Thursday 22 September 2016

European Le Mans Series - 4 Hours of Spa-Franchorchamps: 41 cars on the grid

41 cars will be on the grid on Sunday for the first race of the renewed European Le Mans Series at Spa-Francorchamps. The Belgian track hosted the opening round of the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup back in 2011, since then the championship hasn't returned to the Ardennes.

With the addition of Spa-Francorchamps to the championship, the series return to a mythical and probably one of the most beautiful tracks in the world. The combination of long straights, fast and technical corners and natural altitude differences always guarantee an amazing background for an endurance race.

13 LMP2 cars will be racing at Spa-Francorchamps this weekend, one more than last month at Le Castellet with an new Belgian effort in the class.

Championship leaders Thiriet by TDS Racing arrive in Francorchamps after winning the last three rounds of the championship in Italy, Austria and France. Ryo Hirakawa takes up his driving duties again in the #46 Oreca05/Nissan. With 78 points, the team is just 8 points ahead of the Mighty 38 G-Drive Racing Gibson 015S. Simon Dolan, Giedo van der Garde and Harry Tincknell will be keen to reduce that gap and try to get on top of the championship table again.

Vitaly Petrov replaces Julian Leal in the #32 SMP Racing BR01/Nissan, sharing the car with Stefano Coletti and Andreas Wirth. SMP Racing is defending its third place in the championship, with the addition of Petrov to their line-up, they'll be focussed on getting another podium finish Sunday evening.

LeSports by Eurasia Motorsports shares fourth place in the championship after just missing out the podium at Paul Ricard last month. Pu Jun Jin who missed out the race in France after a hefty crash at Signes, will return to the wheel of the Oreca05 this weekend, joining Pieter De Bruijn and Tristan Gommendy again.

Sean Doyle is in the #38 Murphy Prototypes Oreca again, now joined by Gary Findlay and Brazilian Bruno Bonifacio. Findlay returns to the team after racing in Imola in May. 21 year old Bonifacio is making his debut in sportscar racing, but has lots of experience under his belt in Formula 3, Formula Renault 2.0 and 3.5.

A new addition to the grid is Belgian team WRT who will race the Judd powered Ligier JSP2 which was run by So24! earlier in the season. Ex Manor driver Will Stevens will share the car with Belgian brothers Laurens and Dries Vanthoor.  Laurens Vanthoor already knows the car well, having driven it twice at Le Mans, but with a Nissan engine.  For now this is a one time outing of the succesfull team in the ELMS championship. The team is exploring new horizons for the future, so who knows of they might return to sportscar racing in the future.

Swiss team Race Performance again won't race their #34 Oreca03 as in the past 2 races and are in Spa with the Ligier LMP3. They will race the car again in the Asian Le Mans Series, starting at the end of next month. 

In LMP3 we"ll have 19 cars competing this weekend. Tockwith Motorsports returns for their second race in the championship after a very competitive debut at last months race at Le Castellet.

The #2 United Autosports Ligier of Alex Brundle, Christian England and Mike Guash comes to Spa as leaders in the championship with 3 wins under their belt. With 90 points, the have a 30 point lead over the #19 Duqueine Engineering Ligier and the #9 Graff JSP3. If they can keep a lead of 26 point after Sundays race, they will be crowned champions on Sunday evening.

One noticeable driver change in the LMP3 field. In the #4 OAK Racing Ligier, Carlos Tavares will race instead of Jean-Marc Merlin. Tavares is the CEO of PSA Peugeot Citro├źn with already a lot of racing experience in the past.

© Erik Junius -

Although announced for this race earlier in the season, the Ave-Riley LMP3 which will be run by Murphy's men won't race at Spa or Estoril next month. The car was on display at the Lone Star Le Mans event at COTA last week, but they opted to further develop and test the car before putting it through the whole homologation process in december.  It certainly looks the part, and first reports from testing seem to confirm that it has already shown some good speed at the track.

The GTE grid is roughly the same as at Paul Ricard, with the same eight cars. Just two driver changes are to be noted: Christina Nielsen returns to the #60 Formula Racing Ferrari F458 Italia and Matteo Cairoli takes his seat back in the #88 Proton Porsche.

The championship battle in GTE is very close, with just 8 points separating the top 3 teams. The yellow #66 JMW Motorsport Ferrari leads the table with 68 point, only 5 points ahead of the #99 Beachdean Aston Martin. Third in the championship is the #56 AT Racing Ferrari, with the #77 Proton Porsche further down.

The race weekend at Spa will be action filled with the GT3 Michelin Le Mans Cup, Renault Sport Trophy, Eurocup Formula Renault 2.0 and a few Renault F1 demo's over the weekend. 

Track action for the ELMS resumes tomorrow morning with the Bronze driver collective test at 10h10. The first free practice session will be run at 15.20h in the afternoon. 

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Kristof Vermeulen