Three weeks ago, arriving at Paul Ricard circuit for the official tests of the European Le Mans Series, we had noticed the difficulties involving the category in consequence of the split from the newborn World Endurance Cahmpionship, and accompanied by the economic crisis which, now more than ever, seems to leave no respite to the Old World. However, it’s certain that none of us had only dared think that the situation would worsen like that in such a short time so as to threaten the continuation of the championship even before the first 6 hours of the year. On Sunday evening, when it was officially announced the elimination of the second round of the championship, which it had to take place on Zolder circuit by mid-May, many seemed it was the time to have a stop to revalue the future development of Endurance, because let’s say openly, in a situation where it has become difficult to find a decent number of participants for one only category, take a decision to organize two events seems more and more a hara-kiri. To create a category in which the protagonists are the P2s, no longer darkened by the great brands involved in P1, is an idea to be promoted with conviction, but to do it we must consider what possibilities the championship may have to walk on its own legs. Only 19 cars, which would appear on Zolder circuit, a number judged insufficient to insure a media coverage and number of spectators, would have a level just below the one seen at Paul Ricard’s, with a good participation of prototypes and almost total absence of GTs. How can the number of cars arrive at 25, at the least, in July for the meeting of Donington is not known, but certainly we cannot think of reducing the event “endurance” to the only class of prototypes. Probably, there will be the attempt to encourage the participation with token of the local teams to three remaining events, but certainly in Czech Republic and in Portugal it will be necessary to take into account of a non exciting number of potential teams.
And yet, it must be said that the race of Paul Ricard, compared with the low number of entered cars, has guaranteed a show of absolute level, with such a levelling of performance so as to ensure a “bagarre” for the victory that hardly could have been observed in recent years. A fact appearing indisputable since the first two sessions of the free practice planned on Saturday that envisaged six P2s in one only second. Ahead of all there was Hughes, always fast, who has passed this year to Murphy Prototypes (ex RLR) with 1:48:650, followed by Sims at the wheel of the new Lola B12/80 Coupe taken to track by the reach Status GP of Teddy Yip Jr., passed to prototypes after a winning past in single-seaters. Same time for Zytek of Greaves Motorsport, with the fine surprise of Alex Brundle, appeared more performing than three weeks ago during official tests. It was once more the Norma of Extreme Limite, the only P2 looking not competitive, and that despite the unquestionable ability of Rosier’s drive: on the other hand that the French prototype was a car anything but successful had been clear since last year, when even a gentleman driver like Luco who left the team after his negative impression on the car performance.
The balance of performance was extended also to the other categories, even if Le Mans Formula and GTPro, with 2 and 3 racing cars respectively, have paid certain indifference from spectators. GTAm was more interesting, with five cars on the track and above all with three brands (Porsche, Ferrari and Aston Martin) which were competing for supremacy.
It must be reported a start of fire caused by a problem of fastening of the exhaust pipe for the P2 of Boutsen Energy team during the first session of practice and which prevented drivers from being on the track for the rest of the day.
By concentrating the programme in two days only, the qualifying session had been postponed on Saturday at 15.50, with the P2s and FLMs first on the track for the scheduled time of 20 minutes: once for all drivers must not fight against the annoying wind gusts of Mistral, while temperature kept the typical value of the season, with 19 degrees in the air and 21 degrees on the asphalt.
There were only 11 prototypes on the track, given that, besides the P2 of Boutsen Energy, also Norma had remained at the stands: Sarrazin (Loeb Racing) and Moreau (Oak Racing) have stolen the scene to their rivals for the first half of the session, by improving themselves alternately for a good four times. After 10 minutes with surprise of many we have Beche who, with a crafty behaviour during all free qualifying tests, at first had set the best time with 1:48:460 and later on he improved on the next lap with 1:48:171 which will bring him pole position. Kimber-Smith for the Greaves team and Buurman for the Status GP have raced with a great rhythm, but they couldn’t manage to improve the Oreca’s time, ending by obtaining the third and the second time respectively at three and seven tenths from the leader. Few minutes from the end Kaffer, at the wheel of the Oreca of Pecom Racing has taken away the fifth position from Sarrazin, while Hughes, in spite of being the fastest in the Mistral sector, finished seventh before the Zytek Jota of Hankock and the Oreca Race Perfomance of Frey. To close the list of times there were two FLMs, with Vignali, the standard-bearer of Boutsen Energy, who preceded the one of Curtis Racing Keen by only one tenth of second.
At 16.20 there was the start of the qualifying session reserved to GTs, with eight “berlinette” ready to appear on the track. Those who assumed to see Pro cars ahead of Ams have made a blunder: the session seems to see one only class, with cars, in theory, less blazoned but with the same time as the professionals. At the end it was Melo who got his own way, preferring a good run on the corner at top speed. Time recorded will prove him right because he finished with six tenths’ lead over the Porsche Prospeed of Goossens, the first of his rivals. Behind them, we could see the Porsche of Imsa Performance driven by a usual Armindo, the Ferrari of JMW Motorsport driven by Walker and the Aston Martin with Hall.
