The #40 GRAFF ORECA 07 Gibson of Richard Bradley, Gustavo Yacaman and James Allen scored its first win of 2017, after a dramatic four hours of racing at Spa-Francorchamps, which saw a flurry of incidents and late fuel splashes leave everyone guessing until the final lap.
The winning margin was just 0.581 after a drive-through penalty for the winners in the final minute (for exceeding track limits in an overtake at Les Combes with the SMP Racing Dallara) left Bradley with a tiny lead over the #22 G-Drive Racing by DragonSpeed ORECA to the flag.
Bradley managed to cross the line and take the victory though, ahead of Ryo Hirakawa in the title-leading DragonSpeed-run car. And while the G-Drive Racing by DragonSpeed crew of Memo Rojas and Léo Roussel will be pleased to have extended their lead heading into the finale, it was one that slipped away, after they too had to serve a drive-through in the final hour for not respecting Safety Car conditions, which ultimately cost them the win.
“It’s great to get the win here,” Bradley said after the race, “as everywhere except for Ricard we’ve had the pace to win, so to finally put everything together has been great. The end was exciting.
“When I made that move on the Dallara, I went round the outside, I don’t think Matevos (Issaykan) expected me to come from that far back, so with the momentum I had to go off to avoid an accident. I totally forgot about it after that. It made it so close at the end.”
Third, completing the podium was the #27 SMP Racing Dallara, which rose up the order and was in the mix till the end, Egor Orudzhev driving the car for over three hours of the race, before handing over to Matevos Issakyan for the final stint. Orudzhev’s iron-man stint wasn’t planned, he revealed after the race, “I thought I did two hours and 30 minutes, I didn’t think I managed over three hours!”
By finishing third, and just 16 seconds back from the winning crew, the SMP crew pushed the title-challenging United Autosports Ligier JS P217 to fourth. It means that the championship lead for Rojas and Roussel over Hugo De Sadeleer, Will Owen and Filipe Albuquerque is now 18 points.
Fifth, and remarkably just 39 seconds off the lead after dropping as low as 11th in the opening stint of the race after starting from pole, was the #21 DragonSpeed car. Henrik Hedman and Ben Hanley shared the wheel until the final 90 minutes, where Nicolas Lapierre tried to fight back to the flag.
It was a very disjointed race in LMP2, due to multiple incidents in LMP3 and GTE, though the biggest shunt came in the top class. Andrea Roda caused the first Safety Car period in the race after a monster hit at Pouhon which saw him fly into the barriers and roll the Algarve Pro Ligier onto its roof. Thankfully he walked away.
Multiple incidents followed, which caused most of the field to split their strategies as the Full-Course Yellows and Safety Car periods continued throughout the second and third hours. It meant that for much of the race, the two DragonSpeed cars were further down the order, as they pitted for a splash of fuel at their first chance, while the winning GRAFF car, United Autosports Ligier, SMP Dallara and for a time the Panis Barthez Ligier (before an issue at a stop dropped them down the order) filled the top positions.
In the end though, it boiled down to the final hour, as the group of front-runners cycled through their final stops.
“I knew I had to push,” Hirakawa said when asked about the final hour, when he was chasing down the leader. “But I had to save fuel though, to extend the stint to 19 laps, which was really annoying. When Bradley rejoined I tried really hard to catch him, but I got stuck in traffic and couldn’t quite catch him.”
AT Racing takes its first LMP3 victory
AT Racing scored its first win of the 2017 season, in controlling fashion, after a great run from Mikkel Jensen and Alexander Talkanitsa Jnr and Snr, who crossed the line 51 seconds ahead of the chasing pack at the finish. The #7 Duqueine Engineering Norma came home second, with the points leaders in the #2 United Autosports Ligier scoring valuable points in third.
The LMP3 contenders were victims of messy start, just moments after the green light. The #5 By Speed Factory Ligier JSP3 driven by Tim Muller span at La Source. This situation did not help the pole sitter: Mikkel Jensen in the #9 AT Racing Ligier JSP3 ended in fourth position of the category at the end of the first lap. The #9 slowly made its way back at the lead of the LMP3 field: Jensen first overtook Theo Bean in the #16 Panis Barthez Competition Ligier JSP3 on Lap 2 and then Wayne Boyd in the #3 United Autosports Ligier JSP3 on Lap 8.
Later on, Bean had an accident with Mondini’s #11 Eurointernational Ligier JSP3 and Rayhall’s #2 United Autosport Ligier JSP3 at Turn 19. Mondini received a stop-and-go penalty as a result of that incident (That car eventually retired much later on in the race).
