A dream come true: Team WRT’s craziest aspirations were fulfilled in its first Le Mans 24 Hours participation, as the Belgian squad dominated the LMP2 class for three-quarters of the race and took a stunning success with Robin Frijns, Ferdinand Habsburg and Charles Milesi.

It was a Sunday of strong emotions, in all senses, as Team WRT was heading to an incredible 1-2 with its two Oreca 07 Gibson, but the screenplay had kept a final ‘coup de théâtre’ perfectly in the style of the race where anything can happen. In the very last lap, car #41, driven by Yifei Ye, who was in the LMP2 lead ahead of car #31, suddenly came to a halt, depriving the Chinese, Louis Delétraz and Robert Kubica of what seemed a certain win. Luckily, car #31 could take the baton, with Robin Frijns crossing the line a mere 0.7 second ahead the closest rival!

The achievement was rounded by P6 overall and a great harvest of FIA WEC points: car #31 now lies second in the LMP2 standings, only one point away from the leader. Adrenalin was still running high after the rain finished, with tears of joy and sadness running down the cheeks of all team members. Team Principal Vincent Vosse was the first to reckon that he was fighting with mixed feelings: “It’s a fantastic day, to come to Le Mans for the first time and win is incredible, the entire team has done an outstanding work. Of course, there is joy and sadness, as it was a big disappointment to see car #41, which had the victory in its pocket, stop with one lap to go. It is simply cruel, and luckily, our other car was second, but it is difficult to fully enjoy such a success when you have a situation like that. Still, it is an amazing day for the team, which has done a tremendous job, since the preparation of this race and the throughout the entire week. If I have to judge from the number of messages we are receiving, we have really achieved something.”

The week started smoothly for the Belgian squad, with excellent feedback as from the test day and both cars among the LMP2 front-runners throughout the various sessions. Car #41 made it to the Hyperpole, taking P2 in the class, with car #31 qualified in 11th.

Heavy rain was the protagonist before the start, given behind the safety-car. Several incidents occurred on the slippery track in the first couple of hours, but both Team WRT cars, with Robert Kubica (#41) and Robin Frijns (#31) at the wheel avoided trouble, thanks to a very cautious approach, keeping the right pace and not leaving the top-6 of the class.

The turning point occurred in the seventh hour, when three of the main opponents were involved in incidents and Team WRT, for once, benefitted from one of the safety-car period, gaining around one minute. This put car #31 in the lead, followed by car #41. The night went through without anything major to report and the situation continued during the morning.

The only change happened less than three hours from the end, when positions between the two cars were swapped, due to a longer pit stop for car #31 caused by the air jacks being blocked. Since there up to the chequered flag at 4 pm, it was a matter of keeping things under control, including the ... stress but Le Mans reminded everybody that it is a unique race and nothing is done until it is actually done. In the last lap, the leading car, with Yifei Ye, at the wheel stopped on the track, with a broken throttle sensor. Robin Frijns in car #31 had to react immediately in the middle of traffic to secure the team’s victory, as his most direct rival was literally under his rear wing. The final gap was 0s727.

Further investigations after Le Mans last lap:

The #41 Oreca-Gibson seemed to have secured LMP2 victory for Team WRT’s first participation in the 24 Hours of Le Mans when its engine suddenly went silent at the beginning of what should have been its last race lap. 

The next shocking surprise for Team WRT came on Monday morning when the mechanics recovered the car from parc fermé, only to find out that the engine fired up immediately at the first push of the switch, sounding crisp and healthy.  Further investigations revealed that an electrical shortcut caused a temporary ECU’s malfunction. The engine and all its ancillaries were found to be in perfect condition, as well as the complete fuel system with over 20 litres left in the tank.

Robin Frijns: “It was our race to lose but at the end, it was our race to win... incredible! It started quite bad for us, I lost time and places in the first two laps in the heavy rain, I was struggling with the car, then things went in our direction and everything was fine during the night and out of the night, until this issue with the car jacks. As we couldn’t change all tyres, the balance of the car was awful, then we got hit by a Porsche and it was even worse. In the meantime, our sister car was flying and the last lap drama, which got us back in the lead. There are mixed feelings in the team, but that’s racing. At the moment, I am just exhausted...”

