TDS Racing has taken its third victory of the 2016 ELMS season, as well as the championship lead, at the 4 Hours of Le Castellet in Paul Ricard. Pierre Thiriet, Matthias Beche and Mike Conway (deputising for Ryo Hirakawa) took advantage of a pit stop under full-course yellow combined with already-prodigious pace to bring the #46 Oreca-Nissan home well clear of the competition.
The #32 SMP Racing BR01 and #21 Dragonspeed Oreca completed the LMP2 podium, with third place only being decided in the last few minutes of the race. LMP3 victory went to the #9 Graff Racing crew of Eric Trouillet, Paul Petit and Enzo Guibbert, while in GTE, JMW Ferrari trio Rory Butcher, Rob Smith and Andrea Bertolini echoed TDS’ performance by consolidating an advantage gained by pitting under full-course yellow with flawless drives for the rest of the race.
Front-row qualifiers Conway and Nicolas Lapierre in the Dragonspeed Oreca got away cleanly, but having started third in the Greaves Ligier, Memo Rojas was fifth when they came around after the first lap, behind Wirth in the SMP BR01 and Nick de Bruijn in the Eurasia Oreca.
The Mexican then lost another two places, to Paul-Loup Chatin in the Panis-Barthez Ligier and Harry Tincknell aboard the G-Drive Gibson. Chatin subsequently had to pit with an apparent puncture and although he would later claw his way back to the top five, the #23 hit more problems later on after its first pitstop and wouldn’t feature at the sharp end for the rest of the race.
After 30 minutes of the opening stint, Lapierre (above) had closed right up on Conway as the latter appeared to get delayed in traffic, but the former Toyota LMP1 driver couldn’t find a way past the current Toyota LMP1 driver before the end of that first stint. “I was on used tyres and the plan was to just manage them,” Conway said afterwards. “But the car was working well and we had a nice little battle for the whole stint.”
Lapierre added: “It was a nice fight, all about traffic really. I had one realistic chance to pass that didn’t work out. We knew it was a long race and that TDS would be a bit untouchable, but two podiums in four races for Dragonspeed is fantastic in the team’s first year in the championship.”
Such was that leading duo’s pace that the chasing pack were 17 seconds down the road after just 30 minutes of racing, but produced some fine racing among themselves.
Fifth-place Tincknell (above) seemed to have a significant straight-line speed disadvantage to De Bruijn, and when he was repassed after his first attempt at taking fourth, he cannily used the tow from a Ferrari GTE car down the Mistral to finally make the move stick. He then nabbed third from Wirth down the pit straight.
The G-Drive Gibson was one of the first LMP2 cars to stop and Tincknell stayed on board, which meant he was able to chase down and pass Henrik Hedman (who’d taken over the Dragonspeed car from Lapierre) relatively easily to move into P2, about 15 seconds adrift of Thiriet (now in the #46 in place of Conway).
Hedman lost more places in the second stint to De Bruijn (still aboard the Eurasia car) and Leal (who took over the SMP from Wirth) and Leal then proceeded to snatch third from the Eurasia machine out of the final corner. That became second when Tincknell made the G-Drive’s second stop to hand over to Simon Dolan, and it was another while yet before Thiriet and Leal pitted the first and second-place cars to wrap up their second stints. Thiriet came in right after Leal, which perfectly coincided with a full-course yellow for the recovery of a stranded RLR LMP3 car.
The team namesake stayed aboard the car and the nicely timed stop saw the #46 holding a lead of over a minute on Leal (above) as the race approached half-distance. Dolan wasn’t far behind, however, with Julien Canal holding fourth in the Greaves car and Tristan Gommendy fifth in the Eurasia Oreca, having taken over from De Bruijn. Ben Hanley was sixth in the Dragonspeed car following a short stint from Hedman, Jonathan Hirschi seventh in the Algarve Pro Ligier and Kevin Ceccon eighth in the Murphy Prototypes Oreca.
Dolan was all over the back of the SMP car with an hour and 40 minutes of the race to go, but just as he looked likely to get around Leal, the latter pulled into the pits for the #32’s third scheduled stop, handing over to Coletti.
Thiriet pitted from the lead with an hour and 20 minutes to go and Beche got aboard the TDS car for the first time in the race. “Someone needed to finish,” he smiled afterwards. “But you never know if there’s going to be a safety car, so the team asked me to take no risks in traffic. It’s great to win here after the team has had a lot of bad luck at Paul Ricard in the past. We’re leading the championship now but we’ll continue to take it race by race.”
Further back, Hanley began attacking De Bruijn, who’d just got back aboard the Eurasia Oreca (missing Pu Jun Jin for this race after the Chinese driver had a big shunt in Friday’s bronze test), but couldn’t find a way past.
Dolan finished his stint in third and Giedo van der Garde got aboard the Gibson with 45 minutes remaining on the clock. Another switch from De Bruijn to Gommendy was required for the Eurasia Motorsport car to comply with the driving-time regulations for two-driver crews, and in the final stint the gaps between third, fourth and fifth closed right up as Lapierre hunted down Gommendy, who in turn had van der Garde in his sights. Things came to a head in the final 10 minutes of racing, when both Gommendy and Lapierre slipped past on the Mistral – van der Garde unable to offer much resistance due to being so lacking in straight-line speed.
That wasn’t the end of the drama, either, as the second-place SMP car being driven by Coletti was slapped with a drive-through penalty for a FCY violation. “It gave me a little bit of a wake-up call to be honest,” the Monegasque driver said afterwards, “because at first I didn’t have much to do in the stint because the gaps in front and behind were quite big.”
