Tuesday 17 January 2017

European Le Mans Series 2017: LMP2 news roundup

Less than three weeks of the presentation of the 2017 entry lists in FIA WEC, ELMS and the 24 Hours of Le Mans, let's take a look at what we know so far.

First up is the LMP2 class in the European Le Mans Series. With the entry of the all new 2017 regulations and Gibson powered cars, the era of open top prototype racing now has come to an end. No more Gibson, Morgan or Oreca03 on the starting grids, but all closed cockpit coupes. Initially a sub class for older LMP2 proto's has been announced in which they would be "grandfathered" (but remain uncompetitive for an overall victory) in the championship, but all teams are switching for new LMP2 prototypes immediately.

Looking at the confirmed/expected entries, this will be a very varied field with a healthy mix of Ligier, Oreca and Dallara prototypes. The only manufacturer not on the list today is Riley-Ave, although there still might be a chance we'll see all four new LMP2 cars on the ELMS grid. At this moment there's a possible entry list of a very healthy 12 to 16 cars.

Jota Sport should be set to defend its 2016 ELMS title with an Oreca 07 (the Oreca05 which will be upgraded to the new 2017 specs). Whether this will be under the flag of G-Drive Racing remains unclear. Following the release of the new driver ratings in which Roman Rusinov was upgraded to Gold rating, the Russian driver threatened to leave the WEC and ELMS championships with his G-Drive sponsorship. Given recent reports, it seems very likely though that Rusinov will stay in endurance racing. Simon Dolan & co will be back for sure, with or without Rusinov's support.

© Dragonspeed

After an impressive first season in the European Le Mans Series this year (4 podium finishes, 1 win, 3 pole positions), Dragonspeed announced the acquisition of 2 Oreca07's in June last year. Both cars have recently been delivered; one brand new Oreca07, the second is the upgraded Oreca05 in which they raced last year. Nicolas Lapierre, Ben Hanley and Hendrik Hedman are already confirmed for the first car in this seasons ELMS. The team is now working on a driver line-up to field a second car in the European Le Mans Series. They will start their season in the Daytona Rolex24 at the end of January. Lapierre has also been confirmed at Alpine in the FIA WEC, so if Dragonspeed gets an invite for Le Mans, they'll have to find a replacement driver for Lapierre.

© United Autosports

Winning the 2016 LMP3 championship granted United Autosports an invite for the 2017 24 Hours of Le Mans. The team took it up and purchased a Ligier JSP217 to race in the LMP2 class. The car will also be fielded in the European Le Mans Series, in addition to both LMP3 cars in the championship.  The first 2 drivers have been confirmed at the Autosport show last week: American Will Owen and Swiss-born Hugo de Sadeleer.

© Villorba Corse

Italian team Villorba Corse continues to work on its "Road to Le Mans" next season and steps up to the LMP2 class. They will race a brand new Dallara LMP2 in the ELMS, driven by Andrea Belicchi, Roberto Lacorte and Giorgio Sernagiotto. The team will also apply for an entry in the 2017 24 Hours of Le Mans.

© Graff Racing

LMP3 vice champions Graff Racing are moving up to the LMP2 class next season with 2 Oreca 07's. Initially a one car effort was announced last september, but recently the addition of a second car has been confirmed (depending on budget and drivers). An application to enter the 24 Hours of Le Mans will also be filed. The team has already participated 11 times in the 24 Hours between 1980 and 1993 and aims to return with 1 car. Graff Racing has also the intention to race one Ligier JSP3 in the ELMS this season.

Olivier Pla will race with IDEC Sport in the LMP2 class next season. He will be the leading driver in the Ligier JSP217/Gibson, alongside Paul and Patrice Lafargue. Pla will combine the ELMS championship with his factory drive for Ford in the WEC. If IDEC gets an invite for Le Mans, Pla won't be able to race with the French team, as in the first race of the season in Silverstone. The team is also looking into the LMP3 class, with a possible entry of one car.

Greaves Motorsport is expected to be back in the championship this season, either with a car of their own or running customer team(s). The future of Krohn Racing which was run by Greaves last year remains unclear up untill now. We expected Krohn to acquire a new Ligier JSP217, but he's also been linked to Dallara recently. With Olivier Pla leaving for IDEC, Krohn now lost his lead driver from the last ELMS campaign. The team has confirmed working on their plans for 2017, so expect an announcement by the end of the month.

