Signatech Alpine scored a well-judged win at the third round of the 2014 European Le Mans Series at the Red Bull Ring today. The maximum points achieved by the team ensure they sit atop both of the drivers and teams points table by four points.
Oli Webb’s move on Simon Dolan with forty-two minutes of the four hour race remaining was the defining moment that ensured ‘Les Bleues’ took maximum points for the first time this season with their Nissan powered Alpine A450b LMP2 car.
Webb’s team mate Paul Loup Chatin deserved much of the credit for a disciplined and strategic drive in the middle portion of the event when he opened a gap to fellow silver categorised driver, Dolan and then stubbornly held off a charging Harry Tincknell in the Jota Sport Zytek-Nissan.
Tincknell, the star of qualifying this morning needed to make hay quickly as the final hour approached and once he disposed of the impressive Chatin, he had to build a gap for team mate Dolan, who had to complete his minimum of 2hrs 20mins in the final stint of the race.
The six seconds he provided was not quite enough for Jota Sport and when Dolan re-joined after the final stop, having lost some time in the final pit stop, he was forced to defend as Webb went straight for the jugular and took the Zytek. In so doing, there was contact and while it was only slight, it took off a piece of Dolan’s front bodywork and thus the race was effectively over.
The Red Bull Ring 4-hours was an intriguing affair from the very start, ebbing and flowing around the tight Styrian track, always with an edge of uncertainty as to who would emerge victorious.
From pole position Felipe Albuquerque had driven a flawless first stint to steadily draw out a gap to fellow front row starters, Race Performance, with Michel Frey driving excellently in the Momo be-decked Oreca-Judd.
Even an early Safety Car (just seven minutes in to the race), deployed to recover the damaged Team Russia by Barwell BMW Z4 did not impact massively on the Portuguese ace’s progress. The works Audi driver instantly picked up where he left off and handed the car over to Dolan, who re-joined behind Frey’s Oreca.
“I lost some seconds because of the safety car but even at the re-start I was able to pull them out again,” said Albuquerque. “I had a good stint and overall it was a good weekend and you can’t win all the time despite us obviously wanting to. It (the championship) is going to be really tight for everyone and it will be a good battle.
Dolan then caught Frey rapidly and when the Swiss driver made a mistake at the final corner he dived through and back in to the lead. The Jota Sport Zytek-Nissan then came under pressure from a recovering Gary Hirsch, but the Swiss was a lap down after a disastrous mis-calculation on fuel, saw Pierre Ragues run out of juice as he headed pitward. The Morgan and Zytek almost touched on the rundown to Turn Two but it was immaterial, as the New Blood by Morand car was soon beset by multiple penalties for pitlane speeding and two instances of crossing the pit lane entry white line.
Tincknell took over the wheel with 90-minutes remaining and immediately started to hunt Paul Loup Chatin down, but it took time, as the young Frenchman was able to stifle the charge with some impressive lap times of his own.
Once he caught Chatin, Tincknell pounced and made his move at Turn One, yet Chatin was not to be intimidated and fought back instantly, pinching the lead back as the two battled intensely in to Turn Three. It was wonderful stuff, firm but scrupulously fair and massively entertaining.
Tincknell though then re-grouped and swept through again, before immediately getting his head down to try and build a gap which ultimately would not quite be enough to repel the Signatech Alpine, when it was turned over to Webb.
That slight delay at the crucial final Jota pit stop meant that the gap was further reduced and Dolan emerged just ahead of the Alpine.
“As I was coming out of the pit exit I could see the Jota Zytek in my eye-line,” said Webb. “I knew I had to strike quickly and I managed to do it. The team I have to say were fantastic in the pit stops today and gained us lots of time, which made my life a lot easier. I then managed to pull out a decent gap.”
For Dolan the battle for the lead, although fair, had repercussions for the rest of the race because of that damaged bodywork.
“The front ‘diveplane’ got damaged and although some came off, the main part just stuck up and cost us probably around one second a lap with the drag (it created),” said Dolan. “It was infuriating because you can see it is going to fall off at some stage and indeed it fell off with two laps to go, which was a bit too late!
“I think it would have been a lot closer but I in the end it didn’t change the result, it would have just made it a bit more exciting,” he concluded.
A well-deserved third place was the Race Performance Oreca-Judd of Michel Frey and Frank Mailleux. After Frey’s opening stints were compromised by his tyre issues mentioned above, the Swiss owner/driver then drove a relentless final stint to home in on Dolan’s Zytek to get within seconds at flag fall. Mailleux was mighty in the middle of the race setting the fastest lap with a 1m24.969s lap.
A very noteworthy fourth overall was the Greaves Zytek-Nissan driven by Mark Shulshitskiy and LMP debutant Luciano Bacheta. The team made a very bold call when the early safety car came out by bringing both of their cars in for a fuel stop. The out of sequence #28 Zytek-Nissan, initially driven by Bacheta, then drove through the field brilliantly, and even led for three laps between stops, before Shulshitskiy rounded out the race solidly to gain more vital LMP experience and secure a well-deserved fourth place.
The sister Zytek-Nissan of Mark Patterson, Tom Kimber-Smith and Matt McMurry also ran cleanly to sixth place with TK-S engaging in a titanic final hour battle with a recovering Christian Klien. The two dulled ferociously with the Austrian ex-F1 driver finally winning out after a 40-minute battle for supremacy at his home circuit.
The Pegasus Morgan-Nissan showed well in the first hour and was a stable fifth until a wishbone broke on the car and necessitated a lengthy pit stop. The team worked wonders to turn the car around and they eventually finished, albeit down in 29th position overall but gained points for seventh in class.
