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Analysis
WEC Sebring

How one WEC stalwart set the marker for the newcomers to chase

The World Endurance Championship’s new golden era has provided a fresh buzz of anticipation in sportscar racing, but it was a familiar sight at the front to pick up the spoils. Toyota’s Sebring 1000 Miles domination was a reminder of the value of experience and what the likes of Ferrari and co must achieve to topple it

#8 Toyota Gazoo Racing Toyota GR010 - Hybrid: Sébastien Buemi, Brendon Hartley, Ryo Hirakawa

Shock, sensational, spectacular. All those words correctly described Ferrari’s pole position with its 499P Le Mans Hypercar at start of the new era for the World Endurance Championship at the Sebring 1000 Miles. Yet come Friday’s race it was Toyota who were on top. That the Japanese cars were just too good for those from its Italian rival, as well Cadillac, Porsche and Peugeot, was not a surprise.

Toyota, as the incumbent force in the WEC and the winner of the drivers’ and manufacturers’ title doubles four years in a row, had reinforced its status as pre-season favourite through the Prologue test the weekend ahead of race week and then during practice. Only in one of the seven sessions of testing and practice was the GR010 HYBRID LMH beaten in the times. And in the race, Toyota sat pretty at the top of the leaderboard for all but 10 of the 239 laps on the way to a 1-2 victory, two laps up on the best of the Ferraris.

Victory went to the #7 Toyota LMH shared by Kamui Kobayashi, Mike Conway and Jose Maria Lopez after the kind of fierce battle with the sister car that has become de rigueur in the WEC. The winning GR010 and #8 driven by Sebastien Buemi, Brendon Hartley and Ryo Hirakawa were evenly matched throughout; witness the two-second margin between them at the chequered flag.

The #8 Toyota had the slightest of edges over the first half of a race that was always going to go a maximum duration of eight hours rather than the full 1000 miles once there was an early safety car lasting 25 minutes. Buemi headed the Toyota train that gradually pulled away from the chasing pack once pole winner Fuoco ducked into the pits during the one and only safety car of the race.

The gap between the Toyotas in seconds never went into double figures over the opening four hours and for most of the time was just one or two. Kobayashi moved the #7 car to the front late in the fourth hour when Hartley was asked to cede position on the pitstraight. The gap fluctuated more thereafter, before going out to 10s after Kobayashi and Buemi climbed aboard their respective mounts for the penultimate stint. The Swiss dropped back after what Toyota Gazoo Racing technical director Pascal Vasselon described as “three dreadful laps in dense traffic”.

Ten seconds turned into 20 when a mechanic tumbled over as he ran around the car holding a wheel and tyre at the car’s final stop. At that point, the positions at Toyota were frozen, which made Hartley’s charge up towards a conservative Conway an irrelevance.

Vasselon reckoned it wasn’t worth “over-analysing” the respective pace of the two Toyotas. “It’s difficult to elaborate when you are talking about a gap that was nothing,” he said, though it appeared that the #8 car picked up oversteer through the race. The drivers of #7, meanwhile, were able to dial out the understeer they had at the beginning.

Very little separated the two Toyotas at the front for the majority of the Sebring 1000 miles

Very little separated the two Toyotas at the front for the majority of the Sebring 1000 miles

Photo by: Toyota Racing

Regardless, the updated GR010 looked a class act around the 3.741-mile Sebring International Raceway last week, a far better racing car than 12 months ago. The drive to make a more consistent or raceable machine over the winter has clearly been a success.

“The driveability is much better now,” said Lopez. “It gives you more confidence and allows you to push, but I’m not saying these are easy cars to drive.”

It was a particularly important victory for Lopez after the accident that put the #7 out of the race this time last year and another off during FP3. He lost it on the brakes into the quick Turn 17 horseshoe and damaged the right side of the car.

“Sebring has been tough for us and it wasn’t easy to jump back in the car after the incident yesterday,” said Lopez. “It took a few laps to get my confidence back. I had the support of the team to go out there and get my rhythm back. I’m proud of that.”

"We definitely need to collect more experience, analyse the data and see what we can do better. There are things we can improve; this is something we expected" Ferdinando Cannizzo

Ferrari might have taken the pole, but it conceded after the race that it didn’t go into the 1000 Miles believing it could beat Toyota.

Fuoco, who shared the #50 Ferrari with Miguel Molina and Nicklas Nielsen, found a whopping 1.7s in qualifying on Thursday evening over the simulated run he’d undertaken in the warmer conditions of final practice. It was undoubtedly a special lap: the Italian admitted that was blinded by the sun and couldn’t see through Turn 17 — sometimes aptly known as Sunshine Corner — as he came to the end of the lap.

