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European Le Mans Series 2018 - 4 Hours of Red Bull Ring

20th - 22nd July 2018

Event report

The European Le Mans Series season brought here a huge field of prototypes, equally divided into LMP2 and LMP3. Both classes featured 18 cars. Two makes formed the LMP3 class (Norma and Ligier), while there are three make in LMP2 (Ligier, Dallara and dominant Oreca). GTE is still here, but with only 3 Porsches against 3 Ferraris, its importance and visibility is somewhat the GT class had during the early 1970s World Championship of Makes and during the early Group C days, before it disappeared completely. In ELMS it ads welcome variety, so hopefully even in the coming years if will not continue fading away.

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Supporting Michelin Le Mans Cup race is somewhat similar like the ELMS, just lacking the fast LMP2, while the smaller GT class is formed by the GT3 machinery, unlike the Le Mans GTE in the main race. Once again only 6 GT cars present consist mainly by Ferraris, which are supported by a lone Porsche and Mercedes-AMG.

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Free Practice

Friday's practice sessions was still held under nice, sunny and warm weather, while the forecast for the weekend itself awaits some rainstorms. The first ELMS ended up with Oreca 07s on top 8 positions with the IDEC car beating nicely yellow-red painted Racing Engineering car by only 0.003 seconds. The best LMP3 was Ultimate Norma, 19th overall. Only 4 Normas took the fight against 14 Ligiers in the class, but three of them were among the top 6.

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Collective Test for bronze drivers was dominated by Villorba Corse Dallara but most of the LMP2 cars stayed in the garage making this a non-representative sessions, at least as a regards of times. The second free practice session was held on Saturday in the morning. It took only some 15 minutes before the rain started to fall making the track wet and slow during a few minutes. IDEC in front of G-Drive and again Racing Engineering followed by DragonSpeed were the only Orecas in front of SMP Racing Dallara, which was 5th this time. The times improved compared to yesterday despite they were set within only the first 6 laps. Then the 90 minute session became wet and only three cars, which had not set representative times in the early stages manage to improve their time at the end of the session, with the track slightly drying.

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Qualifying

For the afternoon qualifying session the nice weather was back but the times improved by only about half second compared to free practices. Once again IDEC Oreca dominated the session, followed by Duqueine Engineering and Racing Engineering Orecas. Best non-Oreca car was a United Autosports Ligier, classified 7th. The best Dallara was 10th (Cetilar Villorba Corse entry) was the only other non-Oreca among the top 10. It remains obvious that even the jokers applied over the winter for non-Oreca cars did not help much to equal the field.

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In LMP3 the few Normas prevailed Ligiers, still dominant in numbers, and took the first tow (Ultimate no.17 ahead of M. Racing - YMR no.19). Both remaining Normas were still in top 7 of LMP3, which is a really good result. For some reason, in the ELMS there are still not as many Normas as in the supporting LM Cup, where it is 9 Normas against 11 Ligiers. The GTE qualifying saw only slight advantage of Ferraris over the Porsches but it is quite open between the two makes for the race. All 6 GT cars were within 0.5 seconds.

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Michelin Le Mans Cup

Norma was on top during both free practice session but best Ligier always made it to the top 3. Moreover successful Normas from DKR and Lanan in practice one were replaced by Cool Racing and DB Autosport entries in the afternoon session. So before the qualifying and the race today, the situation at the top was quite open and also second co-drivers. GT3 qualifying brought clear pole position to the lone Mercedes-AMG with a time better by more than on second. Generally the GT3 field was not equal and unlike in the ELMS, the 6 cars were split in nearly 4 seconds. The LMP3 qualifying for the overall position ended up with three Normas at the top, with Cd Sports first, DKR Engineering second and Graff third. Two Ligiers followed.

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The race itself was started behind the Safety Car due to rain which started during the previous Formula Renault race, another support event. It saw the pole sitting Norma no.30 running away all the rest and led by nearly half lap when the cars changed to dry tyres in the middle of the race. The only car running at similar speed was the Ligier no.24 (Cool Racing), which improved from 8th position on the grid to the second position, within a few laps. But then it had to pit and lost nearly entire lap.

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The race was completely influenced by two FCY (Full Course Yellow) periods in the middle of the race, when some teams pitted earlier and lost too much against those that pitted under the FCY. FIA should finally alter regulations for FCY, otherwise it nearly decide the races and team cannot do much about that. Just try to stay on track as long as possible and hope FCY would happen. Simply the Norma leading with a huge margin lost everything earned in wet by the excellent driving. On the other side, Ligier no.99 appeared in a 10-second lead but having a driver 4-5 slower than its nearest competitors, they was no chance to keep the lead any longer.

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During the second and final hour, the race developed into a battle between the leading Ligier no.79 (Ecurie Ecosse / Nielsen) and probably consistently best Norma no.3, the DKR Engineering entry. The Norma was chasing the Ligier for many laps, once nearly overtaking it but the Ligier stayed ahead for another nearly 10 laps. It appeared that the Norma was quicker in the first half of the circuit while the Ligier usually improved the lead in the second part of the circuit. In the final lap the Norma once again caught the Ligier and a close battle end up with the Ligier in the gravel trap. Fortunately it continued without any help of a tractor but the race was decided. The final podium place went to a fine running Norma of Graff, with additional three Normas to follow: Cool Racing, CD Sport and Lanan Racing.

