. The #92 Team Manthey Porsche claimed second despite a compromised race as it was handed a drive through penalty for abusing track limits – something which I saw coming: Whenever I was track side I noticed that the car was taking ridiculously liberal amounts of kerb. Forget the apexes, the drivers were aiming for the grasscrete beyond that! Third was its sister car the #91 which as noted earlier, was running a compromised race having had a coming together with the #19 LMP1 Porsche. In the GTE Am class the #98 Aston Martin controlled the race for most of the distance, winning despite the assault mounted by the #83 AF Corse Ferrari. Third was the #72 SMP Ferrari.
At the end of the race I eagerly awaited the podium ceremony from inside a pit garage, having to wait until the very end of the race to make the dash underneath the podium to poach a decent angle. There really wasn’t one unless you had the overalls and helmet required for the pit lane, and those who did were already planted in their spots while some had managed to climb to the top of the pit wall fence… bastards!
The rest of us without the acrobatic expertise of these guys were left with a metal handrail obstructing the shot, or as in my case, another photographer. He kept head butting my lens at the wrong moment and then had the nerve to get angry at me!
The 2015 Spa Six Hours World Endurance Championship round was an amazing weekend. I think I got to see all sides of the circuit in all light and weather conditions that modern motor sport would allow. The constant deluge on Thursday; the on again – off again sun on Friday; the hard sunlight on the Saturday grid walk and the spring evening murk during the race. My only regret from the weekend was not having that chance to take a pause, a respit… and take the moment in. To realize what I was doing and where I was doing it.
As it turned out, half an hour after the race and once I was in the media centre, I still wouldn’t get to take that moment as I knew I was facing a 6Hr drive home on the worlds most boring highway: the E42.