“If I’m honest, in the last corner, I just sent it, because I had the feeling it was a good lap,” he said. “I had the sun on my visor and it was quite tricky to see the corner, but I had my reference points from free practice. I had a big moment on the bumps, but in the end it worked out.”

Ferdinando Cannizzo, Ferrari’s sportscar racing technical boss, was happy to admit that a victory was probably too much to expect on debut for the 499P.

“After the pole, we knew the race would be a different story,” he said. “A podium was a good result; this was the most we could achieve in our opinion.”

Pole and a podium made it a credible debut for Ferrari's Hypercar project

Pole and a podium made it a credible debut for Ferrari's Hypercar project

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

A top-three finish was one of Ferrari’s targets for this race, another to get both cars to the finish without reliability issues. It achieved both so, said Cannizzo, “we have to be happy with our first race”.

The #51 Ferrari was generally behind its sister car through race week after the car was rebuilt around a new monocoque ahead of the start of the meeting proper. James Calado had lost it on cold tyres at Turn 1 on his out-lap in the Sunday morning session of the Prologue, an accident that brought the ban on tyre warmers for 2023 into sharp focus.

Alessandro Pier Guidi was running sixth in #51, also driven by Antonio Giovinazzi, as the race hit six hours when he made contact with the #54 AF Ferrari GTE Am car going into Turn 15 and spun into a second GTE Am car at Turn 16. The car sustained right-rear suspension damage that resulted in a 20-minute stop, meaning it could finish no better than 15th and seventh in the Hypercar class.

Cannizzo explained that Toyota “proved the value of experience” on Friday.

“We definitely need to collect more experience, analyse the data and see what we can do better,” he continued. “There are things we can improve; this is something we expected.”

Ferrari wasn’t that far away from Toyota on the averages, just three tenths using a 100-lap sample, though the 499P clearly wasn’t as good over a double as the race-winning machine. The early stop under the safety car and a penalty for an infraction when it ended explained some of the #50 car’s two-lap deficit to the Toyotas.

Cadillac pushed Ferrari close for the final position on the podium, the Chip Ganassi Racing-run V-Series.R LMDh ending up just 10s behind at the flag. The car driven by Earl Bamber, Alex Lynn and Richard Westbrook looked as though it might snatch the podium a couple of hours from home as Bamber homed in on the Italian car, but over the final stints the Ferrari was able to repel the advance.

“I think we had the better double-stint car,” said Bamber, who pointed out that the run of FCYs meant teams had enough tyres left in their allocations to go onto singles for the run to the flag. “Our pace was good today, probably better than expected.”

Ganassi were at pains to point out there was more to come for a team that was working together for the first time at Sebring. The #2 Caddy was overseen by the definitive WEC squad that from next month will begin working out of a base in Germany, rather than the crew made up largely of Ganassi IndyCar mechanics on its appearance at IMSA SportsCar Championship opener at Daytona in January.

The Cadillac debut also delivered a promising start, even if it couldn't catch the Ferrari that completed the podium

The Cadillac debut also delivered a promising start, even if it couldn't catch the Ferrari that completed the podium

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

“We had a clean race and there is definitely a lot of low-hanging fruit,” said Bamber. “We’re gutted to miss out on the podium after getting so close, but if you’d told us we’d end up fourth before the Prologue, we would have taken that.”

Porsche didn’t have a great race with its 963 LMDh, though unlike on the debut of the car at Daytona it got both to the finish largely without issues. But the pair of Porsche Penske Motorsport entries weren’t on the pace and looked real handfuls out on track on the way to finishing four laps down in fifth and sixth positions.

There was a brief period in the middle of the race when the quicker of the two Porsches, the #6 entry shared by Kevin Estre, Laurens Vanthoor and Andre Lotterer, looked as if it might have something for Ferrari and Cadillac in the battle for the last podium spot, but the German cars were more than a second off the race pace of the Toyotas.

But to make matters worse the #6 fell behind the sister car driven by Michael Christensen, Dane Cameron and Frederic Makowiecki in the penultimate hour when Estre found himself without power as he approached pitlane entry. The car restarted as he ducked into the pits, but the loss of time in the confused stop that followed — he caught the team by surprise — restricted him and his team-mates to sixth. The sister car had also lost time with an electrical glitch, sorted by changing the steering wheel, plus a drive-through.

