The atmosphere was relaxed as I made my way through the crowds and into the paddock at Silverstone.
The drive to the circuit had been uneventful, except for the driver of a Porsche Cayman GTS deciding to push into the traffic queuing to get into the circuit. I often wonder why drivers of large, expensive SUVs feel entitled to take over the roads; I can only assume it’s because they feel they are above everyone else, both literally and figuratively
So the Porsche pushed in and the little people made it clear that he was, in fact, being a complete idiot. Horns were leaned on and much gesticulating ensued. I couldn’t tell what the occupants of the Porsche were doing, they were safely hidden behind dark glass and arrogance.
Having spent many hours within the paddocks of motorcycle races over the years, the World Endurance Championship paddock is also, by comparison, a relaxed affair. The team personnel go about their business without being hurried. Groups of corporate clients can be seen following the pretty young things of various manufacturers PR departments, often looking nervous and not unlike a group of penguins shuffling between the race trucks.
Occasionally I would spot a celebrity, recognising their face but forgetting their name. Drivers of lesser-known teams traverse the paddock un-molested by the crowds of race fans who are eager to catch a glimpse of someone like Mark Webber or Andre Lotterer. Some of these drivers seem to like the anonymity, others appear to be desperate for attention, possibly wishing at least one small child or an attractive female would make eye contact and ask them for an autograph.
The media centre is situated on the second floor of the so-called “Wing Complex”. As I entered, a bald man in a three-piece suit looked up and then quickly returned to whatever it was he was doing. After climbing the stairs to the second floor I headed for the media centre, flashed my pass at someone that looked like they needed to see it and went inside. The first port of call was the free café and a hot cappuccino. There was a buzz about the place, it was race day and people were getting ready to report important things to the world.
Coffee in hand I took a seat and scanned the café for familiar faces. There were one or two people that I had met at races last year, mostly team and event staff. The air was thick with conversation; languages and accents from across the world swirling amongst the strong smell of coffee and croissants. I was getting hungry.
The “Fan Zone” was smaller than I remember it from last year. There were a few dodgy looking fairground rides and vendors mixed in with the usual stands and promo tents from manufacturers and Patron Tequila was being sold at £7.00 per shot to twenty somethings who should’ve know better. I made my way through the crowds and found the food court. Amongst the usual chips and burger offerings I found a row of quirky looking converted vehicles selling street food from around the world. I took the £7.00 that I had saved from avoiding the tequila booth and bought myself a huge ham and mozzarella Trapizzino; a cross between a pizza dough sandwich and a hot panini. It was divine.
With my food in a pizza box I headed over to the infield of the circuit, just at the inside of Vale chicane and overlooking the entrance to pit lane. As I began to munch on my late breakfast the first of the WEC cars put in a few quick laps before taking their place on the grid for the starting ceremony. This would be the first chance that I’d had to see and hear these cars in action this year.
The first car to complete a lap was one of the new Ferrari 488s. Powering out of Stowe corner it peeled off track and into pit lane, reducing speed and engaging the limiter. The engine sounded like a Rottweiler gargling nuts and bolts while the turbo dump valves chirruped happily.
Next came the SMP Racing BR-01, it’s exhaust sounding like a barrage of AK-47 gunfire as it braked for Vale. This was immediately followed up with the thunderous bass of the Chevy V8 powering the Corvette C7R of the French outfit Larbre Competition, as it too appeared at the top of the rise. Soon the entire field was circulating, some ducking into the pits and others completing their sighting laps. The race would be starting soon; it was time for me to move.
Dumping the pizza box in a large wheelie bin I made my way down to a line of VIP/Media shuttle buses. I hopped into the lead bus and squeezed myself between a pair of photographers and their ample equipment. We headed out of the paddock, the driver doing his best to miss the crowds of people paying little or no notice that they were, in actual fact, walking in the road. Parents with small children on scooters seemed indifferent to the fact that they and their kids could get run over at any moment. Patience is indeed a virtue, especially if you’re a shuttle bus driver on race day!
“Honestly, these people are asking for an accident to happen, just look at ‘em all wandering about…” I sat and listened as he went on. The calmness in his voice was strangely amusing. The driver eyed me in his rear-view mirror as I shouted “Honk your horn, that’ll make them move!” but replied with “I wish I could, but we’ve been told that we have to give them right of way, I don’t get it?!”. We drove slowly along the infield road to where the photographers had asked to be dropped off.
The driver turned to me and asked where I’d like to be dropped off. “Take me to Becketts grandstand, and don’t spare the horses! I think I’ll be able to enjoy the start of the race from there, as long as there aren’t any drunken posh people about”. The driver had a puzzled look on his face, “Don’t worry” I said, “it’s an in-joke”.
The grandstand is a huge structure, built to seat several hundred people. This early in the season it is roofless, almost a bare shell bar a few sponsor banners bolted to the front of it. I climbed the stairs and made my way to the highest point, seats that would afford me a view of almost a third of the circuit.
