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WEC Spa-Francorchamps

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

Chilly conditions made the third round of the 2023 World Endurance Championship a race of survival for teams, and it was Toyota who navigated these best with its third 1-2 finish in as many rounds. But that's only telling part of the story from the final race before an eagerly-anticipated Le Mans 24 Hours. Here’s what we learned in Belgium.

#50 Ferrari AF Corse Ferrari 499P: Antonio Fuoco, Miguel Molina, Nicklas Nielsen

After being blighted by sensor issues in Portugal, the #7 Toyota crew got their championship challenge back on track with a second victory of the season at Spa.

Mike Conway, Jose Maria Lopez and Kamui Kobayashi staved off the challenge of their sister #8 GR010 HYBRID which had started from the back of the grid following Brendon Hartley’s qualifying crash, as Kobayashi built a big enough advantage in his final stint to negate a five-second penalty for passing Hartley off the road at Raidillon.

Choosing wet tyres at the start blunted Ferrari’s challenge but the Prancing Horse showed encouraging pace in recovering to the podium ahead of the second factory Porsche, which lost its sister car to electrical failure. Meanwhile Jota was an encouraging sixth on its debut with a customer 963 LMDh, finishing ahead of both delayed Peugeots.

Intrigue was in bountiful supply elsewhere too, as WRT claimed LMP2 honours to become the third different winner in as many rounds, while Corvette Racing was finally toppled in the GTE Am class by a history-making drive from AF Corse’s #83 Ferrari.

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

1. Ferrari is in the game

After early tyre choice backfired, Ferrari recovered strongly

After early tyre choice backfired, Ferrari recovered strongly

Photo by: Eric Le Galliot

Could Ferrari have won the Spa 6 Hours on the third outing of its 499P Le Mans Hypercar, given a bit more luck and a different strategy? There was too much happening over a race interrupted by rain at the start and then four safety cars and three Full Course Yellows for that to be anything other than a hypothetical question. But the Italian manufacturer showed real signs in Belgium that it is edging closer to Toyota.

PLUS: How Ferrari’s threat is growing against Toyota approaching Le Mans

Reaching firm conclusions about the relative performance of the manufacturers from such a topsy-turvy race was difficult without knowing what tyres they were on and when, but Ferrari's lap times were faster than Toyota's for much of the enduro. The third-placed 499P shared by Antonio Giovinazzi, Alessandro Pier Guidi and James Calado had a margin of between two and four tenths over the winning Toyota during the final two thirds of the race.

The race was effectively decided before that, however, so those stats don’t reveal too much. One of the manufacturers was controlling things and the other playing catch-up. Perhaps more encouraging for Ferrari as it gears up for Le Mans is the fact that its cars were fast in sectors 1 and 2.

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If a car is quick in those two sections of the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps, it should be quick around the Circuit de la Sarthe at Le Mans.

2. The world of the BoP is still a murky one

Porsche anticipates a BoP change before Le Mans, but Toyota doesn't believe this will happen

Porsche anticipates a BoP change before Le Mans, but Toyota doesn't believe this will happen

Photo by: Paul Foster

The Hypercar Balance of Performance was meant to become a non-topic under the new system introduced for this season. Team principals, engineers and drivers - everyone in fact - were meant to refrain from talking about it. That went out the window at Spa.

There wasn’t a change in the BoP for last weekend’s race. The question now is: was that the last chance to make a tweak to the so-called platform BoP, the balance between the LMH and LMDh machinery, prior to Le Mans? Porsche says no, Toyota says yes, while the other manufacturers are staying schtum for now.

The document that governs the BoP isn’t in the public domain, so without some sort of clarification from the rule-makers, we can’t be sure what the truth is either. This lack of transparency isn’t doing the WEC any favours.

3. Unheated tyres on a cold track are proving problematic

The bulk of the field struggled with warming up their tyres, which contributed to Fuoco's crash and several incidents besides

The bulk of the field struggled with warming up their tyres, which contributed to Fuoco's crash and several incidents besides

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

The WEC field is going to struggle on out-laps on unheated tyres if it’s cold at night at Le Mans, or if it’s miserable and rainy at any point during the race. The high number of offs and accidents on fresh rubber at Spa doesn’t bode well for the big one in June, should the weather be a bit on the dodgy side.

The new rule for this year banning tyre warmers of any kind was a point of discussion at Sebring after Calado crashed in the Prologue pre-test. But through the first two races in warm climes it seemed to have been forgotten. Colder temperatures at Spa brought the issue straight back into focus courtesy of a series of incidents.

There’s not going to be a change for Le Mans no matter how vocal some drivers have been, Kamui ‘team principal’ Kobayashi among them. The teams and drivers are just going to have to knuckle down and get on top of the new situation facing them this year.