"There were times when we were as good as Ferrari and Caddy, but obviously at no point were we anywhere near as quick as the Toyotas" Kevin Estre

“It was hard out there,” said Christensen, who didn’t argue with the assessment that the Porsche looked an ill-sorted racing car. “I would agree with that. The car was bearable on new tyres, but then it started to move around and you wondered how you are going to get through a double.”

Estre insisted that there were positives to take away from Sebring.

“There were times when we were as good as Ferrari and Caddy, but obviously at no point were we anywhere near as quick as the Toyotas,” he explained. “But I remember last year following them when I was driving the 911 RSR [in GTE Pro] and they didn’t look good, probably not much better than we were today. We’re going through the same learning process as they did, and we definitely learnt a lot today.”

The garagistes, Glickenhaus and Vanwall, weren’t in the mix at Sebring. That was no surprise given how much they each had to learn with their respective non-hybrid LMHs.

Porsche couldn't match the debut delivered by Ferrari and Cadillac

Porsche couldn't match the debut delivered by Ferrari and Cadillac

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

American entrant Glickenhaus always knew it would be up against it as it revived its programme for the new season: the Pipo-engined 007 LMH hadn’t run in anger since its previous race outing at Monza last July and it had the 2023 specifications of Michelin tyre to get used to on a track on which it had struggled last year.

The Glickenhaus shared by Romain Dumas, Olivier Pla and Ryan Briscoe had outqualified the Vanwall-Gibson Vandervell 680 and ran ahead of it in the battle of the minnows until the second hour when the American car briefly came to a half after a miss-shift by Briscoe. The car wouldn’t make it past the third hour, a simple problem with the ignition switch putting it out.

The former ByKolles team exceeded its own expectations with its new contender shared by Jacques Villeneuve, Tom Dillmann and Esteban Guerrieri. It got a car that has done a fraction of the testing mileage of its rivals to the finish, albeit in second to last position. A big chunk of the 24 laps by which it trailed the Toyotas was the result of a 25-minute stop to repair a rear suspension problem that sent Villeneuve into a spin at Turn 17. The team couldn’t be sure if it was the result of a tap from one of the Peugeot 9X8s earlier in the race.

Experience was key at Sebring as sportscar racing’s latest golden age kicked off. That’s something Toyota have by the bagful, but also something that its rivals are picking up fast with their challengers.

“We are impressed with some of the newcomers,” said Vasselon. “Ferrari and Cadillac have done eight hours without any problems, which is definitely impressive. They will very quickly be close to us, I think.”

Villeneuve led the Vanwall charge, as both top class minnows hit trouble

Villeneuve led the Vanwall charge, as both top class minnows hit trouble

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

Sebring disaster for Peugeot

Peugeot opted against testing at Sebring over the winter in favour of a development programme in Europe focused on reliability, which included a trio of Le Mans 24 Hours simulations. It played down its lack of pace through the Prologue and practice, stressing that it faced a steep learning curve to get the 9X8 Le Mans Hypercar sorted for the quirky Florida venue, only to have both its cars hit problems within just over an hour of the race.

The disaster began when Loic Duval stopped in the pits after the opening lap. The #94 Peugeot he shared with Nico Muller and Gustavo Menezes quickly returned to the track for one slow lap before pitting again for a protracted 21-minute stop. The sister car driven by Paul di Resta, Jean-Eric Vergne and Mikkel Jensen would make a pit call of near-identical length just after the opening hour was completed.

Both cars were hit by the same problem, which was related to a gearbox actuator. It was a known issue, Peugeot Sport technical director Olivier Jansonnie revealed, though he conceded it wasn’t something they were expecting to encounter, “especially not so early in the race”.

"The nature of the track magnified some issues that we have had from the beginning" Olivier Jansonnie

A solution is already in the works and is scheduled to be in place for round two of the 2023 WEC at Algarve next month. That might have offered some consolation to the team had it shown any pace.

The best of the Peugeot’s qualified 2.3s from the pole-winning Ferrari and the two 9X8s were only slightly closer to the Toyotas when they were running in the race, which for #94 was only about five hours. It spent three hours in the pits after a hybrid system alarm went off. With nothing to gain after its early delay, the team opted not to hurry the fix “to be 100% sure the car was safe”. There was also an ignition problem for #93 in the final hour.

Jansonnie suggested that no conclusions could be drawn about the suitability of the wingless 9X8 concept for such a bumpy track as Sebring because the team failed to perfect the set-up. He would only admit “the nature of the track magnified some issues that we have had from the beginning”.

The new era of WEC is alive, but will its Sebring opener be a flavour of what is to come?

The new era of WEC is alive, but will its Sebring opener be a flavour of what is to come?

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

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