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European Le Mans Series 2016 - 4 Hours of Red Bull Ring

15th - 17th July 2016

Event report

Red Bull Ring hosts the third round of the European Le Mans Series, as well as the third round of the Michelin GT3 Le Mans Cup. However it is only the second time when the two close series share the same track during a weekend because while ELMS supported the first FIA WEC round in Silverstone, the GT3 LM Cup became a support event during the Le Mans 24 Hour meeting, where LMP3 cars from ELMS were added to the grid and formed together a race called Road To Le Mans.

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Unlike in the past, this is the first three-day ELMS meeting held here in Austria. ELMS used to be a two-day event, with two practice sessions one day, and a qualifying and main race the next day. This weekend a Bronze Driver Collective Test was held for the first time in the ELMS history. The second practice session and the qualifying was the second day, on Saturday, leave the main race as the lone ELMS session on Sunday.

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Another notable change compared to the last year and a huge presence of LMP3 in the ELMS field. While in 2015 this class was only about Ginettas, this year it is only about Ligiers. Ginetta stopped supporting ELMS and LMP3 since 2016 and their cars G57 now race in VdeV where the rules are less strict for prototypes and thus even non-homologated LMP3-derivate can race and win there.

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With the LMP3 class boosting from 5 cars to about 20 over the winter, the field would have been too big if GT3 stayed as a part of ELMS. So they were removed and formed that already mentioned stand-alone race called GT3 Le Mans Cup. Only 11 cars arrived to Austria. But the race was even worse. One Ferrari was parked after just 4 laps in the first practice. Remaining 10 cars former on the grid - but after the start it was very tight field and soon after the first corner a collision, started by one of the Ferraris, completely eliminated the only McLaren and the second fastest qualifier was off the race - front wheel suspension broken. Two other Ferraris finished the first laps running into the pits. Safety Car was called for the first time, which helped one of damaged Ferraris to keep in touch with the same lap as leader, why the other Ferrari never hit the track again.

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SMP Ferrari led the race from the beginning. Behind it there was a nice battle for the second place between a lonely Aston Martin and a lonely Porsche. The leading Ferrari was actually never seriously challenged though it lost its lead margin during the second Safety Car excursion - this time because of the only present Lamborghini spinning off to the gravel and not able to recover by its own. This actually helped the Ferrari repaired from the first lap accident to get in closer touch with the leading cars. After the restart that particular Ferrari moved to fourth overall, trying to overtake the third running Aston Martin. But soon after the mandatory pit stop and a driver change it suffered some difficulties and became the slowest car on the track.

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Later, the Lamborghini that had spun off earlier was eliminated from the race after a stupid mistake right after leaving the pit lane after a driver change. Near the exit, there is a sharp corner and the new driver was simply too quick, made a contact with the barriers and despite trying to continue, the car was not willing to let him drive it anymore. Now with only 7 cars on the track, one of which (a yellow Ferrari) was hugely delayed due to repeated gearbox issues, and another Ferrari (the repaired one) was running rather slowly during the final stages of the races, there was little drama on the track apart from the continuing batter for the second and third position between the Porsche and Aston Martin - both the only representatives of their respective make.

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The Porsche was the more successful team and finished the finish line second behind the SMP Ferrari, which again improve its lead after the second Safety Car caution had ended. Behind the third Aston Martin, we had silver Ferrari, the best one entered by AF Corse, and a lone Audi R8 LMS.

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Now let us get back to the main race, the European Le Mans Series. We had here nice 38 cars but the grid was a bit reduced anyway. Especially the LMP2. Race Performance Oreca was not here, Idec Sport Racing Ligier was not here and the SO24 ! By Lombard Racing team went bankrupt and will not re-appear any more. In the entire field, there were five cars (all LMP2 of course), which were in nearly all session faster than anything else. Old Zytek-based Gibson was among those five, as well as all three present Oreca 05 coupes, but just one Ligier, which completely dominated the entry, when the numbers are taken into an account (23 cars out of 38 were named Ligier, four of them running in the top LMP2 class).

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The first practice session heat was even dominated the sole Gibson, ahead of Panis Barthez Ligier and the three Orecas. In the second session, the Gibson was even beaten by additional two Ligiers and set only 7th fastest time. This session was dominated by the Orecas, finishing 1-2-4. And finally the qualifying session brought the first spot to the fast Ligier ahead of Thiriet/TDS Oreca, the Gibson and other two Oreca coupes.

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All eleven LMP2 cars were easily quicker than the rest of the field - furthermore they all beat best LMP3 time in their first measured lap. The LMP2s qualified in a range of 1:20.7 to 1:22.8. Unlike the successful Gibson, other two open-top cars (Oreca 03R of Murphy Prototypes and a Morgan) did not succeed and will be gridded 10th and 11th overall.

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LMP3 times starts at 1:26.126 and the first 14 of them are ahead of best GTE trio. Panoz Barthez Competition team was not only overall pole-sitter but also fastest of the LMP3 cars. Among them it was followed by United Motorsports car no.3 and Duqueine Engineering no.19. The best GTE car was a Porsche 991 RSR, 26th overall, the car no.88, one of two present Porsches, both entered by Proton Competition. Ferraris 458 of JMW Motorsport and AT Racing followed. The class variety of the smallest class (only 7 GT cars in the race today) was added by a single Aston Martin, which qualified only 35th.

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The race starts today at 2 PM o'clock. Unlike the past few years here, when it was usually rather hot, the weather forecast for today is just 21 Celsius grades and a slight rain for most of the race. SO it might be very eventful and unpredictable race, as all sessions until now were held on entirely dry track.

