Second times are sometimes more difficult than first times and Team WRT experienced it fully in its second participation in the Le Mans 24 Hours. The Belgian squad was determined to defend its last year’s LMP2 winner trophy with its three Oreca 07 Gibson having excellent pace, as proven by the its pole position in qualifying and Hyperpole. Unfortunately, the race was marred since the start by incidents and issues. Eventually, two cars made it to the chequered flag with the third entry of Mirko Bortolotti-Rolf Ineichen-Dries Vanthoor taking the best result, P11 in the class.
Team Principal Vincent Vosse was clearly frustrated at the end of the race: “It’s a disappointment, for sure. Although the end result do not show it, the guys did a great job. We were well prepared and even more competitive in terms of performance compared to last year. The three cars were quick and had a great pace, but it simply didn’t go our way. We paid a lot for that troubled first lap and when you are obliged to catch up since the beginning, it is more difficult and you get more exposed. We had a lot of small incidents and issues on track while on top the luck wasn’t with us. Sometimes, especially here at Le Mans, it turns out like this… I want though to congratulate Jota, who did a great race and has two cars on the podium, and have a warm thought for Louis [Delétraz] and Robert [Kubica]. The second place is a great result although it doesn’t compensate their frustration of last year.”
The Le Mans week started well for the Belgian squad, with all three cars in the top-15 in their class in the two free practice sessions and qualifying, and car #31 topping FP2 and Qualifying. The good results promoted cars #31 and #41 to the Hyperpole exercise, where Robin Frijns showed once again an excellent pace to achieve pole position. Norman Nato also performed perfectly reaching the second row of the LMP2 grid.
On Saturday, in perfect conditions, the start was going to be less smooth. In the heat of the action, the top four LMP2 cars found themselves abreast ahead of first corner, with Rene Rast in car #31 touching slightly car #22, which then touched Ferdinand Habsburg in car #41, causing a puncture. The German would receive a 1-minute stop-and-go penalty for the incident, while the Austrian had to do a full lap of the 13-km track at reduced speed to go back to the pits. The race, therefore, became a charge-back exercise for the team’s two cars entered full-season in the FIA WEC. In car #32, Mirko Bortolotti did an excellent job, running always in the top-5 and as high as second.
After less than four hours, Robin Frijns, thanks to superb stints and having beaten the fastest lap in the class, was back in the top-10, with Dries Vanthoor in third and Norman Nato in the top-20, after having lost two full laps in the opening incident.
The night though was going to be full of small incidents and set-backs for the three cars, notably with another penalty (drive-through) for car #31 while car #41 was stuck for a while in the gravel after being pushed by a rival.
At 8 in the morning of Sunday, with one-third of the race to go, car #31 was in P7 and car #32 in P11, both 3 laps from the class leader, while car #41 was in P17, three laps further down. With 5 hours 15 of race remaining, came the blow of the accident for car #31, as Robin Frijns left the car on the dirt exiting Indianapolis corner and hit the opposite wall frontally, with damage that forced the on-the-spot retirement of the team’s best-placed car.
The rest of the race was quieter, but still full of hurdles, with car #32 eventually finished just out of the top-10, in P11, after being slowed by a clutch problem, and car #41 took a final P17.
Mirko Bortolotti: “I am extremely happy with how my first Le Mans went. The target was to have this wonderful experience with Team WRT and have as much mileage as possible. I made good progress throughout the week and tried to learn as quickly as possible. I think we managed to prepare the car as best as possible and the team did a fantastic job. I am happy with my performance in the race and I made my best lap time towards the end, I think it is the second-fastest. I am grateful to Team WRT for having put together this third entry and for believing in me, and it was nice to be again with my ‘Belgian family’ for this first Le Mans I will never forget. For sure, we had the potential to do better but at least, we finished the race.”
Rolf Ineichen: “It was my second Le Mans and it’s my second finish, so it’s a nice achievement. It was a very difficult race, hard and hot. The team did everything to give us a perfect car but the race was very demanding. We had some driving mistakes and technical issues, which brought us to the pits and at the end, the clutch failed. So, I think we need to be happy to have finished, although, on another hand, we could have had a better result. But it certainly was good learning for the three of us, as we all are relatively new to LMP2, which is more complex and entails a lot of factors to be taken into account.”
Dries Vanthoor: “It’s not the result we wanted but in the final hours we had tyre and clutch problems, losing some positions. I want to thank Team WRT for the hard work and everyone who made this opportunity possible, Le Mans is always a fantastic experience and now let’s see what the future will bring.”
Robin Frijns: “The race has been a nightmare, we had all sort of problems and lost time at every full-course yellow. It’s frustrating, because we were one of the quickest cars, and it even ended worse, as I crashed.”
Rene Rast: “Unfortunately, it wasn’t our race. Things started to go wrong even before the first corner and they just continued. We had lots of incidents, problems and penalties, it was just not meant to be… It’s a pity because the car was fast but things didn’t go our way. It’s frustrating, especially for the team and the guys, who put so much work into this race. Now, the important is that Robin is OK after a heavy impact and that luckily, we’ll have a better race at Monza.”
Rui Andrade: “Obviously not the result we wanted for both cars in the FIA WEC. It was a tough race right from the beginning, the damage cost us two laps, but after, there were more issues and mistakes. It’s a shame, but it’s good we didn’t give up and still take some points that could be very useful at the end of the championship. Now, time to rest, relax, see where we can improve and get ready for Monza.”
Norman Nato: “It was a good beginning of the week, but in the race everything was difficult, starting from the mess and the puncture at the start. The pace was great but then again, we had problems during the night, mainly when we were pushed out of the track and into the gravel. We also had some tyre issues, it has been a typical Le Mans race, we tried our best but that was it, and it’s not good for the championship.”
Ferdinand Habsburg: “After the first couple of hours, where a lot did not go as it was supposed, we were far back and with no hopes to win the race. It then became a race with ourselves, and we tried to stay positive, which we did, although we ended going further aback just because of things we could not anticipate, such as tyre failures. It seems it was not meant for us this year, but still, the best way to grow is to have a difficult day and that is what happened.”
FIA World Endurance Championship – Round 3
Le Mans 24 Hours, France, 8-12 June 2022
1. Hartley-Hirakawa-Buemi (Toyota GT010 Hybrid) 380 laps
2. Conway-Kobayashi-López (Toyota GR010 Hybrid) + 2m01s222
3. Briscoe-Westbrook-Mailleux (Glickenhaus 007 LMH) + 5 laps
4. Pla-Dumas-Derani (Glickenhaus 007 LMH) + 10 laps
5. Da Costa-Stevens-González (Oreca 07 Gibson) + 11 laps
15. Bortolotti-Ineichen-Vanthoor (Oreca 07 Gibson) + 14 laps (11th LMP2)
21. Andrade-Habsburg-Nato (Oreca 07 Gibson) + 18 laps (17st LMP2)
DNF Frijns-Gelael-Rast (Oreca 07 Gibson) 285 laps (accident)
Photo: Brecht Decancq