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European Le Mans Series 2014 - 4 Ore di Imola

18th May 2014

Sunday report

Qualifying

Very sunny morning in Italy, and at the time, we have been used to for warm up session, all are prepared for the ELMS qualifying. As usual, it consists of two separate sessions. One for GT cars (GTE and GTC) and the other for prototypes (LMP2 only, despite official schedule still mentions the abandoned LMPC class). Both parts are scheduled for 20 minutes. While the GT numbers are sufficient, and the two classes alone put together more traffic than the WEC cars in longer Spa, we were a bit worried about the stand alone LMP2 session with only half dozen cars on the track on average throughout the session. This brought another thought: next year with the scheduled LMP2 class, and with the difference between slower LMP2 and top of the GTE about three, three and half seconds, would the new LMP3 class fit for the separate prototype session? I.e. are those cheap prototypes probably based on closed CN sports cars destined to be quicker than current GTs? While we think this class is definitely a good idea, better than one make/spec series of Orecas FLM 09 that are the only eligible cars for the dying LMPC class, but we have also heard some not so positive reactions, especially concerns about the cost capping. We appreciate your, readers, comments on this.

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In any case, in the GT portion, the Ferraris once again showed their complete dominance in the ELMS and they occupied top 10 position. It does not matter that the tenth car, was actually a GTC entry, beating all Porsches and everything else in both GTE and GTC classes. The compare the times, the fastest Ferrari (Kessel Racing no.81, the one having problematic first free practice) was the only GT running under 1:40, actually achieving 1:39.920. The best GTC Ferrari was about two seconds per lap slower, timed at 1:42.082. Only then the best non-Ferrari car followed: the Porsche no.86 of the Gulf team UK (1:42.145), IMSA Performance Porsche and Gulf Aston Martin.

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McLarens were now nice within the GTC class and the number 98 was fourth ahead of both GTC Porsches, and the McLaren no.99 was eighth. The session was interrupted with a red flag, which is quite common during non-race session when a car runs off and gets stuck in the gravel.

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Then the prototypes hit the track. Unless you were in front of the timing screen, or you hear and also understand Italian commentary, there was not really much drama and action while staying somewhere on the track. Almost like a hill climb, when one car per half minutes runs quickly at the limit around. All went well; there was no interruption of the session. The first on track were cars number 24, 41 and 29, and those were in the end classified last in the class. The favourites joined the session later on and in the end it was Jota Racing Zytek that quite easily took the pole position. They were clocked at 1:33.974, by far the only car under 1:34. Morgan of Thiriet by TDS showed its potential and will complete the first row, after setting 1:34.658. Then it is very close with the Alpine third, Murphys Prototype Oreca fourth and another Morgan fifth.

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It is all set for an exciting race, under a bright sky, very warm and sunny afternoon. The race starts in two hours. While we have four different manufactures in the first two rows of the prototype field, we would have first five Ferrari-only rows in the GT field. What a contrast! In any case, some say that in Silverstone, the ELMS race brought more drama, battles and racing than the WEC itself. So let's hope it is almost as such dramatic as the first round.

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Race Report

Twenty minutes after 1 PM, the pit lane was open, and all ELMS contenders started to fill the track with consolation laps and gridding. Need to say that the track was not quite busy over the weekend, since there was only one support race - a national Porsche Carrera Cup, something we really did not follow at all. In contrast we recalled the situation during ELMS/ILMC 2011 when there was a full programme of support races, including CN series, or great Classic Endurance Racing, plus some other common fillers of the time, like Radical Cup used to be. Rear parts of paddock were also mainly empty, unlike our last visit to Imola. Organisers probably bet on autograph sessions with drivers and other activities that may attract common spectators during long breaks.

