The Paul Ricard HTTT provided the perfect backdrop to the 2013 Group C Racing Championship finale, with Gareth Evans and Bob Berridge completing a perfect season in the Mercedes C11 to hand Gareth the Mulsanne Cup for the second year in succession. Mike Donovan also retained his Eau Rouge Cup after taking another C2 win in his Spice SE88.
With the final Group C meeting forming part of the Dix Mille Tours meeting at Le Castellet, the timetable was spread over three days, with two 45-minute qualifying sessions on Friday and Saturday and with the 60 minute race taking place on Sunday afternoon; and once again there was an eclectic mix of racing machinery gathered that really did span the Group C era – Jean-Marie Belleteste’s Sthemo (raced by his son Romain and Christophe Gadais) dating from 1984, and Christophe D’Ansembourg’s Peugeot 905 being a 3.5ltr car from 1991.
While the majority of the field were season regulars or returnees, several cars and drivers were making their 2013 debuts. In C1, Manuel Monterio’s Porsche 962 was sporting the very familiar Primagaz livery, while Didier Sirgue and Marc de Siebenthal brought along the equally famous Kreepy Krauly March 84.
In C2 we saw not only the Sthemo for the first time, but also the Alba AR2 of Thierry de Latre.
Pierre-Alain France, meanwhile, had brought along his son Erwin to join him in the #45 Alpha Porsche 962.
The weather in this part of France was generally kind over the weekend, with warm and dry, if rather breezy, conditions greeting the Group C runners as they took to the track for Qualifying 1 just after lunch on Friday afternoon.
17 cars took part in the session, with only the C1 Spice SE88C of Adrian Watt being absent on account of its driver being delayed back in the UK. Richard Eyre kicked things off with a 2:07.372 in the #3 jaguar XJR16, but it was pretty clear that this would be far from a representative time; Gareth Evans validating that observation three minutes later with a 2:01.550. Over the next few minutes the Mercedes C11’s time came down to 1:57.165, but we would then have to wait until the last few minutes of the session for further improvement – a 1:53.813 being followed by a 1:52.496 as the flag fell; Bob Berridge now behind the wheel.
In second place was the #45 Porsche 962 with Erwin France having set the car’s best of 1:58.388. Erwin is normally to be found behind the wheel of a completely different Porsche – a Pro GT by Almeras 997 GT3 R in the FFSA GT Championship – but Pierre Alain had invited brought his son along to share the 962 and his Lola T70 in the meeting. Having not found the Lola to his liking, Erwin decided to concentrate on the C1 machine and this was to be the first time he had ever sat in the car. Pierre Alain went out first to check that all was well before handing the wheel to Erwin. The younger France soon started to get the hang of things – telling his father that it was “a proper race car” – and improved his time with almost every lap, before setting his best time on his last lap. Dad was delighted, and not just because his son had not yet beaten his own best time from a year earlier.
Richard Eyre was third, having found another nine seconds since his earlier time, while Christophe D’Ansembourg was beginning to get acquainted with the Peugeot 905 he acquired at auction in 2012.
Mike Donovan was fifth overall in the ever-rapid C2 #111 Spice on 2:00.240, while Paul Stubber rounded out the top six in the C1 Veskanda.
It turned out that all was not well in the Donovan garage, however, with the misfire that had plagued the car at Silverstone once more rearing its head. Mike’s team focussed on resolving the problem, but that resulted in them having to skip Saturday’s session.
Thomas Dozin normally races with Eric Jamar, but had decided that he quite fancied having a go at the race single-handed on this occasion.Unfortunately, a puncture and broken rim – probably caused by the puncture – on the #107 Spice SE88C curtailed his session after just six laps.
Jamar, meanwhile, had joined forces with Thierry de Latre and they set the second-quickest C2 time of 2:09.709 in the #163 Alba.
Late on Friday night, a huge thunder and lightning storm passed over the area, laying down huge amounts of rain, but by the time morning came there was virtually no trace of its ever being there and Saturday was blessed with glorious weather.
Adrian Watt had completed his journey to the Côte d’Azur in good time for the second qualifying session that afternoon and went on to set the fourth quickest time. Unfortunately, his session ended prematurely after contact with the barrier collapsed the rear wing, but the damage was repairable in time for the race.
The Mercedes again set the fastest time – a 1:51.205 from Berridge being just over a second quicker than the previous day – but it was Katsu Kubota who made up the most ground; the Japanese racer improving his Friday best by a full seven seconds to end up second in the combined times in the #25 Nissan R90CK on 1:53.948.