To my right I had a fantastic view of Maggots and the run into Becketts. Ahead of me I could see Chapel Curve and the Hangar Straight, also visible were Village, The Loop and Aintree Corners. This was the perfect place to be for the start of a World Endurance Championship race. With fifteen minutes to go before the start of the race the crowds began to arrive, some hanging flags in support of their racing heroes.
An RAF Tornado fighter jet came roaring into view, barely subsonic, it looked as if it was lining up the TV helicopter to be shot down with an air-to-air missile. Things though, were about to get weird!
Part of the starting ceremony included the singing of the National Anthem. Honestly, I don’t know who was singing, but I have to say, THIS IS THE UNITED KINGDOM, not the good old US of A. Why then was the female artist singing the British National Anthem doing it in the style of the Star Spangled Banner? I could see people standing and trying not to sing “in the land of the freeeeeeee, and the hoooommmmeeee of thhheeeeee brave”. Some Italian fans even held their hands to their hearts as if they were pledging allegiance to the flag! God Save the Queen has never sounded so strange! This was only made worse by losing the commentary for the start of the race beneath the dulcet tones of The Rolling Stones singing Start Me Up. Please, this is not the Super Bowl!
The first of the LMP1 cars came into view, braking hard for turn three at Village. This, was going to be an exciting race. The No.7 Audi R-18 of Lotterer made a great start from pole and pulled a gap of almost a dozen car lengths after only three laps.
The No.1 Porsche 919 Hybrid of Mark Webber began to close the gap managing to take the lead with a daring manoeuvre at Abbey corner after 28 minutes. Oliver Jarvis in the No.8 Audi R18 and Romain Dumas in the second of the Porsche Hybrids were battling for third position. The two almost touched on the Wellington Straight but managed to get away with it.
After watching the first 45 minutes from Becketts, I decided that I should move. I found a shuttle bus parked up behind the marshal post just below the grandstand. The driver, a big man, not unlike myself, was eating his lunch and watching the race. As I climbed aboard the bus I apologised for ruining his sandwich and asked for a ride around to the outside of Club corner. We didn’t speak much, “Let me know when you want to get out” he said, spraying breadcrumbs all over the dashboard. Five minutes later I was dropped off at the side of the “Perry” road and climbing another huge grandstand.
From here I could see the run down from Stowe corner through Vale and the chicane, around to Club and back onto the International Pits Straight and the Start/Finish line. I positioned myself so I had a view of the jumbo-tron screen, the entrance to the pits and the pit lane itself. There were a lot more fans here and I could see why.
The Porsche 919s looked like they were on rails driving through the Vale chicane; with barely a hint of understeer they got the power down early on the run through Club corner. Sitting there I was astounded by the acceleration of the LMP cars through this section. The Audis on older tyres were definitely struggling for grip on the exit of the chicane but there was no hint of a lift from any of them. A few laps later the No.7 Audi driven by Benoit Treluyer spun at Vale but managed to recover quickly.
Many of the GT cars coming through the Vale/Club sector were short shifting. The Ford GTs were using a lot of traction control here; the engines being held back by retarding the ignition. The Corvette was short shifting three gears in under 100 metres, the car looking balanced through Club.
By now many people were tucking into picnics and flasks. A sea of pale faces wrapped in winter clothing, some filming the action with tablets and others with their faces permanently glued to the back of their cameras. “Have you got any good shots yet?” I asked as I looked over the shoulder of a bald headed, red faced man sitting in front of me. “Yeah mate” he mumbled, looking over his shoulder as far as he could and promptly started scrolling through images on the small screen on the back of his camera. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that most of them looked out of focus and blurry. “What are you going to do with them, print them and hang them on a wall or something?” I asked. He shrugged his shoulders “I fink I’ll just keep ‘em on me computer”. With that he turned away, brought the camera to his face and began shooting frame after frame of pictures.
There was no sign of any kind of media transport available to get me back to the paddock. Time for a walk. I made my way through the huge crowds of people, heading back to the bridge that would take me to the infield. By now people were drinking pints of cider and beer from plastic cups, eating greasy burgers and not so French fries. The talk was of their favourite cars and drivers, the weather and just how expensive the alcohol and food was.
The giant screen ahead of me was showing pictures of the No.77 Dempsey Proton Porsche 911 RSR trying to get back to the pits with a front puncture. The car had been making steady progress so far and this was a blow that they could have done without.
As I walked along the road a media shuttle bus pulled up next to me and the door slid open. One of the photographers I had sat next to hours earlier appeared and said “wanna lift, I spotted yer hat?”. There was space for me, but only just so I jumped in. Photographers from all over the world were packed into the minibus, each of them clutching huge lenses and sporting a thousand-yard stare.
“You can’t smoke in here; you need to put it out or get out!” the driver shouted back to a small Italian with a big beard. The bus had a faint new car smell, mixed with the odour of MS cigarettes and sweaty bodies. It felt like we were troops in an armoured personnel carrier on our way back from the front line to the safety of the base of operations. We were only a third of the way through the race.
