Toyota GAZOO Racing scored a dramatic victory in the 6 Hours of Silverstone in the opening round of the 2017 FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC).
In a race defined by several rain showers, the No.8 TS050 Hybrid of Sébastien Buemi, Anthony Davidson and Kazuki Nakajima earned victory inside the final 15 minutes in front of 50,200 spectators (weekend figure).
As well as the usual winners' trophies, the No.8 crew also claimed the Royal Automobile Club International Tourist Trophy, first awarded in 1905 and won by motorsport legends such as Tazio Nuvolari, Graham Hill and Stirling Moss.
The pole-sitting No.7 TS050 Hybrid of Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi and José María López set the fastest lap of the race but lost over an hour due to an accident and finished 23rd. López visited the circuit medical center and then traveled to hospital for a precautionary scan which confirmed he suffered no injuries.
Although the race started in cool, dry conditions and the two Toyotas ran in first and second, the weather soon intervened; after 45 minutes a shower struck and light rain fell intermittently after that.
Close to the second round of pit stops, the No.7 suffered an anti-roll bar problem which created handling difficulties and caused Kobayashi to lose performance and drop to fourth.
Davidson, now at the wheel of the No.8, took over the lead and a battle with the No.2 Porsche 919 Hybrid. But with two hours completed, the weather worsened and created a very challenging situation.
Both TS050 Hybrids stayed on slick tires throughout, unlike the Porsches which switched to hybrid intermediates. Kobayashi lost time in the gravel when the rain was at its heaviest, while Davidson in the No.8 initially slipped to second.
Kobayashi said, "Congratulations to everyone on the #8 car on their victory. Obviously we had a good start in qualifying and the first part of the race when we were leading. But during the last few laps of Mike's stint we had an issue with the anti-roll bar. The car didn't feel right and after I jumped in, it was not well balanced. It's a pity because we could have had a good result. We showed our performance and we will come back for the next race."
But as the conditions improved and the Porsches made an extra stop for slick tires, Anthony reclaimed top spot. More rain came just after half distance, which caused the end of the No.7 car's challenge. Lopez, fighting a car with difficult handling, crashed into a tire barrier at speed, causing extensive damage to the front and rear.
Lopez brought the car back to the pits and the mechanics worked hard to repair the damage. After 66 minutes in the garage, Conway brought the car back on track in 26th.
"The race started really well but then we had the anti-roll bar problem at the end of Mike's stint." said Lopez "Kamui did really well to keep us in the race and I was so looking forward to getting in the car. It started raining and when I was going into Copse I had the problem. It was a little bit a combination of the anti-roll bar, the wet and I touched the kerb with my rear tire. It was a big impact and at the beginning I felt some pain so I'm happy that all the checks showed no problems. Now I'm ready to come back for Spa."
That accident brought out a safety car and significantly reduced the No.8 car's advantage over the No.2 Porsche. The close fight continued throughout the final two hours, setting up a grandstand finish, with Buemi at the wheel for the last stint.
When the No.2 Porsche emerged from its final pit stop, with 30 minutes remaining, its lead was only eight seconds. Buemi hunted down the lead with a series of quick lap times, even as more drizzle fell, and eventually overtook with only 12 minutes remaining, taking the win by 6.173 seconds.
"I am so happy with this win." said Buemi "It has been a long time since the last one on our car so it's great to start the season like that. It was a tough race and really exciting at the end. The car was quick and during the last stint I was on fresher tires so that was an advantage. When I caught the Porsche I knew it was my only opportunity as they were faster on the straights due to their low downforce package. So I had to try something and happily it worked out well."
The team now prepares for the second round of the season, the 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium, the final race before the Le Mans 24 Hours. Spa will mark the first time Toyota has entered three hybrid-powered LMP1 cars, with Stéphane Sarrazin, Yuji Kunimoto and Nicolas Lapierre competing in the No.9 TS050 Hybrid.
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