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Le Castellet 240: Full Race Report, Dancing Into The Dark

The headlines will say 'Another United Win' but this one was a bit different!

Well, this one had something for everyone, raw blinding speed, comedy errors, spectacular (and injury-free) accidents, luck of both extremes, the potential for huge upsets and unusual headlines and much, much more.

To get all of that it applied two of the undeniable truths of Sportscar racing, for action just add water, and darkness, and added a third – and the utterly bizarre track surface at Paul Ricard!

Let’s look at it class by class.

GTE

GTE coulda, shoulda, woulda had three different runaway winners.

First up the #77 Proton Porsche, a run to and at the front from Christian Ried that was amongst the best we’ve seen from the Proton team boss in quite some years.

The run was ruined though by not one but two substantial hits from Prototypes that saw the Porsche forced into fightback mode, a fine recovery drive by Messrs Beretta and Picariello salvaged second place and enough points to draw level at the top of the Championship with the #74 Kessel Ferrari that did not score well today.

The big winner from their earlier misfortune was the #83 Iron Lynx Ferrari, a good opening stint from Manuela Göstner was followed by stellar work from Rahel Frey that took the car to the front and into a commanding 30-second lead.

The ‘Iron Dames’ cartoon anvil though was the final Safety Car for Loic Duval’s accident that saw their hard-earned lead evaporate, the squad left to duke it out with the recovering #77 Porsche at close quarters, Michelle Gatting vs Alessio Picariello not really an even contest.

Worse still for the #83 crew the #55 Ferrari had pitted before that last Safety Car and cashed in fully.

Matt Griffin staying out as the rest of the class field pitted together just as the race went green, inherited a 60 second plus lead and then performed a remarkable feat of fuel-saving that saw the car come to the finish with 40 seconds still in hand having squeezed 75 minutes of running (including the Safety Car) out of a 60-minute tank!

The three race winners this season occupy the top three places in the points with the #74 Kessel Ferrari and #77 Proton Porsche tied on 56 points, the #55 Spirit of Race 488 now on 40.

The best of the rest on 38 points is the #83 Iron Lynx Ferrari.

LMP3

LMP3 was a tale of several cars seemingly intent on hitting each other, and others, as often as possible!

Amongst the perpetrators, victims or both were the #11 Eurointernational car that was assaulted, and committed assault(s), similarly the early efforts of the #16 BHK Ligier might legitimately see the silhouette of the car on BBC’s Crimewatch programme with a call “Did you see this car?”

The DKR Duqueine had a simply awful early part of the race which the team spends the remainder of their Saturday evening recovering from.

In contrast the #7 Nielsen Duqueine put in a very strong run in the hands of Colin Noble, leading the race for a time before the car ground to a halt seemingly suffering from a terminal lack of volts, ponies or both!

Today was not a good day for the Duqueines!

Both Graff Cars seemed to attract trouble wherever they went, not always their fault, but not always not their fault either! Both ran well up for part of the race, neither ended up with a result that is going to be a career highlight for anyone involved. A staccato run from the #9 effectively ended with its role in the multi-car incident that brought out the final Safety Car (see below).

RLR MSport challenged hard with a three-man crew that is hitting a sweet spot, Malthe Jakobsen’s pace looks better by the race (and was pretty good to start with!), James Dayson looks happier than ever in this team and his consistency showed that, whilst Robert McGennes has been a good signing too for the one-time ELMS LMP3 Championship winning team, looking comfortable in the lead after Noble’s misfortune.

The Bolton UK-based squad though were unlucky with the timing of a Safety Car, losing a chunk of time to a caution period that they would never fully recover. Fourth is a good result but probably feels like the worst result of all!

Inter Europol could and should have won the race, but a drive-through for the contact by Nigel Moore on the #16 BHK Ligier in the final hour that triggered the final Safety Car cost the team enough to relegate them to third.

It was a traditionally solid display from the Polish team topped by Moore’s trademark storming final stints that has livened up countless late-race ELMS LMP3 battles. They’ll be disappointed with the final points tally, but it was a hell of a lot better than their day at Spa.

United Autosports’ LMP3 results were something of a curate’s egg – good in parts – the #2 returning to the garage for reasons yet unknown (damaged radiator) after some strong running, the #3 leading deep into the race, Duncan Tappy left to fend off the late-race charge from the #8 RealTeam Ligier and almost making it, only to have to give best to David Droux in the final minutes of the race. Tappy and Andrew Bentley will be relatively happy with second, but this will go down with both as the one that got away!