4. Canny Kubica and Deletraz combination is as potent as ever

Kubica and Deletraz finally scored their overdue first WEC wins

Kubica and Deletraz finally scored their overdue first WEC wins

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

Given all the success that has followed Louis Deletraz’s full-time switch to sportscar racing in 2021, claiming back-to-back European Le Mans Series titles and 10 wins across that series and the IMSA Sportscar Championship, it seems remarkable that it took until Spa for Deletraz to score a first WEC triumph.

Similarly overdue was the breakthrough victory for Robert Kubica, the pair denied at Le Mans in 2021 by a freak electrical failure on the final lap in what was a one-off WEC appearance for their WRT team’s ELMS arm.

Champions that year, Deletraz and Kubica somehow went winless in the WEC for series newcomers Prema last year - finishing a galling second at Le Mans - while Deletraz romped to four victories from six races on his way to the ELMS crown for the Italian squad alongside Ferdinand Habsburg.

Now back with WRT, the pair issued a reminder of their potency with a well-judged triumph alongside Rui Andrade that showcased race management as well as pace. Their chief rivals United Autosport had been unfortunate to see Tom Blomqvist’s 45-second lead, built up over the first two stints, eradicated by a safety car, but the #41 WRT crew wasn’t without its own mishaps. Kubica was due for service when the third safety car forced him to take on five seconds of emergency fuel and then pit again when the race resumed.

The race boiled down to a straight fight between Blomqvist and Deletraz which was decided by a four-second shorter pitstop for the latter.

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“The pace was good,” said Kubica afterwards. “But of course it looks like we were managing the fuel better and this makes our life easier.”

Now winners in the WEC at last, Deletraz and Kubica will have an eye firmly fixed on avenging their previous two Le Mans near-misses.

5. Costa proves his point to Lamborghini

Costa left Lamborghini to join Inter Europol, but was rewarded with his first podium after a charging final stint

Costa left Lamborghini to join Inter Europol, but was rewarded with his first podium after a charging final stint

Photo by: Eric Le Galliot

Albert Costa describes leaving the relative comfort of Lamborghini factory driver status as an “investment” in his career. After being informed by motorsport boss Giorgio Sanna that he was not part of the marque's plans for the step up to LMDh in 2024, Costa opted to join Polish outfit InterEuropol Competition in LMP2 with the aim of proving his worth in a prototype.

For a driver who beat Jean-Eric Vergne and Antonio Felix da Costa to the 2009 Formula Renault 2.0 Eurocup title, he concedes this was not without risk. But the Spaniard demonstrated his capabilities in securing his and the team’s first WEC podium with a series of late passes. “A little dream come true,” was Costa’s delighted summary.

That the cars he overtook were running on older rubber certainly helped, but none of the passes were gift-wrapped for Costa, whose car had been running off-sequence for much of the race as a consequence of Jakub Smiechowski’s short second stint after his minimum silver drive time had elapsed.

The significance of his podium-clinching move, on former Lambo colleague Andrea Caldarelli’s Prema machine, was not lost on Costa.

“There's a little bit of, let's say, double emotion to it,” he told Autosport. “Now I showed my speed and I showed what I can do. They will not call me back, but I showed many people what I can do with this car.

“I knew about my possibilities in the right car. Many people didn’t believe, and I said ‘I know what I am doing, you will see’.”

6. Wave by offers preview of wide open Le Mans

Safety car wave by denied #31 WRT a one lap lead in LMP2, while bringing Corvette back into play in GTE Am

Safety car wave by denied #31 WRT a one lap lead in LMP2, while bringing Corvette back into play in GTE Am

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

When Antonio Fuoco’s crash brought out the fourth and final safety car of the race, LMP2 leader Habsburg suddenly had a lap on the field in his #31 WRT ORECA. The second-placed #63 Prema entry driven by Mirko Bortolotti had just been lapped by overall leader Kobayashi but the Toyota had yet to reach Habsburg when Fuoco speared into the wall opposite the old pits.

But the pass-around rule meant Habsburg’s enormous advantage was short-lived. The opposition were once again within range, and as strategies played out the #31 car he shared with Robin Frijns and Sean Gelael fell back to fifth at the flag.

“We took a strategy and it just happened to be the wrong one,” said Habsburg. “It could have gone the other way and then we would have won.”

On the flipside, Corvette Racing’s Nicky Catsburg admitted that the safety car following Renger van der Zande’s crash “helped us a lot” after losing a lap early on by starting on wets “because it brought us back in the window for the drive time and the window for the stops”. Second was the team's reward for not giving in.

When the WEC paddock reconvenes in June at Le Mans, the wave around rule will again have a role to play. Where previously the 24 Hours was an outlier in having three safety cars, meaning a decisive advantage could be gained by a car that was split from the rest of its class, now there will be only one and the wave by rule will also come into play. No longer will an early setback necessarily be an unrecoverable disaster.

On the evidence of Spa, all bets for a winner will be off entering the closing stages at Le Mans.

