Friday 21 October 2016

European Le Mans Series - 4 Hours of Estoril: packed grid for the season finale

The 2016 European Le Mans Series comes to a close this weekend, with the 4 hours of Estoril in Portugal. 37 cars will be on the grid for the final race of the season in which 2 titles in LMP2 and GTE are to be decided. 

10 cars will feature on the LMP2 grid. With three teams still able to clinch the 2016 title, Estoril will once again be a cracking race. Thiriet by TDS Racing leads the championship after 5 rounds with 92 points. They have a 14 point lead over the #38 G-Drive Racing with the #32 SMP Racing BR01 in third place, 24 points behind the leaders (with 26 to win). Mathias Beche & Pierre Thiriet lead the drivers championship also 14 points in front of Harry Tincknell, Giedo van der Garde and Simon Dolan. 

Dragonspeed Racing arrives in Estoril on a high after winning the race in Spa-Francorchamps last month. Nicolas Lapierre, Ben Hanley & Eric Hedman will do everything possible to get the same result here in Estoril. They have been pretty quick all season, so their win in Spa didn't come as a surprise. If they can split up both championship contenders, the result of Dragonspeed might as well have some influence on the championship outcome.

A different driver line-up at Eurasia this weekend. Tristan Gommendy remains behind the wheel of the #33 Oreca05 and will be joined by Belgian racer Frederic Vervisch and Michael Lyons. They will replace Pu Jun Jin and Nick De Bruijn. Vervisch is no stranger to the team as he won the 2008 Asian Formula 3 title with Eurasia, but this will be his first experience in LMP2 machinery. Michael Lyons is no stranger in the ELMS paddock as he raced with Murphy Prototypes earlier in the season.  One more driver change to note in the class at Pegasus Racing where Julien Schell replaces Remi Striebig.

Another team to watch on Sunday will be Greaves Motorsport. They always have been strong in the Portuguese track and will want to end the season with a good result after struggling a bit over the past year.  3 of the regular LMP2 teams are not in Estoril.  Race Performance and Algarve Pro Racing are already in full preparation for the first race of the Asian Le Mans Series next week. Also absent is the Murphy Prototypes team. After their crash at Spa last month, they didn't have time enough to fully repair the car and get it ready for this weekends race.

18 cars in the LMP3 class this weekend, again all Nissan powered Ligier JSP3's. Although French constructor Norma had planned to race their new prototype at Estoril for the first time, there's no sign of the car here in Portugal. Missing also on the grid is British team Tockwith Motorsport, which made an impressive debut in the past two races at Le Castellet & Spa. They are racing in the Asian Le Mans Series next week, and should return to the ELMS next season in a brand new Ligier/Gibson LMP2.

United Autosports clinched the title last month in Belgium after an impressive season so far. The Anglo-American team wants to finish off the season like it began back in April with a dominating one-two result. Alex Brundle, Christian England and Mike Guash won the title with 5 podium finishes on a row, including three wins. 

Back on the grid is Italian team Eurointernational with 2 cars. One of their drivers is Portuguese driver Miguel Faísca, the 2013 European Nissan GT Academy champion. It will be Faisca's second appearance in the ELMS, after racing on Estoril in 2014 in the Greaves Motorsport Zytek. This will be his first race in an LMP3 car. 

A few more driver changes to be noted for the weekend. The most important ones are the return of Jean Marc Merlin to the #4 OAK Racing Ligier and Nicolas Leutwiler replacing Marcello Marateotto in the #8 Race Performance Ligier. Spanish team BySpeed Factory announced a new driver line-up for their car, but ultimately withdrew from the race.

The 8 usual suspects will race in GTE, with just one driver change. Ben Barker replaces Matteo Cairoli in the #88 Proton Competition Porsche 911 GTE. A return to the ELMS for the British driver who stepped up the FIA WEC this season with Gulf Motorsport.

JMW Motorsports leads the championship in their Ferrari F458 Italia. Andrea Bertolini, Rob Smith and Rory Butcher scored three wins in a row and lead the championship with an advantage of 20 points over the #99 Aston Martin. 

JMW is already assured of their entry for Le Mans next year as they can't finish lower than second in the championship. The battle for the second entry is still open between the #99 Beachdean Aston Martin with 73 points, the #56 AT Racing Ferrari with 51 points and the #77 Proton Competition Porsche which has 58 points so far. 

The GTE class has given some top notch racing all season long, the 4 hours of Estoril won't be different with the title and the second entry for the big one at Le Mans at stake. 

Track action for the final round of the European Le Mans Series is scheduled to start this morning at 9.30h (if the fog disappears).  The first 90 minute free practice session will be run this afternoon at 14.50h local time.

Kristof Vermeulen.