The Thiriet by TDS Ligier-Nissan was the only LMP2 retirement when a brake disc problem forced Ludovic Badey to pit the car after Pierre Thiriet had enjoyed a spirited battle with Pierre Ragues in the opening exchanges. Sadly for the team a stub-axle failure soon after returning to the track, shed the right rear wheel and stranded the JS 2 at Turn three. It was tough day for the Montpelliar based squad.
The LMGTE class was again an intensely fought affair with multiple leaders throughout the four hours. The first half of the race was dominated by the Gulf Racing Aston Martin driven superbly by young Dan Brown, who was eventually able to show his abundant talent as he pulled a large lead over his opponents. It is difficult not to overstate just how good Dan Brown was at Red Bull Ring today.
With Roald Goethe following Brown in to the cockpit, the healthy gap was soon eroded and despite a fully charged-up Stuart Hall driving the final stint, the Vantage V8 completed the race seventh place in class. Still, it was a much needed morale booster for the team which, like many, had been concerned about the BoP advantage enjoyed by the Ferrari 458s.
Once the Aston Martin fell back it became a battle royal between the #81 Kessel Racing and #55 AF Corse Ferraris. When the ‘yo-yoing’ of the pit stops finally played out, Matteo Cressoni had a decent lead over Michel Rugolo, as the final hour began. But this soon disappeared as Rugolo caught and passed his countryman with a decisive move in to Turn One.
“I knew that Matteo (Cressoni) was on older tyres than me so I had time to plan where and how I should pass him and really it was quite easy,” said Rugolo. “Our car was fantastic all race and after the difficulties in qualifying
Rugolo also revealed to DSC why he had missed the Imola round in May and thus lost any chance of being crowned a drivers champion this season.
“I was doing the Mille Miglia with Steve Wyatt,” said the genial Italian. “So I was just up the road from Imola. In fact my Grandfather (Renzo Rugolo) competed four or five times in the Mille Miglia in the 1950s, so it was quite a nice and emotional weekend for me.”
Rugolo’s pass on Cressoni was merely the cherry on the cake though for the #55 AF Corse Ferrari. Much of the credit should be given to Matt Griffin, who again showed scintillating pace to catch and pass Thomas Kemenater in the penultimate hour. The Irishman laid the foundations for the win, as did Duncan Cameron, who in the opening exchanges drove expertly from a lowly 12th on the class grid, despite being forced out over the astro-turf at the first corner.
For Griffin, his own Kessel inspired overtake had been on Thomas Kemenater. The Irishman put an excellent move on the Italian on the run down to Turn two. It was a move that was initially under investigation but common sense won the day and the Irishman was rightly allowed to keep the hard fought, but clean move.
“He (Kemenater) defended quite legitimately and it was all correct,” said Griffin. “I actually gave him a lot of space as I was on the outside and went deliberately wide to avoid any potential contact. I then finished the pass going down to turn two.”
It was another impressive display from Griffin, who set the fastest lap in class, a statistic which the #55 AF Corse Ferrari has a 100% success rate in the races this season. Griffin and Cameron now lead the points table by three points from Bertolini, Zlobin and Shaitar who came home sixth today.
Finishing third in the LMGTE class for the second successive race was the JMW Motorsport team with the all-British line-up of Daniel McKenzie, George Richardson and the returning Rob Bell. All three drove excellent races with Bell responding decisively to late race pressure from the charging AT Racing Ferrari, driven by Pierre Kaffer, to finish just under a second ahead of the German.
The GTC class, in comparison to the LMP2 and LMGE categories, was a rather more clear-cut affair as the SMP Racing squad celebrated a conclusive 1-2 finish.
After the #95 AF Corse Ferrari, driven initially by Cedric Sbirizzouli, led briefly in the early exchanges, the SMP Racing 458 Italia soon exerted its authority and took charge with stellar stints by Messrs Persiani and Kiril Ladygin. Allied to slick pit work it ensured a relatively serene final hour for the trio.
Luca Persiani took the chequered flag with a comfortable margin over his team mate David Markozov, who along with Olivier Beretta and Anton Ladygin, finished a lap adrift of their stable mates.
There was only ever going to be a Ferrari victory in this class, such was the advantage that the Ferrari 458s all weekend. Persiani topped and tailed the stints superbly during the race and when Kiril Ladygin showed relentless pace in the middle portion of the race the win was all but assured. The bitter disappointment of failing to start from pole position at Silverstone has been laid to rest, and the #71 corner of the SMP Racing garage was a very happy place to be on Sunday evening.
“I have to say that the Michelin tyres were great tyres for us today and we triple stinted them without problem,” said Persiani. “My team mates Kiril and Aleksey did a nice job and I am proud of the whole team because they did a perfect race for us in the pits. We are all very happy with this result and the fact we are now third in the points.”
Anton Ladygin, Olivier Beretta and David Markozov took some solace in being beaten by their inter-team title rivals today by taking the lead in the GTC point’s standings courtesy of their third consecutive second place finish in class.
The Red Bull Ring 4 Hours was a great success on and off the track, with a healthy crowd attending the autograph session and wonderful facilities at the re-vamped facility. But as ever the natural beauty and ambience of the place shone through. It is a quite splendid venue for a motor race.
So, to Paul Ricard on September 13/14. All of the class championships are fully alive and we can expect more close and intriguing ELMS action right until the final laps of this unpredictably enjoyable season.