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WEC Bahrain

10 things we learned from the 2023 WEC 8 Hours of Bahrain

Toyota ended the 2023 World Endurance Championship season the way it started, as its two GR010 Hybrid LMH cars locked out the top two spots on the podium. Here’s what we learned in Bahrain, where champions across all three classes were crowned

Start action, #8 Toyota Gazoo Racing Toyota GR010 - Hybrid: Sebastien Buemi, Brendon Hartley, Ryo Hirakawa, #7 Toyota Gazoo Racing Toyota GR010 - Hybrid: Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi, Jose Maria Lopez

The Bahrain 8 Hours saw Brendon Hartley, Sebastien Buemi and Ryo Hirakawa enjoy an easy run from pole position to win the 2023 Hypercar title in the #8 Toyota GR010 Hybrid. The sister #7 car shared by Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi and Jose Maria Lopez, which came to the weekend with four wins out of the first six races, was never in the fight for victory after Cadillac driver Earl Bamber spun Conway at the start.

In the LMP2 class's final WEC appearance outside of Le Mans 24 Hours, WRT underlined its credentials once again with Robert Kubica, Rui Andrade and Louis Deletraz winning the race from 10th on the grid in the #41 ORECA 07. Meanwhile GTE cars received a proper send-off, as the Iron Dames trio of Michelle Gatting, Sarah Bovy and Rahel Frey took a historic GTE Am victory in their Porsche 911 RSR-19.

Here are 10 things we learned from WEC 8 Hours of Bahrain.

1. The Ferrari 499P can be easy on its tyres (Gary Watkins)

Ferrari now needs to balance its tyre wear gains and performance

Photo by: Shameem Fahath

Ferrari now needs to balance its tyre wear gains and performance

Ferrari reckoned it had the most consistent car over a double stint at Bahrain. That’s a bit of a turnaround given that the 499P has lagged behind Toyota, Cadillac and, recently, Porsche in dealing with tyre degradation in the WEC this year.

Ferrari and the factory AF Corse team didn’t have a fast car around the Bahrain International Circuit. That’s why it went all out to optimise tyre life on the hard-compound Michelin tyre: unlike Toyota and Porsche, it didn’t use the medium in the race.

We’ve seen this trade-off before. Remember Antonio Fuoco’s blinding pole lap at the Sebring season-opener and then the struggles with the tyres that followed in the race? Next time out in Portimao, Ferrari had a more consistent car but lost something in outright performance.

The task that lies ahead of Ferrari this winter is to get on terms with Toyota et al on tyre deg while retaining the 499P’s outright performance.

2. Porsche there, but not quite, in Hypercar (Rachit Thukral)

Porsche's Hypercar debut season saw it pick up just two podiums

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

Porsche's Hypercar debut season saw it pick up just two podiums

The Porsche 963 was reasonably competitive around the Bahrain International Circuit on Saturday, even if none of the four cars finished on the last remaining spot on the podium behind the mighty Toyotas. The factory #6 963 lost too much ground at the start after Laurens Vanthoor had to take evasive action when the Cadillac and the #7 Toyota came to blows under braking for Turn 1.

A fifth-place result in the end for Vanthoor, Andre Lotterer and Kevin Estre wasn’t the kind of result Porsche Penske had been looking for but was roughly in line with the #6 crew’s average finishing position in the season.

The Jota squad was able to get more performance out of the 963 and should have achieved a maiden Hypercar podium had Antonio Felix da Costa not run wide at Turn 1 and picked up a drive-through penalty for rejoining the track in an unsafe manner. An impressive recovery drive from the Portuguese driver and an equally remarkable double stint from Will Stevens brought the #38 crew within 0.9s of the #51 Ferrari at the chequered flag.

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In a way, the result encapsulated Jota’s first (part) season in the top class, as the team had shown time and again that it could fight near the front, only to never actually convert that speed into a top result.

3. A heavily-revised Peugeot 9X8 can’t come soon enough (GW)

Serious changes are coming for the wingless wonder Peugeot

Photo by: Shameem Fahath

Serious changes are coming for the wingless wonder Peugeot

Peugeot finally admitted over the Bahrain weekend that it is undertaking a significant upgrade of its 9X8 Le Mans Hypercar for next season. Another disappointing performance for the car on a circuit wholly unsuited to the avant-garde contender suggested it is long overdue.

