SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS, Belgium - Toyota Gazoo Racing made a huge statement in the third race of the 2023 FIA World Endurance Championship season at Spa-Francorchamps with a 1-2 finish as the No. 7 Toyota GR010 HYBRID of Kamui Kobayashi, Mike Conway and Jose Maria Lopez clinched the top spot in front of a lively crowd in the thrilling six-hour race.
The winning team made a bold decision before the race by choosing slick tires on a drying track while most of the competitors started on wet weather tires. Despite slipping back to seventh on the opening lap, the safety car and the absence of further rain showers played into the No. 7 Toyota's favor, allowing them to take control of the race and claim victory.
"It was a crazy race with safety cars that kept eradicating our leads," Conway said. "But all my teammates did solid stints. It’s a great team result.”
Meanwhile, the No. 8 GR010 HYBRID car, which started dead last, put up a remarkable performance to secure the runner-up spot. Brendon Hartley, Ryo Hirakawa and Sebastien Buemi were able to have a good points day after Hartley had an off at Raidillon on cold tires in qualifying.
Hartley was quite satisfied with the No. 8 team's performance and called it an amazing result, giving credit to Buemi for superb driving in tricky conditions at the start. The No. 8 was down one set of tires after the qualifying incident, but they still managed to secure 18 valuable points from the race.
The No. 51 Ferrari AF Corse 499P clinched the final spot on the podium, making a last-minute surge past Porsche's Fred Makowiecki. James Calado made a daring move around the outside at Les Combes on the final lap, denying Porsche a second consecutive podium finish. AF Corse had a challenging race after the team's tire gamble failed, and No. 50 Ferrari crashed out late in the race from third place. Antonio Fuoco lost control of the car on the run down the hill to Eau Rouge on cold tires and crashed into the guardrail.
The No. 2 Cadillac Racing V-Series.R finished in the top five, but not without struggles. Like the Ferraris, the Cadillac started on wet tires and spent the first half of the race trying to regain track position. However, the General Motors-backed team had split strategies with the extra Cadillac entry (No. 3) starting on slicks, which allowed it to emerge as a contender for the podium in the opening laps.
Unfortunately, the No. 3 Cadillac suffered a violent impact in the second hour at Raidillon, causing it to retire from the race, due to heavy damage. Renger van der Zande, who was running in second at the time, was sent flying sideways into the tires after an electronic power steering failure, according to co-driver Sebastien Bourdais.
Thankfully, van der Zande was unhurt and able to acknowledge the crowd before leaving the wreckage. Cadillac Racing will leave Spa wondering what could have been.
In the LMP2 category, the race was characterized by several safety car periods, which led to a series of sprints and intense battles. Teams employed different strategies, making it difficult to predict the final outcome until the closing minutes of the race.
The No. 41 Team WRT Oreca 07-Gibson of Rui Andrade, Robert Kubica and Louis Deletraz emerged victorious after a hard-fought battle with the pole-sitting No. 23 from United Autosports. The two cars came in for a late-race pit stop, and Team WRT managed to beat its competitor in a showdown on the pit lane while competing for the lead.
In LMGTE Am, history was made as the No. 83 Richard Mille AF Corse Ferrari 488 GTE Evo of Alessio Rovera, Luis Perez Companc and Lilou Wadoux finished first in class, preventing the No. 33 Corvette Racing C8.R from picking up its third straight class victory of 2023.
Wadoux became the first woman to win a race in the FIA World Endurance Championship.
"The fact that I am the first female driver to win an FIA WEC race gives me great pleasure, but as I often say what interests me is racing and not the gender gap," Wadoux said. "Anyway, to stand on the top step of the podium in a world championship event is a great thrill, especially on a track like Spa which I think is fantastic.
"The 24 Hours of Le Mans? The dream would be to win it in June, but if that is not possible, I would be delighted to make it onto the podium of the world’s most famous endurance race.”
Overall, the 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps was full of significant incidents in tricky conditions, making it the most engaging of the season thus far. The No. 7 Toyota GR010 HYBRID's near-perfect run and bold tire choice ultimately set them up for the win, while the No. 8 Toyota GR010 HYBRID's remarkable performance secured them a second-place finish. AF Corse's last-minute podium result provided some consolation after a tough race.
The top-five finishers:
M. Conway, K. Kobayashi, J. Lopez, No. 7 Toyota Gazoo Racing - Toyota GR010 HYBRID
S. Buemi, B. Hartley, R. Hirakawa, No. 8 Toyota Gazoo Racing - Toyota GR010 HYBRID
A. Pier Guidi, J. Calado, A. Giovinazzi, No. 51 Ferrari AF Corse - Ferrari 499P
D. Cameron, M. Christensen, F. Makowiecki, No. 5 Porsche Penske Motorsport - Porsche 963
E. Bamber, A. Lynn, R. Westbrook, No. 2 Cadillac Racing - Cadillac V-Series.R
The next FIA World Endurance Championship race is the most important one on the calendar, the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The Centenary edition of the twice-around-the-clock French endurance classic is set to get underway on June 10.