Toyota kept their cool to win the 6 Hours of Silverstone and the opening round of the FIA World Endurance Championship after a dramatic race that began frantically before ending early because of torrential rain.
The #8 TS-040 Hybrid of Sebastien Buemi, Anthony Davidson and Nicolas Lapierre clinched the win ahead of their sister car of Alexander Wurz, Stephane Sarrazin and Kazuki Nakajima while world champions Audi suffered their worst race for three years as both R18 e-tron quattros crashed out.
Former Formula 1 driver Mark Webber could also celebrate as Porsche claimed third place on its WEC debut after a 15-year absence from sportscar racing. He was joined on the final podium place by Brendon Hartley and Timo Bernhard.
The race set off at a blistering pace with Lucas Di Grassi immediately targeting the pole-winning Toyota of Alex Wurz, the Audi driver unrelenting as his sought a way past the TS 040 - Hybrid. His determination proved his undoing though as he went wide at Club Corner before the pits straight at the end of the opening lap which allowed the second Toyota of Sebastien Buemi to nip past into second.
The losers in the opening laps were Porsche with Neel Jani dropping to sixth from third while the sister 919 Hybrid moved up one place to fifth after 10 minutes.
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Wurz lost first place on lap 14 when he ran into traffic, allowing Andre Lotterer to move ahead, giving Audi the lead for the first time in the race.
Soon after the start, there were reports of rain at points around the circuit and by the end of the first 30 minutes spots were appearing on drivers’ windscreens. Toyota and Porsche brought both cars in for wet tyres but Audi gambled and kept their R 18 e-tron quattros on the circuit with Lotterer ahead of Di Grassi.
That gamble proved the wrong one as Di Grassi slid off the track at Woodcote and crashed heavily into the barriers. The Audi driver looked disconsolate as he opened the door but miraculously he was able to get the car back to the pits – minus most of its front bodywork – where the mechanics worked to get it back in the race albeit to no avail with the team retiring the car because of a damaged monocoque.
At the same time as Di Grassi’s accident, the #14 Porsche of Neel Jani lost its front left wheel. The Swiss driver looked to have suffered tyre failure and like Di Grassi, he was forced to pit, returning to the track after a quarter of an hour.
The wet conditions cost Audi even more as just before the hour mark, Sebastien Buemi took 25 seconds off leader Lotterer in one lap to take the lead. The German team refused to change tyres though and not long after Lotterer slid off at Stowe. The German had to wait to be pulled out of the gravel and after a stint in the pits, he was sent back out but now back in sixth overall.
The Toyota of Alexander Wurz leading the pack at the start of the 6 Hours of Silverstone
Timo Bernhard then gave Porsche a boost when he took second place, splitting the Toyotas soon after the hour mark. However, the sister car was was soon back in the pits to be retired by the team.
New Zealander Brendon Hartley took over from Bernhard after the German pitted on lap 52, rejoining in third behind both Toyotas while Lotterer had managed to haul the remaining Audi back into fourth although two laps behind and three behind the leader, Nicolas Lapierre, who had taken over the #8 Toyota from Buemi.
The race settled into more of a traditional endurance race amongst the leaders with Lapierre and Kazuki Nakajima holding a Toyota 1-2 at the front of the field with Hartley and Benoit Treluyer the remaining Porsche and Audi entries respectively. However, Nakajima was eating into the sister car's lead lap by lap and as the race approached half-distance, the Japanese driver had reduced the gap by an average of a second per lap over 30 laps to 44 seconds. With three hours still to go, it was still anyone's race.
Except for Audi whose interest disintegrated when Treluyer crashed at Copse on the #2 Audi's 94th lap. Hitting the barriers on both sides of the track, the front wheels were both bent. He was ordered out of the car by the marshals but then tried to get the car moving again. However, the damage to the R18 was too severe and retirement beckoned.
That meant no Audis would finish a race for the first time since 2011 with the team admitting they faced a race against time to get the R18s fixed for Spa in two weeks.
Mark Webber returned to sportscar racing for the first time in 15 years
The safety car came out for 21 minutes while the Audi was removed from the track which allowed Hartley to close up on the leaders before pitting to hand over to Mark Webber, giving the ex-Formula 1 driver his first taste of sportscar racing for 15 years.
As the race moved into the final two hours, the order stayed the same with the #8 Toyota driven by Anthony Davidson ahead of the #7 of Sarrazin and Webber third in the remaining Porsche. Fourth was the non-hybrid Rebellion Racing Lola driven by Nicola Prost, four laps off Webber but hoping for more mishaps amongst the manufacturer team cars.
Webber closed to within a second of Sarrazin and began to harry the Frenchman before going past him into second for the briefest of moments before diving into the pits for the Porsche's fifth stop. He rejoined one minute behind and then began to take time out of Sarrazin's lead again as light rain began to fall. The Frenchman was scheduled to make two more stops whilst Webber (and Davidson) only needed one which meant the Australian had a slim chance of capturing second.
All three pitted for wet tyres as the rain intensified with Nakajima and Buemi replacing Sarrazin and Davidson respectively while Webber stayed put. As the race moved into the final hour Nakajima extended his lead over Webber to more than 1m15s but conditions rapidly deteriorated and visibility worsened with drivers tip-toeing around the circuit before the safety car came out with 40 minutes remaining. Within 15 minutes the red flags were out and the race stopped.