6h of Spa
30 April – 1 May
Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps
WEC FIA World Endurance Championship
It was great being back at Spa and United Autosports, after a long pause since Bahrein, last year. It’s been too long since I last was with the team, with Phil (Hanson), my engineer and the mechanics. It’s that feeling of coming back to a place where we were once very happy, where I first won the World’s Championship and Le Mans.
This championship is always very competitive and I don’t feel the added pressure of having to defend the title. There’s no shame in not winning it again; if that happened, it would only show the level of hardship of this championship, but of course we want to show that it wasn’t pure luck. We want to win.
The free practices were promising, we were constantly in 1st in three sessions and the remaining one we finished 2nd. I continue to be the most experienced driver (platinum) and Phil Hanson has an added responsibility because he became a gold driver. Our most recent teammate, Fabio Scherer is very competitive, especially compared to his competition (the other silver drivers), which is a good feeling for the championship. Of course we know that he has to learn how to deal with the traffic and he may make some mistakes that can impact us but that’s all part of the game.
In this first official test, the hardest part was to deal with the new championship’s regulation that became effective this year and has a tremendous impact on the future of the main endurance category. It didn’t start with the right foot because the forecast was that the LMHs (Le Mans Hypercar) would be faster than they are now. From now on we’ll need to know if they’ll slow down the LMP2s and GTs or if they’ll make the LMHs faster. At this moment there was a chance that an LMP2 could win both its category and the overall grid.
They all got the balance of performance because of the new LMH and we’ve been readjusting the car, doing a new setup. It’s a challenge for all teams because now we can only drive with the Le Mans downforce, we have an additional 20Kg and less 70 horsepower in the car. So we maximized everything we could possibly balance in the car, we see if it slips at the front or on the back, if we have a good car for the turns or straight lines, if we add aerodynamic charge, etc. Because I have plenty of experience, I could make those decisions and identify the challenges ahead of the problems. It will be at the race, where we’ll see who opted for the right track. Until then it’s only opinions and ideas.
Racing in pandemic times continues to be an adventure. I had to have a negative test and present authorizing and justification letters to leave the country and fly to Belgium. I traveled sooner to Spa to be able to do a second covid test for the championship’s organization – two tests within the span of just 2 days, one to travel and one to get inside the track. I quarantined at the hotel while I waited for the negative result so I could finally pick up the bracelet that gave me access to the track because there is a tight and effective control. After five days we had to do another covid test to have another bracelet so we could go back to the track for the actual race.
Spa is an iconic track, one of the world’s biggest, very complete because it has fast turns, slow turns and chicanes. It’s hard to do a perfect lap throughout those 4.5 miles. The mythical turn is called Radilon/Eau Rouge and is impossible to replicate due to its fast descent and ascent. Even nowadays with all the added safety, we’ll go 150 mi/h, the car is constantly hitting the ground and every year two or three cars get completely shattered there. Puon is a double left downwards, also very fast, where we’ll arrive on a 5th and we’ll go a minimum speed of 120/130mi/h.
We started the free practices leading the three sessions, with some advantage against our direct competitors, and we realized that we were only going to have one or two cars capable of challenging us during qualifying but yet there are always surprises and you should never take the fastness of the day prior for granted.
I was responsible for qualifying and wanted badly to make pole position. The car was great, we went with a strategy of leveraging two sets of new tires, one lap each. My first lap was good but it was the second one, with the other set of tires, that was perfect and I gave half of second to the second place and a whole second to the third place. Then I saw that the first lap I did would also make it to the pole. This confirmed our domain of all week until that moment.
We were calm and serene for having led almost all sessions but it’s in the race you’ll see everyone’s true pace. There are drivers and teams that are stronger on the race, that are more focused on the race setup and don’t make such a good qualifying.
Starting in the front reduces the chance of accidents on the first laps, it gives us a very good margin for racing smoothly with a good car without hitting or damaging it. Phil Hanson started and got even to lead the overall race, overtaking two Toyotas at the end of turn 1, he even talked on the radio laughing that moment, saying that he was leading the race and we all laughed at the box. The first laps were impressive because the major pace of all weekend was accomplished. Phil gained a big distance from everyone else. The race itself was calmly managed, without fuss and in total control. At each time we’d change drivers we were also gaining more advantage. We had a very comfortable margin against our opponents and that allowed us to deal with the tire wear or predict any other potential challenge.
I think we have a very strong team. Fabio Scherer, our rookie, drove really well. Unfortunately he had a penalty during FCY (full-course yellow) that cost us a drive through, but even that happened at a good time so he learns what endurance actually means.
Yet we won with great distance. I think Fabio will be a very good silver, he fitted the team really well, we had a good environment going on and we all want the same thing. The other drivers listen to me and trust my guidance, due to my experience. We really are at a perfect pace between the 3 of us.
I’m sure that was key to such a big domain of the field, in a time where we’re all looking for new setup strategies, because the regulations changed since last year.
It wasn’t one of the hardest races but I never relaxed because if a safety car came in, it would group everyone together. I used this race to better figure out and improve the new tires (Goodyear). Maybe for the fans it was an uninteresting race because it seemed to be won from the start, but it was a pleasure to cross the finish line and accomplish that victory.
At the end I hugged my teammates, we were able to trust each other. That is really great because it motivates the whole team, for all the important races such as Le Mans. To Fabio it was very important, he hadn’t won a race for 4 years, I feel proud because I pushed hard for him to join our team.
I congratulated the team for its excellent car preparation, my engineer Gary Robertshaw because everything was impeccably tuned, the mechanics and everyone else. As always, at the end I called my wife Joana, Nuno and Pedro Couceiro, who are always there supporting me in everything I do.