Road to Le Mans: Gazoo Hybrids unbeaten in WEC ‘23
Toyota Gazoo Racing’s Number 8 crew, Brendon Hartley, Sebastien Buemi, and Ryo Hirakawa beat the best of the Ferraris and Porsches to win the WEC Portimão 6 Hour on Sunday. In what ultimately proved a comfortable victory, the GR010 Hybrid continued Toyota’s unbeaten start to the 2023 World Endurance Championship.
The victorious Toyota trio beat Nicklas Nielsen, Miguel Molina and Antonio Fuoco’s number 50 Ferrari 499P LMD Hypercar to second. Porsche meanwhile became the first LMDh manufacturer to score a WEC podium, as Laurens Vanthoor, Kevin Estre and Andre Lotterer stood on the third step after strong run in the number six 963. Cadillac’s V-Series.R LMDh scored its second fourth place finish on the trot, while Peugeot made it five different manufacturers in the top five.
Portimão was all about Toyota
The Portimão weekend was all about Toyota in the end. Its two cars topped all three sessions as they dominated practice. Hartley then edged team boss Kamui Kobayashi’s 8 Toyota by three-tenths of a second as Gazoo Racing sealed off the front of the grid in qualifying Saturday evening. “We put a bit more effort into qualifying,” Hartley revealed. “We were a bit annoyed at Sebring, but I knew the lap was good, also knowing that Kamui was right behind me. We’re expecting a big fight at Portimão tomorrow, especially with the red cars.”
To that end, Nicklas Nielsen ended third, just a tenth off the pace in the best of the Ferrari 499P LMHs. Teammate James Calado sat fourth on the grid in the sister Ferrari as the resurgent Italian team continued to impress. Kevin Estre was the better of Porsche’s two 963 LMDh entries, over two seconds off pole position in fifth. He pipped Nico Muller to sixth by another tenth of a second in what appeared to be a much improved Peugeot 9X8. Frederic Makowiecki started seventh in the second Porsche, from Richard Westbrook’s Cadillac, Romain Dumas’ second Peugeot. And exotic LMH duo, the Glickenhaus 007 and the Vanwall.
Mirko Bortolotti took Prema Racing’s first LMP2 pole position by all of a thousandth of a second. He pipped Vector Sport driver Gabriel Aubry, Phil Hanson for United Autosports, and Jota driver Yifei Ye. Ben Keating took a late GTE Am pole for Corvette Racing. From lady racer Sarah Bovy’s Iron Dames Porsche 911 RSR and Diego Alessi’s AF Corse Ferrari 488 GTE Evo.
Another comfortable Toyota victory
The Number 7 Toyota passed its teammate off the line at the start, as James Calado moved up to second in the 51 Ferrari. He was soon re-passed by the pole sitting Toyota. Calado then dropped to fourth behind his teammate 50 Ferrari, which later also benefited from the 8 Toyota’s stop. That left the 50 Ferrari to cruise to second, a lap behind the winning number 8 Toyota. And ahead of the Porsche, Cadillac, and Peugeot. It was not a perfect run for any of the top teams however. All their second cars all hit trouble.
The leading number 7 Toyota was ordered into the pits from the lead. It slipped back to ninth as the team rectified a sensor issue. The 51 Ferrari ran into brake trouble and fell to sixth ahead of the second 93 Peugeot. It had started a lap down after a pre-race steering issue but recovered to seventh ahead of the Glickenhaus. The 5 Porsche lost significant time to a power steering problem to finish well down. And Jacques Villeneuve’s Vanwall suffered a brake fire before spinning off to bring out the safety car with an hour left to race.
Moving on to LMP2 United Autosports’ Oreca-Gibson 07s scored a compelling 1-2 as Oliver Jarvis, Josh Pierson and Giedo van der Garde overcame a five-second penalty to beat Phil Hanson, Frederick Lubin, and Ben Hanley by all of 0.684 seconds. Rui Andrade, Robert Kubica and Louis Deletraz were third in another Oreca. The lone Corvette made it two GTE Am wins on the trot as Nicky Catsburg, Ben Keating and Nicolas Varrone fought Alessio Rovera, Luis Perez Companc and lady racer Lilou Wadoux’s AF Corse Ferrari 488 GTE Evo off for the win. Iron Dames’ all girl crew of Sarah Bovy, Michelle Gatting and Rachel Frey were third in their Porsche 911 RSR.
Lone Corvette took GTE LM again at Portimāo
It’s a short two weeks break from Portimão to the Spa Francorchamps 6 Hour. Then its on the road to the centennial Le Mans 24 Hour over the weekend of 10-11 June. Several new cars are expected to debut in Belgium in preparation for Le Mans. As teams and crews hone their plans in for that biggest endurance race of the year.
Toyota is enjoying a splendid run up to Le Mans. It hopes to deliver its sixth 24 Hour victory on the trot there. But the Japanese Gazoo Racing team has a significant target on its back, with no less than Porsche back after a five year hiatus, and Ferrari making a return after 50 years away since its last factory Le Mans attack. Never mind Cadillac, Peugeot, Glickenhaus, and others in the fray. All of them are closing the gap to Toyota, a team that all too well knows that anything can happen at Le Mans…
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