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10 things we learned from the 2023 WEC 6 Hours of Portimao

The second round of the World Endurance Championship at the Algarve International Circuit produced a familiar headline result, but there was plenty of intrigue below the surface as Toyota continued its unbeaten start to the season. Here's what we learned in Portugal.

#6 Porsche Penske Motorsport Porsche 963: Kévin Estre, André Lotterer, Laurens Vanthoor

#6 Porsche Penske Motorsport Porsche 963: Kévin Estre, André Lotterer, Laurens Vanthoor

JEP / Motorsport Images

Five manufacturers filled the top five positions after six hours of racing in Portimao on Sunday, but as in Sebring it was Toyota that claimed the spoils.

The #8 crew of Sebastien Buemi, Ryo Hirakawa and Brendon Hartley enjoyed a one-lap advantage over the pursuing Ferrari and Porsche, while Cadillac and Peugeot also got cars to the flag before the second entries from the podium-finishers after an array of problems afflicted the #7 Toyota, #51 Ferrari and #5 Porsche.

A race that ran without interruption for almost five hours until brake failure pitched Jacques Villeneuve's Vanwall off the road at Turn 10 was a slow-burner, but delivered exciting finishes in both the LMP2 and GTE Am classes.

United Autosports delivered a 1-2 finish in the secondary prototype division after overcoming the challenge of first-time WEC polesitter Prema, as Corvette Racing held on to secure back-to-back GTE successes thanks to Nicky Catsburg's stout defence against Alessio Rovera.

Here are the 10 things we learned from the 2023 WEC 6 Hours of Portimao.

1. Toyota is still a long way clear out front...

Victory for the #8 Toyota crew never looked in doubt after the delays suffered by its sister car

Victory for the #8 Toyota crew never looked in doubt after the delays suffered by its sister car

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

Some of the Hypercar manufacturers were sending out vibes after the Sebring season-opener in March that the rough and bumpy Florida circuit was always going to favour a team with a proven car that it knew inside out more than a European-style circuit. The reality was that the gap Toyota enjoyed at the front of the field increased at Portimao as its rivals again struggled to extract performance out of their cars.

On a 50-lap average the best of the Toyota GR010 HYBRIDs was three tenths up on Ferrari and five on Caddy at Sebring. Those margins were four and six tenths around a circuit the better part of a mile shorter in Portugal.

Toyota tried to make a point that it was closer than it looked after last weekend’s race, just as it had done post-Sebring. There was talk of deep delves into the data and eclectic stints, but the reality was that the Toyotas can run around metronomically at a consistent and fast pace that its rivals can only dream off at the moment.

Technical director Pascal Vasselon probably didn’t mean to say “where we are consistently better is in terms of consistency”, but he hit the nail on the head.

2. ...But the field has closed up

The Toyota enjoyed a clear advantage, but the rest of the field behind it closed up

The Toyota enjoyed a clear advantage, but the rest of the field behind it closed up

Photo by: Paul Foster

That’s not a contradiction in terms even if Toyota has edged away at the front. There was less of a spread between the five car makers that make up the bulk of the Hypercar field for round two of the 2023 WEC.

Between Toyota up front and Peugeot at the back, there was little more than a second on that 50-lap average. That compares with nearly two at Sebring.

Take Toyota out of the equation, and the other four manufacturers were all actually racing each other at different times over the course of the Portimao 6 Hours. That’s got to be good for the championship.

3. Peugeot is making real progress

Peugeot enjoyed its strongest race yet with clean runs for both cars after the #93 machine's pre-race delay

Peugeot enjoyed its strongest race yet with clean runs for both cars after the #93 machine's pre-race delay

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

It didn’t look like an auspicious start for Peugeot: one of its 9X8s was in the pits having its power steering replaced, as the rest of the WEC field sat on the grid. But the French manufacturer bounced back from its abject performance at Sebring with the best race for its Le Mans Hypercar programme to date.

The French manufacturer managed three fourths against slim opposition last year, so the fifth place for Loic Duval, Nico Muller and Gustavo Menezes might not look like a big deal. But the significance was that the in-house Peugeot Sport team finally got a car to the finish cleanly - aside from a problem with an FIA-mandated sensor.

It was actually two clean races for Peugeot if you don’t include the pre-race hydraulic leak that resulted in the attention to the steering system on the sister car. It had to start the race a lap down by regulation, which was the deficit for the #93 9X8 driven by Paul di Resta, Jean-Eric Vergne and Mikkel Jansen to #94 at the chequered flag.

Further steps are clearly needed, but the curve has turned in the right direction for Peugeot as it gears up for its first assault on the Le Mans 24 Hours since 2011.