So the RealTeam pairing of Droux and Esteban Garcia finally got a result that has been looming this season, this is a convincing pairing that is on the up, though not currently in the Championship fight!

The #2 United Ligier continues to lead the Championship despite its DNF here, their 52 points still 14 ahead of nearest rivals the #8 RealTeam.

The #3 United car is next up, a further 4 points back with the #13 Inter Europol and #15 RLR MSPort cars a further single point back.

The point worth making here is that the points table is absolutely dominated by the Ligier teams, the top seven positions in the Championship all filled by Ligier teams, the best Duqueine in the order the #7 Nielsen car courtesy of a single second place at Spa between two retirements.

LMP2

And so onto LMP2 and a 15 car bar brawl that saw themes emerging every 15 minutes or so, the astounding strength of the Goodyears as the race transitioned towards a drier track, a remarkable run from the #34 Inter Europe Ligier that made the very best of the levelling effect of the weather to threaten the podium for a time – they finished a fighting sixth.

There was a fine run too from the Richard Mille Racing pairing that should boost the team ahead of the Le Mans 24 Hours, Beitske Visser showing real form, Sophia Floersch putting in a solid performance too aside from a fumble under the Safety car that cost her a drive-through which, in the wake of a Safety Car, is always costly on track position!

High Class Racing showed good pace too but had too many moments that cost them time to deliver a meaningful result today, Cool Racing too had too much trouble to cash in on the pace shown by Nico Lapierre and Antonin Borga, the ELMS race the only race on the card this weekend that the Swiss team didn’t win after victories in the Michelin Le Mans Cup and a pair of wins in the Ligier European Series.

Algarve Pro racing had, by far, their best form of the year so far, their Goodyears came alive for quite a while and a fired-up Gabby Aubry was pushing hard to get in on the podium action! his #25 crew with an equally fired up John Falb and an impressively ‘fighty’ Simon Trummer who took the battle to Mikkel Jensen early on will be legitimately disappointed with a fine fifth-place finish.

The sister car was in the mix too until the incident which brought out the final safety car coming into the final hour, Loic Duval pitched into a roll as the #9 Graff Duqueine looked to avoid t-boning the #16 BHK Ligier which had been tipped into a spin by the #13 Ligier, the #24 ended up upside down on the tyre wall, Duval thankfully fine, and happy that “at least this time the TV got it so I can show the team it wasn’t my fault!”

DragonSpeed had an unusually low key run, the car bobbling around the lower reaches of the top ten for much of the race en route to tenth. One position ahead, the #30 Duqueine Team Oreca had yet another race where a podium looked possible, then likely, then not! Konstantin Tereschenko let it be said, seems to have parked his more aggressively self-destructive tendencies and is now very much a force to be reckoned with!

IDEC Sport struggled in the early part of the race and struggled thereafter to be a real factor, Paul Loup Chatin fast but more fragile than usual, Richard Bradley finding his real speed too late to grab back anything better than seventh.

United Autosports almost threw away the race, and the finishing position of the #32 is perhaps a fair reflection of the scale of the tactical error in switching the two cars to slicks way too early.

The reality is that the team, and many others, expected this newly resurfaced Class 1 circuit to drain and dry out way quicker than it did. The track surfaces ability to retain moisture on the surface was really quite remarkable, and that left both United cars filling for any sort of pace for a full stint apiece.

The #32’s recovery came late, the crew unlucky with the draw on caution periods, and struggling to close substantial gaps after doing a lap courtesy of that tyre call and an early race drive-through for Will Owen, they did at least claim the fastest lap of the race in the closing stages, Job van Uitert with a 1:43.060, part of a blindingly quick final stint, faster than the lead battle, which was saying something! After a win here 6 weeks ago though the #32 crew will be unhappy with eighth.

All of that leaves just the teams that completed the top four, and each of them led at least once in the race.

Panis Racing will justifiably feel disappointed with fourth after a very strong performance almost throughout this race, leading well for extended periods, their Goodyear rubber very much looking the thing to have in the changeable conditions. All three drivers earned plaudits with Will Stevens again showing his form in LMP2 as a rapid bullet in the gun. Particular mention though should be made of Nico Jamin’s contribution, a very solid effort with speed and consistency gave the team an opportunity for a real result – This is a team that needs to be taken very seriously for next month’s Le Mans 24 Hours now.

