A trio of current WEC teams competed in the 4 Hours of Le Castellet, the opening round of the European Le Mans Series at Circuit Paul Ricard.
The European Le Mans Series (ELMS) is one of the feeder series’ to the FIA World Endurance Championship, which is also governed by the Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO).
The series, based at tracks around Europe, features three different categories of racing in the form of LMP2, LMP3 and GTE cars.
Teams competing in the LMP2 and GTE classes are not only fighting for wins and their ELMS championships, but an invite to the 24 Hours of Le Mans (obtained in the closing of the season and prior to next year’s Le Mans).
As detailed in the ‘How WEC fans can stay occupied during lockdown‘ piece, the ELMS easily provides hours of wheel-to-wheel action on a multi-class capacity.
The race-week at Circuit Paul Ricard also had WEC’s other feeder series, the Michelin Le Mans Cup (featuring LMP3 and GT3 cars only), take place too.
The weekend began the 2020 ELMS season featuring the Gen-2 LMP3 cars that have a slightly-altered and more efficient aero package, an extra 56 horsepower and the introduction of traction control.
There were three names familiar in the WEC who competed at this opening round; this piece will take a look at their performance throughout the 4 Hours of Le Castellet.
Aston Martin Racing – GTE
For the first time, the Aston Martin Racing (manufacturer) team would make an official appearance in the European Le Mans Series in their #98 AMR Vantage GTE.
The #98 crew was made up of the WEC-competing AMR GTE-Am drivers Paul Dalla Lana, Mathias Lauda and Ross Gunn.
They qualified second on the the GTE grid with a time of 1m 51.745s, only 0.016 behind Kessel Racing in their #74 Ferrari 488 GTE Evo; they claimed pole with a time of 1m 51.729s.
At the start, the GTE pack was tight and mixed within the tail-end of the LMP3 field.
Soon after, the #74 Kessel Racing was handed a drive-through-penalty for jumping the start as well as for the #98 Aston Martin Racing that for contact with the #5 Graff Racing LMP3.
The #5 LMP3 faced minor damage to the rear aero when Dalla Lana made contact at the final corner heading onto the start finish straight.
This set the tone for the rest of the race for the #98 as they retired the car towards end, nevertheless making efforts for the team’s first ELMS race and will look to the 4 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps for improvement.
“Not the result we were looking for, but with that kind of pace we’ll be going podium hunting next time out in the ELMS at Spa”, they said on their Twitter page.
Dempsey-Proton Racing – GTE
Dempsey-Proton Racing entered two Porsche 911 RSR GTEs in the LM-GTE category: the #77 and the #93.
The fight for pole in the GTE category was fierce with lap-times closely separated across the nine-car field, but Dempsey-Proton qualified amongst the middle of the GTE field in fourth (#77) and sixth (#93).
One of the leading headlines for this opening round was that Hollywood star Michael Fassbender had joined the #93 squad and would be making his ELMS debut at Circuit Paul Ricard.
Michael Fassbender of the #93 said:“ Before I started acting, I had a big dream of racing.
“I knew that from an early age. My father was an enthusiastic driver and taught me a lot. ”
Whilst the #98 AMR in the hands of Paul Dalla Lana fell victim to the penalty therefore falling behind the fight for the lead, the #77 took advantage of the circumstances and action that unfolded in the GTE category.
Christien Reid in the #77 began and held his fourth position at the start, attacking the #55 Spirit of Race that was in front.
In the hands of Michael Fassbender, the #93 faced a high speed collision on lap 21 with the barriers at turn 1 where he was passed by the #8 Realteam Racing LMP3 in the braking zone. The car limped back to the pits for the team to repair the damage and the #8 was awarded a drive-through-penalty.
The #77 Porsche continued to battle with the #55 Spirit of Race and managed to make a move at Signes corner.
The Spirit of Race eventually got ahead (into the lead) and built a gap until the it made contact with the barrier at the fast right-hander of Signes.
The #77 clashed with the LMP2 #30 car of Duqueine Engineering, who later apologised for their incident.
The GTE field set forth to make their pit-stops during the Full-Course-Yellow period that was initiated to retrieve the damaged Ferrari and Alessio Picariello took over.
The #31 Panis Racing crashed into the barrier as it lost control shortly after the exit of the final corner. A 25-minute-long Safety Car period bunched the field together with #77 now leading the GTE class ahead of the #74 Kessel Racing.
Picariello soon pitted to hand the car to Michele Beretta who would eventually make their third and final pit-stop for Picariello to bring it home.
Only in the final 30 minutes, the #77 fought and claimed the lead off David Perel in the #74 Kessel Racing.
Christien Reid, Alessio Picariello and Michele Beretta of the #77 eventually claimed the win in the GTE category in the opening ELMS round.
United Autosports – LMP2 and LMP3
The United Autosports family have been competing in other endurance championships and races outside the WEC for several years, with participations in IMSA with their LMP2, the Michelin Le Mans Cup in an LMP3, and their LMP2 and LMP3 entries in the ELMS.
