The closest title race in this weekend’s ELMS finale is in the GTE ranks, with just 17 points separating the top-four in the European Le Mans Series Team’s Championship. As it stands, the #90 TF Sport Aston Martin V8 Vantage of Salih Yoluc, Eaun Hankey and Nicki Thiim hold a slender one-point advantage at the top of the table over the #66 JMW Motorsport Ferrari F488 GT3 of Robert Smith, Jody Fannin and Will Stevens.
It’s therefore a change in narrative for the JMW crew, who in dramatic fashion failed to turn a comfortable lead into a title this time last year.
In 2016, the team approached the final round of the ELMS at Estoril full of confidence. Its 458 GTE of Rob Smith, Rory Butcher and Andrea Bertolini had won the previous three rounds – at the Red Bull Ring, Le Castellet and Spa-Francorchamps – and had what most thought was an insurmountable 20-point lead in the LMGTE Teams Championship over the #99 Beechdean AMR Aston Martin.
Fate, however, dealt the cruellest blow when the car suffered mechanical issues and was later was involved in a collision with the #2 United Autosports Liger J P3, forcing it into retirement. The #99 Aston Martin then went on to win the race and, with it, the 2016 LMGTE title by five points.
As a result, Colchester-based JMW Motorsport is approaching the final round of the 2017 championship with a very different mind-set, hoping for a different outcome. As the challengers, the team is focused on doing the very best job it possibly can and seeing where it finishes on Sunday afternoon.
“Going into the finale it’s completely different feeling to last year and a lot more understated,” Smith told DSC. “Last year we had Rory Butcher and Andrea Bertolini. Super team – super guys and we’d just won three on the bounce so we were really confident and we had a 20-point lead in the championship. At that point we were walking on water and it’s amazing how fast the tables can turn in this beautiful yet horrible sport.
“We’re behind, though I don’t think we’re underdogs at all. But I think the attitude we’ve got is just to do the best we can do and drive the best we can drive and what will come, will come.
“Last year I was thinking about European championships and the glory. This year it’s just about doing a really solid job, getting our heads down and we will see on Sunday afternoon.”
On the other hand, Fannin, who wasn’t around last year, is far less apprehensive about the team’s chances.
“I wasn’t involved in the drama last year, where they were expected to win it. So for me, after Spa, I was happy because we knew that if we could get the gap down to below seven points then it was in our hands. It’s down to one, so we just have to beat them.
“There’s also the Spirit of Race Ferrari of Duncan Cameron, which if it wins, we’d have to finish second to win the title, as they’re only 10 points back from us in third.
“It’ll be tense, the first hour in particular will be really tense, it’ll be interesting to see who keeps their head.”
The team has Will Stevens in the car for the final round and Smith is confident that the ex-Manor WEC pilot has contributed greatly to his development as a driver.
“Will hasn’t got an immense knowledge of GTs but he has got an immense knowledge of racing in general,” said Smith. “It’s been really good for me as a Bronze driver that he’s opened his arms and welcomed me in to teaching me about racing. I think that any professional driver that can talk to me and teach me anything about racing, I’m all for. He’s an exceptional talent and I think we’re really lucky to have him.”
Fannin agrees, saying that he learnt a lot from Stevens during the Spa weekend, the first in which he shared the car with him.
“He’s been really good, all the guys have, we started with Rory (Butcher), then had Jonny (Cocker), and now we have Will. He did Le Mans and the last round, and knows the team well. They did alright at Le Mans too, I heard they won?
“But really, Will’s slotted in perfectly, and is so helpful to us, we get on really well the three of us. We come to the track each day together, eat together and have a good time.”
Smith is focused on the JMW Motorsport Ferrari F488 GTE and has not considered how it compares at the brake-heavy Algarve International Circuit.
“I’ve got no idea (how it compares). I’m not even thinking about the Aston Martin,” said Smith. “I’m just thinking about what we’re doing. I just know we’ve got a phenominal car, we’re really good on the brakes and this track is heavy on brakes.”
“I’ve done a lot of work in the simulator and we’ve now done two track-walks and a practice day. I’m feeling strong at this circuit and I feel it’s one of my strongest circuits of the year.”
On the other hand, Fannin feels that the Aston Martin may have the advantage, partly due to the new medium plus Dunlop compound which is being used for the first time this weekend.
“Aston Martin have their winter test here each year, so they’ve done a few days here, and know how the car goes round the track. That’ll be an advantage, though it’ll be a very different temperature at this time of year.
“The Ferrari was good at Austria, which is hard on the brakes, and there’s some hard braking zones here, so we’ll see but obviously there’s the compound change. It’s a step harder, which will help the Astons, as up to know it’s been soft-medium, and here it’s medium-medium plus, and they’ve been complaining about tyre life all year.
“But we’ll see, it’ll be an exciting end to the year.”
Sunday’s 4 Hours of Portimão is set to begin at 13:00 local time tomorrow.