DESPITE a significant aerodynamic disadvantage, the Porsche 919 hybrid tandem of Earl Bamber/Timo Bernhard/Brendon Hartley and reigning world champion Neel Jani/André Lotterer/Nick Tandy finished the first race of the 2017 FIA World Endurance Championship at Silverstone on April 16 with a better than expected second and third place finish.
The number two car with Hartley behind the wheel finished just 6.173 seconds behind the winning Toyota of Sébastien Buemi/Anthony Davidson/Kazuki Nakajima, after Buemi reeled in Hartley in a thrilling fight just seven laps before the checkered flag.
Racing in front of 50,200 fans in typically unfriendly British weather conditions, with the temperature hovering around 11 degrees Celsius and occasional rain showers, the Porsche LMP Team – LeMans winners and world champions in 2015 and 2016 – established an early lead in the manufacturers’ classification with 33 points, ahead of Toyota with 26.5.
Starting third and fourth on the grid, the number 1 and 2 cars with Jani and Hartley swapped spots at the start of the race, and spent most of the 197-lap race dueling with each other and the number 7 and 8 Toyotas, outlasting the 7 car, whose mechanical issues from lap 64 onwards finally led to a crash requiring deployment of the safety car.
Hartley took the wheel of the number 2 Porsche on lap 149 and worked his way past the number 8 Toyota, leading by eight seconds after a final fuel stop on lap 178. But with F1 veteran Buemi in the cockpit of a car with better downforce and fresher tires, Hartley’s efforts to keep the Toyota behind him were finally overcome on lap 190 with a neat inside pass, Buemi pulling out to a narrow but still comfortable 6-second advantage.
“This was a thriller for us as well as for the spectators. Due to our consequent decision for the low-downforce aero package, as expected we couldn’t be a threat in qualifying. Therefore, we are even happier about today’s second and third place with such a marginal gap to the winners. Our low downforce aerodynamic package now has its most difficult race behind it. We can very much look forward to the next race at Spa-Francorchamps. The fans there can expect to see even more from us. Thanks a lot to the entire team,” Porsche LMP1 Vice President Fritz Enzinger said after the race.
Team Principal Andreas Seidl was positively effusive. “Today’s second and third place feels like a race win,” he said. “I am very proud of every single team member in Weissach and here on site – it is amazing what this team achieved today. Despite the decision to come here with little aerodynamic downforce, both our cars were 100 percent reliable and very competitive. Additionally, our six drivers have again underlined what a high and balanced level they operate on. Congratulations to Toyota for a well deserved race win.”
Second-place Hartley, who hails from New Zealand, commented, “It was an action-packed first lap, getting the jump on Neel around the outside of Turn 3. He gave me room, which was good. I did my best to hang on to the Toyotas while at the same time trying to save a little fuel, which would open up our strategy. I was back in the car for the finish and it was very close, closer I think than many thought it would be but I was always optimistic. We took a gamble at the end by not taking tires to retain track position. Buemi was a little forceful although he’d have got through sooner or later but we can all be happy with second place.”
The next round of the WEC will be the six-hour race at Belgium’s Spa-Francorchamp circuit on May 6, followed by the iconic 24 hours of LeMans on June 17-18.