Jensen then managed to build a substantial gap over Boyd in second position, Borga in the #7 Duqueine Engineering Norma M30 in third position and Jean-Baptiste Lahaye in the #17 Ultimate Ligier JSP3 in fourth position. Lahaye managed to overtake the #7 on Lap 19.
At the top of the first hour, cars pitted while the race was under safety car. At the restart, the #9 kept the lead of the category ahead of the #6 360 Racing Ligier JSP3 and the #15 RLR Sport Ligier JSP3.
The #9 AT crew took advantage of the second safety car episode and came in its pits for fuel on Lap 40. The car returned on track in third position, behind the #6 and the #15. The #9 regained second position after the #15 span at a slippery bus stop chicane on Lap 45. Wells in the #6 then came in for a second pit stop.
This allowed the #9 to take the lead while the #6 and the #15 were given a two-minute, 20-second penalty for undertaking under Full-Course Yellow. Moments later, the #9 was also given a penalty for pit stop infringement but the Ligier managed to stay ahead of the #17, the #7 and the #13 Inter Europol Competition Ligier JSP3.
On Lap 64, Nicolas Schatz in the #7 overtook Francois Heriau in the #17 for second position. Both cars pitted at the end of the third hour. Moments later, Martin Hippe in the #13 overtook Mathieu Lahaye in the #17 but soon had an accident at La Source with the #4 Cool Racing By GPC Ligier JSP3. This eased the return in third position of the #2 United Autosport Ligier JSP3 driven by Falb who opted for a short splash of fuels in the final 25 minutes of the race.
The #9 AT Racing Ligier JSP3 driven by Mikkel Jensen and Alexander Talkanistas Junior and Senior cruised to the finish line and took its first victory in the LMP3 category ahead of the #7 Duqueine Engineering Norma M30 driven by Antonin Borga, David Droux and Nicolas Schatz and the #3 United car. The #2 United Autosport Ligier JSP3 driven by Mark Patterson, Wayne Boyd and Christian England faded, and finished a lowly fifth.
Of the other incidents in the class, which was action-packed through out, the #19 M.Racing YMR Norma M30 of Neale Muston retired after going off track at the exit of Raidillon into the barriers. And the #5 By Speed Factory Ligier JSP3 retired also after an incident involving the #77 Proton Competition Porsche 911 RSR at Pouhon.
Spirit of Race Dominates LMGTE
In what was a hotly contested GTE race at Spa, with the championship leaders in the TF Sport Aston finishing fifth after multiple issues, the #51 Spirit of Race crew made it yet another new winner in 2017 on the top step. Georgio Roda, Rino Mastronardi and Andrea Bertolini were able to finish the race over a minute ahead of the competition. The JMW Ferrari finished second, with the Beechdean Aston Martin completing the podium after a notably stellar drive from Ross Gunn.
The GTE field had a relatively clean start with the pole sitting car #77 Proton Competition Porsche 911 RSR keeping the lead on the first lap, ahead of the #90 Beechdean AMR Aston Martin V8 Vantage and the #55 Spirit of Race Ferrari F488 GTE.
On Lap 3, the #90 suffered substantial damages on its front bumper. The car was forced to pit for repairs and lost many positions as a result of this incident.
Three laps later, the #55 driven by Aaron Scott managed to overtake the #77 driven by Joel Camathias. On lap 16, the Swiss fought with Ross Gunn in the #99 Aston Martin V8 Vantage during several laps. The Brit finally took second position in the category a lap later and started chasing the #55.
At the top of the first hour, cars pitted while the race was under Safety Car. The #99 took this opportunity to take the lead of the race ahead of the #77 and the #51 Spirit of Race Ferrari F488 GTE. The #55 was unlucky as it pitted just before the first safety car episode and lost significant positions as a consequence.
At the restart, Christian Reid in the #77 was reared presumably by Jurgen Krebbs in the #5 By Speed Factory Ligier JSP3. The #77 returned nonetheless to its pits with significant damages to its right rear wheel. The car was repaired and returned on track, some fifteen laps behind the LMGTE leader.
At the restart following the second Safety Car episode, Darren Turner in the #99 kept the lead ahead of Jody Fannin in the #66 and Rino Mastronardi in the #51.
This order changed once more after a complex sequence including driver changes and a full course yellow episode: on Lap 57, Andrea Bertolini took the lead in the #51 with a comfortable margin of a lap over two cars driven within a second of each other: the #99 and the #66. Fannin ultimately managed to overtake Howard and pulled away easily. Both pitted one last time in the final hour of the race.