To fight for the ELMS title, they would need to to establish momentum at this early stage of the season to take advantage of their strong driver line-up in their #22 and #32 cars.
To their delight, the #22 Oreca 07-Gibson LMP2 claimed overall/LMP2 pole position during qualifying on Saturday with a time of 1m 38.268s, in the hands of Filipe Albuquerque.
Albuquerque was teamed-up with Phil Hanson, both a regular in United Autosports LMP2 appearances.
The #32 United Autosports was driven by the crew of Alex Brundle, Will Owen, and Job Van Uitert and their sister #22 United Autosports led the 35-car field.
The start itself was untidy with cars having to maintain their distance with each other, some facing penalties for jumpstarting.
Hanson, starting the #22, spent the first laps defending against the #26 G Drive Racing who was being piloted by Mikkel Jensen, and the sister #32 car behind him. All three cars soon fought in anger for track position.
Following the action and incidents, especially the cases where the different categories clashed during overtaking maneuvers.
With their strong turn of pace, the #32 claimed the win with a 20 second gap over the #26 in P2, and the sister #22 finishing in third.
In a post-race interview, Will Owen, one of the three drivers of the race-winning #32, reflected on the victory: “It’s a great feeling and it’s been a couple of years (to be on the top step of the podium).
“We’ve been good and we’ve been there all the time but just hasn’t perfectly connected until the day and really – today – we’ve had mega pace.
“I gotta thank the team for giving us such a great car, it’s just so mega – nobody was even close.
“At the beginning, I was just being careful finding out where the grip is, getting a feel for the car, and right away I knew I had good pace compared to the G-Drive (#26 Oreca LMP2) in front of me.
“I think my strength [for] today was in traffic.
“As soon as we got to traffic, I started making up gaps – I got a great run down the [Mistral] straight past the #26.
As a silver-licensed Driver, he took part in two stints in the #32 and found himself battling with Albuquerque, an experienced driver in sportscar racing having previously driven for Audi Team Sport Joest in the WEC and has committed to the discipline with United Autosports in the WEC and ELMS, plus his drive in IMSA in the #31 Cadillac Racing DPi.
Owen commented on their brief jostle: “Filipe has obviously taught me a lot and we’ve been racing together for a while and usually, when he’s behind me, he’s catching up.
“But today I just really felt good about the car – I felt really tuned in.
“It all connected.”
Alex Brundle of the #32 said: “It’s great to win and to win again with United Autosports after our championship-winning season in 2016 to make the jump to LMP2 – it’s fabulous.
During his stint, around the middle of the race to split the stints of his fellow teammates, Brundle established a 20 second lead that was then reduced down to two seconds as a safety car period bunched-up the field.
He reflected on this: “In these kind of races, you have to come to accept it.
“The other thing about the safety car was that everyone was struggling with the tyre [temperature] out there.
“It was almost a frightening time for almost all the teams (after the safety car period ended) to make sure that you bring the tyres back up to temperature and where it needs to be, and also maintain position on-track which we managed to do.”
Their #2 and #3 Ligier JS P320-Nissan cars also tasted success within the LMP3 class, firstly for the #2 to qualify on pole (in-class).
Throughout the practice sessions, a higher-than-anticipated fuel consumption was uncovered by Oreca (the official engine supplier of LMP3) and so the stewards (adjustment of Article 12.6.2 of the 2020 ELMS Sporting Regulations) imposed an extra mandatory pitstop.
The ACO has asked Oreca to resolve the issue of gasoline consumption so that this matter will not be repeated at the 4 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps.
This meant that the LMP3 cars pitted four times throughout the race and added another hurdle on the teams’ strategy.
The #2 United Autosports led the 12 car field in the hands of Tom Gamble, and spent the first laps in front of the #15 RLR M Sport of Malthe Jakobson and reigning ELMS LMP3 champions Inter Europol Competition in the #13 of Martin Hippe.
The #3 were amongst those penalised for a jump start as the #2 built a gap of seven seconds over second and third positions.
The teams made their first driver changes during a Full-Course Yellow period raised to retrieve the Spirit of Race #55 Ferrari 488 GTE Evo after they made contact with the #30 LMP2 of Duqueine Engineering.
Rob Wheldon took over the #2 amongst fellow rivals making driver changes at their pit-stops.
The #15 RLR M Sport of James Dayson sat ahead of Wheldon, but Wheldon pursued Dayson to take the lead at Signes corner.
The final pit-stop had Wayne Boyd take over the #2 to pursue the LMP3 lead from its current third place, which was held by the #13 Inter Europol Competition in the hands of Nigel Moore.
In the last 20 minutes, the #2 took the lead following several attempts and charged to victory by the end of the four hours.
The next round of the ELMS will be in Stavelot, Belgium for the 4 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps as United Autosports look to pull out a lead at the top of the LMP2 and LMP3 championships in their highly competitive fields.
Overall, the teams were able to persevere on-track after such a while having to anticipate the joy of endurance racing in lockdown.
Now all that lies for these WEC entries will be their efforts at Spa once again, but to race amongst a different field for a total of six hours instead.