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Group C Racing: Paul Ricard Dix Mille Tours

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The final gathering of the 2014 Group C Racing Championship took place at the Circuit Paul Ricard as part of the Dix Mille Tours du Castellet historic meeting, with a single 60-minute race wrapping things up for another year; the combination of ultra-fast straights and challenging corners providing a fitting battleground for the title decider. Bob Berridge headed the standings after Zandvoort, but Christophe D’Ansembourg, Gareth Evans and Katsu Kubota were all still in contention going into the season finalé

But Berridge would on this occasion have no say in how things turned out, as the tall Yorkshireman left his racing overalls in the locker for the second event in succession. Instead, Evans would be sharing the Chamberlain Synergy-prepared Mercedes C11 with Greek racer Kriton Lendoudis, who – in something of a surprise – had very recently become the car’s new owner.

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Kubota, meanwhile, was returning after missing the Dutch round and was joined once more in the #25 Nissan R90CK by Spaniard Joaquin Folch. D’Ansembourg, by contrast, would be driving solo and had opted to round out the season in his trusty Jägermeister-liveried Porsche 962.

Not going the Porsche route was Henrik Lindberg, who opted for his Lancia LC2 instead of his usual Tic Tac Porsche, and there was a second LC2 fielded by Mr John of B, who would be sharing with David Ferrer.

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Other returnees included the unmistakeable FROMA-liveried Nissan R90CK of Steve Tandy, the Primagaz Porsche 962 of Manuel Monteiro and the distinctive Sthemo of Christophe Gadais and Romain Belleteste. Alas, a planned outing for Romain’s father Jean-Marie in his Alba AR2 came to naught when it was discovered that co-driver Neil Primrose couldn’t fit comfortably in the C2 (a consequence of the tight confines of the car rather than any inference as to the Travis drummer’s waistline). The crowd was also denied the opportunity of seeing a second Cheetah, when Hans Peter’s G604 lost its engine in testing earlier in the week. Happily, Eric Rickenbacher’s G606 did make it to the South of France.

The timetable was a relatively leisurely one for the Group C runners, with one 45-minute Qualifying session being held on the Friday, another on the Saturday, and with the race being held on the Sunday; all three taking place soon after lunch.

Qualifying

With there being just the one race, the two Qualifying sessions would be amalgamated to set the grid and Mike Donovan started things rolling with a 2:08.395 on his second lap in the #111 C2 Spice SE88. A few seconds after that, Katsu Kubota stopped the clock at 2:01.034; after which the times started to drop in rapid succession. By the time the Japanese racer handed his Nissan over to Joaquin Folch, he had lowered provisional pole to 1:51.696 – a mere 9.5s quicker than he had gone in the corresponding session a year earlier and already 2.3s quicker than his 2013 qualifying time.

Kriton Lendoudis was getting to know the Mercedes for the first half of the session , before Gareth Evans took over after ten laps – the car’s regular pilot setting a second-quickest 1:54.615 on his final lap – while Manuel Monteiro was third quickest on his penultimate lap in the #7 Porsche with a 1:56.441.

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Donovan had lowered his time to a 1:57.538 by the end of the session to go fourth-quickest and first in C2, indicating that the car’s rebuild after its Zandvoort woes had been a successful one. Thomas Dozin was second in the class on 2:07.606 after a cautious start in his #107 Spice SE88C, but the Sthemo was in difficulties after just four laps and back in the garage with engine issues.

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These turned out to be serious ones and the car was reluctantly withdrawn.

None of the C3 runners were out for heroics, with Richard Eyre quickest on 159.891 in his #3 Jaguar XJR16 and Steve Tandy second quickest in his Nissan after essentially a series of installation laps. Frank Lyons was third in the #29 Gebhardt C91.

Saturday’s session saw Evans improve the C11’s time and top the timing screen, but his 1:53.399 – on his first flier – was good enough only for second on the grid alongside Kubota’s Nissan, which only managed seven slow laps as a result of severe juddering. The Jaguar made a bigger improvement – Eyre’s 1:54.519 giving him a second-row start, where he was joined by Monteiro’s Porsche (1:54.519). A 1:56.625 on his 11th lap gave Donovan fifth overall, with Tandy sixth on 1:57.501. Eric Rickenbacher was just a tenth further back in the Cheetah in seventh, while Michael Lyons had improved to eighth overall with a 1:57.805 in the Gebhardt. The fifth row was filled by Christophe D’Ansembourg’s Porsche and Henrik Lindberg’s Lancia, and the sixth by Mr John of B’s Lancia and Jean-Marc Merlin’s Porsche 962C.

