Toyota was put as a favorite at the start of the FIA World Endurance Championship, but neither the Japanese manufacturer nor the fans would expect the late challenge that Porsche put to the overall victory, although the No. 8 Toyota of Sébastien Buemi, Anthony Davidson and Kazuki Nakajima still prevailed in a rather eventful race for most classes.
The start had no incidents and not a single risky move outside both Porsches rubbing side panels. Both Toyotas built a slight gap but once the Porsche settled their positions the difference stagnated. In the all-ORECA LMP2 class the No. 36 Signatech Alpine car had a clean run in the lead while the No. 31 Rebellion and the No. 26 G-Drive had their fight for second.
Once they got into traffic, both the No. 7 & 8 Toyota started trading overtakes but never messing it up and keeping the gap short. Behind them the LMGTE-Pro class was dominated by the Fords, while hell broke loose for fifth place in class with the No. 92 Porsche putting the No. 51 AF Corse Ferrari and the No. 97 Aston Martin in the pocket while the No. 91 Porsche broke the Ford 1-2 and jumped to second in class. The No. 67 Ford had quite a frightening moment with 20 minutes of racing as the right side door opened out of nowhere, and with lost time to shut the door and get to grips with the race the No. 67 lost other two positions, falling down to fifth.
Rain was expected at some point of the race but it started to came early with 45 minutes of racing and both Toyotas pitted in this exact moment, with no sign of a wet track they kept their slick tires, which the same choice for both LMP1 Porsches. On the GTE-Pro side, the No. 91 Porsche stalled after its pit-stop, ruining all the progress done to the moment.
When the Toyotas deliberately switched positions the No. 8 lost contact, so that extra pace wouldn't come, which opened thr door for reaction from the No. Porsche, although soon the previous short gap was reestablished and the distance to the Porsche got bigger again. Unlike the first round of pit-stops, positions got really messed up in LMP1 as the No. 7 Toyota lost time and went down to fourth, behond both Porsches and the leading Toyota, and the on-track advantage to Porsche soon wasn't there anymore, losing a lap in the process but recovering it in the third hour.
While traffic hasn't been exactly a problem for all classes, there were some rare moments like No. 98 Aston Martin having a contact with one of the Jackie Chan DC Racing cars and then spinning while in the LMGTE-Am class lead, and thanks to a huge gap this lead wasn't affected. The GT side had another big moment later on, when the No. 92 Porsche suffered problems, stopped on track and caught fire in the back area. Kevin Estré left the car unscathed and when the rescue team arrived the fire was quickly extinguished, but obviously this situation brought a yellow flag, turning into green again in a few minutes. Back to the No. 98 Aston Martin, Paul Dalla Lana had a spin again, although this time it was on his own trying to maintain the inside line at Club corner.
With two hours and a half to go we had the biggest off in the race, as José Maria Lopez lost control of the No. 7 Toyota, went straight to gravel and crashed nose first into the barriers, destroying the front of the TS050 prototype. Lopez still managed to bring the damaged TS050 to the Toyota garage where the team started repairs, and after 20 minutes of yellow flag the race was back to normal. Lopez was sent to hospital as he was reported with a back injury, and after 30 minutes in garage the No. 7 Toyota was back to racing looking like a new car.
The yellow flag helped to bunch up everybody, which brought the spice to some battles, like when second placed James Calado in his No. 51 AF Corse Ferrari crossed the 4 hour mark with Frédéric Makowiecki in the No. 91 Porsche and Harry Tincknell in the No. 67 Ford Chip Ganassi behind him. Calado was soon able to breathe while Tincknell took a while to pass Makowiecki for third in GTE-Pro. To prove that Ford's pace was good, Tincknell quickly got closer to Calado and then overtook him round the outside, reestablishing the initial Ford 1-2 of the class.
In the LMP2 class, after near four hours leading the No. 36 Signatech Alpine car lost the lead to the No. 28 from TDS Racing, then turning into no one's land as the No. 31 Vaillante Rebellion and the No. 38 Jackie Chan DC Racing also had their shots at the lead.
Aston Martin summed to their share of on-track problems a contact between the No. 97 car and the No. 4 ByKolles ENSO CLM LMP1, sending both cars to pits immediately and ruining both runs, bringing another yellow flag with 50 minutes to go and many class battles to be resolved.
The mistakes of the No. 98 Aston Martin would pay its toll in GTE-Am, as Pedro Lamy had Matt Griffin in the No. 61 Clearwater Ferrari right behind him and ready for an all-out attack. After a long time without proper space to overtake, Griffin finally took the class lead with a bold move as they gone side by side.
The last pit stop was like a trump card for the No. 2 Porsche, and so they did by going only for fuel and go back to track in the lead with 30 minutes to go. In the end the No. 8 Toyota was still ruling in terms of pace with Sébastien Buemi, reducing the gap by reasonable amounts and going for the attack into Brendon Hartley, and once they got rid of traffic with 14 minutes to go, Buemi made it easy through the inside and retook the overall lead to not let it go anymore until the checkered flag.
The GTE-Am still had drama reserved to the end, as the No. 61 Clearwater Ferrari went for a splash and gp with 5 minutes to go, relinquishing the class lead to the No. 98 Aston Martin and also the second place to the No. 54 Spirit of Race Ferrari, being 7 seconds behind the new leaders. The 98 and the 54 then engaged into battle in the last lap, only to take each other out at the exit of the Hangar straight, leaving the GTE-Am win again in the hands of Clearwater Racing, with Griffin having only to cruise until the finish line.
The LMP2 class was eventually dominated by the No. 38 Jackie Chan DC Racing Oreca, having no opponents during almost the whole final hour. In the GTE-Pro class Ford won it with the No. 67 car as Harry Tincknell had to deal again with the loose door problem, although it wasn't enough to take his pace out.
Now teams and drivers pack things up to go Spa-Francorchamps, where the next FIA WEC race will be held on May 6th, being a known test lab for the 24 Hours of Le Mans after that.
PHOTOS: Toyota Motorsport, Ford Performance, Dunlop Motorsport, FIA WEC