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In any case, some 35 minutes later all cars but one were gridded and prepared for what would appear soon to be another great ELMS race. Unfortunately one car was late and did not leave its box before pit lane was closed. It was one of four present SMP Ferraris. It was the one wearing number 57 and driven by Mika Salo (with Boris Rotenberg and Maurizio Mediani to change him later in the race). Per current rules (both ELMS and WEC), when a car starts from a pit lane, it is not released earlier than entire field finishes its first complete lap. This actually means that such car is one and half lap down off a leader when the race for it has just started. While it was not an issue for the troublesome Rebellion no.13 two weeks ago in Spa, it appeared that this Ferrari, which was in the end classified 28th, could have been two places higher. Probably not a big deal for the team, which would soon appear to spend a rather successful race day in Italy.

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Back to the top. All nine LMP2 were lined up very closely when it all started exactly at two o'clock. Fortunately all went well into the first turn. GT started with a little distance behind LMP2, which was probably correct. For example during the first practice there were only three LMP2s among the top 22 fastest cars. All three were Morgans and all of them were missing from top 10. As we said before this is a high-downforce track, which is advantage for Morgans on straights but makes it better for Zyteks and Orecas per lap and with all LMP2 set up for higher downforce, they had problems match the speed of GTs, and it was apparent during entire race during overtaking. New Blood by Morand Morgan was then measured as fastest in the second practice but next 14 positions per maximum speed belonged to various GT cars (both GTE and GTC included) which is perhaps one of the things future rule makers should think of.

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Since the LMP2 teams, which of course attracted most of the interest and attention, are formed by Platinum/Gold drivers with Silver/Bronze supporting them, it was apparent that the driver grade selection to start the race influenced beginning of the race (and in fact also qualifying, when for example Sebastien Loeb Oreca was gridded last and was also lagging in the early stages of the race after having used their silver driver Capillaire). There rules are very strict on this, and define minimum lower grade drivers track time, as well as maximum driving time for Platinum/Gold drivers - all depending on exact driver-lineup composition - and it all influence team strategies, pit stops and also starting drivers (for example the lower grade drivers have to drive at least 2 hours and 20 minutes in the race). It all ads some spice during the race, when the top drivers are easily catching the bronze ones in other cars while fighting directly for position. This has two disadvantages though: one objective - when a safety car is call it, and it happened here one due to some track repaired needed after two third of the race, a team having their silver/bronze driven in are of course in an advantage. And a subjective disadvantage might be for common spectators following a race when the performance of cars is changing during a race notably and they may not fully understand while their favourite car was so quick at the start, and losing so easily during a race (something reminding me the FIA GT pre-Ferrari/Maserati era dozen years ago, when a Lister with Jamie Campbell-Walters usually lead the races, his slow partner Springer lost everything he could, and in the final hour returning Jamie tried to regain back as much as possible).

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That in mind, the LMP2 field split into two groups in the early stages of the race. First six cars running with some small distance between each other, followed with a very close battle of the remaining three cars, fielding pure amateurs. Jota Zytek with Harry Tincknell took an immediate lead, ahead of Thiriet by TDS Morgan, the last planned appearance of the car, as the team should switch to a coupe Ligier since the next event, which is Le Mans, including the Test Day. This car was started by silver grade Ludovic Badey. As it could have been expected, he soon lost what the team top driver Tristan Gommendy achieved in qualifying, and he was down to fourth position within the first two laps. On the other hand, Platinum Alpine driver Nelson Panciatici was soon close second behind the Zytek. The third place was captured by Rodolfo Gonzales of a green Oreca entered by Murphy Prototypes. As a Silver driver, he was best of those amateurs, which are obliged to stay longest time behind the wheel. It would have helped this car, had not it hit troubles and become one of earlier retirements. It is generally a little disadvantage of those Pro-Am race structures - the differences between top drivers are usually way smaller and thus the results are often decided by the amateur drivers and how much time they lose on track. Fortunately, those extreme examples known from some national GT races, when the amateur part of the pairing was so much better than the rest, that they were getting extra mandatory pit time to make the race 'more interesting' (for whom though?), do not apply for real top level races like ELMS is. Well, Thiriet/TDS Morgan settled fourth followed by a similar car fielded by team Morand. But from the rear improving Oreca with a legendary MOMO sponsorship on its fin and driven by silver Michel Frey overtook both Morgans in lap 9. The second level of the LMP2 battle (positions 7th to 9th) saw an improvement of Loeb's Oreca with Capillaire at the wheel. Something not too dramatic but we will hear about this car yet.