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The session ended prematurely when a large chunk of debris appeared on track and caused the deployment of red flags. It later transpired that this debris was, in fact, tape from the floor of the Mercedes that had managed to wrap itself into a ball before detaching itself.

Race

Whereas both Qualifying sessions had taken place in glorious sunshine, a quick shower and heavy dark clouds just a couple of minutes before the Group C runners left the pits was enough for the officials to declare the race wet.

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Despite this, most if not all of the cars opted for slicks. Not amongst them, however, was the #69 Lancia, which had been withdrawn an hour before the start due to engine issues.

It may have been a Mercedes versus Nissan front row, but it was the Jaguar that grabbed the attention on the opening lap, Richard Eyre taking his Bud Light-liveried XJR16 ahead of both C1 cars to cross the line in P1 after the first 5.791km circuit with an advantage of 0.381s over Katsu Kubota, who had stayed ahead of Gareth Evans.

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Steve Tandy had also enjoyed his opening lap, passing both Mike Donovan and Manuel Monteiro to go fourth, while Christophe D’Ansembourg went from ninth to sixth in the Jägermeister Porsche.

Kubota, however, used the Nissan’s power to retake the lead on Lap 2, but Eyre is no shrinking violet and the Jaguar clung on to the R90CK like a limpet.

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Just half a second shy of the Jaguar at the end of Lap 2, onlookers might have expected the mighty Mercedes C11 to power by into second in pursuit of the Nissan. However, that scenario was thrown out of the window when the Silver Arrows instead suffered a spin at T12 (Virage de Bendor) and dropped down to sixth, losing almost 20 seconds on the leaders in the process. It was going to be tough to come back from that, even with more than 50 minutes remaining. Thomas Dozin had earlier managed to spin his Spice on the outlap on the slippery surface, but was able to continue without damage.

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The fastest man on the road at this early stage was D’Ansembourg, who had by now taken a place from Monteiro (as had Donovan), but Kubota soon upped his pace in his efforts to shake off Eyre, but without success. Further back, Rickenbacher had been enjoying a keen dice with Lindberg; the Cheetah losing and then regaining a place to the Danish Lancia.

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After just three laps however, the Swiss car pulled up at T5 (Virage du Camp) and was seen no more. As this was happening, Lindberg became the latest spinner but was able to continue.

By Lap 6 Eyre had closed the gap to Kubota to half-a-second and the Spaniard had to go a full four seconds quicker on his next lap to extend his advantage. Again Eyre responded and pegged the gap at 1.5s. All the while Tandy was maintaining a watching brief, around three seconds further back, but a slower Lap 9 cost the yellow car two seconds on the Jaguar ahead.

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This hadn’t been a result of a mistake on Tandy’s part, however, but was rather the effects of D’Ansembourg’s Porsche filling the Nissan’s mirrors; the orange car clearly eager to get by the Japanese car and after the top two. Try as he might, however, the Belgian just couldn’t find the gap he needed.

Evans became the first to break the two-minute barrier when he lapped the Mercedes in 1:59.338 on Lap 9. However, he still trailed Donovan’s Spice by eight seconds at this point and remained fifth. Further back, Lindberg was closing on Monteiro for seventh. The Dane’s Pursuit would ultimately be successful (on Lap 12), but by then both the #11 Lancia and #7 Porsche had been passed by Jean-Marc Merlin’s 962C, which had started from the pitlane after suffering electrical issues. The LC2 was, though, headed for an early finish after failing to rejoin after pitting on Lap 13 owing to starter motor failure.

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Having held the gap to the leader within two seconds for the entirety of the race so far, Eyre headed for the pits at the end of Lap 12 to take his mandatory stop; the Jaguar being followed down the pitlane by Donovan’s Spice. Frank Lyons had been the first to stop – handing the Gebhardt over to his son on Lap 11 – and Kubota would be the last on Lap 16, when Joaquin Folch took over the #25 Nissan.

23 minutes remained on the clock when the red, white and blue Nissan returned to the track, but a quicker stop for Eyre meant that the Jaguar was back in front (by 1.489s) at the end of Lap 17. Again, though, Eyre’s glory was short lived and the #25 was through on Lap 18. The order was now 25, 3, 111, 17, 27, 31, 29 and 107, with the Porsches of Merlin [Lap 13 – a recurrence of its earlier electrical issues] and Monteiro [Lap 17 – engine issues] having fallen by the wayside.