Pierre Alain France again entrusted the #45 Porsche to his son for the majority of the session, with Erwin coming good on his assertion that he could improve by three seconds with certain adjustments; his 1:56.013 giving the pairing a third-place spot on the grid. Richard Eyre and Paul Stubber both found a chunk of time to secure starting positions on Row 3, while Christophe D’Ansembourg drove both of his cars – the Peugeot and his more usual Jägermeister Porsche – during the session, before choosing the 905 for the race, despite its best being slower than the 962’s.
Mike Donovan was reasonably confident that his car’s misfire had been sorted, but he had slipped to eighth on the grid as a result of missing the second session, while the Cheetah of Eric Rickenbacher and the Porsche of Manuel Monterio filled the fifth row.
It was feared that the Swiss car had blown its engine, ending its session after just 30 minutes, but a later inspection revealed that a bolt had sheared on the oil pump, producing the same symptoms. The engine appeared to be okay and the necessary rebuilding work would be completed in time for the race by Eric’s dedicated bunch of enthusiasts.
Things went better for Thomas Dozin in Qualifying 2, with the #107 spice improving its time year-on-year by a full three seconds courtesy of a new Motec injection system that had been installed over the summer.
Race day brought with it forecasts of rain, and with the scheduled start time not being until late in the afternoon, the risk of rain grew; dark grey clouds prompting fears of a Silverstone-like deluge appearing at any moment. As things transpired, though, the rain that did fall around half an hour before the start had almost completely dried up by the time the grid formed and so tyre choice wasn’t the headache it might have been otherwise.
All 18 cars assembled on the grid, but disaster would strike the Cheetah on the formation lap, with Rickenbacher being forced to pull off before he’d even taken the start. This was a sad way for his season to end, especially as he was one of the few to attend every round. Jean-Marc Merlin was also in trouble; the #53 ADA Porsche 962 refusing to start and having to be pushed off the grid as the pace car moved away. The team got the car fired up in the pitlane and the Frenchman joined the race already a lap down.
When the lights changed from red to green, Gareth Evans made sure he got to the first left-handed still in the lead, but just behind him a change had been made for second; Erwin France starting the #45 Porsche and getting the drop on Katsu Kubota’s Nissan.
The gap at the end of Lap 1 was 0.673s between first and second, with the Nissan a further 1.2s behind. However, there had been numerous other changes on that opening lap. Richard Eyre had found a way past Adrian Watt’s Spice to claim fourth in the Jaguar, while Mike Donovan had taken advantage of a tentative start by Christophe D’Ansembourg to take seventh from the Peugeot.
Henrik Lindberg was also on the move, with the Dane passing the #69 Lancia LC2 of Mauro Pane to go tenth in the #33 Tic Tac Porsche 962. Richard Bateman, meanwhile, was up to 13th having passed the Alba of Thierry de Latre.
Eyre kept up his momentum on Lap 2 and took third place from Kubota, but the Nissan driver pulled himself together and was back ahead by the end of the third lap. But contact had been made during the exchanges and the Nissan was headed to the pits with damaged bodywork; the R90CK returning to the race after being patched up in 14th place and lap down on the leader. And all was not well with the Jaguar, which was falling back into the clutches of D’Ansembourg. The 905 had already recovered its lost position from Donovan’s Spice and went by the XJR16 and into fifth place on Lap 7. Sadly, that was it for Eyre’s race and he pulled off the track on the next lap with engine issues.
As France kept a steady pace up in the second-place Porsche, Evans had upped the pace of the C11 at the head of the field and began to pull away at a rate of four seconds per lap. Watt quickly closed to the back of the Alpha 962, but once there found himself denied the opportunity to get round the bigger car; and the two were still glued together when Evans pitted at the end of Lap 13 to hand the Mercedes over to Bob Berridge. France Jr then had the pleasure of leading his first ever Group C race for three laps before making his mandatory stop; Pierre Alain taking over as his son had developed a headache during the race – otherwise he would have stayed in to the end.
Further back, a great little battle had developed between the Porsches of Lindberg and Monterio and the Lancia of Pane. The Lancia had leap-frogged both 962s on Lap 8 as they squabbled over eighth place, but Henrik finally got past his duelling partner on Lap 11 and stayed out for two laps longer than the other two cars before pitting on Lap 16. A swifter stop by his team then ensured that he was ahead of his rivals when he returned to the track.
The order after the all the stops were complete saw Berridge holding a large and ever-growing lead in the Mercedes over the #45 Porsche of Pierre-Alain France, whose priority was to hang on to second place. But he was coming under threat from the Peugeot, which was growing ever larger in his mirrors as D’Ansembourg brought the gap down from 11.5s on Lap 18 to just 0.8s on Lap 21. However, a wheel nut had been working its way loose on the 905 and its driver found himself exiting the race just as he was poised to take second place.
