Success for the N°36 Alpine A460 after a breath-taking fight that went down to the wire at the WEC 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps.
A forceful last stint from Nicolas Lapierre rounded off the work of his team-mates Stéphane Richelmi and Gustavo Menezes.
The run of the N°35 Baxi DC Racing Alpine car in the hands of Nelson Panciatici / David Cheng / Ho-Pin Tung was halted just before the finish because of damage incurred in a collision with a backmarker.
In contrast to the wintry weather encountered at Silverstone, the FIA WEC teams enjoyed summery weather at Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium, where the championship’s regulars kicked off the race at 2:30pm local time in front of a packed house.
The N°36 Signatech-Alpine started from second place on the LMP2 grid, while the N°35 Baxi DC Racing Alpine car lined up in 10th position after Spa rookie David Cheng’s ‘out’ lap during qualifying was spoiled by a red flag incident. By the time the green flag reappeared, his tyres had cooled down excessively for his flying lap when he was also hindered by traffic.
During the early part of the race, both Alpine A460s set a strong pace while also complying with the fuel and tyre management recommendations of the team’s engineers.
The first two hours saw the N°36 car defend third place as the N°35 prototype fought its way up the field in the hands of Nelson Panciatici, who was succeeded at the wheel by Ho-Pin Tung. By the halfway point (three hours), the N°36 Alpine was running second and the sister car was up to fourth!
Stéphane Richelmi lost a little ground in a spin after he was hit by the N°7 Audi but he was still second when he handed over to Gustavo Menezes who inherited the class lead when the leading car made a mistake.
The N°36 Alpine A460 continued at a strong pace to build up a handsome cushion over its chasers. The N°35 machine fell back, however, when it was issued with a ‘drive through’ penalty after two airguns had been used simultaneously during a pit stop.
There was a dramatic conclusion to the six-hour classic when the Safety Car was despatched shortly before the start of the final hour due to a GT car which had smashed into the guardrail at Eau Rouge.
The ensuing queue saw the leading car’s margin slashed to nothing, while the N°35 Alpine lost a lap due to its position on the track relative to the Safety Car. When racing resumed, Nicolas Lapierre succeeded in pulling clear once more but he was compelled to make one last ‘splash and dash’ refuelling stop with around 10 minutes remaining.
The Frenchman re-joined in second place behind rival Derani and the two drivers were soon battling again. The Alpine driver recovered his lead thanks to a daring passing manoeuvre with the chequered flag in sight!
While the team was celebrating the move, the N°35 car was reported to be running slowly with a puncture and broken rear suspension followinga collision with a backmarker, an incident which ended up side-lining Nelson Panciatici for good.
Meanwhile, Nicolas Lapierre kept his head to collect Alpine’s second victory at world championship level after the team’s success at the 2015 6 Hours of Shanghai. The result at in Belgium was the first win for the new Alpine A460.
Saturday’s result promoted Lapierre / Menezes / Richelmi to the top of the provisional Endurance Trophy for LMP2 Drivers classification, equal on points with Senna / Albuquerque / Gonzalez after two rounds.
The team’s next public appearance will be the official pre-Le Mans 24 Hours Test Day on Sunday, June 5, ahead of the calendar’s showpiece itself on June 18-19.
Bernard Ollivier (Deputy Managing Director, Alpine): “That was a very emotional race for us but it culminated in the maiden victory for the Alpine A460. Above all, I was impressed by the team’s panache, which is a particularly important quality for Alpine, and this result confirms that we made the right choices for our 2016 programme. At the same time, I am naturally disappointed for the N°35 crew who were far from adequately rewarded for their performance. Overall, it was an excellent weekend, and the event’s popularity underscores the growing status of the FIA WEC – this series is a thoroughly well-deserved success story, in which we are glad to be playing our part. After the celebrations, everybody will seek to capitalise on what we learned at Spa, but we will travel to Le Mans feeling more motivated than ever.”
Philippe Sinault (Team Principal, Signatech-Alpine): “I think we must have faced just about every challenge over the course of those six hours, and I’m sure Jacques Cheinisse would be very proud of this Alpine victory! We were on excellent form this weekend and the well-matched driver line-up in the N°36 car secured second in-class in qualifying. Tireless work by the team’s engineers and drivers enabled us to find a strong set-up for this demanding circuit and the balance of both cars was very good, particularly towards the end of the race. We also took a big step forward in terms of tyre management, which had been our primary technical goal. That notably helped the N°35 car get away to an extraordinary start and climb to fourth place. Heading into the last hour, the N°36 held a 1m30s advantage over our closest rival and everything looked to be under control – but the one thing we could not guard against was a safety car intervention, which is exactly what happened! Since we still needed to make our final refuelling stop, we had to re-establish a gap to be able to make a quick ‘splash and dash’ in the dying moments. After this quick pit visit, Nicolas returned to the track just behind [Pipo] Derani and swiftly reclaimed the lead with a magnificent move. At the same moment, the unexpected retirement of the N°35 Alpine following a coming-together with a GT car slightly tempered our delight, but the bottom line is that this win belongs to the whole team and represents a massive confidence boost ahead of the Le Mans 24 Hours. We still have work to do, of course, and minor changes to make, but we know what is required and we are moving in the right direction.”
