It’s been a while, seven years in fact, since the European Le Mans Series raced at Portimao. Last time out, the LMP1 class was healthy, with Peugeot 908s and Aston Martin DBR1-2s ruling the roost, LMP2 was far more of a ‘pro/am’ affair, LMP3 didn’t exist and there were two GT classes.
The better part of a decade later, the ELMS is back, with the series opting to replace the round at Estoril with the Algarve circuit. There’s an almost entirely different set of teams and drivers set to take on the 4.6km circuit this time out, in the championship-deciding round of the season, which has seen all three class titles go down to the wire.
DragonSpeed vs United in the top prototype ranks
With four hours of racing left in the 2017 season, the LMP2 title fight is between the G-Drive Racing by DragonSpeed ORECA and United Autosports Ligier JS P217. Two chassis, two very different driver line-ups, but two experienced and capable teams.
As it stands, the full-season G-Drive Racing by DragonSpeed duo of Memo Rojas and Léo Roussel lead United’s trio of Hugo de Sadeleer, Will Owen and Filipe Albuquerque by 18 points. It’s by no means an insurmountable lead, but it’s comfortable, and big enough of a margin that will see the leading pair rewarded with the title should everything run smoothly on Sunday.
They’ll be joined for a fourth time this season by Toyota development driver Ryo Hirakawa, who has proved all season that he can match the best the series has to offer on pace and consistency; so Roussel and Rojas are in good shape.
Consistency rather than dominance has paved the way for a title win, with a single victory at Monza and second-place finishes at each of the other four races keeping them ahead in the points. United’s journey to Portimao meanwhile, has seen ups and downs, a pair of key wins at Silverstone and Red Bull Ring proving to be the foundation for their title challenge.
It’ll be close on-track, but ultimately the Anglo-American team will need poor luck to strike DragonSpeed’s crew in order to take the title
It’ll be close on-track, but ultimately the Anglo-American team will need poor luck to strike DragonSpeed’s crew in order to take the title. A podium for G-Drive Racing by DragonSpeed will be enough to take the Driver’s and Team’s championships.
Elsewhere in the 12-strong LMP2 class, expect the Spa-winning #40 GRAFF ORECA of James Allen, Richard Bradley and Gustavo Yacaman to be in the mix for a podium, as well as the SMP Racing Dallara with Matevos Isaakyan and Egor Orudzhev at the wheel that won at Paul Ricard.
GRAFF in particular, will be motivated to beat United Autosports’ crew, as with a good enough haul of points, they can secure second place standings.
The #40 GRAFF entry stood on the top step of the podium in Belgium last month and while the French team cannot win the championship, they do have an outside chance of securing the vice champions position.
The sister DragonSpeed ORECA, the 10Star-entered #21 of Nicolas Lapierre (who won the Le Mans Series’ last trip to Algarve with Team ORECA in 2010), Ben Hanley and Henrik Hedman. Always rapid in qualifying, but unpredictable in the race, they’ll be hoping that luck is finally on their side in the final bout of the year as they look to take their first win, which would be well deserved.
And then there were two in LMP3
Like LMP2’s title fight, it’s a two-way battle in LMP3 too. It’s been a fascinating season for LMP3, which continues to grow and produce progressively better racing from the high-quality 17-car field.
While United Autosports has a sizable deficit to overcome in LMP2, its Ligier JS P3 of Sean Rayhall and John Falb is in the driving seat for the LMP3 crown.
After five races, the American duo lead the M.Racing YMR Ligier of Alexandre Cougnaud, Antoine Jung and Romano Ricci by 19 points, Falb and Rayhall’s pair of wins and a further two podium finishes putting them ahead.
To flip the script, YMR will have to win at Portimao, which will be a tall order, as so far this year they’ve yet to finish on the top step. But as we know from years past, anything can happen, and it usually does in ELMS title deciders!
To flip the script, YMR will have to win at Portimao, which will be a tall order
There’s multiple other cars with a real chance to take the win, with the Norma chassis from Duquiene Engineering and M.Racing YMR in particular, capable on speed alone of duking it out at the front.
The AT Racing crew that won at Spa will also be one to watch out for, too as another potential podium sitter.
Can TF win it all in GTE?
GTE will be too close to call, with five of the six cars still in with a chance to take the Driver’s and Team’s championship.
Leading the way, by the slimmest of margins (1 point) is the TF Sport Racing Aston Martin Vantage, Nicki Thiim, Salih Yoluc and Euan Hankey aiming to finish the team’s year in style before it heads off to the WEC in 2018. To do that though, they’ll have to at the very least finish ahead of JMW’s Ferrari. Rob Smith and Jody Fannin can seal it and avenge last year’s tough end to the year for the team by finishing ahead of TF’s machine with the gap so slim. They’ll be in with a real chance too, with Will Stevens once again in the third seat.
Behind in the classification, the Spirit of Race Ferrari piloted by Matt Griffin, Aaron Scott and Duncan Cameron is 11 points adrift. And while winning it all will require a lot of luck, should TF and/or JMW hit trouble, they’ll be in prime position to rise the standings.
Spirit of Race’s other car is 17 points back, and Beechdean AMR’s Vantage is also in with a shout, though both are outsiders here; in a class so small it’s tough to make up such a deficit without attrition playing a helping hand.
Reigning champion Beechdean’s progress will be interesting to watch, the team highly motivated to end 2017 on a high
Reigning champion Beechdean’s progress will be interesting to watch though, the team highly motivated to end 2017 on a high, and with a new driver in its car.
Alongside Andrew Howard and Darren Turner will be Immanuel Vinke who is being assessed for a potential 2018 drive with the team in Ross Gunn’s seat. He’s an unknown in ELMS circles, but has had experience racing in Blancpain, which will have served him well in preparing for the high volume of traffic out on track that ELMS races feature.
The 4 Hours of Portimao is set to get underway at 13:00 local time on Sunday at the Autódromo Internacional do Algarve.