Toyota Racing continued its winning start to the FIA World Endurance Championship season with victory in a tense Six Hours of Spa-Francorchamps, and believes it is ramping up its momentum at just the right time.
Anthony Davidson, Nicolas Lapierre and Sébastien Buemi won the race to extend their lead in the drivers' championship as they recorded a third consecutive win for the #8 car, while Toyota also extended its advantage in the manufacturers' standings as the #7 TS040 Hybrid of Alex Wurz, Stéphane Sarrazin and Kazuki Nakajima finishing third after an exciting race.
“I am proud of the whole team for our effort today,” president Yoshiaki Kinoshita said, “To see Toyota Racing leading the manufacturers' world championship is very satisfying and gives us big motivation for the challenge ahead at Le Mans.
“It was nice to see such a big crowd today and I think we gave them an entertaining race. It's hard for the team and drivers because we have to give absolutely everything to get the best result; so well done to everyone for that performance. Now we have a demanding period ahead as we prepare for Le Mans. As we have seen many times, Le Mans is a unique race and many things can happen. We will be working flat out to get ready and give ourselves the best possible chance.”
Lapierre took the start in the #8 from second place and held position while Sarrazin, in the #7, had an eventful opening, switching positions several times before establishing himself in fourth, his starting spot.
The pair stayed behind the wheel for just one stint, with Nakajima taking the wheel of the #7 as Buemi took over the #8, both on new tyres. The Swiss driver began to hunt down first place and, at the next round of pit-stops, took the lead and set about building an advantage. Meanwhile, Nakajima fought his way into the podium places and began to put pressure on second.
Tyre strategy evolved with both cars attempting to double-stint the tyres, using one set for two stints to minimise time lost in the pits, but ultimately reverting to new tyres at each stop.
“We tried to go for a double stint on the tyres during my stint, which was the same as the cars around us,” Nakajima revealed, “It was a bit of a risk and I lost some grip; it was quite tricky.”
Soon after half distance, Nakajima swapped with Wurz while Buemi gave way to Davidson, who soon improved the fastest lap of the race and established a clear lead. The Austrian was in the middle of a scrap for second, but his cause was handicapped by poor visibility, caused by oil from another car on his windscreen. That was solved at the next pit-stop, when Sarrazin also took over and continued the chase, with Lapierre back at the wheel of the leading #8.
“It was an interesting race,” Wurz said later, “For me personally, the race was quite eventful - it was not easy, not straightforward. Occasionally we had the pace but, generally, our car was very nervous so we couldn't push as hard as the sister car.”
A final short stop for fuel on both cars set up an intriguing finish and Lapierre eventually took the victory by a comfortable 1min 13.926secs, with Sarrazin third overall after falling just 6.935secs short of the leading Audi in second.
“It was a great result for the whole team,” Lapierre claimed, “Since the beginning of the weekend, we did everything well; in qualifying we extracted everything we could and, during the race, we stayed calm.
“It was a very tough race with Porsche. We took the lead on the pit-stop so I want to say thank you to the mechanics. Sébastien and Anthony drove very well so we could extend the gap. At the end, it was more under control so we just had to get to the flag safely. We have seen here that our Le Mans package is working well and the hybrid system was wonderful. We are very happy with this result; it is the best way to get ready for Le Mans.”
Attention now turns to the third round of the season – and the biggest event on the sportscar calendar – at Le Mans, which begins with the official test day on 1 June before the race follows two weeks later..
“I am so confident in the package we have and the team around us; it really feels like we are flourishing at the right time,” Davidson insisted, “It's great that we got two cars on to the podium again but now our attention has to turn to the big one in June.”
“It is our third win on the trot after our victory at the end of 2013 in Bahrain, [but] the race was hard,” Buemi concluded, “Only when the #14 Porsche had some trouble did we know we were in control - we just had to make sure we didn't make any mistakes.
“When you win the first two races of the season, it is perfect preparation for Le Mans, but we have to focus on getting the basics right. We have better prparation than last year, so we'll see what we that brings.”