The final 20 minutes of the race, however, were destined to see a remarkable shakeup of the race order, beginning with Richard Eyre spinning the Jaguar and dropping 24 seconds back from the Nissan. The XJR16 stayed second, about six seconds ahead of Mike Donovan’s Spice; the double (and soon-to-be-triple) C2 champion having emerged from the pit window ahead of both D’Ansembourg and Tandy.

But any relief Folch may have felt at this turn of events was short-lived as issues with the Nissan’s door prompted him to make his own unscheduled stop on Lap 21 for quick attention. This brought the gap back down to 6.5s, but his next lap was also a slow one and the Jaguar found itself leading for a third time.

We now had about seven minutes remaining and just under six seconds between the top two, but on Lap 23 the timing screens were flashing up that both the Nissan and the Jaguar had been handed penalties – the #3 for having a too-short pitstop, and the #25 for speeding in the pitlane. Both took their punishments on the next lap…..and now, amazingly, Mike Donovan was leading overall in his C2 Spice!

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The penalties dropped both Eyre and Folch into the clutches of Christophe D’Ansembourg’s 962 and Steve Tandy’s R90CK, and both were through by the end of Lap 25. Tandy, however, was lapping three seconds quicker and took second from D’Ansembourg on the next lap.

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Folch put his foot down and was soon back up to third at the expense of the Porsche and we now had Nissan versus Nissan as the final seconds of the race ticked away; but not even a new fastest race lap at the death – 1:54.923 – from Folch was enough to close the gap entirely and Tandy held on by just 0.141s.

But Mike Donovan had already taken the flag by this time and was already celebrating his second overall win in his Group C Racing career.

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“The car performed faultlessly, which is a credit to the team after all their hard work since Zandvoort,” he said. “Winning overall in such tricky conditions was fantastic and a great way to secure my third championship in a row.”

Steve Tandy was similarly happy with his C3 victory…

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…but there was nothing to celebrate for Joaquin Folch as he was handed a 30-second post-race penalty for a second pitlane speeding offence (which occurred while he was taking his drive-through for the first offence) and the #25 Nissan dropped to fifth overall. This promoted Christophe D’Ansembourg to third overall, allowing the Belgian the double celebration of a C1 win and the 2014 title.

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“The race was tough, with a wet track making everything more difficult,” said the 2014 Mulsanne Cup winner. “But it was an opportunity too, allowing my underpowered Porsche to stay close to the Mercedes and the Nissans.

“In the end we finished first in class, allowing the team and myself to clinch the C1 championship. It was a wonderful surprise and a happy crowning of a very exciting season.”

Richard Eyre finished fourth overall in the revised results, second in C3, after a great effort in the Jaguar, while Mike Lyons brought the valiant Gebhardt home in seventh and third in C3 after a lonely race on a circuit that didn’t best suit the car.

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Kriton Lendoudis enjoyed his first Group C podium after a steady run to sixth and third in C1 in his new toy – Gareth Evans bidding a fond farewell to the Mercedes with more silverware – while Thomas Dozin was the final classified finisher in the #107 Spice, second in C2.

“The car looks and feels fantastic to drive,” said Kriton. “I’m sure that, as I get to know the car better, I’ll be able to improve and certainly next year I’m intending to be as competitive as possible.

“The car has a great heritage now at Group C in the experienced hands of Bob and Gareth, so that means that I’ll have to continue in the same manner and score some good results!”

The final standings revealed the top three in each class to be as follows:

Class 1 – Mulsanne Cup

1st – Christophe D’Ansembourg
2nd – Bob Berridge
3rd – Gareth Evans

Class 2 – Eau Rouge Cup

1st – Mike Donovan
2nd – Aaron Scott
3rd – Scott Couper

Class 3 – Stowe Cup

1st – Richard Eyre
2nd – Frank Lyons
3rd – Steve Tandy

Congratulations go to Christophe, Mike and Richard.

The 2014 Group C Racing season had concluded in fine style with another entertaining 60 minutes of racing, and once again a large crowd (12,000) was on hand to witness these spectacular machines being put through their paces.

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Work is already underway on the 2015 calendar, which will be revealed in due course. The chances are, however, that the new season will be even more entertaining and unpredictable than the one which has just ended.

MH