As we arrived back at the paddock, news was coming in of a major incident out on track, involving the No.1 Porsche 919 of Brendon Hartley and the No.86 Porsche 911 RSR of Michael Wainright. Hartley had tried to make a passing move on the outside of the 911 at Farm and had got it wrong causing both cars to crash out in spectacular fashion; the drivers were unhurt.
At around the same time the No.8 Audi R18 stopped on circuit with a problem. The car had suffered a hybrid system failure which ultimately lead to Lucas Di Grassi vacating the cockpit and retiring the car. This meant both of the leading contenders had lost one of their cars before the halfway point of the race.
So the scene was set for a thrilling second half of the race.
A battle that had raged between the winning Audi R18 e-tron quattro and the Porsche looked set to come down to the wire. Fassler was 16 seconds ahead when he made his final pit stop with just over an hour to go but Porsche was able to reduce that gap to 6 seconds when Neil Jani took on only two tyres at his pit stop six laps later. Within three laps Jani had to return to the pits after sustaining a right front puncture. He managed to get back to within 10 seconds of the Audi when Fassler came in for fuel with 35 minutes to go. The Porsche had to come back into the pits seven laps before the end of the six-hour race for a splash and dash, this due to the earlier unscheduled puncture stop.
Lotterer said: “It is amazing that at this stage of the programme we have been able to win a race. We had luck on our side because the #1 Porsche had an accident, but that is part of motorsport.”
Jani told us he would have been in a position to win the race if not for the puncture saying “I wouldn’t want to say that we definitely would have won, but I would have given it everything. But we didn’t just lose it today with the puncture.” The No.2 Porsche also lost time with a nose section that was damaged earlier in the race and wasn’t changed until the fourth hour, as well as a spin.
Porsche and Audi each got one car to the finish.
Toyota took the final spot on the podium with the new TS050 HYBRID driven by Mike Conway, Stephane Sarrazin and Kamui Kobayashi. Their sister car driven by Sebastien Buemi, Anthony Davidson and Kazuki Nakajima had been ahead until it picked up a puncture in the fourth hour. Nakajima had to drive a full lap on the punctured right rear, resulting in substantial damage to the rear of the car and a lengthy pit stop. They eventually finished in 17th place.
Rebellion duplicated their best ever WEC result for the R-One chassis after being gifted positions due to the problems of the factory teams. Alexandre Imperatori, Matheo Tuscher and Dominik Kraihamer claimed fourth position after driving a clean race.
The RGR Sport by Morand team won the LMP2 category with its Ligier-Nissan JSP2 driven by Bruno Senna, Filipe Albuquerque and Ricardo Gonzalez. The Morand car finished 30 seconds ahead of the best of the Extreme Speed Motorsports Ligier-Nissans driven by Pipo Derani, Ryan Dalziel and Chris Cumming.
Ferrari looked strong in the GTE Pro class on the way to a one-two result for the AF Corse team led by Sam Bird and Davide Rigon. Their Ferrari 488 GTE lead from the start and was never really challenged during the race. The second-placed Ferrari of Gianmaria Bruni and James Calado did a fantastic job of coming back from a three-minute stop & go penalty for a post-qualifying engine swap.
GTE Am was won by the AF Ferrari 458 Italia shared by Emmanuel Collard, Rui Aguas and Francois Perrodo.
A few hours after the end of the race, a technical inspection of the No.7 Audi R-18 e-tron Quattro found that the front skid block had been worn by more than the 5mm permitted by the regulations. This meant that the race winning car had to be excluded from the results. There was an air of disbelief in the paddock. The Audi team went for a meeting with the race stewards to offer an explanation of what had happened to cause the excessive wear. The stewards did not accept their explanation and told Audi that the decision would stand. The exclusion meant that the second-placed Porsche 919 Hybrid driven by Neel Jani, Romain Dumas and Marc Lieb had to be declared as the race winner.
The Toyota TS050 HYBRID of Mike Conway, Stephane Sarrazin and Kamui Kobayashi moved up to second, while the privateer LMP1 Rebellion-AER R-One of Imperatori, Tuscher and Kraihamer took the final podium spot.
Audi Sport Team Joest has appealed the decision to exclude the No. 7 car from the results. Hence the race result will ultimately depend on the decision of a sport tribunal.
Not a great way to finish the start of the 2016 World Endurance Championship, but it was good to be back at a race track watching fast cars being driven by determined men. The next race will be at Spa-Francorchamps early next month; Audi will have a lot to prove at a track that suits Porsche.
Making my way back to my crappy little car, parked amongst the Range Rovers and Aston Martins, I thought about just how good endurance racing really is. For me it is the ultimate challenge for both drivers and manufacturers, pace and reliability mixed with concentration and stamina.
F1 just doesn’t cut it anymore for me; it is a plaything for the rich and idle, WEC is racing for the common man. If you really must watch a race of a shorter duration, I’d recommend World Rally Cross over F1 every day of the week but for a great day out for all the family, give endurance racing a go.
Until next time, Adieu.