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Sunday 14:00 - The Race

Contrary to any rain prediction, it was fully dry at the start, and it actually never started the race. The start went well, all 38 ELMS cars took the regular grid and completed the first laps without any incidents. The five quick LMP2 cars noticed already in all practice & qualifying sessions dominated also beginning of the race. The Ligier no.23 (Panis Barthez Competition) led from the Pole Position, followed by Eurasia Oreca no.33. Gibson no.38 of G-Drive kept briefly third but then a slow puncture forced them to pit very early and since then, despite a very well effort, they were only catching the delay (which was less than one lap but still big enough).

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American Dragonspeed Oreca no.21 began the race in 4th position just ahead of the remaining quick Oreca 05, Thiriet by TDS, no.46. Sixth place, with some increasing gap, was kept by Krohn Racing Ligier no.40 - but the car soon faded. First behind most of the LMP2 cars, later deeply in the mid-field and finally becoming penultimate finisher, moreover causing a third full course yellow with less than 10 minutes to go.

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Russian SMP Racing BR 01 then took the role of catching the TOP5s, i.e. 3 Orecas coupes, Panis Barthez Ligier no.23 and the Gibson, to which the Red Bull Ring track suits very well, regardless how really old the car actually is.

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Early LMP3 positions were like follows: no.19, no.2, no.16, no.11. The very last was second OAK Racing car no.4, after very early pit stop. It became the first car to lose a lap on leaders. After 12 minutes the slowest GTE were overtaken by the leader too. Second United Autosports LMP3 Ligier pitted at the same time, while first two cars overall (no.23 and no.33), ran even closer to each other than they had before.

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First LMP2 car in a real trouble was the Pegasus Morgan, which was slow anyway - but now with a huge smoke from the rear, it slowed down and completed the lap to the garage. Fortunately the problem was not that huge and it rejoined after about two laps.

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The first really big moment of the race, was after 37 minutes when the top LMP2 cars were lapping the GTE leader, JMW Ferrari no.66. It made a contact with the leading Ligier - both cars recovered from the spin very quickly and with almost no damage continued - but the Ligier dropped to fourth position, actually leaving the three Orecas 05 on podium positions, while not being far behind.

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After the first series of pit stop, the Oreca no.21 became rather slow to keep the pace with the leaders, so it kept third behind other Orecas 05 (leading Thiriet by TDS no.46 and Eurasia no.33) till the Russian SMP BR took over. Ligier of Greaves Motorsport was running 5th at this stage of the race, keeping the recovering Gibson 6th, for this moment. Ligier no.23 was now suffering, being slow, having two pit stop, actually becoming out of contention.

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With 15 minutes before the half point of the four-hour race, we had a first FCY (full course yellow), when the speed of all cars is limited to 60 kph. This much better solution than standard safety car is now used in more and more championships. Unfortunately, not in yesterday's GT3 Le Mans Challenge. There was some confusion when the FCY was about to end, when some stations showed green, some cars speeded up, overtaking others still running slowly. It quickly returned to the FCY mode on entire track and once the cars were settled, a standard green was shown and the race returned to a full speed. The top 5 positions were no.46, no.33 (Orecas), no.32 (BR), no.41 (Greaves Ligier) and no.38 (Gibson).

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There was not many changes in the second half of the race. LMP3 was usually led by the Duqueine Engineering no.19, which led from the beginning of the race. But it was not that easy, several LMP3 cars, took the lead at some stages of the race but no one could actually beat no.19 in consistency of the performance. It finished 9th overall, ahead of no.9 Graff, no.2 United Autosports and no.6, 360 Racing. Right behind them the top 3 GTE completed their race. JMW Ferrari no.66 was dominant almost entire race. Next three positions behind the GTE winner belonged also to LMP3 Ligiers - most notable of them were Nicolets (father/son) finished 5th in class. AF Corse Ferrari no.51 and AT Racing no.56 Ferraris completed the GTE podium. Surprisingly behind them was none of the Porsches RSR but the only Aston Martin no.99 after starting and beginning the race among at the end of the field. After three hour, it was even second in class.

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At the very top the Thiriet by TDS kept the pace, at times nearly lapping all other cars. The positions were changing a little among the top four runner, according to their pit stop schedule. In the last hour the Gibson took second place following a very quick pit stop, but soon it collided with the Morgan LMP2, running many, many laps behind, spinning just in front of the Gibson. Front fender damage was not that bad so after a quick replacement, the team could finish third, with the car not handling as good as before. At the press conference the drivers said, they could have fight for the win, having not experienced that slow puncture at the beginning and avoiding the spinning back marker. Other tracks, especially the next Paul Ricard circuit are not that suitable for an old and open top Gibson. That collision meant an easy second place for the Eurasia Oreca no.33, while the Thiriet by TDs had almost a perfect run until the end of the race.

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The Russian SMP BR finished nice fourth, one laps down, though it looked even better for the team in the middle of the race. So our TOP5 selection after the practice dominated not only early stages of the race but also podium - three of them, while one finished delayed 7th (Panis Barthez Ligier no.23) and one retired with a broken suspension after a little more than two hours (likely following bad pit exit by one of its drivers).

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The ELMS became a very strong series with the arrival of the LMP3 and let's hope that once it adds some variety to the class, it would still keep about 40-car entry and continue to grow. This season is possibly the best one since the split with WEC and cancellation of the LMP1 class.

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