After a warm-up at rather cold temperatures, during which Ordonez has set the best time while the Status has allowed Stirling to take confidence in Lola car, the start procedure took place in a hot sun only refreshed by a weak wind. Good fortune wasn’t on Boutsen’s team side and the just repaired car was obliged to go back to pits for a problem: the car only succeeded in starting during the fourth passage. For prototypes we were expecting a race run on alternate rhythms, with different times on lap according to the driver from time to time at the wheel: among the first cars the Status seemed to have more difficulty because even in the warm-up Stirling run at a quite high time. Few minutes before midday twenty protagonists flung themselves into the line-up preceded by the Safety car for the formation round. Like last year, two prototypes opened and closed the line-up: before all there was the Oreca with Beche, to close with the Norma with Rosier.
When the red light turned off Beche was caught by Buurman, but later he managed to hold out against the attack of Kimber-Smith, called to defend the colour of Greaves team in the first part of the race; closed by the rival the latter had to yield to a pressing Hughes. Murphy team could hardly believe it and in fact in less than one lap the green and white Oreca regained the seventh position: Kimber-Smith regained the third place on Chicane entrance, Kraihamer was fourth on St. Baume exit, Kaffer gained the fifth place by pulling ahead on the Signes and Hancock got the sixth place on Bousset. After such a bustle the race was at a standstill with Buurman who was leading the race pressed by Beche who, even if being faster, didn’t managed to get the better of the rival who boasted of running at a higher top speed. Kimber-Smith was the only one who proceeded at the same pace, delayed by a couple of seconds, while Kraihamer and Kaffer found themselves with over 10 seconds after 15 laps. Once for all overtaking actions on the delayed cars were not a great problem, seen the low number of participants, but tension plays funny tricks and during the passage sixteenth Kaffer exceeded in the attempt of overtaking the Ferrari driven by Melo on the Ecole corner, by bumping the car. Luckily damages were not serious and both drivers could run on without going back to pits. We had to wait until the fortieth minute of the race to see a new overtaking of Hughes who overtook Hancock regaining the sixth position. On lap 25 the first two drivers went back together to pits to refuel, coming out on inverted positions owing to the need of a change of tyres for the Status car. On the next laps, one after the other, the rivals were also obliged to stop with the result of allowing the Zytek of Greaves to move to the second position. Positions were unchanged till lap 53, when on the exit of a new pit-stop Kimber-Smith preceded Buurman by 4 seconds and Thiriet by 8 seconds followed by Kaffer, Marroc and Moreau who moved back owing to a problem of water pressure which has needed topping up at each stop. Meantime, in the other categories there were different situations: in FLM, the car of Curtis team got the better of the opposing car, but later on forced to retire, while in GTPro, despite a collision at the start of the race, Melo and Frezza seemed easily to dominate the Ferraris of JMB and Kessel. On the contrary, Among GTAm cars the struggle for the leadership was prerogative of the Porsches of Prospeed and Imsa.
As soon as the second hour was over, the race of Murphy Prototypes ended with Moro who stopped on Verrerie owing to a start of fire.
We arrived at the third hour of the race with Ordonez, exploiting new Thiriet pit-stop and a Stirling’s very slow rhythm of race, which held the first position for Greaves team. Meantime, there was a recovery of the third place by Marroc, very clever at holding the rhythm of the race close to his team mate Minassian. More behind them, the day ended badly for Jota team, forced to retire after a collision with Aston Martin.
When the race seemed by then to be finished with a withering fight between Oreca with Thiriet and Zytek of Greaves, Alex Brundle made a mistake and went into a spin damaging the body of his car. On the next pit-stop, technicians didn’t comply with the procedure which obliged the race directors to inflict the British driver a stop-go penalty of 2 minutes, expelling him from the fight for the win and relegating him to the final fourth position. After six hours of race Beche-Thiriet fully deserved the triumph with a one lap’s lead over the Oreca of Loeb team and the Lola of Status. In FLM the Curtis car triumphed with a lonely race after the rival’s retirement, while in GTPro the Ferrari of JMB saw the win taken away by the other Ferrari of JMW for one only second owing to a Splash and go made it necessary in the last few minutes of the competition.
In GTAm the win was gained by the Porsche of Prospeed, favoured by a puncture on the twin car of Imsa in the last few strikes of the race, when they were outdistanced by only 6 seconds.
Zolder round was cancelled, for ELMS drivers it opens up a prospect of entering the 6 hours of Spa valid for WEC which will take place on 3-5 May 2012. We hope to see again the European championship by mid-July on the circuit of Donington.