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European Le Mans Series 2019 - 4 Hours of Monza

10th - 12th May 2019

Event report

Just the next week after our traditional visit to Spa 6 Hours (regularly since 2007, every year), we opted to make a trip to European Le Mans Series in Monza, where we were actually for the first time ever. The main reason was cancellation of the Red Bull Ring race, which used to be regular part of the ELMS series, held annually in middle of July.

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The support programme here was notably better than during the WEC meeting but this is quite common for the ELMS race. The regular Michelin Le Mans Cup, for LMP3 team, not entering the main ELMS race, and for GT3 cars. The competition went up, and we could see a field of 31 cars, with twenty of them being pure LMP3 prototypes, Normas and Ligiers. The GT3 cars composed mainly of Porsches, Mercedes-AMGs and Ferraris but lone Aston Martin and a Lamborghini added to the variety.

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Even more surprising support race was so called Aston Martin Masters Endurance Legends, which actually featured just one pure Aston Martin, and one semi-Aston-branded Lola, the Coupe that dominate European Le Mans Series in 2009, after departure of giants, Audi and Peugeot, which made the 2008 ELMS season probably the best of all time. The rest of the field were LM prototypes and GT from period 1995-2012.

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The race was divided into two 40-minute parts, both with a mandatory pit stop. Unfortunately in the first practice on Friday, Ranieri Randaccion suffered problems with his Lucchini LMP2 from 2004 just after completing a single lap and was out of the meeting. This was actually one of the very first cars built to the new 2004 regulations, probably the first one at all, which brought mandatory very short rear overhangs and some other "features" making the cars to look worse. Actually the only pre-2004 prototype here was MG Lola.

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Without Randaccio, we had still a decent field of 18 historic cars with 6 LMP1s, 6 LMP2 plus one Formula Le Mans 2009 Oreca, running in the same class for the purpose of this championship, three officially GTs, plus one GT Aston Martin as invitational entry, as well as another invitational entry - Ligier LMP2 coupé, from a later period.

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While in the free practice, the Lola Aston Martin coupe was at the top, the qualifying was won by Michel Frey in a Lola B07/18, the last open top Lola prototype. Next two positions belonged to Gulf-coloured Pescarolos while the third row, the last filled with LMP1 cars, featured Peugeot 908 and a Lola Dyson coupe - the only car not seen in Europe in the past.

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The first race on Saturday started with a light rain, so a Safety Car was deployed. Fortunately just for the first lap to avoid a pure start. SC was out in lap two and the six LMP1 cars took off the rest of the field. Lola Spider 2007 and Lola Aston Martin coupe made the race, closely followed by both Pescarolos. The track tried soon and lap times varied a lot. Both leading cars changed the positions several times and in the end the Aston Martin coupe Lola was the winner, with Christophe D'Ansembourg at the wheel. With the pit stop changing the positions more than usual in contemporary races, and with one Pescarolo suffering minor issues and losing several laps in the pits, the third finishing spot came to the Dyson Lola coupe.

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The MG Lola was the highest finishing LMP2 car, while the invitational entry by Ligier LMP2 coupe became the only retirement. In the GT class, the lone Ferrari was quite dominant during the race. And even Go Through pit penalty did not change anything about that. Actually half of the LMP2 field kept behind it.

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The race 2, held on Sunday morning, had the grid ordered by results of the first race. That actually put one of the Pescarolos LMP1 (no.99) out of the contention for victory, as it started from the last row, along with the Ligier LMP2 coupe, the only Saturday's retirement. There was no rain since night but the track was partly wet when the race started. But it dried soon. Lola spider led the first lap, Lola Aston Martin coupe in the second lap which it held into the fourth lap, when the Lola spider with Frey at the wheel started to fly away of the rest.

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By the time of pit stops, we already had LMP1s at the top 6 places, with the delayed Pescarolo securing it 6th positions in lap 6 when it overtook the MG Lola, best LMP2 car. The pit stops changed the look of the race a lot. Dyson Lola appeared in the lead, while the Lola Aston Martin was now ahead of former leader, Lola spider by Frey. Both caught and overtook the Dyson Lola after several laps and the battle for the lead was very close for a couple of laps. However the leading Aston Martin Lola was touched by Frey in the Lola Spider out of the track, and retired, causing a short Safety Car intervention.

