United Autosports looked set for a one-two finish at the opening round of the 2020 European Le Mans Series at Paul Ricard.
A late-race left front puncture for Phil Hanson though dropped the #22 off the podium, the sister #32 United Oreca 07 Gibson brought home by Job van Uitert after both Alex Brundle and Will Owen had also starred, Owen with a standout run at the start of the race.
It would be a race of multiple incidents for the 15 car LMP2 field, only two-thirds of which would make the distance with early retirement for the defending Champions IDEC Sport (#28 Oreca 07 – Electronics), Panis Racing (#31 Oreca 07 – Suspension failure/ Accident) and Duqueine Engineering (#30 Oreca – Accident damage) plus the #35 BHK Oreca which was in electrical trouble right from the start.
There was one other retirement, on the very last lap of the race, the #20 High Class Racing Oreca stopped on track, this after a very encouraging run from the team that had seen the car briefly lead the race and run on pace as high as fourth. The body language in the garage post-race told the story, this appeared to be a fuel-saving call that had not quite, gone the distance.
Also in trouble, this time post-race was the hard-charging #39 Graff Racing Oreca, Thomas Laurent taking the flag in a fine second place, supported by Alexandre Cougnaud and James Allen. All three had kept the team in the hunt, but it was not to be.
Post-race the driving time for Bronze driver Cougnaud (who had briefly led the race early on as others pitted) was found to be a whopping 6 minutes and 6 seconds short of the required 70 minutes, that was converted into a three-lap penalty. Second, became ninth in the blink of an eye and a keystroke on the timing computer!
That put the Graff car next to last of the runners in the finishing order, the only car behind was the #25 Algarve Pro Car which had hit trouble on the first lap, John Falb requiring a stop for front end repairs. That put the team on a back-foot that they never recovered from.
Eighth was the #21 DragonSpeed ORECA and a team that had hoped and expected to be rather higher finishers, front runners at the start there were multiple minor incidents that saw Ben Hanley, Memo Rojas and Ryan Cullen fighting throughout, but losing ground. They’ll know that this could have been a better result.
Seventh was the sole Ligier in the field, Inter Europol’s #34 JS P217 for Kuba Smiechowski, Rene Binder and Matevos Isaakyan having a quiet and steady run, not troubling the lap record, but unlike several others not troubling Race Control either! That’s a race plan that can work if the pieces fall correctly – it got them into the top half of the field today!
Sixth will be a squad that will leave Paul Ricard amongst the most disappointed of the field, the #24 Algarve Pro Oreca team had looked mighty in the early stages, Jon Lancaster right on form and heading to the front of the field, taking on the United and G-Drive challengers and running a strong third in the first hour before losing a front left tyre, an issue all weekend for the LMP2s (and indeed she of the LMP3s), Michelin and Goodyear both, the slow run back to the pits and required repair effectively spoiled the opportunity for the team, but it was a taste of what a good driver on Goodyears could achieve, with the exception of efforts of the mercurial Nyck de Vries the Algarve Pro car achieved the fastest racing lap of the day!
Fifth was the Richard Mille racing team, a squad that has had the week from hell, losing Katherine Legge to a very nasty accident at the pre-season test and requiring both a replacement car, sourced from within the Signatech organisation and a replacement driver, ditto – with Signatech ‘supersub’ Andre Negrao joining full season lady Tatania Calderon.
Their run was a boost to all concerned, including no doubt Katherine herself whose surgery on a broken left leg went well. She’ll now return home to the USA and recuperate – Come back soon Kat.
The #50 climbed as high as second at one point and as in the mix for a top five finish throughout the second half of the race.
As was the #37 Cool Racing Oreca, in reality lacking a yard of ultimate pace today they’ll be disappointed to miss the podium but realistic enough to know that they weren’t quite at that level on the day.
Likely amongst the most frustrated squad of the lot though will be the #22 United Autosports pairing of Phil Hanson and Filipe Albuquerque, in the hint all day for the win, and in the lead for a d=fair chunk of it they were unlucky to suffer a – you’ve guessed it – front left puncture with nowhere close to enough time remaining to repair the damage to their truck position.
Both drivers were well on form throughout, though Phil Hanson will be big enough to admit that today his team-mate in the #32 car’s A-game at the start of the race, Will Owen, was more than a match for his early race pace. There’s little doubt though from what we saw today that the #22 pair are going to be title contenders.
Second place, after the demotion of the Graff car, went to the Aurus 01 of G-Drive Racing and the rest of the grid will be left hoping that Roman Rusinov doesn’t find form this season, because if he doe this looks an ominously good driving squad.
