Friday 20 October 2017

ELMS 2017 - 3 titles up for grabs in Portimao this weekend

The European Le Mans Series set up camp in the Algarve region in Portugal this weekend, for the final and title deciding race of 2017.  Two teams are still in the running for the title in LMP2 and LMP3, where as in LMGTE 3 to 4 cars still have a shot on the 2017 title and the auto entry for the 24 Hours of Le Mans next year.  

After finishing the past 4 seasons in Estoril, the ELMS now returns to Portimao for the first time since 2010 when the Algarve 1000 kms was organised in the Le Mans Series. The Autodromo Internacional do Algarve opened its doors in November 2008 after just seven months of construction. The circuit is 4.648 km long and features 16 corners.  With a lot of elevation changes, a long start/finish straight and some challenging corners, this track always delivers some exciting races. Although being designed as a grade 1 Formula 1 circuit, there's never been an F1 race here in Portimao. Thanks to the climate in the south of Portugal and the warm winters, it's a track well used by many teams in winter testing. 

The title fight in LMP2 is down to two cars: the #22 G-Drive Racing  and the #32 United Autosports Ligier.  The G-Drive Oreca of Memo Rojas, Léo Roussel and Ryo Hirakawa leads the championship with a total of 98 points, including 1 win in Monza.  The United Autosports crew with local driver Filipe Albuquerque, Hugo de Saedeleer and Will Owen has scored 80 points so far but have wone two races: Silverstone and the Reb Bull Ring. The pressure will be on for the crew of the #32 as they have to win on Sunday to have a shot for the title. 

In third position is the #40 Graff Oreca of James Allen, Ricard Bradley and Gustavo Yacaman who won the last race in Spa-Francorchamps but with a total of 61 points they are too far away to take on the challenge for the championship.  With 26 points to score in Portugal this weekend, mathematically Graff could still finish second in the championship. The fight for third will alse be one to watch this weekend: the second Graff Oreca (#39) follows within four points (57), trailed by the #27 SMP Racing Dallara who won in its second race of the season at Paul Ricard. 

Memo Rojas and Léo Roussel are leading the drivers championship with 98 points, 18 points ahead of Filipe Albuquerque, Hugo de Saedeleer and Will Owen with 80 points. Ryo Hirakawa is in third position with 61 points so far after missing the 4 hours of the Red Bull Ring and Le Castellet due to his commitments in the Japanese Super GT championship. He is joined by James Allen and Richard Bradley who also have scored 61 points so far.
Not much driver changes in the class for the final race of 2017.  Paul Loup Chatin returns to the #28 IDEC Sport Racing Ligier for the second race in a row, joining Paul and Patrice Lafargue again. In the #39 Graff Oreca, Mexican driver Ricardo Sanchez replaces Eric Trouillet and will race together with Paul Petit and Enzo Guibbert. 

Next to their title challenge in LMP2, United leads the LMP3 class with the #2 Ligier of American drivers John Falb and Sean Rayhall. Having scored 85 points so far with wins at Silverstone and Spa-Francorchamps they are leading the #18 M.Racing-YMR Ligier with 19 points. Alexandre Cougnaud, Antoine Jung & Romano Ricci haven't won a race this season but consistently scored podium or top 5 finishes in all races so far. 

French team Ultimate is third so far after a strong start of the season, but faded away a bit with 2 less good results in the past 2 races, now with a total of 57 points.  They are being chased by Inter Europol Competition (56 points) in their #13 green & yellow Ligier which are just one point behind. The Polish team scored their first podium finish after a strong comeback race at Paul Ricard and will be eager to repeate that in Portimao this weekend. Fifth place so far is for the #11 Eurointernational (47 points) who won at the Red Bull Ring.

5 different teams have been on pole position so far with 4 different teams on the top spot of the podium after 4 hours of intense racing. This shows how close the LMP3 class has been this year. Basically the race at Portimao could be anyone's race again.  Both title contenders will be the teams to watch, but the likes of Ultimate, Inter Europol, AT Racing and Eurointernational will also be fighting for a good result on Sunday afternoon and might have their say in the fight for this years title.  The drivers championship reflects the teams' standings perfectly. John Falb & Sean Rayhall are leading with 85 points, followed by Alexandre Cougnaud, Antoine Jung and Romani Ricci with 66 points. Francois Heriau, Jean-Baptiste Lahaye and Matthieu Lahaye are third with 57 points. 

Although there's only 6 cars on the grid of this years LMGTE class, the title fight couldn't be more exciting than here with mathematically 5 out 6 teams still in the race for the championship.  Newcomers TF Sport who were crownded champions on the Michelin Le Mans Cup last season are on top of the leaderboad, winning the first race in Silverstone and scoring some hard fought podium finishes in three other races. Salih Yoluc, Euan Hankey and Nicky Thiim arrived in Portugal with 87 points and just one goal: winning another championship before likely stepping up to the FIA WEC next season.

Their main rival, just one point behind, is the #66 JMW Motorsport Ferrari F488 GTE. The team started the season with their “old” F458 Italia before switching to the 488 at Le Mans, scoring am impressive win in the 24 hour race.  In the ELMS they won the race in Monza and were on the podium of every other race except for Silverstone. JMW lost the championship last season after a dramatic race in Estoril where technical gremlins smashed their title hopes. Robert Smith, Jody Fannin and Will Stevens – who races for the third time with JMW after Le Mans and Spa – this season will put up a hard fight for that 2017 title.

The Spirit of Race Ferrari's  occupy third and fourth place so far. The #55 of Duncan Cameron, Matt Griffin and Aaron Scott in third with 76 points, 6 points more than the #51 of Gianluca Roda, Giorgio Roda and Andrea Bertolini.  Both cars were very strong in the past 3 races, winning them all; the #55 in Austria and France, the #51 in Belgium last month. Cameron & co have closed the gap to the leading Aston Martin down to 11 points. Reminding what happened last season in the final race, they might still have a chance for the title if they win again on Sunday.

Last years champions Beechdean AMR season was less successful, with a provisional fifth place scoring 63 points so far in the #99 Aston Martin Vantage V8.  Andrew Howard & co will be out to end their season with a top result, on a track that might suit the Aston well over the weekend. Ross Gunn won't be racing with Beechdean this weekend, he will be replaced by Emmanuel Vinke who's in contention for a full season drive with the team next season. Closing the standings in GTE Am is the #77 Proton Competition Porsche 911 RSR of Christian Ried ,  Joël Camathias and Matteo Cairoli (ITA) with 55 points. 

On track action starts this afternoon at 14.15h with the Bronze driver test. The first 90 minute practice session is scheduled for 17.00h.  A second practice session and qualifying will be run on Saturday, the race will get underway on Sunday at 13.00h.

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Kristof Vermeulen.