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Frey then easily won the race, ahead of Dyson Lola and Peugeot 908. But he was penalised by 25 seconds because of the avoidable collision, which moved him to the third place. The Dyson Lola driven by Steve Tandy was declared as the winner. Pescarolos finished 4th and 5th ahead of MG Lola the LMP2 winner. The Ferrari once again easily won the GT class, beating half of the LMP2 field.

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Michelin Le Mans Cup

The Le Mans Cup was added to the ELMS weekend schedule as a regular event in 2016. Then it was GT3-only championship with LMP3 as guest entries in Le Mans, to fill the grid once expanded over the 13.5 kilometres long circuit. This idea of combination of GT3 and LMP3 proved to be interesting and more Le Mans-like, so it was fully adopted since 2017. This appeared to be a successful approach. From about 10 entries per race in 2016, the entry was twice larger with introduction on LMP3 car in 2017, averaged 27 entries per race last year, and this time we had over 30 entries in this support race.

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The LMP3 field of 20 cars consisted of only Ligier and Norma, all other approved LMP3 manufacturers (Ave-Riley, Ginetta and Adess) are almost inactive and do not race regularly in any notable championship. Ligier had one more entry than Norma from making them equal (i.e. it was 11 Ligiers versus 9 Normas),

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Already in the free practice session, the Normas showed more race-winning potential, or at least the speed, when only a single Ligier appeared among the top nine positions. The second free practice saw seven of nine present Norma in top 7 positions. But in qualifying it was the Keo Racing Ligier no.43 that set fastest time of all to take the pole position. Normas then took the next six grid spots.

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The race itself was an 2-hour affair on Saturday late afternoon, when rain and storms were forecasted. The race started relatively piecefully with the leading Ligier keeping the Norma armada behind for the first 39 laps, but one when he pit stops were executed in the middle of the race. Unfortunately, the second driver, Joakim Frid who replaced leading Michael Markussen, was notably slower and could not keep the pace with second drivers of some other cars and was soon caught by Nielsen Racing Norma no.2 and by others soon after.

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But the clouds became heavier, darker with a feel of soon rainstorm to come. It was obvious that the race is unlikely to be finished as a dry race and we just hope the rain is not really heavy causing the red flag or similar situation. It was Nielsen Norma no.2 ahead of Lanan Racing Norma no.25 and another Nielsen Norma no.3. Some 15 minutes before the end of the race at 6 PM, rain covered entire Monza track and within a couple of laps all teams turns to the pits for tyre change. While this was still in process we had a short Safety Cars period. It was not cause by the still not heavy rain but some off and required recovery. For the last ten minutes the race was restarted and kept green until the finish. It was extremely dark and the track was so wet that we really appreciated the organisers let the drivers running and fight their positions on track, not getting them by a Decision Number XX.

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After the pit stops the Lanan Racing Norma no.25 appeared in the lead and maintained it with a quick lap times (some 30 seconds slower than on dry) through to the finish. Most of the drivers ran very carefully, just to keep their cars on track. The most extreme in the manner was a driver of Porsche no.88 whose laps times were over 4 minutes, more than twice slower than a dry race lap - it was really dangerous but everything went well and the Nielsen Racing team had to accept second and third spots at the finish, with the car no.3 overtaking formerly leading no.2 with two laps to go.

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ELMS Practice

Only 41 out of 42 cars took part in the first free session. The missing one was the second Proton Porsche no.88. The other regular drivers were not available for this weekend and the team could not find replacements to Thomas Preining in the car. The first 90-minute session held on Friday was dominated by three Orecas, with the Aurus-badged G-Drive Racing entry at the top, head of one of the Dallara in the field - Carlin team no.45. The best Ligier was 7th. In LMP3 it was all about Normas, which took top four positions with the remaining car classified sixth.

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Bronze Driver Test, only other ELMS session on Friday saw a limited LMP2 field but the image was similar to the previous practice. Just no Aurus taking part in it.

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The second and final free practice session held on Saturday morning was again about Oreca at the top (first 5 places, Aurus-badged car third this time), Dallaras 6th and 7th, best Ligiers 11th to 14th. In LMP3 it was Norma, Norma, Ligier. So, a little bit better for the marque represented in both classes.