Mikkel Jensen was as impressive in an LMP2 here this year as he was in winning in LMP3 last year – He netter enjoy what will almost certainly be his last season ranked as a Silver, because his pace today made more than the odd Gold and Platinum-ranked driver look to their laurels.
But if it was pace you were looking for then there was only one place to look, Nyck de Vries is a star in the making, and that’s been recognised for and wide, the F2 Champion, Formula E driver, newly minted Toyota LMP1 and Hypercar test and development driver and full season WEC LMP2 driver still seems to have time to upset the record book. His best effort, a 1:40.139 was over six tenths faster than anything achieved elsewhere in the race.
Had G-Drive opted not to keep track position during the first caution period there’s every likelihood the the #26 would have taken the win today.
The win though went, deservedly, to a hard-charging trio from the #32 United Autosports crew.
Alex Brundle and Job van Uitert both came with big reputations and both delivered, not just with pace and consistency, but with their efforts to save fuel and tyre life that possibly saved the team the same issue that befell the sister #22. Both fought to, and at the front battling with the #26 and the #22.
The star of the show though was their team-mate Will Owen, back at the sharp end and in the form of his life here this weekend, this at a race that he was near certain he would never get to run just a few weeks ago as borders closed and public health concerns and politics held sway.
His performance at the start of the race, not only on pace but also with controlled aggression (his move for the lead was sublime) and consistency will be a marker that the #32 crew has to be taken very, very seriously indeed in any conversation about Championship-winning prospects.
The #22 crew were unlucky, but the #32 were very worthy winners indeed today.
A 12 car field would contest the first ELMS race with the second generation of LMP3 cars and in truth the weekend ends with a couple of question marks.
Eight Ligiers and a quartet of Duqueines made up the field, and the day started with confirmation that, as had been the case in Saturday’s Michelin Le Mans Cup race, an additional mandatory pit stop was to be introduced after Oreca advised the stewards of concerns relating to fuel consumption data from earlier in the weekend.
There was an early drama for the #9 Graff Ligier, a hit from the rear by Paul Dalla Lana’s Aston Martin knocking off the right rear legality panel from Sebastien Page’s JS P320, that would see a repair required and any chance of a podium run ruined, the car come home an all-things considered fine 5th!
A rather more dramatic incident would befall Tony Wells in the #7 Nielsen Racing Duqueine, the rear wing of the D08 detaching as he came into Signes very early in the race, poor Tony spun immediately as the rear downforce disappeared, at that point believing he had suffered a puncture.
He came back slowly to pit for what turned out to be an almost 12-minute repair, the errant fixing bracket taken by ACO technical delegates for investigation. The car would rejoin, but laps down, Wells later opting to park the car, the race lost.
Another car in early trouble was the #11 EuroInternational Ligier, Tommy Erdos going backwards in traffic and falling into the GT pack. The effort would recover throughout the race though, a 6th place finish for Erdos and Nico Kari far from a disaster.
The second, #10 Nielsen Duqueine would have a steady run aside from a nasty moment side to side with an LMP2 car as Rob Hodes was on his in-lap, that led]ft the Duqueine with a shredded tyre and a slow lap to the pits. They’d rejoin but could do no better than 8th, this the best finish by a Duqueine!
Behind in 10th was an unhappy DKR Engineering after another troubled run – paddock sources suggest that at least one of DKRs Duqueine will be replaced by a Ligier by Spa!
United Autosports #3 Ligier would have a steady run to 7th an early drive through for Andrew Bentley after a jump start spoiling the rhythm.
With strategy to the fore with the four mandatory pitstop pattern, and the near inevitability of class battles suffering interruption with caution periods the race eventually came down to two battling pairs.
The #15 RLR MSport Ligier led for quite a time, in art because of the variety of decision on when the teams took their longer pit stops, but in part too because of great pace in particular from team newcomer Malthe Jakobsen.
As the pit cycles equalised the #15 dropped back – but a podium for their new look squad will be seen as a good start by the 2018 LMP3 Championship winning team, James Dayson pushing on solidly in his stint and Ryan Harper Ellam hopefully encouraged enough to find a way back for more later in the season.
The trio did enough to see off the challenge from the #8 RealTeam squad of Esteban Garcia and David Droux, a drive through for an incident with a GT car (see below) wrinkling their progress, but this is a duo that will be in contention this year.
That left the pair of cars battling for the class win – They’d be scored a lap ahead of the opposition, another gap rather flattered by the position of the overall leader when the flag dropped.
