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European Le Mans Series 2015 - 4 Hours of Red Bull Ring

11th - 12th July 2015

Event report

European Le Mans Series continues with its third round today at the Red Bull Ring. It is the first ACO race after the famous Le Mans 24 Hour classic. On Saturday only two free practice sessions were on the ELMS programme, which was supported by Formula Renault 3.5 and touring car TCR International Series. Together 29 ELMS cars made the trip to Austria.

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LMP2 Situation

Ironically, the most cars were entered in LMP2, the class which ACO and FIA decided to kill by their so called 2017 global rules. Current LMP2 class, which spontaneously developed into fastest growing category with the new generation coupes and looked very promising during the last couple of years, was somehow disliked by the sanctioning bodies, as they decided to authorize only two French manufacturers, plus a couple of novices in the class, leaving many new projects and their investments going into nowhere. First reactions after the rules, in fact so called authorised (selected) manufacturers, were announced did not produce any new potential entries or interest in the new class, but only one negative message after another. First, Dome Strakka announced they will stop enter their new car with an immediate effect. They will finish the WEC season with an old Gibson but the coupe Dome is gone, after only a very few races. LMP1 is the next step for the team, while the Dome will serve as a test bed. Team SMP Racing, running a pair of quite new BR01 cars, decided to return back to their roots: GT classes. Sadly, apparently the best looking prototype of recent years, HPD 04a, will be hardly raced after initial development issue and delayed homologation - the HPD seems to end up in a GT programme as well.

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Gibsons, which were actually fastest in today's sessions were also disappointed by the rules and even did not take part in the selection process. They may try to become an engine supplier; however their future might also lie in LMP1. Mazda with their SkyActiv programme is in troubles too and we will have yet to see, how this promising programme would end up. Ginettas LMP2 plans were also ruined.

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It is very hard to believe there is something good with the future of LMP2 cars - so far it looks the privateer LMP1 would become stronger. However, is it what FIA and ACO wanted, i.e. more expensive cars for independent constructor, and their customers? And the four selected manufacturers for LMP2? Remember when Grand-Am did the same mistake with their DP class. Six or seven manufacturers were approved to build their cars - most of them really appeared. But the reality that in such uncompetitive environment it is quite likely that one prevails over the others and that led to a complete dominance of one manufacturer (Riley), while most other run just one cars, or more likely disappeared from the scene, variety was lost and races were much less interesting than before.

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Would the same happen here in ELMS, which is fully dependent on LMP2 entrants as their top class? Very likely ELMS will suffer, while WEC may profit with the new LMP1 entries, while LMP2 class is not that important there. This is our report of LMP2 class for today, a very interesting class with a very uncertain and definitely much worse future. Well, to complete the podium positions today, Thiriet by TDS Oreca 05 coupe was third fastest today behind both Gibsons.

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Practice Sessions - Other Classes

In GTE class the first two Ferraris beaten not only a lone Proton-Porsche, but were also the only GT cars running quicker than Robertson, who set fastest laps in the LMP3 class - which by the way had just four entries, reduced to three after one of the Ginettas was damaged in the morning's session. Villorba Corse team though hopes to repair it for tomorrow's race.

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GTC class is presented here by only one car more than LMP3, however at least some sort of variety is obvious here: three Ferraris are supported by the only Aston Martin in the race, and also by one of two present BMW Z4s (the other one running in GTE trim). The BMW dominated the first session and despite Ferraris took one-two in the afternoon session, in overall practice results the BMW was still at the top. Even the Aston Martin was not far behind those leader as all GTC (=FIA GT3) cars were within one second range.

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By far the slowest car today was that BMW Z4 GTE with Andy Priaulx as the top driver. In previous two raced the TDS entered car was performing way better so a notable improvement can be expected tomorrow. Actually, the team reported electrical issues all the day, so let us hope they will be able to fix it for tomorrow.

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Qualifying

Two 20-minute qualifying sessions are scheduled today. One for prototypes and one for GTC. While last year, the GT part featured almost three times as many cars (GTE+GTC) than the prototype section. It was just LMP2, which is now up by 50%, and with the LMP3 added to the prototype mix, they do now prevail. GT cars will start first, then the overall grid positions will be decided.

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GT qualifying session went without problems or any interruptions. Those were once again Ferraris, which dominated the session. Top three spots went to AF Corse no.55 (driven by Griffin), ahead of AF Corse no.51 (Giammmaria) and Formula Racing no.60 (Mac). Those three would keep the overall standing ahead of entire LMP3 class. AT Racing and JMW Motorsport Ferraris were next, with a Proton Competition Porsche to be the best of the rest. The GTE BMW Z4 entered by TDS did better job today, outpacing entire GTC class, however running one second slower per lap in this class equals to get penultimate class grid spot.

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In GTC top three top were within 0.6 seconds. Two AF Corse Ferraris closely followed by the BMW Z4. All four Ginettas LMP3 were now back, with the car no.5 repaired and running black rear cover. Despite not really unequal, LMP3 became to be the only class split within other classes on the grid (having set placed among both GTE and GTC). Otherwise first six rows would be only LMP2 machinery, and GTE were all quicker than pole sitting GTC driven by Castallacci. Robertson was once again the fastest LMP3/Ginetta driver.

