Fourth position at the season opener at Sebring felt good but securing the first podium position in the World Endurance Championship today (29 April 2023) at Spa-Francorchamps felt very special indeed for everyone involved at the Inter Europol Competition team.
The result had been coming for a while, with Kuba Śmiechowski, Fabio Scherer and Albert Costa all very happy with the continued progress the technical team have made with the #34 Oreca 07 Gibson. The result went away at Portimao but was very much on the cards here in Belgium from the very start of the race weekend.
Thursday’s practice saw an exceptionally strong long-run pace on used tyres and it was clear that hard work to hone the setup to the characteristics of the undulating Spa circuit would be of benefit in the six-hour endurance race.
In front of packed grandstands and an audience of over 70,000 race fans, Kuba lined up for the start of the race with a semblance of a dry line forming, but it was a close call between slick Goodyear tyres or the wets.
It was a marginal call, but Kuba rolled into the race with the slick tyre and it was crucial in those early laps to build tyre temperate and not to slither off the circuit. Some did that, but Kuba put in a great double stint to ensure that when Fabio took over, the car was very much in the race.
Strategy always has a role to play and today was no exception. The team opted to run a shorter second stint for Kuba, therefore going out of sequence with the remainder of the LMP2 field.
As was the case at Sebring, it means at a given moment, the #34 car would either be towards the front, or at the back, depending on the timing of the last stop. By lap 32, the pattern was becoming apparent with Fabio vaulting up to third position as others stopped and then ten laps later the position was tenth.
Throughout it all was an impressive race pace from both Fabio and Albert as they ran through their initial stints. Fabio enjoyed a 30-second lead over the LMP2 field at one point, while Albert was able to record a stunning 2:06.8 for the second-fastest lap of the day.
Albert ran fifth after the final stop of the day and with 30 minutes to go. The leading two cars were out of reach unfortunately courtesy of a slow puncture to the right rear whilst behind the Safety Car. However, the podium was a possibility with Albert catching and making perfectly executed passes on the leading Prema entry and the second United Autosport car.
With the first podium came the champagne and celebrations before thoughts shifted to the upcoming testing programme and then the trip to the Centenary edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Sascha Fassbender, Team Manager
“It’s the first podium for Inter Europol Competition in the World Endurance Championship and I am very proud of the whole team, and it is what we have been aiming for. We pushed very hard, there were ups and down as we raced out of sequence pitstop-wise compared to our rivals, and at certain points, we didn’t know where we truly were in the race!
“Unfortunately, the slow puncture behind the Safety Car cost us a possible race win, but congratulations to the winner, and now we are better prepared for Le Mans to at least repeat the result.”
“It’s an incredible result and I could not be happier, and all of the hard work has paid off. It’s amazing, everyone did a great job, including both Fabio and Albert and it’s really rewarding to secure this podium. It gives us all extra motivation now heading to Le Mans. We’ll keep pushing.”
“I can’t believe this result, it’s really a dream come true! I always take the view that I need to do my very best, and in the race, it was hard to know our real position, is it last and then okay, fine I will do my best. I am really happy and proud of the team.
“The car was super quick and really enjoyable to drive, and we recovered some time and then in the last stint, I initially had to save fuel but then I could go for it. It was certainly a full push! I started to pass cars and then I was told we were P4 and needed to close down the margin to Andrea Caldarelli. It was a challenge and I caught and passed him. It’s great, we have all worked so hard to get where we are, and it’s my first WEC podium – and as a Rookie – but the car was perfect, as were the stops, and I couldn’t ask for more.”
“It was a great effort today from everyone at Inter Europol Competition to secure their first WEC podium. There are things we need to analyse, we have some questions about some of the pitstops under safety cars from our rivals, but pace-wise, we should have won today, so that’s mega and big thanks to the team for the fast car and a great podium. Le Mans should be good too and I am really looking forward to it!”