The Balance of Performance simply can’t work its magic on the 9X8 across the range of circuits visited by the WEC. The car was in the mix at the Le Mans 24 Hours in June and took a first podium at Monza in July, but at Fuji and then at Bahrain it has, quite frankly, been nowhere.

The traction-limited car struggled in the slow corners that proliferate at the last two circuits on the 2023 WEC trail. A move to wider a rear tyre as it abandons the equal size rims all round is part of the overhaul of the Peugeot. That will entail moving the weight distribution and the centre of aerodynamic pressure rearwards, so expect to see some kind of rear wing on the car as well.

4. Never bump start your car in first gear (GW)

Toyota needed to bump start its #8 car during the Bahrain race

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

Toyota needed to bump start its #8 car during the Bahrain race

Those versed in the ways of bangernomics who are used to flat batteries will already know too well that it is easier to bump start your car in second or third rather than first gear. Toyota’s actions when it encountered a clutch issue on the race-winning GR010 HYBRID in Bahrain will have provided a vital bit of information for those whose daily drivers are that little bit more modern to file somewhere in their memories.

Toyota’s problem meant it couldn’t bring the twin-turbo V6 to life in the pits on the starter motor, so it had to bump the car using the front-axle hybrid system. So not so much a push start as a pull start!

PLUS: The "intense" issues Toyota navigated for WEC title glory in Bahrain

Cold tyres — no tyre warmers now in the WEC, remember — and a slippery pitlane surface meant the front wheels were spinning and the rears just dragging along and failing to crank the engine. The solution was for the Toyota drivers to engage a higher ratio — they opted for second — for the getaway to start the rear wheels turning.

It’s not the first time we’ve seen some clever lateral thinking in the Toyota garage.

5. Kubica is Jota-bound for 2023 (GW)

Kubica will step up to the Hypercar class next year

Photo by: Shameem Fahath

Kubica will step up to the Hypercar class next year

Jota hasn’t made any secret of the fact that Robert Kubica is one of the ex-Formula 1 megastars it is talking to about joining its expanded two-car squad of Porsche 963 LMDhs for next year. But it now seems certain that the Polish driver will move up to the top class of the WEC after three seasons in LMP2.

Officially “negotiations are moving towards a conclusion”, according to Jota team principal Sam Hignett, but the ‘will he won’t he’ saga of Kubica’s participation in the official WEC rookie test the day after the Bahrain 8 Hours suggests it’s pretty much a done deal.

Both team and driver were saying an early outing aboard the Hertz-sponsored 963 in Bahrain was possible but still undecided on race day, but in the end, the veteran of 99 grand prix starts was nowhere to be seen on Sunday. He did, after all, have a championship victory to celebrate after taking the P2 title with WRT team-mates Louis Deletraz and Rui Andrade.

6. Race mechanics are still ready to go beyond the call of duty (GW)

The #31 car crew chief took one for the team to rescue a result

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

The #31 car crew chief took one for the team to rescue a result

The #31 WRT ORECA lost the LMP2 victory at Bahrain courtesy of a problem with the wheel nut on the left front wheel at the last round of pitstops. It was heart-breaking for Robin Frijns, Ferdinand Habsburg and Sean Gelael after a drive that should have been rewarded with a first victory of the season, but at least they finished second thanks to the efforts of one of the team’s mechanics.

When the wheel gun wouldn’t go on the nut, the team brought the other wheel gun into play, which also wouldn’t seat correctly. The solution was old school: a determined mechanic, Matthieu Bermand, crew chief on #31, used his hand as a hammer and simply bludgeoned the thing on.

Frijns was on his way after losing just over 20s and easily took second behind the sister car. That was the good news. The bad news was the pain our brave mechanic found himself in.

Thankfully a trip to the circuit medical centre revealed nothing was broken.

7. Top-grade GT drivers can quickly transition to prototype machinery (RT)

Rossi was the star name in the WEC rookie test but plenty others stood out

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

Rossi was the star name in the WEC rookie test but plenty others stood out

Valentino Rossi generated plenty of headlines when he became a last-minute addition to WEC’s now-traditional Bahrain rookie test. And while the seven-time MotoGP champion did a reasonable job when he got to drive an LMP2 car for the first time on Sunday, there were several other drivers whose performances went largely under the radar.

GTE Am champion Nicolas Varrone, in particular, was impressive straight out of the gates in the morning session, as he put the Cadillac V-Series.R second in the timesheets behind the Jota Porsche driven by full-timer Will Stevens. While lacking a full-fledged contract like Nicky Catsburg, or the brand name that Ben Keating has built as a gentleman driver over the years, Varrone played a crucial role in Corvette’s GTE Am success in 2023 as its designated silver driver.