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This session however witnessed the most serious accident of the weekend. Leo Roussel driving a Polish Ligier LMP2 hit the barriers at a very high speed while missing Parabolica and not only demolished the car but was taken to the hospital. The outcome of the accident is his absence in the coming Le Mans 24 Hour meeting, as a driver. Fortunately, he will fully recover from his injuries.

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ELMS Qualifying

Three separate 10-minute session for each class was on programme for qualifying. GTE cars first out. Proton Porsche ahead of Project 1 Porsche and Spirit of Course Ferraris. Generally, Porsches were way more successful than Ferraris. And there was no other make among the 8 entries.

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LMP3 qualifying worked perfectly for Normas. Better than eve - all five present Normas in top 5 grid spots. Probably they should think of it at Ligier. All Normas were in 1:44s. The Ligiers in 1:45s except one slightly slower. But it was very close in LMP3 and was obvious that the performance of a second driver would play a key role in the class.

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In the LMP2 class, with all teams doing their best, it was more Oreca domination than in any of previous sessions. Dallaras did not feature this time (both were placed in the second half of the huge 19-car field) while Ligiers qualified in the fifth row in positions 9th and 9th. The re-badged Oreca (Aurus) was second fastest behind the Cool Oreca no.37 with Nicolas Lapierre at the wheel, who was the only one running under 1:35 per his fastest lap.

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ELMS Race

The race started with a huge lead of Graff Oreca no.39 and a collision of one of Dallaras (Villorba Corse no.47), which had to go for a new rear tyre and lost nearly one lap. Orecas were in top 5, then two United Autosport Ligiers and two Paniz Barthez Ligiers and a mix of Orecas and other Ligiers following them. The Dallara no.47 kept nearly the pace of the leaders, running just a few hundred meters ahead the leader, for many laps. Based on our estimation, the Dallara would have been running about 5th position overall, had not it suffered a tyre damage after a contact at the beginning of the first lap.

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The United Ligier no.32 then improved to fifth position at one-hour mark. Carlin Dallara no.45 mage a huge progress after a steady run and featured seventh overall as the second best non-Oreca entry. The Aurus-Oreca no.26 was third and with Orecas no.39, DragonSpeed no.21 and Duqueine Engineering no.30 still dominated the race where the positions at the top were changing and battles often close. The one Oreca that moved back from fifth was RLR MSport no.43, now running twelfth.

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By the middle of the race, the best of the Ligiers improved and even featured in second place overall, behind the Aurus. The race was getting its shape which would remain until the final stages. Many of the former protagonist stepped away losing some time here and there while the car that had to start from the back of the LMP2 grid Idec Sport Oreca no.28 moved to the top and was now running third ahead of the second United Autosports Ligiers, no.22. This would be a pattern seen in the second half of the race. The first three cars ran very close together, especially during the last hour. However, while G-Drive Aurus stayed in the front until the finish, Idec Sport Oreca after a nice fight with the Ligier no.32 moved to second, while the other Ligier, no.22 maintained fourth position ahead of improving Graff Oreca no.39

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The LMP3 portion of the race seemed to be decided by a lone Safety Car period with the two leading Normas no.9 (Realteam Racing) and no.7 (Nielsen Racing) were not collected by the safety car and moved nearly one full lap ahead of the rest of the field. But both were eliminated during the second part of the race. The Nielsen Racing car was pushed into the garage for a short repair, which cost it a couple of laps. The Realteam car was actually eliminated from the winning potential by its second driver, who was actually too slow to maintain a huge lead, once no.7 was delayed. In the end we had Ligiers 1-2-3 with Eurointernational no.11 as the winner followed by Inter Europol Competition no.13 and United Autosports no.2. The last name team actually fielded four cars! Two in LMP2 and two in LMP3. By the way, the LMP2 cars took the first 17 positions, then came the LMP3 winner.

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The GTE race was mainly a battle between four cars, which regularly changed in the lead during the race. Porsches of Dempsey-Proton Racing no.77 and Team Project 1 no.56 and two Ferraris of JMW Motorsport no.66 and Luzich Racing Ferrari no.51, which was leading the class only early in the race but then still ran second for a long time, actually finishing the race in the last podium slot. The unlucky of the four was the Project 1 team, taking the fourth, while Proton car led safely during the last hour over the JMW Ferrari and won GTE while classified 29th overall.

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