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ELMS: Red Bull Ring, Murphy Prototypes Race Report

The sense of frustration must be running pretty deep by now, yet Greg Murphy still manages to raise an effusive smile and a “Hey there, Buddy!” whenever we meet. There can be few other such competitive race teams where good humoured banter ranks as high on the checklist as diligent preparation and attention to detail, yet Murphy Prototypes is, without doubt, one of the most dedicated outfits in the ELMS paddock. They have the equipment, and they have the driver talent – in spades – all backed up by an experienced crew under the more-than-capable direction of Malcolm Swetnam, but what they clearly don’t have is that essential ingredient to any success in endurance racing – good luck.

Time and again fortune turns against them, but surely that run itself has to turn before much longer? Pace setters almost every time their distinctive green and white Oreca appears on track – and surely destined for a win last weekend in Austria – it’s those ten-a-penny little niggles that keep scuppering their chances. Minor electrical and starter motor problems keep recurring, typically sourced in components beyond their control, and in a class where even a moment’s hesitation can cost places, that means the frustration of missed opportunities just grows and grows.

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The team arrived in Austria after another of those disappointing runs, this time at Le Mans. High hopes of a good result in the 24 Hours evaporated after just a few minutes of the race, thanks to a technical glitch in a fuel sensor. Undaunted, and with speedy gentleman driver Jonathan Hirschi signed to partner Brendon Hartley in the cockpit, the Red Bull Ring offered a fresh start and good prospects.

Never a team to show their hand in practice, the Murphy Oreca was third or fourth quickest in the two Free Practice sessions, but never more than a few tenths from the sharp end. Then, in qualifying, the team’s adopted practice of giving Hartley just three timed laps saw the youngster on provisional pole for most of the session, before Oliver Turvey (Jota) and Nelson Panciatici (Signatech Alpine) clocked quicker in the dying moments. “The Zytec was quick, and the Alpine went quicker, but we were definitely the fastest of the lot. They had to do double the number of laps we’d done and put those extra laps on their tyres to beat our time,” shrugged Hartley, unconcerned to be third. “They’ll have to start the race on far worse tyres than ours, and that’s when it counts. Our car was just great. ” In the end it didn’t matter much, with the Alpine Nissan demoted from provisional pole after pushing too hard under yellows, and Murphy Prototypes was elevated to second.

“We’re very happy,” insisted Greg Murphy. “We had a good run, and held P1 for much of the session, but we were always mindful that we’ve got a race to do and we didn’t want to take the best out of the tyres. We came in early and then a couple of the other cars went quicker, but we’re not that worried by that. To be honest, we’re content with third [subsequently second] and I think we’ll be strong today.”

The Race

The decision to put “gentleman” driver Jonathan Hirschi into the car for the start of the race was the logical one. It would give Brendon Hartley the chance to demonstrate his considerable pace in the latter stages while ensuring that Jonathan got a fair crack of the whip early in the race. It also added considerably to the pressure resting on the young man’s shoulders; taking on the responsibility of a front row start and carrying the hopes of everyone at Murphy Prototypes, but he was unperturbed: “I’m very happy to start the race,” he said. “Of course it’s not going to be easy but I’ll try my best!”

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If there were any concerns, then the way Jonathan dealt with the first minute or so of racing showed unquestionably that the 27-year-old has both the maturity and the skill to cope. As Oliver Turvey powered the Jota Zytek across the line, Jonathan found himself under immediate threat on both sides. An opportunistic move towards the pitwall from Matthias Beche was deftly dispensed with as Hirschi shut the door, but in doing so, Frank Mailleux was offered an opening round the outside.

The three cars – TDS Oreca #1, Murphy Prototypes #18 and Morand Racing Morgan #43, were in tight chevron formation as they powered into the first right-hander, Hirschi squeezed tightly in the middle. He had just enough of a nose to retain the upper hand over Beche, but Mailleux had the momentum around the outside, and as they emerged from Castrol to begin the ess-like sweep uphill towards Remus, the Frenchman eased the Judd-powered Morgan narrowly in front – but not by quite enough.

