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Group C Racing: Dix Mille Tours, Paul Ricard, Report

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The final meeting of the 2015 Group C Racing season took place on the challenging and very rapid Paul Ricard circuit in southern France as part of the popular Dix Mille Tours du Castellet historic meeting. However, it coincided not with the usual warm and sunny conditions, but with the arrival of a particularly aggressive weather system that would result in significant flooding along sections of the Cote D’Azur through the weekend. It was perhaps surprising, then, that the Group C runners managed to complete both of the 45-minute qualifying sessions for Sunday’s race.

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The first began at 13.45 on the Friday afternoon and was dominated by the #29 Class 3 Gebhardt C91 of Michael Lyons, who is known to relish driving in the wet; the MOMO-liveried car staying atop the timing screens for the full session, apart from a three-minute period when Aaron Scott held P1 in the #14 Leyton House Porsche 962.

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Lyons’ best was a 2:16.701 in the pretty awful conditions, with Scott (sharing with the car’s owner Tommy Dreelan) second on 2:16.830 and Christophe D’Ansembourg third in the #17 Jaguar XJR14 on 2:18.774.

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Philipp Brunn headed Class 2 with a fifth-fastest 2:21.525 in his newly-restored #185 Spice/Tiga, just behind the returning Katsu Kubota in his now-repaired Nissan R90CK and just ahead of Henrik Lindberg’s #11 Lancia LC2. The Dane was running his Italian car in the absence of his beloved Tic Tac Porsche (still undergoing a rebuild following damage earlier in the season) and it was one of three LC2s on the grid this weekend; Mr Jon of B returning to the series in the #69 and Tim Summers debuting in the ex-Rupert Cleverly #6. All three were running in Class 1.

Second Qualifying took place early on the Saturday afternoon, again on a wet track but with rain holding off until the latter stages of the session. This allowed for improvements in laptimes across the classes, but without anyone getting anywhere close to the 1:51.696 that secured pole for Kubota on the corresponding weekend in 2014.

Despite suffering several spins across the two sessions, D’Ansembourg managed to get his time down to 2:13.078 (on his 13th lap of 15 in Q2) to take overall pole, holding off the Class 1 cars of Steve Tandy and Kubota by less than a quarter of a second.

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Champion-elect Tandy had not set a time during Q1 but his Spice SE90 GTP looked happy in the conditions and his time pipped the Nissan driver’s by just 0.024s. However, shortly after setting his own fastest time, the Japanese driver heard the awful sound of a gearbox ripping itself to pieces and his meeting sadly ended at the Virage du Lac.

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Richard Eyre completed the second row in his Class 3 #3 Jaguar XJR16, with Dreelan/Scott and Michael Lyons sharing the third. Frank Lyons, meanwhile, had qualified third in Class 2 in his #177 ALD C289 and lined up on the sixth row, just behind the #185 Spice/Tiga of Brunn #107 – the German taking pole with his Q1 time – and the Spice SE88C of Thomas Dozin.

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Further back on the grid was the welcome and very familiar sight of the #111 Spice SE88C that clinched three titles for Mike Donovan; new owner Frederic Da Rocha having completed just nine laps so far this weekend.

When the hardy Dix Mille Tours competitors and spectators peered out of their tents and windows on Sunday morning, they discovered that the weather system that had made life so grim for the past few days had finally cleared through and was on its way to Italy; leaving the Group C brigade with the happy prospect of a dry track for their final race of the season, which was scheduled to begin at 15.55. This allowed for a healthy space for the teams in which to make final preparations, and a great opportunity for the 10,000 spectators to wander around the open paddock.

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But even when time is on your side some issues just don’t show themselves until the last moment, and Christophe D’Ansembourg discovered that his pole-sitting XJR14 was reluctant to fire up when the call came to head to the assembly area. The starter motor was at fault, but great work by the team saw it replaced in double-quick time and the purple Jaguar was able to take up position at the head of the field.

