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European Le Mans Series 2017 - 4 Hours of Red Bull Ring

21st - 23rd July 2017

Event report

Red Bull Ring hosted the third rounds of both European Le Mans Series and Michelin Le Mans Cup. While the Cup had its standalone race in Le Mans last month, the ELMS had its standalone race in Silverstone where it supported the WEC 6 Hour race. Otherwise the two series co-exist very closely, In fact the Le Mans Cup was created to allow former ELMS teams with GT3 to continue racing during the ELMS weekends. The reason was the arrival of the new LMP3 cars, which became extremely popular among the teams. And while last year, the Le Mans Cup was destined only for GT3 cars last year, in its inaugural season, the real success it became now in 2017 when the interest in LMP3 within the ELMS events increased even more and it was not possible to satisfy all team with an ELMS entry, so LMP3 now became an integral part of the Le Mans Cup - previously they were invited only once in 2016, for the Road To Le Mans race - and the interest in participation was huge back then.

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Michelin Le Mans Cup (support race)

This year at the Red Bull Ring the Le Mans Cup entry increase twice. Altogether 15 LMP3 prototypes supported by 6 GT3 practiced on Friday in two 1-hour sessions. The qualifying followed on Saturday. The field of LMP3 cars was unequally divided within 14 Ligiers against a single Norma M30. The Norma was always among the top 5 and improved with each session. It qualified to the first row behind Ligier of SPV Motorsport no.44. Then after the start it kept second position during the first lap before fighting into the lead. The DKR Norma then led the field for entire 2-hour race without being seriously attacked. The closest car was no.14 Ligier RLR MSport, when driven by Kapadja. His very slow co-driver Ross Warburton qualified the car at the back of the grid but Alex Kapadja overtook most of the field and during 12th lap he emerged second in a long distance behind the leading Norma. But Kapadja was lapping quicker, set the fastest lap of the first hour, and could close the gap just to three seconds.

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Unfortunately, after the pit stop and driver change it was being overtaken even by slowest GT3 cars Mercedes no.7 and Lamborghini no.8, so it continuously dropped down the field finishing officially 6th - but the real race longed one lap more and during its lap it was overtaken by another Ligier entered by M.Racing - YMR. There was one more change in the last lap and it is yet unknown why officials took the results from the lap 76 before the 2 hour length was reached, rather than the next lap when the race was actually flagged.

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The second and third positions belonged to the Ligiers of Nielsen Racing no.79 and Graff no.65, which were followed by Ligier of Motorsport98 for the second hour - without any changes in positions at the top. The gaps were simply too big and no other driver was that slow as Warburton in no.14. The Motorsport98 was lapped by the leader in the final stages of the race.

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The GT3 portion of the race was long led by Mercedes no.5, which took the lead from Lamborghini no.46 after and early full course yellow restart. The Mercedes then increased the lead and it seemed that the GT3 winner is decided, when it collided with Ligier no.33 and suddenly retired due to puncture and rear bodywork damage. It was decided to be its driver fault. Only other retirement was Ligier no.9.

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After the Mercedes retirement the Lamborghini no.46 returned to the GT3 lead and won the race easily with a Ferrari no.95 second and Audi no.75 third.

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In the overall standings, the top 4 LMP3 positions are exactly the same as in this race. The DKR Norma is leading with 61 points, ahead of Ligiers by Nielsen (44 points) and Graff (29.5 points). So the lone Norma easily keeps the Ligier armada behind, which brings hopes of more variety in LMP3 to be seen in the near future.

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European Le Mans Series

The Le Mans series attracted a huge field of 36 cars, which would have been even bigger, would the LMP3 class not be limited to 17 cars and invited to the Le Mans Cup. Compared to the last year's race we are down by two cars but most importantly the top LMP2 increased from 11 in 2016 to 13 in 2017. And moreover with the new LMP2 rules, the cars now became quicker, nearly to the LMP1 pre-Hybrid era. Unfortunately, there is no comparison in Red Bull Ring as the track was closed during the year when LMP1 cars were still integral part of the Le Mans Series.