Despite this disappointment, D’Ansembourg had had a good weekend; “Actually, I’m quite satisfied with the 905’s reliability this weekend,” he said. “It performed faultlessly during the two qualifying sessions, and in the race it was only the wheel nut unlocking itself that forced me to stop.” How had the Peugeot compared to his usual Porsche? “It’s a little down on power – we’re at 520 BHP as I’m only taking 10,500 RPM for the moment in order to preserve the engine – but the lightness, the road-holding and the braking puts it in a different world. The feeling is more like driving an F1 than a Group C. And the sound is just amazing; so different to a turbocharged 962.
“I had a lot of pleasure driving the 905 and I’m looking forward to racing it again next year.”
The Peugeot’s retirement took the pressure off the #45 Porsche for the time being, but it also had the effect of spurring on Mike Donovan, who saw an opportunity to take second overall before the hour elapsed; the C2 leader setting his fastest lap just after the 905 fell by the wayside.
By this point, though, several other cars had dropped out: Adrian Watts’ fine run ending on Lap 17 shortly after his stop with a timing issue; Katsu Kubota’s Nissan being retired around the same time with a large vibration having developed; Paul Stubber’s Veskanda suffering driveshaft failure; and the #69 Lancia – now piloted by John of B – succumbing to engine issues on Lap 20.
There was still a race to be concluded, however, and Richard Bateman progressed to fifth in the #40 Spice, having started from 16th, after passing Manuel Monterio’s Porsche on Lap 23.
But Mike Donovan’s charge ran out of time and he had to concede second overall to Pierre Alain France by only 11 seconds, and the final act of the race – and of the season – was Bob Berridge putting a lap on the entire field to end his and Gareth Evans’ campaign in style.
“The weekend went very well, all ran to plan and the car was faultless,” said Gareth. “I guess you noticed the fact that Berridge, like last year, could never beat my time in the highly technical , difficult, challenging, and only for the brave, Sector 1…
“The track looked a bit damp, but on the warm up seemed pretty good. It’s always a journey of discovery being the first car to the first corner in those conditions. I had a decent start and the track had pretty well dried by then. We had aimed to lap in 1.54s, which I settled into, and it was fairly uneventful from there on. Bob of course had to go for fastest lap, which he did.
“We lapped the entire field in the end which shows how fantastic the car is and how well the team has prepared it. It was just brilliant to drive it around that circuit. It’s undoubtedly the class of the field and I’m very lucky to be driving it.”
“I’m very happy to have shared this race with Erwin,” said a proud Pierre Alain France, “but disappointed to have to leave before the podium to catch a plane and not to have a toast with all the team and friends.
“I won’t forget that after only few laps Erwin beat my best lap of two minutes – children have no respect for their old parents!” he laughed. “It doesn’t matter; we are ready to start again together.”
“We received absolutely outstanding support [in fixing the misfire] from fellow competitors, who loaned parts and instrumentation as well as advice, and from the Group C team – with very special thanks to Nigel,” said Mike Donovan. “Unfortunately, we ran out of time and didn’t get to run in Q2 but we went to bed feeling that we had made progress.
“The race demonstrated that we had! A great start and strong run up to the pitstop, with a faster pace than in 2012 left us nicely ahead of the C2 pack and well amongst the C1 cars. A near-perfect stop from PCA Ltd propelled me forward further and a determined run, up to four seconds a lap faster than the 962 ahead, saw third overall and the C2 win secured at this most wonderful circuit.
“I can’t thank the Group C community enough for helping us achieve this great end to my second season in the category”
As he did in the 2012 finalé, Henrik Lindberg ended the season with a podium finish in the #33 Porsche in fourth overall – a fully deserved reward for this popular racer who has been both a stalwart of the series and someone who absolutely loves his racing – while Richard Bateman can take satisfaction from a fine drive to fourth in C1 and fifth overall. Manuel Monterio was sixth home in the #7 Porsche after a good effort and it is to be hoped that he’s back for more in 2014.
Eric Jamar brought the #163 Alba home seventh overall and second in class for he and Thierry de Latre, while Eric’s usual sparring partner Thomas Dozin enjoyed his solo run to third in class in the #107 Spice; “I made a good start and kept the Sthemo of Jean-Marie Belleteste quite easily at bay, and even lapped him a few laps later,” said Thomas.”The rest of the race was just ‘more of the same’ with very consistent laptimes. I am very pleased with the result and this podium for the Mecauto team – it’s a very nice way to end the 2013 season for everyone.”
Light rain had begun to fall in the final ten minutes of the race, but not enough to cause concern, and the expected downpour never did materialise, meaning that the post-race celebrations could take place without interruption.
As the curtain came down on the 2013 season, work was already under way to make 2014 even better. The calendar will be out soon, and will definitely include a trip to Le Mans, so hopefully that will tempt even more owners of these truly wonderful machines to dust off the cobwebs and join in.