With about a minute in hand, Coletti was able to serve the penalty without losing second. And while he was in the pits, Lapierre found a way past Gommendy through a tight gaggle of lapped cars to put the Dragonspeed car on the podium with just over three minutes to go. Behind Dragonspeed, Eurasia and G-Drive, Greaves Motorsport, Algarve Pro Racing, Murphy Prototypes, Krohn Racing and IDEC Sport completed the top 10.
Tockwith Motorsport’s polesitter Nigel Moore stayed in control during the first stint ahead of eventual winner Guibbert in the #9 Graff car (below), but Alex Brundle in the #2 United Autosports Ligier had a less satisfactory time, complaining of reduced engine power and losing places to Giorgio Mondini in the #11 Eurointernational car and Sean Rayhall in the #10 Graff machine.
Simon Gachet in the #16 Panis-Barthez car had lost a place to Brundle on the opening lap and would also be passed by Mondini and Rayhall during the initial stint. After the first visit to the pits (which saw the #2 United and #16 Panis-Barthez entries take one of the two 1m45s+ stops mandated for LMP3 runners), Eric Trouillet led in the #9, but was shortly overhauled by Mondini. Italian Giorgio Sernagiotto was third in the #7 Villorba Corse Ligier, Philip Hanson was fourth in the #26 Tockwith car started by Moore and James Swift was running sixth in the #6 360 Racing entry.
Cars yo-yoed up and down the order as they took their two longer pit stops at different times, but Trouillet held the lead and stayed aboard the #9 after the second round of stops, at which point Moore was back aboard the Tockwith car and Francois Heriau was running third in the #17 Ultimate Ligier, ahead of David Hallyday in the #19 Duqueine car (below) and Christian England in the #2 United Autosports car – which had already made its two long stops.
Moore took the class lead on track with just under an hour and 20 minutes of the race left, while there was also a pass by Hallyday for third on Heriau, who subsequently was also caught and passed by England (below). The United Autosports driver continued his charge by passing Hallyday – around the same time that Moore came in for the Tockwith car’s next scheduled stop. Philip Hanson got back on board during the second of the car’s mandatory 1m45s+ stops and rejoined second behind the #9 Graff car, now in the hands of Paul Petit.
However, disaster struck for Hanson when he spun the #26 at the final corner of the lap, losing two positions in the process to Dino Lunardi aboard the #19 Duqueine car and the still-charging England, who was just three seconds behind Lunardi at the time. Petit crossed the line around five seconds ahead of Lunardi, who managed to eke out a nearly 30-second gap on England during the final stint to secure second place.
Andrew Howard lost four places on the first lap, having started the Beechdean Aston Martin from pole where it was qualified by Darren Turner. With 20 minutes gone, Butcher in the JMW Ferrari took the lead from Aaron Scott in the #55 AF Corse Ferrari with a neat move down the inside into Signes, having got a better exit onto the Mistral straight before. Alexander Talkanitsa Jr (AT Racing Ferrari) and Johnny Laursen (Formula Racing Ferrari) sat third and fourth ahead of Howard’s Aston.
Butcher handed the JMW car (above) to Rob Smith at the first stops and he retained the lead of GTE, while Talkanitsa Jr handed the second-place AT Racing machine to his father Alexander Sr, Mikkel Jensen took over the all-Danish crewed Formula Racing 458 from Laursen and retained third, while Alex MacDowall was fourth in the Beechdean Aston, Duncan Cameron fifth in the #55 Ferrari and Marco Seefried sixth in the sole remaining Proton Porsche.
Smith pitted under the full-course yellow caused by the stranded LMP3 car, handing Andrea Bertolini a handsome advantage of over 30 seconds when he got aboard the leading Ferrari that he would stretch out to almost a lap with 90 minutes to go. Jensen (above) enjoyed a similar boost during the second FCY, while Turner had the Beechdean Aston running third around the same time. Having not taken the same FCY pit opportunities as its rivals, the Talkanitsas’ car was fourth at this juncture.
Butcher was back aboard the JMW Ferrari with just over an hour to go, with the car initially second behind an out-of-sequence Turner. It was a similar story in third and fourth, where the AT Ferrari temporarily headed the Formula Racing car, but Mikkel Mac was able to make the pass on track anyway. Once the Beechdean Aston and AT Ferraris had made their expected stops, MacDowall was third and Alessandro Pier Guidi fourth in the class.
GTE looked to be winding down to an uneventful finish, but there was a brief moment of tension when both the JMW and Formula Racing Ferraris needed splash-and-dash fuel stops to make it to the flag in the last 10 minutes. Their positions were unaffected in the end, however, and MacDowall was too far back to take advantage in the Beechdean Aston (above), which finished third ahead of the fourth-place AT Racing Ferrari.
On course for fifth in the closing stages, the #77 Proton Competition entry had a fairly anonymous race due to the Porsche 911 simply being off the pace on the long straights and high-speed corners of Paul Ricard. The #88 car retired (having started from the back of the grid) following early race contact with Piergiuseppe Perazzini’s #51 Ferrari, while the #77 received a drive-through penalty in the dying minutes. This allowed Matt Griffin to bring the #55 AF Corse Ferrari across the line in fifth, after his co-driver Duncan Cameron had earlier been hit from behind while entering the pits, losing him time as the car had to be restarted.