Braking for Remus Hirschi held his nerve, and the apex, to force Mailleux around the outside. Overstretching himself just a tad, Mailleux crossed the kerbs, running out of the hard stuff and ending up with a wheel across the grass. The Morgan skipped and twitched as Mauilleux regained the track, allowing Hirschi to escape, and briefly crossed the path of the chasing Beche. For a moment Hirschi had some breathing space, but Turvey was already a second or more up the road, and pulling clear.

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Having established a grip on second, Hirschi was determined not to let it go. Needless to say, neither Frank Mailleux nor Matthias Beche were going to allow their “gentleman” rival to have things easy, and for lap after lap the two Pros were bobbing and weaving in his wake, trying to expose a weakness. There wasn’t one.

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In fact, such was Jonathan Hirschi’s confidence – in the #18 Oreca and his own abilities – that he set the fastest lap of the race fifteen minutes in, with a 1:25.340 that not only narrowed the (not inconsiderable) seven-second gap to Oliver Turvey, but also put paid to the hopes of his pursuers. Truth be told, they were so busy scrapping with each other that catching Hirschi was probably a secondary concern anyway.

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The gaps fluctuated as they leaders started to work their way through the tail-enders. Hirschi had closed Turvey down to within 8 seconds twenty laps after the start, but that extended again five laps later to stand at 12. Beche and Mailleux swapped places – more than once – while Patric Niederhauser ran them a close fourth in the Race Performance Oreca #34. Throughout all this, however, Hirschi was doing more than merely holding his own. If Brendon Hartley was to pick up the reins left by such a competent start from his co-driver, the prospects for Murphy Prototypes were looking more than good – they were looking excellent.

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After challenging for second, things went from frustrating to worse for Matthias Beche when Niederhauser slipped by to snatch third with 37 minutes completed. Short laps at the A1 Ring and high speeds were draining the fuel tanks perhaps a little more quickly than they might have done elsewhere, and with 44 minutes completed, the first of the scheduled pitstops began. Jonathan Hirschi and Patric Niederhauser were among the early runners to take to the pitlane, together with Dominik Kraihamer in the Boutsen Ginion Oreca #4, from eighth.

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Niederhauser was swiftly back out again, car refuelled, and so too Kraihamer, but there was an ominous lack of movement from the Murphy Oreca. The car had been refuelled successfully, but when Jonathan Hirschi stretched for the starter button, nothing happened. He sat there in frustration, shaking his head and stabbing his finger at the dashboard. Nothing. Not even a clatter or a bang. Silence.

The team ran around the car like ants around their queen, snatching at catches on the engine cover and tugging the massive carbon-fibre panel free of its fixings. Was this a return of the Silverstone nightmares, when the starter motor failed? There had been ECU problems at Le Mans as well. There was no doubt that the car wasn’t going to re-start, and electrical problems were the most likely cause – again.

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All the other cars came through the pitlane and left. Some, like the Jota Zytek and TDS Oreca, arrived a lap later, but throughout these comings and goings, Hirschi sat there immobile. The team’s mechanics were up to their armpits in machinery, but the problem wasn’t immediately obvious.

With the World Series by Renault squads quite bewilderingly occupying the pitlane garages, the European Le Mans Series teams – who actually had genuine need of functional pit boxes – were forced to operate out of their trucks and awnings in the paddock. There was nothing else for it. The Murphy squad would have to push the #18 down the pitlane, out into the paddock, and do their best to find the source of their problems from the relative obscurity of their canvas-topped workshop behind the wall.

The team had already lost more than ten minutes in fruitless searching, but with a full squad of mechanics tending to the car, it was only a few more before the problem was identified, fixed, and the car was pushed back out into the pitlane. “The wiring to the starter motor had failed, and the team had to replace to complete unit,” said Brendon. “I couldn’t watch. I couldn’t believe our luck.”

At twenty past five Jonathan Hirschi returned to the track, a total of 28 minutes lost to the repair, and eighteen laps down on the leaders. What had been a very realistic hope of a win had evaporated, and Round 3 of the 2013 ELMS had, for Murphy Prototypes, been reduced to nothing more than an extended test session. However, there was ‘face’ to be saved, and Greg, his drivers, and everyone under the direction of Malcolm Swetnam was determined to make sure that the #18 ran like clockwork to the flag.