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LMP session was actually interrupted by the red flag, following a crash of Gibson no.41. The damage does seem repairable for the race. This Gibson qualified only 8th, though less than a second off the pace of the pole sitting Gibson no.38 of team Jota. With the Murphy Prototypes Oreca 03R completing the first row for the race, it is obvious that older open top LMP2 are still very competitive against the new generation coupe. One of the Russian BR01 prototypes was best of them, closely followed by TDS Oreca 05 and another factory BR01. Pegasus Racing entry, with the only Morgan in the field was sixth followed by the best, entered by American team led by Tracy Krohn. Other four LMP2 cars are unlikely to feature on the podium; they are still far from being just fillers. Both Ibanez Racing Orecas, Algarve Pro Ligier and another open Oreca of team Eurasia Racing were running well, somewhere between nearly 2 and 3.5 seconds behind the pole.

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Race

The race started at 13:30 as scheduled under very nice, sunny conditions. It was almost hot that some may have feel less grip on the hot track surface. 12 000 spectators attended the race, which saw all 29 arrived cars on the grid. After the start all went well, without any incidents. Filipe Albuquerque starting from pole with the Jota Gibson took an immediate lead and ran away from the field, as if driving a LMP1 car. Unfortunately his lead was devastated with a safety car period after about 6 laps, when none of the car was yet lapped. This was caused by an off track excursion by one of the Russian BR01 prototypes (no.27). Before the car was recovered, it lost three laps.

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After the restart, Jota Gibson did even better but another big advantage was ruined by another safety car intervention. This time, one of LMP3 prototypes lost a rear body on the main straight, and nobody was able to clear the track without race neutralisation again. This SC interruption was used by Eurasia Motorsport Oreca team for their first pit stop, which helped them to take the lead during the first hour. By the next hour, it was Jota in the lead again, now ahead of Thiriet by TDS Oreca - the only car that would challenge the Jota until the end of the race. Eurasia was still third in the middle of the 4-hour race, while there still six cars in the lead lap. By this time second Ibanez Oreca (no.44) was already retired - even though, it was very slow for a LMP2 car, running in the middle of the GT field for most of the time it had been still running. However the first retirement was Ferrari GT3 no.64, which suffered a broken suspension after colliding with a GTC Ferrari no.56, crossing its way in the first corner.

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There was another much delayed LMP2 car in the first hour. The Algarve Pro Ligier stopped at the beginning of the second straight. Marshals tried to push the car behind barriers for several laps, we were afraid of another SC, but in the end the driver started it and continued last, except for one stationary LMP3 (no.15). By the way, the LMP3 was completely spoilt after the second SC period. By that time the pole sitting no.3 was the only LMP3/GT entry still not being lapped, so it appeared almost a lap ahead of anything else. We can reveal that despite it later lost to most of the GTE cars and the GTC winner, it still easily won the LMP3 race, by a huge margin of 8 laps ahead of no.5, which had the practice crash and was not set up as good as its class opponents. Car no.15, which earlier lost the bodywork and caused SC period, was retired after two and half hours. Remaining LMP3 no.2 spent a lot of time with repairs in the garage, but was still classified 25th overall, last of all finishers, but still on LMP3 podium.

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In the second half of the race, the Jota and Thiriet by TDS increased their lead to a full lap, which there were nice battles behind them among Russian BR01 no.37, Murphy Prototypes no.38, second Gibson entered by Greaves Motorsport no.41. All those were still mixed with the Eurasia entry, which was however slowly but continuously fading away from the top.

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There was another safety car period later in the race (actually together the race was neutralised five times), which was call just when Thiriet by TDS Oreca coupe was pitting. This helped them to gain almost a lap on the leading Jota. It also helped to make the race a drama until the end. Different pit stop strategies saw the Jota pitting half hour to go, and Thiriet by TDS finally taking the lead. Jota would have no chance of winning without a fault of the Thiriet by TDS driver, who did not wait till the green light was on, during his last pit stop, during another SC caution. This all lead to a stop & go penalty in the last few minutes and also to losing the first place. jota took the lead again but both cars were within a range of less than two seconds. Harry Tincknell, who was at the wheel of the Jota Gibson at the moment, was then clearly quicker and it became apparent after three or four laps, that only accident, or mechanical woes would him and his team from winning the race. More over TDS Oreca had some collision with a GT car in the last lap and finished almost a half-minute behind.

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Murphy Prototypes no.38 was a candidate for a podium finish, but had a contact with another car 10 minutes before the end and finished 6th. Greaves Gibson was another car suffering stop & go penalty and was dropped down to 4th. This all brought the remaining BR01 to the third place overall. The other BR01, the delayed one, later crash, following a restart of the 3rd SC. Consistent and steady run by Krohn Racing Ligier meant 5th place overall, though never a real contender for a podium.

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The race was extremely close among in the GT classes. In GTE, two Ferraris of AF Corse and another one of Formula Racing finished all three in less than a second. Formula car won, ahead no.55 and no.51. How the battle in GTE was undecided during the race showed positions after 3 hours. None of the podium finishing cars was at the top. Proton Porsche no.88 led JMW Ferrari no.66 and MarcVDS BMW no.52. JMW also led in the 2nd hour ahead of the BMW.

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GTC class saw almost all cars hit troubles and thus early in the race slowest car, silver AF Corse Ferrari no.62, took the honours and won a pure endurance contest of surviving. On the other hand, the battle for second and third, between Aston Martin and BMW, was very exciting into the finish. TDS BMW beat the Aston Martin by less than 0.2 seconds. Both finished two laps behind the class winner.

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Team Jota really deserved the victory, though it is sad that without the stop & go penalty of their nearest competitors, they would lost it only because all Safety Car cautions worked strongly against them. While in practice there were Full Course Yellows (FCY), when the cars are slowed down to 80 km/h but the differences between them are maintained. It still might be an advantage when during FCY a pit stop is made.

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