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There is often a good sort out on the opening lap of any race at Paul Ricard and so it proved as the Group C field thundered down to the sharp left hander at the start of the la Verriere Esses; Richard Eyre heading onto the Mistral Straight in P1 overall, with D’Ansembourg second and Aaron Scott third in the #14 Porsche. Fourth and fifth were Steve Tandy and Michael Lyons, with the C3 Gebhardt displaying signs of contact. Eric Rickenbacher had managed to hold station in sixth in his Cheetah G606, with Henrik Lindberg’s Lancia not far behind. Philipp Brunn, meanwhile, saw not the Spice of Thomas Dozin in his mirrors, but the Lancia of Tim Summers. A spin for the #107 had dropped it to the rear of the pack, while Frank Lyons’ pursuit of the C2 leader had been stymied by the C1 LC2 coming through.

Eyre’s advantage at the end of the first 5.791km lap was 0.788 and he managed to eke out a few more thousandths on Lap 2.

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The third lap, however, saw the pace at the front drop by a full six seconds as the first manifestation of a misfire in the XJR16’s three litre engine presented itself. Despite this, Eyre still led across the line; but his resistance didn’t last much longer and both D’Ansembourg and Scott went by on Lap 4.

Brunn still headed C2 at this early stage of the race – and was in fact locked in battle with Lindberg’s Lancia for eighth overall – but Frederic Da Rocha was now second in class (11th overall) and clearly enjoying exploring the pace of his new car.

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Jon of B – himself closing on the battle for eighth in the #69 Lancia – separated the top two in C2.

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Tandy was holding station in fourth and lapping consistently in the #5 Spice, but not at a pace that enabled him to close on the leaders. He would find, however, that the leaders would soon be coming to him.

The first to fall was the race leading Jaguar. No sooner had D’Ansembourg set his fastest lap of the race – 1:55.402 – than he noticed the oil pressure dropping rapidly. The XJR14 slowed and headed for the pits, but nothing could be done and the Belgian’s race and season ended there.

 

This left Scott leading in the 962, but with Eyre unable to mount a consistent challenge due to the misfire; and two laps later, the second C3 Jaguar was also be in the pits. Plug failure had caused the XJR16’s demise, and the same affliction had also by now accounted for the #69 Lancia.

With the pressure off, Scott began to pull away from the field at the rate of two to three seconds per lap as the Porsche driver concentrated on building as big a gap as possible before handing the car over to Tommy Dreelan.

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By Lap 10, with a third of the race having elapsed, the #14’s lead stood at 15 seconds, while Tandy’s advantage over Lyons (the Gebhardt’s progress not helped by its losing a strip off the rear wing earlier in the race) was of the same magnitude.

Brunn’s lead in C2 had by now grown to almost half a minute, aided in no small part by passing both Lindberg’s Lancia and Rickenbacker’s Cheetah. But Da Rocha was still in keen pursuit and closing on the Danish LC2.

The pit stop cycle began on Lap 11 when Christophe Gadais handed the very distinctive C2 Sthemo over to Roman Belleteste.

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Two laps later, Scott brought the leading Porsche in to hand over to Dreelan. It soon became apparent, however, that all was not well with the turquoise car and feverish activity by the Celtic Speed crew indicated that something was very wrong with the car’s suspension. The repairs were completed in an impressive 15 minutes and the Irish driver was able to resume, albeit four laps down, but all chances of glory were long gone.

With just over 20 minutes remaining things were looking good for the #5 Spice. All stops had been completed, the conditions were good, the gaps between cars throughout the field were significant, and his lead over Michael Lyons was still 20 seconds; it was surely now just a cruise to the finish?

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Alas, no, for the Safety Car was in the process of being scrambled as Henrik Lindberg’s Lancia came to a halt on the Mistral Straight with flames visible from the cockpit. [It transpired that the blaze had been a significant one, leaving Henrik very grateful for the efficacy of his racesuit and helmet; both having allowed the Dane to escape the flames without serious or permanent injury.] The field was now bunching up and thus the run to the flag would not prove to be as uneventful as Tandy had perhaps hoped.