Ferdinand Habsburg: “Le Mans winner, that doesn’t sound as bad line in my resume... I think it earns some beers, a good schnitzel and a big hug with my family... It has been a great week, a 24 Hours is a very long race, as we found out, and we gave our absolute everything in every moment. When you see the final gap was 7 tenths of a second, you realize every heart beat counted. It’s just awesome and I am so happy to be part of Team WRT and looking forward to many more great moments such as this.”

Charles Milesi: “It’s been an amazing race, it’s hard to describe what I feel at this moment, everything went well throughout the week, the team did a great job and we managed to win, despite the trouble hitting the two cars. Now, it is time to enjoy the moment and then to think about the last two races of the season.”

Yifei Ye: “It was an eventful race, I was leading the dream until the dream broke apart… It was a long race, with Louis and Robert, we took good care of the car, and made it to the top a couple of hours from the end, when I was at the wheel. I was as nice to the car as you can be, avoiding the kerbs, just focusing on bringing it home, but sometimes it is not meant to be… I don’t know what happened, everything stopped… I feel sorry for everybody in the team, everyone has done a wonderful job. Congratulations to our team mates and now let’s look ahead, we still have an ELMS campaign to focus on…”

Robert Kubica: “Losing it like we lost it is not nice, but that’s what it is… Congratulations to our sister car and to the team. Our race was uphill, we had a few issues, but could take the lead, and then this final blow… I think we have lived almost everything Le Mans can give…”

Louis Delétraz: “I am devastated by the outcome, but first of all, I want to give a massive thank you to our crew, to Robert and Yifei, for the fantastic job, and to congratulate our sister car and the team. We missed the 1-2, but it is a fantastic debut at Le Mans for Team WRT.

On our side, we did everything right, were able to cut back, we were leading with a big gap
and despite what happened at the end, everybody saw that. There are no regrets and we’ll certainly remember this one. We will come back stronger and now let’s focus on winning the ELMS.”

FIA World Endurance Championship – Round 4
Le Mans 24 Hours, France, 18-22 August 2021

Race Result
1. Conway-Kobayashi-López (Toyota GR010 Hybrid) 371 laps
2. Nakajima-Buemi-Hartley (Toyota GR010 Hybrid) + 2 laps
3. Negrão-Lapierre-Vaxivière (Alpine A480G) + 4 laps
4. Derani-Pla-Mailleux (Glickenhaus 007 LMH) + 4 laps
5. Briscoe-Westbrook-Dumas (Glickenhaus 007 LMH) + 7 lpas
6. Frijns-Habsburg-Milesi (Oreca 07 Gibson) + 8 laps (1st LMP2)
DNF Delétraz-Kubica-Ye (Oreca 07 Gibson) 362 laps (mechanical)

Road to Le Mans

Team WRT was also involved in the Road to Le Mans races, which serve as curtain-raiser to the 24 Hours and see in action LMP3 and GT3 cars shod with Michelin tyres, as the event is part of the Michelin Le Mans Cup series.

The Audi R8 LMS GT3 of the Belgian squad performed well in the two races. The Goethe family, Benjamin and his father Roald, had two consistent performances taking P8 in both races, held on Friday and the Saturday.

In the other car, Charles Weerts and Le Mans expert Jean-Denis Delétraz, the dad of Louis, saw a potential very good result in Race 1 ruined by a safety-car (during the first stint, when Weerts was leading), eventually taking P7. In Race 2, after a great qualifying by JDD (4th), and a solid charge by Weerts in the second stint, the duo finished on the podium as 3rd.

Charles Weerts: “It was an amazing weekend, less stressful than usual. It was nice discovering the track and living the atmosphere, now I understand why Le Mans is Le Mans. The car was quick, we had a good potential. In Race 1, I took the lead in the second corner, but unfortunately, the safety-car ruined our efforts, we still could take P7. In Race 2, after a great qualifying from Jean-Denis, we kept with the front-runners and in my stint I could recover up to 3rd, very close to the second. Now, I can enjoy the 24 Hours as a spectator and cheer for Team WRT, which is doing a fantastic job.”

Benjamin Goethe: “It was a good experience, I really enjoyed it a lot. The track and everything here is great. The results were maybe not the ones we would have liked, but we had a good pace and we had reasonable good races”.

PHOTO: Brecht Decancq