4. Cadillac is still the fastest of the LMDhs

Flat-spotted tyre when Westbrook came in for his first pitstop threw the solo Caddy off-sequence

Flat-spotted tyre when Westbrook came in for his first pitstop threw the solo Caddy off-sequence

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

Porsche might have scored the first LMDh podium in the WEC with its 963 shared by Laurens Vanthoor, Kevin Estre and Andre Lotterer, but the Cadillac V-Series.R was the faster car at Portimao just as it had been at Sebring.

The Ganassi-run Caddy factory was on a steep learning curve on a circuit where it had never tested; in fact, the car touched its wheels on European asphalt for the first time in opening practice. It wasn’t there in qualifying, but it looked like Richard Westbrook, Earl Bamber and Alex Lynn were on course for the final step on the podium as the start of the final hour approached.

Caddy was out of synch with its immediate rivals after Westbrook had to cut short the second half of his opening double stint with a flat-spotted Michelin. But he was able to go deep enough into the second hour to allow Ganassi to do away with the late splash-and-dash fuel stop.

The only safety car of the race shortly before the five-hour mark undid a strategy that had admittedly been forced on Cadillac.

Porsche was closer to Cadillac in Portimao, or at least the third-placed 963 was. There was a significant improvement by the German manufacturer, though the sister car couldn’t show it. Dane Cameron struggled on the softer of the two compounds of Michelin tyre at the start and an hour-long stop to replace the power steering left the car dead last at the finish.

5. The tech that polices the Hypercar class isn’t infallible

Long pitstop for the #7 Toyota wrecked its chances of a good points haul

Long pitstop for the #7 Toyota wrecked its chances of a good points haul

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

Apart from the fact that Portimao didn’t give us an exciting motor race, the biggest disappointment was the failures of one of the FIA-mandated driveshaft torque sensors on both the #7 Toyota and the #94 Peugeot.

What are understood to be the first such failures should be seen as a worrying development for a category built on data collection. The torque sensors measure power delivery in real time to ensure the cars stick to their prescribed torque curves and are also a tool used in the Balance of Performance.

Toyota called for a change in procedures to allow a car to continue if there is such a problem: it was forced to pit the #7 GR010 HYBRID shared by Kamui Kobayashi, Mike Conway and Jose Maria Lopez to change the driveshaft, which put the car out of contention. But there are defaults in place to allow the necessary data to be collected without the driveshaft sensors. It argued that a team shouldn’t be penalised for a problem not of its making.

It’s difficult to fault that logic, though priority number one should surely be ensuring there is no repeat of the failures.

6. LMP2 drivers want Hypercar tail-enders to improve

Glickenhaus got caught in LMP2 battle in early laps, and Hypercar disruption was a regular cause of complaint

Glickenhaus got caught in LMP2 battle in early laps, and Hypercar disruption was a regular cause of complaint

Photo by: Paul Foster

There was a common theme at the end of the race speaking to LMP2 drivers and teams in the paddock, and that was one of frustration at disruption caused by battles that weren’t for position with Hypercars.

“We had a Glickenhaus in the middle of the P2s for the whole first stint and it really does compromise us,” lamented Jota’s Antonio Felix da Costa. And he certainly wasn’t the only one impacted.

“They are so fast in a straightline but they are really slow in the corners,” said WRT driver Sean Gelael.

“It was for Doriane [Pin] a bit with Glickenhaus and Daniil [Kvyat] did a complete stint behind Vanwall,” offered Prema boss Rene Rosin. “It’s a bit unfortunate, we hope they will improve their pace.”

On a track that many acknowledged was hard to pass, this effect was amplified in Portugal. But there’s a will, not just from Rosin, to see these cars improve, as the current generation of LMP2 machines have already been pegged back significantly since they were first introduced in 2017 to accommodate the reduced pace of Hypercars relative to their LMP1 predecessors.

“I don’t think the rule changes for us getting slower is a good option,” added Gelael. “We’re getting too close to the GTs now. Sometimes we need to lunge to the GTs and they’re not liking it as well. So hopefully no more [reductions for LMP2], and hopefully they also get quicker.”

7. Experience pays for United as stand-ins shine

Van der Garde won on his first outing with United Autosports joining team regulars Pierson and Jarvis

Van der Garde won on his first outing with United Autosports joining team regulars Pierson and Jarvis

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

The clashing IMSA SportsCar Championship round at Long Beach meant two of United Autosport’s regular drivers were away on GTP duty. Experienced LMP2 campaigners Giedo van der Garde and Ben Hanley stepped into the breach left by Tom Blomqvist and Filipe Albuquerque, and the team newcomers didn’t disappoint.

Having started fifth and sixth, they were running second and first by the end of the first stint and set United up for its eventual 1-2, with van der Garde taking the spoils in the #23 ORECA-07 Gibson ahead of Hanley’s #22.