Just 10 minutes remained on the clock when the green flags were waved once more and the gap between first and second was under two seconds; and not only had Tandy’s advantage been erased, but worrying signs of smoke were seen from the Spice’s exhaust. Five cars remained on the lead lap – Tandy, Lyons, Brunn, Rickenbacker and Da Rocha – with just nine seconds covering them at the end of Lap 22.

Lyons saw his opportunity and began to push, leaving Tandy no option but to defend. The gap between the two halved on Lap 23 and almost halved again on Lap 24. Could the ailing Spice hang on?

Similarly motivated was the driver of the #111 Spice, who could see the C2 class leader ahead of him for the first time in the race.

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There were a few interlopers between Da Rocha and Brunn – not to mention the fourth-placed Cheetah – but the Frenchman picked them off one-by-one and finally managed to pass the Swiss car for third overall on Lap 25. But seven seconds of clear air still separated the SE88C from the Spice/Tiga and that was too large a gap to do anything about in the remaining time and all Da Rocha could do was congratulate Brunn on a fine drive and win.

“I really enjoyed the event and am now looking forward greatly to next year,” said Philipp. “We are very happy with the third place and class win. Our team did a great job in completely rebuilding the car; this was its first race for 30 years and the first since the rebuild. Obviously we are hoping that there’ll be more cars in C2 in 2016, which should lead to some nice racing.”

But who had prevailed in the fight for the overall win? Lyons continued to press and the gap fell below half a second as the final lap began. Having come this far, however, Tandy was determined not to lose out now and he picked his lines with perfection and denied his pursuer the gap he was looking for. And so it was that the smoky Spice was the first to take the flag (by just 0.841s), allowing Steve to celebrate his championship-winning season from the top step of the podium.

“We went into this race having already secured the Championship, but wanted to support the series in its changeover period ahead of 2016,” he said. “We chose to sit out the first qualifying session and that was a decision that proved fortuitous as the last 15 laps were with an engine significantly down on power and revs. The safety car period cost us our 20 second lead and allowed Mike Lyons to close me down. That led to an exciting last few laps, but as ever the Peter Chambers-prepared car finished, making it three wins in a row for the PCA team!”

“It’s always a great pleasure when I get the chance to drive one of these spectacular cars,” said Michael. “For us the weekend started really well and our pace in the very wet first qualifying was very strong. As we progressed though the weekend the weather improved and our lack of power became more of an issue. Come race day we started mid-grid and amidst the usual scraps you find yourself in back there I received a bit of unnecessary contact on the first lap which very much compromised our pace. We lost over three seconds per lap from our pace in the Thursday test, but it’s a testament to our team that the car ran consistently from that point on; and with all the action going on around us we were able to finishP2 and 0.8s off the lead across the line. A story of coulda, woulda, shoulda; but, hey, that’s racing, and there’s always next time!”

Erik Rickenbacker ended a troubled season with a hard-earned fifth, while Tim Summers completed the C1 podium with a fine sixth in his debut race in the #6 Lancia. Michel Ghio took the third step on the C2 podium with seventh overall in the #105 ADA.

“This was my first outing with Group C and after the wet qualifying sessions the race was thankfully dry,” said Tim, “although I still managed one spin during the race. These are incredible cars – there’s a lot to learn, but it’s massive fun.”

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“I was using old tyres from Spa for the race, so I didn’t have much grip at the end,” said Michel. “But I’m very happy to have finished third. I had a great fight with Frank Lyons out there and that will stay in my memory for a long time!”

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The C2 champion’s season ended with only one door on his ALD, but happily the high-speed loss of the second door did not result in injury to Frank or to anyone else.

The final points-positions saw the top three in each class as follows:

Class 1

Steve Tandy 154.25
Tommy Dreelan 106.5
Kriton Lendoudis 52

Class 2

Frank Lyons 66.25
David Methley 38.75
Michel Ghio 33.5

Class 3

Christophe D’Ansembourg 40
Bob Berridge 29.75
Michael Lyons 25.25

Many congratulations to the champions.

The 2016 season sees Group C Racing fall under the auspices of Peter Auto and these fabulous cars will continue to be seen in action at the top historic meetings across Europe, including the Le Mans Classic next July.

MH