Nelson Panciatici: “We might have been a fair way down the starting grid, but we pushed hard during the opening stints and really asked a lot of the tyres. Our consistency meant we were not far shy of the podium and, with two hours remaining, we were up to fourth position. Then, however, shortly before the finish, a collision with a GT car prematurely curtailed our race. The resultant rear puncture caused damage to the car’s bodywork, giving me no choice but to pull off. The fact that it would not have been a mega result in any case eases the disappointment to some extent, and the victory achieved by the N°36 is fantastic for the whole team – it corroborates the value of the work carried out and gives us even more motivation for the rest of the season.”
David Cheng: “This was my first race at Spa-Francorchamps, which is a notoriously difficult task. In qualifying, a red flag stopped me in my tracks as I was on my ‘out’ lap. That caused the tyres to cool, and afterwards I was unable to regain their optimum performance window. In the race, both Nelson and Ho-Pin did an amazing job to battle through the pack. We lost a lap when the Safety Car appeared, and the calibre of competition in WEC is so high right now that there was no chance to get it back again. That’s motor racing though and, as we now turn our attentions towards Le Mans, we know we have everything we need to succeed.”
Ho-Pin Tung: “After giving ourselves plenty of work to do following a disappointing qualifying session, I think we did a very solid job in the race. During the early phases, we staged a good fightback and were not far from the class leaders. However, as at Silverstone, bad luck prevented us from reaping the rewards of our evident potential. It’s obviously a shame not to come away with any points, but we’ll put it behind us and come back stronger at Le Mans! We know we will have a competitive car there, which will allow me to really attack – I can’t wait to get there! I’m enjoying working with the team enormously, and I feel perfectly at home at Signatech-Alpine.”
Nicolas Lapierre: “That was an excellent race, but we certainly never had the opportunity to relax! Although we were leading the class by a minute-and-a-half, the appearance of the Safety Car ruined our strategy. After that, we had to really push to open up a sufficient margin again to be able to make a ‘splash and dash’ pit-stop during the final minutes. I saw that I could take advantage of the presence of a backmarker to catch Derani by surprise, and I really enjoyed the move. I’m pleased for the whole team, who did a brilliant job, as well as for my two team-mates who have made extremely encouraging progress. We still need to make improvements in terms of outright speed, particularly in qualifying. Next we switch our focus towards Le Mans which will truly be a special moment during the season.”
Stéphane Richelmi: “Just over an hour from the end of the race, I was saying that a lot could still happen when I saw the Safety Car take to the track following at accident at Eau Rouge. That really complicated matters for us, but Nicolas made the difference and drew upon all of his endurance racing experience to master the situation. On a personal note, I feel like I’ve made plenty of progress since Silverstone and I must thank the team for helping me along my learning curve. We will maintain this approach for the forthcoming races, and I can’t wait to be at Le Mans!”
Gustavo Menezes: “I’m absolutely thrilled – standing up on the top step of the podium was an emotional moment at the end of such a tough race. Believing that it would be a tall order to win, our target was to finish on the podium but we built up a good lead until it was wiped out by the late Safety Car period. That left us all a bit on edge, because it threatened to cost us the victory for which we had worked so hard. Thankfully, Nicolas was exceptional. Not only is he teaching Stéphane and me a great deal outside of the car, but he is also hugely talented behind the wheel. It’s fantastic to leave Spa at the top of the championship standings!”
WEC 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps – Final positions (LMP2)
1. Signatech-Alpine #36 – 151 laps
2. Extreme Speed Motorsports #31 +3.579s
3. Manor #45 +5.069s
4. RGR Sport by Morand #43 +5.464s
5. G-Drive Racing #26 +1 lap
6. G-Drive Racing #38 +3 lap
7. Extreme Speed Motorsport #30 +5 laps
8. Manor #44 +7 laps
9. SMP Racing #37 +15 laps
NC. Baxi DC Racing #35 – 143 laps
Endurance Trophy for LMP2 Drivers
1. Senna / Albuquerque / Gonzalez – 37 points
2. Lapierre / Menezes / Richelmi – 37 points
3. Cumming / Derani / Dalziel – 36 points
9. Cheng / Tung / Panciatici – 6 points
Endurance Trophy for LMP2 Teams
1. RGR Sport by Morand – 40 points
2. Signatech-Alpine – 37 points
3. Extreme Speed Motorsports – 36 points
9. Baxi DC Racing Alpine – 8 points