7. Wadoux makes history but focus is on the title

Wadoux became the WEC's first female class winner in GTE Am together with Rovera and Perez-Companc

Wadoux became the WEC's first female class winner in GTE Am together with Rovera and Perez-Companc

Photo by: Ferrari

Lilou Wadoux was one of the GTE Am standouts in Portimao in her first race for Ferrari, after Luis Perez-Companc crashed the #83 AF Corse machine out early in Sebring. On that day Alessio Rovera fell just short of denying Catsburg’s Corvette the win after a tense battle in the closing laps, but there was no question of the outcome at Spa as the Italian stroked home to an 18.653s victory set up by a storming double stint from Wadoux.

Female success isn’t unprecedented in the world championship, with Desire Wilson twice a winner outright in 1980, and Lella Lombardi taking the spoils at Mugello the following year. But no female had won her class in the WEC’s modern guise since 2012, giving Wadoux her own piece of history.

But when this point was brought to the French 22-year-old’s attention, Wadoux was quick to shrug it off and instead focused on the championship implications. Together with Perez-Companc and Rovera, Wadoux now sits second in the standings, albeit 39 points adrift of Corvette thanks to the Sebring non-score.

“I am very proud of that, and it’s very good,” she said. “But it’s important because it is very good points for the championship and I hope we will be back stronger at Le Mans and for the rest of the season.”

Not one to bask in the glory of her achievement, Wadoux’s steel will be a key asset to Ferrari in its efforts to get back on terms in the GTE Am title battle.

8. Corvette will still take some beating

Corvette rode its luck to continue its 100% podium record in GTE Am

Corvette rode its luck to continue its 100% podium record in GTE Am

Photo by: Eric Le Galliot

Disbelief was etched on the face of TF Sport boss Tom Ferrier after the finish to the GTE Am race. Aston Martin’s struggles in the opening two races of the season meant following up Ahmad al-Harthy’s maiden series pole with third place in the race “was a bit of a dream really” for Ferrier. But after Charlie Eastwood narrowly came up short in his efforts to claim second back from Catsburg’s Corvette in the final stint, Ferrier couldn’t help but shrug his shoulders.

“How they pulled a second out of that I have no idea!” he told Autosport. “Fair play, it goes like that sometimes doesn’t it?”

It looked a real long shot for Corvette to make it back to the sharp end after Ben Keating’s conservative decision to start on wets backfired. Stuck one lap down as it ran off-sequence to the leaders, Catsburg revealed Corvette was “ready to settle for whatever – P6, P7” before the wave bys gave it another shot.

Silver driver Nicolas Varrone dug in with a harder compound tyre in another strategy gamble that backfired – “Nico somehow was our guinea pig because we let him try a compound that we thought might have been good for us, but it was terrible!” said Catsburg – before reverting to a softer compound that brought the Dutchman into play.

“All of a sudden it was, ‘You’re P2/P3, you’re fighting these people out of the pitlane’ and I was like ‘How did we end up here?” he recalled.

It wasn’t straightforward, but a third top-two finish in as many races means Corvette holds a commanding position in the standings.

9. Ping-pong isn’t quite so dangerous as we thought

The real reason for crew member O'Brien's absence from Portimao emerged at Spa

The real reason for crew member O'Brien's absence from Portimao emerged at Spa

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

It turns out Catsburg was joking at Portimao when he talked about the reasons for one of the key Corvette Racing mechanics being absent through injury. He told the world after his GTE Am win in Portugal that the crew member had hurt himself playing table tennis.

Tyre changer MacKenzie O’Brien was at Spa with his arm in a sling, happy to be back in the paddock and chuffed to have made it onto autosport.com. There was actually a scooter and kerb implicated in his injuries, which is probably more heroic than a bizarre ping-pong accident.

In any case, MacKenzie is on the mend and should be back in pitlane come Le Mans in June.

10. The new-look WEC is box office

Spa was notably busy on Saturday as crowds flocked to the circuit

Spa was notably busy on Saturday as crowds flocked to the circuit

Photo by: Eric Le Galliot

The WEC was guaranteed a crowd when racing on the IMSA SportsCar Championship bill at Sebring back in March. And no one was expecting much footfall at Portimao last month. So Spa was the first acid test of the appeal of the championship to the paying punter as it enters what everyone is predicting will be a golden era. It passed with flying colours.

The presence of five major manufacturers, Ferrari and Porsche included, drew in the fans. The attendance for the Spa 6 Hours was up by a third on last year. The three-day crowd was put at 72,000 compared with 54,000 in 2022.

The new grandstand on the old start-finish straight on the run down to Eau Rouge was packed and there was a real atmosphere to the place on Saturday. There were even traffic jams to get in the circuit at a regular WEC round. Surely that was a first!

That Hypercar's new era is drawing in fans cannot be disputed

That Hypercar's new era is drawing in fans cannot be disputed

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

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