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A stop-go for the Jota Zytek, and a slower pitstop for Morand Racing, had ensured a narrow lead for TDS Racing over Race Performance, but there was no coming back for Murphy Prototypes. Jonathan Hirschi set-to with a vengeance, and was soon posting times that may not have been quite the quickest of the race, but didn’t fall far short, and were certainly among the fastest of any at the time he was on track. On lap 67 he regained one lap from the leaders – just seventeen more to go. “Jonathan drove an amazing stint and really showed his ability,” said his co-driver.

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The leader was on his 80th lap when the Murphy Prototypes Oreca came down the pitlane for the second time, 62 laps completed, and Hirschi handed over driving duties to Brendon Hartley. It wasn’t a straightforward pitstop this time either, and with the telemetry revealing higher engine temperatures than Malcolm Swetnam liked, the team did a quick sweep of the intakes, and removed a fair wad of grass and debris. “We’ve no idea how the radiators got blocked, but because we were already so far down the order, the team decided to clean them out to avoid any risk,” said Hartley. It added another five minutes to the stop, and cost the team a further three laps.

So the deficit over the leader – Pierre Thiriet in the #1 TDS Oreca by this stage – had extended to a full 21 laps by the time Hartley was up to speed – but what a speed! Fitted with fresh tyres his stint rapidly developed into a demonstration drive that featured some of the fastest laps of the race; five of them sequentially quicker than the last, and peaking with a best of 1:24.337. “I really enjoyed that stint!” grinned the Kiwi, evidently relishing the challenge. “I believe I had the top ten or eleven fastest laps and the quickest by over half a second. The car felt unbelievable.”

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Brendon was reeling in the front-runners hand over fist, and was gaining by between half and three seconds with every tour of the track. “Our pace was crazy,” suggested Hartley. “I just blew past the second-place Alpine car like it was standing still. It looked like they were really struggling with tyre wear.” Moments after the TDS Oreca crossed the line for the 99th time, Brendon swept by to recover another of those lost laps.

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The delays had thrown the team’s pitstop strategy totally out of kilter and Hartley couldn’t now get to the flag without one more stop for fuel. Eight laps from the finish he brought the #18 burbling down the pitlane for the final time, took on enough fuel to last the distance, and then resumed his race. There was no diminishing his pace, however, and he’d closed to within ten seconds of unlapping himself for the second time when the chequered flag fell across the finish line.

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Thiriet by TDS Racing took the win in Austria, by a generous 21 seconds over the #36 Signatech Alpine, with Morand’s #43 Morgan-Judd third. The impressive statistic (bearing in mind we’re talking LMP2 here) was that only one car failed to finish – Boutsen Ginion Oreca succumbing to transmission issues at just over half distance, and in front of their home crowd too. The days when these P2 machines were considered ‘delicate’ are evidently long behind us. No significant accidents, no safety cars, and no room for mistakes. The car that won here was always going to be the car that ran the distance without driver error, pitlane hesitation or mechanical failure, and for the second time this season, that car was the TDS Oreca. However, what was equally clear was that the winner wasn’t the fastest car on the day. That honour fell to the Murphy Prototypes Oreca. “The car was just perfect,” enthused Brendon Hartley. “There’s no doubt in my mind that, without the wiring failure, we’d have won the race. Yet another one that got away!”

“I am really disappointed,” admitted Jonathan Hirschi. “We had a great car and a great team, and we could have won the race, but this is racing – it’s not easy. Still, I am really happy with my own performance today. My first stint was quick and I think I did a good job. The car was really fast, and so was Brendon at the end of the race, so let’s see now what happens for the next race.”

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“The car was very, very strong,” agreed Brendon. “We actually found an issue with the car this weekend that had been holding us back all year, so it’s a little bit frustrating when you look at it now, in the light of the issue with the starter motor. However, I think the other teams may be feeling a little nervous if we come back next time with the same line-up!”

“We could have won the race today by an absolute mile,” was Greg Murphy’s take on events. “I am sorry for the drivers. Jonathan was just brilliant for us and we were delighted to have him – that’s the best silver performance I have ever seen in any team. I think he disproved all the doubters about his speed today. Brendon had the top ten fastest laps of the race, which showed everyone what we can really do.”

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It’s hard to hide disappointment behind a grin, but Greg Murphy has had plenty of practice. Let’s hope that next time the #18 Oreca takes to the track, at the Hungaroring on 13th-14th September, he has better reason to look so cheerful.

MP