Martin Hippe in the #13 Inter Europol Ligier was as solid as ever and kept the ‘Norwich City’ car in touch before handing over to Nigel Moore who pushed harder still getting the #13 to the from as others stumbled or were overhauled.
Behind though there was a looming threat from the ‘form’ LMP3 car of the week here, the #2 United Autosports Ligier, Tom Gamble had started very well indeed, pulling out a double-figure lead in seconds before handing over to Rob Wheldon, the Radical racing veteran proving his reputation is well earned and fighting back to the lead despite the United crew opting to ‘burn’ one of the mandated 150-second stops early.
It would be a combination of the choice of when the pitstops were taken, the pace on track, and the luck of the draw with the caution periods that would define who emerged where. The pace of the #2 was stellar throughout and in the final half-hour it came down to Wayne Boyd chasing down Nigel Moore.
Better tyre strategy played a part and Boyd was through and clear to pull away for a 4 second lead at the flag, double ELMS LMP3 Championship United back on form!
The nine car GTE field saw plenty of drama before things settled down to a Porsche win for the #77 Dempsey Proton 911 RSR (Christian Ried, Michele Beretta and Alessio Picariello). The early leader was the #74 Kessel Ferrari of Michael Broniszewski, but his early advantage was soon removed with a ruling that the red Ferrari had jumped the start. That sent the #74 back into the pack and put Duncan Cameron in the #55 into the lead, the British driver having another impressive run.
But even before the drama for the #73, another car in early trouble was the #98 Aston Martin, Paul Dalla Lana having a brief spin and also getting into a tangle with the Graff LMP3 Ligier, dislodging the right rear legality panel.
Ahead of the Aston Martin Michelle Gatting and Hunter Abbott in the #83 Iron Lynx and #66 JMW Ferraris were trading places in a spirited battle.
Next GTE in trouble was the #93 Proton Porsche, Michael Fassbender’s debut rather spoiled after an encouraging early race stint by a somewhat misjudged pass into the baking zone by the #8 RealTeam Ligier, the LMP3 car passing to the left tucking in ahead of the Porsche and immediately braking, Fassbender doing well to avoid a substantial collision but spinning and hitting the barriers.
The car would pit to repair what turned out to be significant damage, later rejoining for Felipe Laser and Richard Lietz to push on, Fassbender getting back aboard before the flag. The car would end the race seventh and final finisher in the class.
Not long after the #93 rejoined there would be the trouble of a terminal nature for the leader, Duncan Cameron hit hard by the #30 Duqueine Team Oreca as he completed his in-lap just after the and of the first hour, and pitched into the barrier, front end damage to the 488 and its race was done, an apology came from the LMP2 team later, but it would be a nil points score for the #55 at round one.
That saw a Full Course Caution and the Kessel Ferrari back to the lead. With a Safety Car scrambled half an hour later the order was #74, 77, 66, 60, 5, 83, 98, 93.
That took the race almost to the halfway point and when it went back to green Alessio Picariello soon took advantage of the reduced gap to put Niki Cadei, now aboard the #74, under pressure. A fantastic move up the inside as the pair came barrelling down to Signes paid off, The Porsche led, and would not be headed thereafter outside of the pitstop cycle.
The #60 Ferrari led briefly as the true leaders pitted to put David Perel into battle with Michele Beretta as the final hour approached, the South African though was having to push hard and was off track at least once as he tried to press home the pursuit.
Behind the leaders there was a fine battle for fourth between Hunter Abbott in the #66 JMW Ferrari and Mathias Lauda in the #98 Aston Martin, Lauda made a move stick just before the next round of pit stops but the JMW crew produced the goods on pit lane, getting Jody Fannin out just ahead of Ross Gunn – albeit briefly!
The Aston Martin’s run, that looked capable of producing a podium, was ruined right at the end of the race as Gunn pitted with a puncture on the last lap, the non-Championship run not worth risking the car for, the #98 non-classified as it did not cross the line at the end of the race.
The #51 and #60 AF Corse and Iron Lynx Ferraris had quiet races, they’d finish an eventual 5th and 6th respectively after the #60 suffered a late-race puncture, behind the JMW 488, a very slow last lap for the #66 causing some concern but the all-yellow car would come home fourth, Jody Fannin later reporting a last lap puncture!
That left the #77 to come home with a very comfortable margin over the #74, the gap had only slightly flattered the effort.
Completing the podium after another strong run was the #83 ‘Iron Dames’ all-female trio, Rahel Frey pushing hard in the final stint to make a fight of it for second but falling 31 seconds short at the line for a trio of women that has now scored consecutive ELMS podiums at this race.