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In any case, it was for the first time when we could see sports prototype cars at the current shape of Red Bull Ring, near Zeltweg, lapping under 1:20. The times actually improved by more than two seconds. With no LMP1 ever officially at Red Bull Ring, the only other sports car top class, we ca compare current cars with are 1997-1998 GT1, when Mercedes-Benz and Porsche 911 GT1 dominated the European sports car scene, mainly starting in then newly formed FIA GT and running even quicker than LMP1 prototypes in Le Mans of the time. They were capable of 1:22.x.

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Unlike in WEC, we have more variety in LMP2 in the European Le Mans Series. Of the four allowed manufacturers three are presented here, more or less equally matched. Four Orecas and Dallara against five Ligiers. The cars are very, very similar in design, so when the front and rear body parts were off, it was not that easy to guess what actual car it actually is - which became a challenge when catching the chassis numbers. We could get all of them, including the Le Mans Cup cars. Some teams were rather friendly, the Lammers' Racing Team for Nederland in particular - following their uneasy accessibility of the car :-).

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By the way, it was amazing to see the Ligiers LM P3 already reaching chassis number 86, making them by far most commercially successful sports prototype in recent decades. Here there were altogether 28 of those exemplars, evenly divided between both races (yes, 14 Ligiers in Michelin Le Mans Cup and 14 Ligiers LM P3 in European Le Mans Series - here against 3 Normas). With those 5 LMP217 Ligiers, it makes a huge presents of 33 cars of this make, notably most of all this weekend, despite the presence of Formula Renault cars, in another support race (30 cars).

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ELMS practice and qualifying

The racing programme of ELMS started on Friday with a 30 minute Collective Test for Brozne drivers. Half of the LMP2 stayed away from the session, featuring only Platinum, Golden and Silver drivers. That allowed non-Oreca teams to feature - Panis Barthez Ligier at the top followed by Villorba Corse Dallara and DragonSpeed Oreca third. After first practice session already saw three Orecas at the top. The times were still at the 2016 qualifying levels. But Saturday's second session already saw times breaking into 1:19.0. Ligiers improved and especially United Autosports and Idec Sport cars, 3rd and 4th overall. By the way, the slowest LMP2 car was the Tockwick Ligier, the car that raced in WEC races as a guest entry, in Spa and Nürburgring, providing the only kind of variety as none of WEC regular team opted for different chassis than the Oreca one.

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In the afternoon qualifying session, actually consisting of 3 separate 10-minute session for each class, the top two Orecas switch positions and now G-Drive topped the time sheets, and gained Pole Position for today's race. DragonSpeed Oreca was only 0.005s behind - both at 1:18.4xx. The United Autosport Ligier was the only other car below 1:19, while or other were more than a second off pace of leading duo. Second row on the grid will belong to Ligiers while the best Dallara set the fifth fastest qualifying time. The Tockwith Ligier improved to 9th but stil was the slowest of the five present Ligiers.

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In LMP3 the Normas set 1st and 3rd fastest time, which proves that Normas are probably better, or at least quicker cars than by number prevailing Ligier and can probably bring more competition to already successful class. By the way, the improvement of LMP3 cars is about 0.5 compared to the last season. But Ginettas in 2015 were more than 4 seconds slower.

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To conclude the qualifying report, the small GTE class saw Ferrari dominance, taking 1st, 2nd and 4th places (Spirit of Race team cars taking the first GT row on the grid) with lone Proton Porsche taking 3rd while keeping the remaining two GTE cars, both Aston Martins, in the last GT row for the today's race. The very last provisional grid row will however belong the LMP3 cars. The Ligier no.5 was being qualified by a very slow driver lagging more than two seconds behind the last GTE and another Ligier no.6, which lost a wheel in its first qualification lap and set no time - actually causing a red flag for the LMP3 portion of the session.

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ELMS Race

Sunday's programme consisted of three main activities: Pit walk and autograph session started the day and attracted many of present 18 thousands spectators. This year, it was organized better as the Pit walk session started earlier and ended later when the autograph session itself, when the drivers had to be present - some stay longer and fans were better split among the team garages, so it was easier to get all autographs - for those that care. Formula Renault Euroseries followed but our attention was already paid to the preparation of the main 4 hour race, which was this time scheduled at 1 PM, the earliest start time so far in five year ELMS history at Red Bull Ring.