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The GT3 class was led by the Mercedes-AMG for a very long period of time. But the second driver was slower, then the car suffered further issues and three Ferraris moved ahead. Kessel Racing car was the winner, ahead of AF Corse and Spirit Of Race.

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Race

After an ELMS autograph session for spectators and a second Formula Renault race, it was all prepared for ELMS gridding to start the race exactly at noon. While the weather forecast predicted some rainstorms, entire afternoon, despite some rain drops during the race here and there, and a few spins, there was really never a wet track in a way, which would influence race strategies or the results. However frequent Full Course Yellows and even a Safety Car period had more effect on the race rather than the speed of pilots as well - as usually, unfortunately.

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All that played best for G-Drive Oreca no.26 driven by Jean-Eric Vergne/Andrea Pizzitola/Roman Rusinov. They were penalized by a drive-through penalty after a jump start. So the team had to change its strategy but with those yellow periods and really a good team strategy, they were help them to gain them the huge gap back and despite Duqueine Oreca leading entire field by nearly half a lap in the middle of the race.

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The problem is that a standard pit stop takes almost entire lap in Red Bull Ring, i.e. nearly 80 seconds. But when a pit stop with refuelling is done during an FCY period, other competitors cover only a little more than one third of a lap during that time. Since there is no correction of this disproportion included into the rules, it currently influences endurance sports car races perhaps more than former Safety Car periods. Some LMP2 teams had a bad luck that they pitted a bit earlier than others during FCY. And some teams did a tactic mistake when they did not pit sooner during FCY, while most of others did. This was the problem of the third team in the finish, Oreca of Racing Engineering, which was running second and even first during the early parts of the race. But they were among several LMP2 teams, not using the proper FCY period for refuelling (some other did stop, but too late, like SMP Oreca, losing its nice 4th position in lap 53, Ligier no.23 (Panis Barthez Competition) running between 5th and 6th at the time, and some backmarkers. Neither of the two mentioned ever really recovered they lost positions.

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The Racing Engineering actually did not lost so many positions as there were only about 4-5 cars running in the leading lap, so that a loss of more than a half lap did not mean losing many positions but rather losing chance of winning the race. At the end of the race, This Racing Engineering Oreca was closing a gap behind the second running Duqueine car. In the end, they were split by only 0.2 seconds. But there was no time for overtaking. Even during the press conference the drivers confirmed that they should have pitted at one moment, but they did not and it was a mistake.

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Fortunately for Racing Engineering and shame for the second well running Duqueine entry, the latter was disqualified after the post race checks. So G-Drive no.26 team won, despite pitting 7 times, while closest competitors stopped only 5 times. They increased the championship lead to some 20 points. However the disqualification process became so common in recent races that one would guess to postpone podium ceremonies and post-race press conferences until the next day - otherwise it is almost sure that some of the present drivers are smiling and happy for soon-to-be-cancelled success. It was Rebellion in Spa, it was G-Drive in Le Mans, and it is Duqueine in Red Bull Ring. Who would be next, in Silverstone? Really, much is sometimes too much. And very complicated rule system which the teams are unable to conform with so many cases should lead to some re-thinking. Making team unhappy so often after their hard work may lead them off endurance racing, and it would not be really a clever solution.

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The LMP3 class was more or less under a dominance of Ligiers. Of only 4 Normas in the field of 14 Ligiers just one managed to finished the race without any major issues. It was Ultimate entry no.17. And even that Norma was really never a class win contender, despite running in 4th or 5th position during most part of the race (and actually finish fourth). The lead was mainly kept by the Ligier no.15, team RLR MSport, followed by a Ligier no.9 of AT Racing before the car faded a bit during FCY periods, and replaced by another two Ligiers, no.7 (Ecurie Ecosse/Nielsen) and no.13 (Inter Europol Competition), which had some nice fight for the second position and finally ending the race in this order behind dominant no.15.

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Only one Norma led the class, and it was ill-fated no.10 - just 2 laps during pit stops. But also two other Normas (no.17, and no.19) were able to run third for some early part of the race.

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The GTE class had some good moments, with 5 of 6 starting cars running in the lead at some stages of the race. Only the slowest car in the entire field, the green Krohn car did never feature and followed the field from a distance, before it could pass some delayed and repaired LMP3s. But most of the leads in GTE was short-lived pit/FCY/or so periods while it was Proton Porsche no.88, which spent most of the time in the lead and also managed to complete the race in a class victory. Nice 24th position overall, with just 6 of 18 starting LMP3 ahead of it. LMP2 class was a success, all cars in the finish, and all of them in the top 18 positions. Until the unfortunate disqualification.

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The European Le Mans Series now starts its second part with a race in Silverstone, along with WEC, to be continued in Spa and Portuguese Portimao. See you next year.

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