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In the meantime the huge GT field had their own battles. GTE were well mixed with GTC - at the top it was all about Ferraris, keeping more than 10 first places. Among them there was one really outstanding. The Kessel Racing Ferrari no.81 driven by very quick Matteo Cressoni, despite only silver grade driver ran away from the rest and during the first laps he with his Ferrari was a bit closer to the LMP2 field than to the rest of GTs. Still by lap 7, he was 16 seconds behind LMP2 cars but 15/16s ahead of four nearest GTE competitors, who were having a nice and close battle.

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After the pit stops, slow Simon Dolan sat into the Jota Zytek and was very quickly caught by the Alpine and soon by three more LMP2. So behind the Alpine the cars followed in this order, when the race moved into its 40s laps (100 minutes of racing): Thiriet/TDS Morgan, Morand Morgan and very close in touch was Murphy Prototype Oreca. In the meantime Dolan in the Jota Zytek lost about half a minute and it did not look good for the car - at least without and an insight into team strategy. In the meantime the MOMO sponsored car lost a lap with a pit repairs and Jan Charouz-driven/Sebastien Loeb-entered Oreca improved to 6th. In the GT portion of the field, sister Kessel Ferrari no.80 somehow move into the lead with the Piccini at the wheel. But it was then delayed by a long pit stop, so no.81 appeared again in a save lead. Another Ferrari running originally well, AF Corse no.54 (one of seven!! exemplars entered officially by the team) dropped from the second place. After a first series of pit stops and spinning by Perazzini, it spent some time in the garage, shortly appearing on the track as well, and was finally retired, a few minutes before the Murphy Prototypes also left the race. In any case, both cars stayed running for more than two hours anyway. The troubled Kessel Ferrari no.80 became later a third retirement, after nearly 200 minutes of racing. And it was all about the retirement except two other at the very end of the race, one of which was extremely significant and unfortunate. We get back to it soon.

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Before the second series of pistops, the Alpine had a huge lead, but after the refuelling and some driver changes, both Morgans closed it very much. During that time Charouz briefly appeared second - a place to remember for them - longer stints would help them at the end of the race. But that time Murphy Prototypes had an unscheduled pit stop, return for some time and then disappeared completely, as already noted. Unfortunately then the Safety Car period spoilt the race a little - in ELMS they still have not adopted more modern ways of handling yellow (code 80, two SC cars, or simply local neutralisation of the race). Before the safety car caution, Alpine led by 6 seconds ahead of Jota Zytek (different pit stop strategy), half an minute ahead of Thiriet/TDS Morgan, nearly 50 seconds ahead of Morand Morgan (with quick Gommendy at the wheel) and Loeb Oreca (Capillaire back in the car) some 5 seconds further behind. It was all destroyed; the MOMO sponsored Oreca somehow unlapped by this time and was in the lead lap again. After the restart the race was closer but bad feelings prevailed. We think that ELMS should also find a way how to handle this more correctly, and also more safely. What is the point of having full course yellow when the cars were often running almost at the full speed? - we actually noticed that even slow Dolan in the Zytek set a 1:46 lap time under yellow (!!!) - probably slowing just at the critical point of the track. But what would track marshals do if during such yellow situation another problem on the track appeared? - while the drivers are learnt it is fine to run near full speed unless they reach the problematic place on the circuit, or they reach the convoy behind the SC? We are pointing this out regularly and will not stop till the rule makers find a proper solution how to handle these situations, not just blindly adopting a way which is suitable (maybe?) for oval style of racing.