PLUS: The other Dutch racing ace enjoying a standout 2023

How he was able to quickly adapt to the car was further proof that top-line GT drivers can transition to contemporary prototype machinery, whether LMDh or LMH. While the LMP2 class can play an important role in honing the skills of a driver aiming to compete in the top division, expect manufacturers to continue to pick drivers from the GT ranks for their Hypercar or IMSA's GTP programmes.

8. GTE cars will be missed (RT)

History was made in more ways than one as WEC said goodbye to GTE

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

History was made in more ways than one as WEC said goodbye to GTE

WEC bid goodbye to much-loved GTE cars following Saturday’s final round of the season in Bahrain. While only fractionally quicker than the GT3 machinery they will be replaced by in 2024, GTE cars had much less in common with the production cars they were based on and felt more like thoroughbred racers. It’s perhaps no surprise that they were loved by both professional and gentlemen drivers, some of whom are dissuaded from continuing in the championship next year because of the move to less sophisticated and ABS-equipped GT3 cars.

The two GTE classes were extremely popular among fans too, especially in the late 2010s when a host of manufacturers flooded the all-Pro division. While the GTE Pro division had been on a continuous decline after 2019 and was phased out entirely last year, GTE Am continued to attract strong entries and remained an important fixture of the championship.

PLUS: When GTE Pro stole the show at Le Mans

It was perhaps fitting that the last-ever GTE Am race featured an exciting battle that went to the final hour, in contrast to the Hypercar battle that was effectively decided at Turn 1. And the final result created history for more reasons than one, as Iron Dames’ Sarah Bovy, Michelle Gatting and Rahel Frey became the first all-female crew to win in the WEC.

9. LMP2 demise will change the nature of WEC (RT)

WEC also waved farewell to LMP2 - which will only be run at Le Mans 24 Hours from next season

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

WEC also waved farewell to LMP2 - which will only be run at Le Mans 24 Hours from next season

Since the rebirth of WEC in 2012, the championship has always been home to three different cars and, until the beginning of this year, four separate categories. But the face of WEC will significantly change in 2024 when it will drop down to just two classes, one for prototype machinery and the other for GT3 cars, with LMP2 reduced to participating solely in IMSA, the European Le Mans Series and Asian Le Mans Series.

While LMP2 was an impressive category in its own right and featured some very credible teams and drivers, some of whom will move up to the Hypercar division next year, its departure will have a far-reaching impact on the very nature of racing in WEC.

Opinion: The inevitable Le Mans change that will still be lamented

While traffic management will continue to play a role thanks to the new LMGT3 division, there will be no LMP2 cars to hold up Hypercar drivers as they make their way through the track while keeping their direct rivals behind.

The opening lap crash between the Vanwall LMH and two United Autosports LMP2 cars in Bahrain? There will be none of that next year. The sheer pace difference between LMDh/LMH and GT3 cars means there is likely to be very little crossover between the two categories from 2024.

10. Thrilling title showdowns in WEC still another year away (RT)

Le Mans 24 Hours aside, Toyota dominated the 2023 WEC season

Photo by: Shameem Fahath

Le Mans 24 Hours aside, Toyota dominated the 2023 WEC season

If you had expected a thrilling, down-to-the-wire title battle in WEC this year following the return of Porsche, Ferrari and Cadillac to the top echelon of sportscar racing, the events of Saturday’s Bahrain 8 Hours would have left you sorely disappointed.

Even before the weekend began, the title fight was practically down to just the two Toyotas, with the #50 Ferrari having no more than a mathematical chance of winning the championship. Pole position in qualifying for the #8 Toyota crew further dampened hopes of an exciting showdown, as it meant that Buemi, Hartley and Hirakawa would be able to win the championship even with a third-place finish.

In the end, there was no fight between the two Toyotas crews for positions or the championship, with Conway's #7 machine sent spinning down the pack at the start of the race after contact with Bamber's out-of-control Cadillac.

The #8 Toyota could cruise out front from there on, bringing what was otherwise a largely exciting season to an anti-climactic end.

The 2024 WEC season starts with the prologue in Qatar on 24-25 February

Photo by: Shameem Fahath

The 2024 WEC season starts with the prologue in Qatar on 24-25 February

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