At the same site where the trio of Timo Bernhard, Mark Webber and Brendon Hartley set sail for their eventual 2015 FIA World Endurance Championship title, the Nürburgring, the trio took their first win in their title defense year at the same circuit in Sunday’s 6 Hours of Nürburgring.
That win last year kicked off a string of four wins in a row through Shanghai.
This year, it’s Porsche’s third win in four races to open the 2016 FIA WEC season, although this one was a far more straightforward performance compared to the fortunate wins at Silverstone (Audi disqualification) and Le Mans (Toyota’s turbo failure). Audi then won at Spa in the Le Mans warm-up act.
Perhaps not the out-and-out fastest car during the weekend, the No. 1 Porsche 919 Hybrid otherwise avoided trouble during the majority of the race and inherited the lead with just over an hour to go when the sister No. 2 car’s race came unglued in the final two hours.
The No. 2 car – driven by 24 Hours of Le Mans winners and points leaders Neel Jani, Romain Dumas and Marc Lieb – controlled the middle portion of the race, before an ambitious move occurred at Turn 7 by Lieb when trying to overtake the polesitting GTE-Am class car, the No. 88 Abu Dhabi Proton Racing Porsche 911 RSR (Khaled Al Qubaisi, David Heinemeier Hansson and Patrick Long).
Lieb darted to Al Qubaisi’s inside at the last minute of the downhill right-hander, with pitched the GTE Porsche into a gravel and triggered a drive-through penalty for the avoidable contact.
Lieb, to his credit, offered no blame elsewhere, went to apologize and took it in stride.
“These are the rules, and I caused the accident,” he said. “I hit the 88 car. We accept the decision. It’s tough. But in these cars, you make decisions quickly. I tried to pass on the inside. But that’s racing.”
That penalty brought the No. 2 car into the pits and when it returned, it was in third behind the No. 8 Audi R18 (Loic Duval, Lucas di Grassi, Oliver Jarvis).
A battle between Jani, who took over from Lieb, and then Andre Lotterer in the No. 7 Audi followed. Lotterer got by Jani into the chicane and with Jani’s momentum slowed, he was then hit in the left rear legality panel by one of the SMP Racing BR01 Nissans. Lotterer then proceeded to barge past Jani at Turn 6, unpleased by Jani’s late-race racecraft.
An eventual black and orange flag was displayed to the No. 2 car, and it was brought into the pits for repairs with just over half an hour remaining. It dropped that car off the podium for the first time this year, down to a season-worst fourth.
By contrast, the two Audis were both on the podium for the first time this year, with the car’s higher downforce package proving a more viable one after its relative struggles at Le Mans.
The aforementioned No. 8 car of Audi’s younger guns finished ahead of the No. 7 Audi, driven only by Lotterer and Marcel Fassler with Benoit Treluyer sidelined due to injury and thus missing the first race of his FIA WEC career.
Toyota Gazoo Racing – the Le Mans dominators – struggled at its second “home race” as it’s based in nearby Cologne. A lapped fifth and sixth was all that was on the cards for the Nos. 5 and 6 Toyota TS050 Hybrids with its ultra-high-downforce package.
Among the LMP1 privateer entries, Rebellion Racing’s No. 13 Rebellion R-One AER picked up the win with Dominik Kraihamer, Alexandre Imperatori and Matheo Tuscher. Nick Heidfeld, Nico Prost and Mathias Beche were second, the latter in his first Rebellion start this year after Nelson Piquet Jr. ran the first three rounds.
Poor Team ByKolles suffered yet another fire with its CLM P1/01 AER, after two during Le Mans week, as noted by Oliver Webb. Credit though must go to Webb and Pierre Kaffer’s teammate, Simon Trummer, for coming up with a solid AC/DC reference…
In LMP2 it was more of the same with the Signatech Alpine trio of Nicolas Lapierre, Stephane Richelmi and Gustavo Menezes continuing their sterling run of form in its No. 36 Alpine A460 Nissan.
That trio won its third race on the trot, ahead of the No. 43 RGR Sport by Morand Ligier JS P2 Nissan (Ricardo Gonzalez, Bruno Senna, Filipe Albuquerque).
There was nearly a last lap change for third, but despite Jonny Kane’s closing stint in the venerable No. 42 Strakka Racing Gibson 015S Nissan, he was unable to get around Ryan Dalziel, in the No. No. 31 Tequila Patron ESM Ligier JS P2 Nissan in its first race on Michelins.
Dalziel held off Kane by just 0.071 of a second for ESM’s third podium in four starts, in the car he shared with Pipo Derani and Chris Cumming. Kane shared the Strakka Gibson with team debutante Lewis Williamson doing a solid job on debut in place of Danny Watts, and Nick Leventis.
Manor, with a similarly changed-up lineup of Tor Graves joined by team newcomers Matt Howson and Antonio Pizzonia (replacing James Jakes and Will Stevens from the regular races, and Matt Rao and Roberto Merhi at Le Mans), rounded out the top five in class in its No. 44 Oreca 05 Nissan.
G-Drive Racing’s quest for its first win this year with another new lineup – Alex Brundle now in to join Rene Rast and Roman Rusinov – came undone with gearbox issues resigning the No. 26 Oreca 05 Nissan to the garage.
GTE-Pro’s Ford dominance at Le Mans did not carry over to the Nürburgring, with Ferrari back on top in a 1-2 result led by the No. 51 Ferrari 488 GTE turbo of Gianmaria Bruni and James Calado. It’s AF Corse’s third win of the season after the No. 71 car of Sam Bird and Davide Rigon opened the year with back-to-back wins.
Ford’s No. 66 GT of Stefan Muecke and Olivier Pla, the class points leaders heading into the race, looked set to bank a podium in third place ahead of the No. 95 Aston Martin Vantage V8, which showed improved form this weekend.
But a drive-through penalty was assessed to the No. 66 Ford for a pit stop infringement; Pla served it in the final 20 minutes and that dropped that car behind the “Dane Train” No. 95 Aston Martin of Nicki Thiim and Marco Sorenson.
It was a tough race for the No. 67 Ford, as it was at Le Mans, this time with a pit fire striking when Andy Priaulx was behind the wheel. Priaulx emerged unscathed though.
GTE-Am witnessed the No. 98 Aston Martin Vantage V8 back on top for its second win this year with the trio of Paul Dalla Lana, Pedro Lamy and Mathias Lauda. The No. 78 KCMG Porsche 911 RSR and No. 83 AF Corse Ferrari F458 Italia completed the class podium.
A crowd of 58,000 was reported for the race, and the date confirmed for a Nürburgring return next year, about a week earlier – July 14-16, 2017.
The FIA WEC resumes at the inaugural Six Hours of Mexico City on Sept. 3, at the redone and relaunched Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez.
It’s a massive event for the RGR Sport team, Gonzalez serving as both that team’s owner and co-driver, and the event’s promoter.