It was a not dissimilar performance from another French LM2 team, Graff Racing are one of the teams that it is easy to overlook, but it’s usually a mistake to do so!

The #39 car started to be a real factor by the midpoint after a solid start from Alexandre Cougnaud, James Allen put in one of the drives of his LMP career thus far to take the car towards, and then into the lead battle with some very quick lap times. Handing over to Thomas Laurent that push continued though the fall of the strategy dice was as unkind to Graff as it had been to Panis, it became a battle for the last podium position which the #39 car managed to win by 5 seconds, a good result, and another calling card for Le Mans!

And then there were two!

There will be one question, and only one, in the G-Drive camp after the one. How did we lose that race to United Autosports?

It wasn’t a matter of a lack of pace – the #26 barely dropped out of the top three throughout the race aside from on pitstop rotation, the pit work was pretty smooth and consistency from all three drivers was good too

Roman Rusinov ran a solid second and third throughout his stint in tricky conditions, Mikkel Jensen led, after losing out for a while to a flying Nico Jamin, and Jean-Eric Vergne flew too.

The reality is that the luck wasn’t there for the #26, but it certainly was for the #22!

The early race pace for Phil Hanson was good, very good! He led comfortably as the conditions looked to improve, but the call from the team to slicks, whilst looking a sound decision to many, fell foul of a circuit that simply refuses to dry out. That left Hanson out on slicks when inters, at the very least would have been the better pick, and unfortunately for the team this came at a time when there was near-continuous green flag running.

That saw the #22 out of the top ten, and with only two options: Pit again and lose the lap, or tough it out and keep out of trouble.

They chose the latter option and Hanson produced probably his slowest but a most impressive stint in his LMP2 career thus far, absolutely fault-free, and picking up time where he could, the lap times coming as the track finally dried, but by then the advantage of going to slicks early was long gone. This was not a race at this point that could be won by the #22 on pace alone.

Hanson battled to stay in the hunt and had two weapons in the armoury, his ability to produce the consistently fast times, and as luck would have it, a fuel window that saw the #22 pitting 3 laps or so later than their major opposition.

That was where the luck came in, it was simply the case that when the Safety Cars came, the #22 was in a position to take full advantage, having not been able to close a nearly 90-second gap to the lead group after the early switch to slicks, most of the heavy lifting was done with the field bunching up under the Safety Car, and the ability to stretch the fuelling envelope further then their major opposition gave Filipe Albuquerque the opportunity to finally attack.

That was when the raw speed came back into play, and almost before he knew it it was a head to head battle for the lead in the closing stages with Vergne.

After the final stops, the G-Drive mechanics were celebrating, a slightly longer stop for Albuquerque to replace the front left tyre gave Vergne back something of an edge that traditionally he would retain.

This time though Albuquerque had other ideas and he set about closing the gap, catching the #26 with under 10 minutes to go and finally getting by with 4 minutes to go to take an in he could barely believe the team had achieved!

Filipe Albuquerque: “It was a crazy race. Hats off to Phil really, he pulled his part of the race off perfectly, just like a professional driver and he compensated for the issues we had. He did a great job to not crash the car in tough conditions and I’m super proud of him. I think our race was minimising the risk to the championship. I took it that today was not our win to have. I pushed like mad because we had a great car. When my engineer told me I was P6 and then P5 and the P4 and then second, I was honestly happy with P2, but then I caught the #26 and I saw he was fighting hard with everything he had and I thought I just have to think about the championship, but the move was there and it was clear so I went for it, I don’t know how it happened. We pushed and ended up winning the race which is just incredible.”

Phil Hanson: “I think this was the toughest race I’ve ever driven. There was a point when I was out on a wet track on slick tyres and it was so difficult to manage. I knew we were leading the championship but I knew I couldn’t afford to take any margin because we were so slow. I was so thrilled that I could be on the limit so much without making a mistake and that for me personally is a big win. As soon as everyone went to slicks I felt really strong. Filipe then got in and finished the job. We were driving angry because we thought we’d lost the race, but it all played into our favour. We made it very difficult for ourselves today but if we can make it that difficult and we can recover then I don’t know what we can’t do.”

The #22 now leads the Championship on 68 points, 29 up on the sister #32 United car with the #26 G-Drive and #39 Graff cars 32 and 33 points back respectively.

RACE RESULT >>