Monday 26 September 2016

European Le Mans Series - 4 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps: Dragonspeed wins overall, United Autosports take LMP2 title

The first race of the European Le Mans Series at Spa-Francorchamps turned out to be a cracker on the famous Belgian track.  35.000 spectators saw a 4 hour battle in all classes spiced with 2 safety car periods, a few full course yellows and an impressive debut race for home team WRT in the LMP2 class. 

Nicolas Lapierre kept first place at the start of the race and the Dragonspeed Oreca lead the field through Eau Rouge in the first lap of the race. Pierre Thiriet lost two places, dropping down to fourth in his #48 Oreca, behind the #38 G-Drive Gibson and #33 Eurasia Oreca. When Tristan Gommendy had a spin and lost a wheel, forcing the #33 to retire, the safety car was brought out for the first time. Behind the leaders in LMP2, Alex Brundle went from fifth to second in the LMP3 class and Rory Butcher drove an impressive opening lap, moving up from fifth to first in the GTE class and closing into Enzo Guibbert in the leading Graff Ligier.

When the safety car came back in, Lapierre held off Giedo Van Der Garde in the #38 G-Drive and Nathanaël Berthon in the #41 Greaves Ligier, who went up from sixth to third. Duncan Cameron had a terrible restart in his #55 Ferrari and dropped back down the GTE order. Butcher had another blistering start, realing away from the #51 and #56 Ferrar's.

Two collisions in lap 10 caused a 10 minute full course yellow period when Eric Maris in the #4 Ligier and Michael Hedlund made a spin at the busstop and got hit by Michael Hedlund in the #77 Proton Porsche. About the same time, Johnny Laursen in the #60 Formula Racing Ferrari and Tracy Krohn in the #40 Ligier touched and ended up in the gravel trap at the entry of Fagnes. Laursen would get a stop & go penalty afterwards for causing a collision. 

After the green flag, Lapierre had the best restart now building up a gap from the #46 TDS Oreca in second and #32 SMP who got up into third position. A different pitstop strategy put the #46 Oreca in front after the first round of stops, building up a 30 second gap to the #38 G-Drive and #32 SMP Racing BR01. Tracy Krohn meanwhile got stuck in a collision with the #88 Proton Porsche, leaving him stranded in the run off area at Combes. ...

JMW held on strong onto their GTE lead after the first round of pitstops, now being chased by the #51 AF Corse Ferrari and the #88 Proton Porsche. The #56 AT Racing Ferrari spun off at La Source and hit the barriers, causing Talkanitsa to retire. Piergiuseppe Perazzini eventually lost second place after contact with an LMP2 got him into the wall at the entry of Blanchimont.

With 2h30 minutes to go Gary Findlay lost traction out coming out of Bruxelles, going hard into the barriers. Worn tyres at the end of his sting caused him to lose control of his #48 Murphy Oreca03. This brought out the safety car for the second time to recover the car and repairs to the armco barriers. 

Some of the top runners in LMP2 decided to use this safety car to make their second pitstop. First in the pitlane was the #32 SMP BR01, soon followed by Pierre Thiriet who gave over the wheel to Ryo Hirakawa in the #46. Simon Dolan now got into the lead with the #38 Gibson, the #47 WRT Ligier went up to second again and the #41 Greaves Ligier into third position. 

A few laps later the safety car was called out again when Remy Striebig in the #29 Pegasus Racing Morgan went off at about the same spot as Findlay. Striebig lost the nose of his Morgan, but maganed to make it back to the pit. More damage to the armco lead to a safety car period which lasted about half an hour. The only car of the top runners using this to make another pitstop was the WRT Ligier, a smart move as the final race result would show later on. 

When the safety car came in, all the other frontrunners immediately came into the pitlane. WRT moved up to first place in the #47 Ligier, now ahead of the #21 Dragonspeed and the #28 IDEC Sport Ligier that quietly got up the order in third place. IDEC Sport couldn't keep on to its podium place though and dropped down to eight by the end of the race.  

Graff Racing continued to dominate in the LMP3 class, the #9 still at the lead ahead of the #17 Ultimate and #2 United Autosports with an hour to go. Meanwhile in GTE Andrea Bertolini was up to 14th (!!!) place overall in the JMW Motorsport #66 Ferrari. The Italian lapped every other GTE car and was competing with the top of the LMP3 class thanks a very keen team strategy. 

During the last round of pitstops, Laurens Vanthoor took over the #47 from his brother Dries and held on to first place. The #21 Dragonspeed received at the same time a 5 seconds pitstop time penalty, helping the Belgian to stay ahead of Lapierre who took over the weel again in the American Oreca. 

After the race Laurens declared he didn't have any radio communication with the pist and basically was driving “blind” around the track. Without any information about the competition or fuel reserve, he drove as conservately as possible. Lapierre was on a mission though, and with half an hour to go, he passed Vanthoor on his way to victory. Vanthoor still hade to make a splash & dash pitstop with 5 minutes to go, but got a big enough gap to the #48 Oreca to save his second place. 

Drama at the end of the race for Andrea Pizzitola in the #25 Algarve Pro Racing Ligier. The Italian was fighting for third place with Mathias Beche in the #58 Thiriet Oreca but ended up in the gravel trap at the entry of Stavelot after contact between both cars. This caused the third full course yellow, and with about 3 minutes to go, the race came to end under FCY. 

Dragonspeed took their first – and well deserved – win in the European Le Mans Series. Belgian team WRT, who ran their first race in the series impressed with their second place finish. Certainly after having to rebuild the car overnight when damage to the tub was discovered. Championship leaders Thiriet by TDS Racing brought their #46 Oreca home in third place. The Greaves Motorsport Ligier finished fourth, ahead of the #38 G-Drive despite Dolan having a spin with just over an hour to go. 

In LMP3, Graff took its second win in a row. Tockwith Motorsport seemed to secure a podium finish but fell down the order after a puncture with 30 minutes to go and several penalties by the race stewards.

Thanks to smart strategy both United Autosports Ligiers finished on the podium, the #2 in second place and the #3 in third place. Second place was enough for Alex Brundle, Mike Guash and Christian England to crown themselves 2016 LMP2 champions and get the invite for the 2017 24 Hours of Le Mans in the LMP2 class. This will be the first for the American team. 

Third class win in a row for JMW Motorsport, putting in an impressive performance in GTE and demoting the opposition. With this win the British team is already certain of an invite for the 2017 Le Mans 24 hours, as they will certainly finish first or second in the championship. Well deserved  for the team that has dominated the class in 2016. The #88 Proton Competition finished second, ahead of the #55 AF Corse Ferrari who took third place after an intense battle with the #77 Proton Porsche in the dying moments of the race. 

The final round of the 2016 ELMS championship will take place in Estoril, Portugal from 21 to 23 October. All is still to play for in LMP2 and GTE so we'll be in for another exciting raceweekend. 

Kristof Vermeulen.