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The start went smoothly, with no real collisions however some cars went a bit off borders of the track, as can be seen from the photos. However already at the beginning of the second lap, the United Autosports LMP3 Ligier spun, and when trying to recover, it could not get to the racing speed - supposedly some transmission problems (the team has not reported the reason), but it was the first car to retire from the race. A bad start for the United Autosports team. But they had another two cars in the race - and as we will find soon - both of them won!

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It was Oreca of G-Drive that took the lead after the start. The second position was taken by United Autosport Ligier keeping behind another Oreca entered by DragonSpeed, which actually lost to another Ligier, the car no.23 entered by Panis Barthez Competition, to recover to third after 10 laps.

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The top positions then stayed unchanged until the first pit stops. G-Drive Oreca no.22 stayed there a bit longer and the other two cars, pitting a lap later, returned to the track in front of the G-Drive car. United Ligier no.32 appeared in the lead and kept it for more than 2 hours. In the meantime, another quick car emerged from behind - a Dallara no.27 of well-known LMP2 team SMP Racing. Their second pit stop occurred much earlier than for other LMP2 cars, and since then they were on a different pit stop strategy. On lap 60 it appeared in the second position but ran faster than the leading United Ligier no.32. Unfortunately once the Dallara overtook the Ligier for the lead, it had to pit again.

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One of the favourites, the DragonSpeed Oreca no.21, was then driven slowly, continuously disappeared from the top three or four and suddenly finally retired after stopping on the track, causing the only Full Course Yellow period of the race. That allowed the G-Drive Oreca no.22 back to second position, while another Oreca, Graff entered no.40 took third for nearly 20 laps. Regular LMP2 pit stops followed and this brought to the front again the SMP Dallara no.27. It was pretty quick and before its next stop it led for 4 laps. It returned third behind the leading Ligier no.32 and Oreca no.22 having enough advantage over the rest of LMP2 field despite having one pit stop more.

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During the third hour, the G-Drive Oreca no.22 was quicker than the United Ligier no.32 and continuously moved to the lead. It still looked even better for the SMP Dallara car, until 2 hour and 45 minutes of the race - a lengthy pit stop destroyed any hopes for a Russian team victory. They lost nearly three laps. So the race was now to be decided between Ligier no.32 and Oreca no.22. It seemed that Oreca is in better pace and mainly led. But later and shorter final pit stop of the Ligier no.32 brought the car back to the lead, some 10 ahead of the G-Drive Oreca.

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All nearest cars were already at least one lap down. Both cars had a great finish, managing going through the traffic and setting some very fast laps - the gap was too big to make a closer finish that some 5 seconds - The United Autosport Ligier no.32 (driven by William Owen, Hugo de Sadeleer and Filipe Albuquerque) won, with the G-Drive Oreca no.22 closely second. The third place somehow fall into the hands of a second Graff Oreca entry no.39, which started the race nearly at the back of the LMP2 field but gained a podium results following other LMP2 troubles, delays or retirement.

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Same attractive was the battle for the LMP3 victory. It was again Untited Autosport Ligier (no.2), which won this class on track. But post-race decision led to a penalisation 25 seconds due to infringement during the FCY (Full Course Yellow) the victory went to another Ligier no.11 entered by Eurointernational and driven by duo Giorgio Mondini and Davide Uboldi, who is by the way a Campionato Italiano Prototipi (CIP) champion and one of the top national Italian prototype drivers.

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The GTE was mainly a battle between three present Ferraris. At the beginning of the race, it was the lone Porsche that made the race of Ferrari more difficult when mixing among them and even led for the first three laps. But later the Porsche somewhat disappeared to run even behind Aston Martins, one of which then attacked the Ferrari podium, and in the end successfully, as it grabbed the third position from them by only 0.35 second (TF Sports entry). The winning Spirit of Race entry no.55 was driven by Duncan Cameron, Matt Griffin and Aaron Scott.

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There were relatively many retirements, or delayed cars, considering it was only a 4-hour race. Ten cars did not finish at all, while for example fastest LMP3 Norma of Duqueine Engineering, another Ligier LMP3 car of the same team, or the WEC part-time entrant Tockwith Ligier LMP2 were all delayed so much that they finished the race behind entire GTE field, though still classified. The weather, despite uncertain forecasts, kept being good for entire race, despite some rain drops in the final hour, which hardly anybody of the drivers could even notice. It was mainly sunny and hot with some clouds during the second part of the race.

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