“Couldn’t have been a better choice, they absolutely slotted straight in,” delighted team boss Richard Dean told Autosport. “Not just in the performance, on track today, but all week they’ve been encouraging and contributing massively. Whoever chose those two did a good job!”

Hanley’s pace when he returned to the #22 cockpit in the second half of the race was such that he won Goodyear’s Wingfoot Award for the fastest double stint.

The duo will reprise super-sub duties at Monza later this year and their showing means Hanley’s team-mate Phil Hanson has no concerns.

“Ben was I think the strongest in our car in the race, I don’t think I really showed my pace because of all the battling I did,” Hanson said. “Both drivers aren’t new to P2, they’re very experienced so it was not really a surprise that they’d be strong.”

8. Wadoux impresses in first Ferrari start

Wadoux had her first chance to drive the 488 GTE Evo in race trim and didn't disappoint

Wadoux had her first chance to drive the 488 GTE Evo in race trim and didn't disappoint

Photo by: Ferrari

Lilou Wadoux didn’t get a chance to shine at Sebring. Ferrari’s newly-signed factory driver left Florida without getting to drive in the race after team-mate Luis Perez-Companc spun into the Turn 1 barriers which turned their GTE Am class #83 AF Corse Ferrari 488 GTE Evo upside-down.

Portimao therefore was the first chance to see Wadoux in race trim for the Scuderia, and the French 22-year-old made an excellent impression en-route to finishing second.

“It was exceptional,” she told Autosport after her maiden WEC podium. “I like to drive with this car, it is amazing. I can push.”

The former Richard Mille Racing LMP2 driver relayed Perez-Companc after the Argentine’s opening stint and made quick progress against the starting drivers that remained aboard. From fifth, she ended the stint in the lead and was pulling a gap before returning the car to Perez-Companc.

The former rally driver had slid back to fourth by the time he handed back to Wadoux, who produced another strong stint that consolidated the car in third, before the #83 car made it to second at the finish. Her average fastest 20 laps were right there with Corvette’s victorious silver Nico Varrone and just eight tenths off team-mate Alessio Rovera, who was quick to praise Wadoux’s contribution afterwards.

For her part, Wadoux was quietly delighted to have secured “the big revenge after the Sebring crash”. It was worth the wait.

9. Ping pong is dangerous – but it didn’t hamper Corvette too much

Corvette won the GTE Am class despite losing being a man down in the pits

Corvette won the GTE Am class despite losing being a man down in the pits

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

Table tennis isn’t up there at the top of sporting disciplines typically associated with risk of injury. But it left Corvette Racing a man down in the pits last weekend – not that you would have noticed from outside as the American team secured back-to-back GTE Am class wins.

Nicky Catsburg, Nico Varrone and Ben Keating are sitting pretty in the GTE Am standings after the first-mentioned narrowly fended off Rovera’s Ferrari in a grandstand finish, but it was the team’s pitwork that all three drivers referenced in the post-race press conference, with Varrone reckoning its efficiency “was the main difference”.

“The team was amazing today, every pitstop we gained six, seven seconds,” reckoned Catsburg. “They even did it without one of their main guys present. He broke his collarbone playing table tennis! Mike O’Brien will be back with us in Spa and then they will be even faster!”

The rest of the paddock will be hoping that won’t be the case.

10. Breakthrough Porsche podium shows progress, but Dames not satisfied

Frey held the lead in the middle stint but the crew dropped to third after the Swiss had a spin

Frey held the lead in the middle stint but the crew dropped to third after the Swiss had a spin

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

Portimao has special memories for the Iron Dames as the scene of its first GTE victory in the European Le Mans Series in 2022. That triumph came with Ferrari ahead of Iron Lynx – the Andrea Piccini-run squad behind the Dames – shifting to Porsche for 2023 and forging a technical alliance with Dempsey-Proton Racing.

Amid all of that change, Sarah Bovy, Rahel Frey and Michelle Gatting scored their first podium aboard the 911 RSR-19 in Portugal last weekend with third in GTE Am – continuing the promise shown at Sebring where a chance to win was lost to undertray damage. But as Gatting pointed out afterwards, “one thing is to lead the three hours before the end, we want to lead when we get the chequered flag”.

Gatting feels the Dames “definitely made a step with the set-up from Sebring” and have “already improved quite a lot to this race” on cold tyres after a stop. But while progress is clear, she is anxious to rediscover the winning feeling.

“I think step-by-step we are getting there but we haven’t finished the job yet,” the Dane told Autosport. “Of course, we are happy with the first podium of the year but we are definitely hungry for more. We want to win races in WEC, we don’t want to just stand on the podium.”

Third for Gatting, Frey and Bovy was the Dames' first rostrum with Porsche, but they are keen for more

Third for Gatting, Frey and Bovy was the Dames' first rostrum with Porsche, but they are keen for more

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

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