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After the race was restarted on lap 96, Alpine led for a few laps before having another extra pit stop. Jota Zytek moved to the provisional lead followed by two Morgans and Loeb/Oreca, which was now running regularly fourth. Unfortunately for the Thiriet/TDS Morgan team, their car hit troubles and they had to spend more time in the pits than they actually wished, which all meant the end of any chances for podium while they stayed within a reach of other LMP2 entrants (those outsiders not mentioned too often in this report, Greaves Zytek and Pegasus Racing Morgan). But the Race Performance Oreca had even more issues and dropped deep into the GT field without any prospect of further improvement, apart from opportunity to finish at points, which were guarantee for all LMP2 finishers. With some 40 minutes before the end of the four-hour race and Thiriet/TDS Morgan dropped to nowhere, a good battle fired between top three cars. Morand Morgan easily won its battle against Dolan in the provisionally leading Jota Zytek, while the Alpine no.46 was closing very well too. Loeb/Oreca was now very close behind a podium finish after running briefly second due to pit stop scheduling.

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It all appeared very important near the end of the race. Alpine was called off for a final splash and dash and dropped to fourth. Three laps before the finished the race seemed to have been already decided, when the leading Morgan of New Blood Racing by Morand did not appear on the main straight and Jota Zytek surprisingly continued alone in the lead. It was a very sad day for Christian Klien, who was at the wheel, and also entire team, after very good performance during the whole race. Oil pump failure was a reported reason for the retirement. And thanks to the rules, they were not classified at all, since the car did not cross the finish line after the race was officially flagged. So it was a drama nearly to the end. Zytek Jota won, Charouz/Loeb effort finished quite surprisingly second, after very decent start of the race and the final podium place fell into the Alpine's team hands after they looked to have lost it. Greaves Motorsport Zytek finished fourth, one lap down, after average but relatively problem-less and consistent performance. Thiriet by TSD Racing Morgan, lost two laps and was classified fifth just ahead Pegasus Racing Morgan, the only LMP2 car with no Platinum or Gold driver in its lineup - which is of course real disadvantage in such race, which determines the team into a role of also-run only.

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All other LMP2s were either delayed too much, or retired. In the GT category, it was, as expected, mainly about Ferraris. One of them, the Kessel no.81 dominated most of the race, as already mentioned but very surprisingly it lost the win. And it was in the last lap of the race. It was such a drama until the last minute since into one of the SMP entered Ferraris platinum Andrea Bertolini sat and no.81's bronze driver could not resist his late race sprint, which Bertolini won by only one second. As already stated above it was generally a successful weekend for SMP despite one car started from the pit lane. While the GTC class was won by Formula Racing with Andrea Piccini as the lead driver, the two remaining podium spot went to SMP as well. A good thing for the best GTE Porsche was that it managed to beat all GTC cars, something really unthinkable during the early stages of the race, when all GTE Porsche were at the end of the field. In any case, it was not enough to get among the top 5 in GTE, which all belonged to Ferraris. The lone Aston Martin, the best non-Ferrari, non-Porsche GT finisher, was classified only 19th overall and the team was actually happy to finish the race, after running very slowly into the last lap, crossing the line by far the last. It stopped only at the end of the pit lane exit - where already Gulf teammate Porsche was parked, as well as the MOMO sponsored Oreca, which was classified 18th and crash it front end and splitter in the final lap, probably trying to pass the Pegasus Morgan, running 5 laps ahead but preventing the Oreca from running at full speed for many laps because of unwilling to get unlapped, It was actually very bad for the Oreca since six GT cars finished in the same lap just ahead of it. And even in the penultimate lap the Oreca was 15th.

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Overall a great race at a nice track. We are already looking forward to the next ELMS race in Red Bull Ring, which is also on our schedule and the report will be again provided.

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