No news about the future of Murphy Prototypes so far. Murphy's men gave young talent a chance in LMP2 throughout last season and teamed up with Ben Keating & Bill Riley for the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Running an Ave-Riley LMP3 was planned for last season but the debut of the car being delayed several times postponed those plans. Will Murphy return in LMP2 or will they eventually enter the Riley LMP3 (for which they already had been assigned as agents for the European market) ? Rumours were spreading about Ben Keating showing interest in LMP2 to return to Le Mans also, with a possible full season entry in ELMS. 

© Racing Team Nederland

A new team in the top class of the European Le Mans Series next season will be Racing Team Nederland. An ambitious Dutch team running a Dallara/Gibson, supported by Davytech. This is a very ambitious project, funded by Jumbo boss Frits Van Eerd who will be sharing the car with former Le Mans winner Jan Lammers and Rubens Barichello joining in for Le Mans (if they get an invite). An intense testing program has been completed up until now, including the Dunlop tire tests at Sebring last December.

Panis Barthez Competition has bought a new Ligier JSP217 for their second season in the ELMS. No news on drivers yet, but Fabien Barthez will surely be back at the wheel. The French team will also continue to race in the LMP3 class.

Eurasia will apply for a Le Mans entry again, but their future in the European Le Mans Series is unclear. Losing Jo Pin Tung and his sponsoring funds last season forces them to work with a tighter budget and it's not certain a full ELMS campaign will fit for 2017. The team is now active in the Asian Le Mans Series, winning the last race at Buriram.

RLR M-Sport who have been active in LMP3 in the past 2 years also bought a Ligier JSP217 to run in LMP2 this season, and will apply for an invite at Le Mans. They are into the market for (paying) drivers at the moment. 

Tockwith Motorsports impressed in LMP3 last year when they stepped up from the Michelin GT3 Cup. Very strong performances in the 4 hours of Le Castellet and Spa-Francorchamps made the them quickly order a Ligier JSP217 and step up again to LMP2. Nigel Moore and Philip Hansen will be the drivers of red/white Gibson powered Ligier. 

A return of Thiriet by TDS Racing this season is unlikely, the team already confirming to step up to the FIA WEC in an Oreca07. LMGTE Am champions Emmanuel Collard and François Perrodo will drive the car together with Matthieu Vaxivière.  Pierre Thiriet also has been linked to a possible Alpine drive in the WEC this season. Last year, the team quite early employed plans to run a Norma LMP3 in the ELMS, whether that's still on the table is unclear.

The future of SMP Racing in LMP2 is still in doubt. Their BR01 now outdated with the arrival of the new generation LMP2's. Running the BR01 is still possible in the ELMS, but as a "grandfathered car" & way off the pace of the new prototypes. Ambitious plans were announced back in November with the development of a new LMP1-L for 2018 in a joint venture with Dallara. Recent rumours about hitting troubles early on might . There might be a chance SMP running a Dallara LMP2 this season, or will they solely focus on the GTE class ?

WRT made an impressive one-off appearance at the 4 hours of Spa-Francorchamps last September, finishing second in the debut race with an LMP2 prototype. Rumours of the team going into LMP2 have now been denied by team boss Vincent Vosse. They have been looking into a FIA WEC campaign next year but a possible LMP2 entry is on stand by at the moment. If WRT goes into LMP2 it has to be with a sufficient budget at the resources to compete for the win. The project isn't off the table completely, this might be one to watch for 2018.

2 teams who are also active in the Asian Le Mans Series haven't confirmed any plans for this year in the ELMS. Both Algarve Pro Racing and Race Performance race in Asia with their current LMP2 machinery. Algarve Pro Racing is looking into a full season entry in the FIA WEC in 2018, plans for 2017 haven't been announced yet. Race Performance have put their Ligier LMP3 for sale recently and is defending the Asian Le Mans Series title in LMP2. There has been no official announcement so far about the future of the team.  

Pegasus Racing definitely won't return to the LMP2 class as they will switch to LMP3 in 2017 with at least one Ligier JSP217. 

Kristof Vermeulen.