Arriving at Estoril for the last round of the 2011 championship of Le Mans Series, we had the impression of taking part in a farewell party of an old friend, one of those who can scarcely fall into oblivion.
The birth of the World Endurance made official in the days devoted to the 24 hours has forced Patrick Peter to recall the creature done by him with ACO in 2004, with the purpose to avoid relegating the event to a sort of second division of Endurance. Thus the six hours of Estoril has been the last appointment where the P1s have taken part in the championship: since 2012 the queens will be the P2s, less expensive, and in consideration of the costs of the world championships, for the teams participating with these prototypes will be easy to chose the class proposed by Peter. Beside them will remain the two GT classes seen this year, with the addition of GTCs, not new to these typologies of events having already been included both in ALMS and in some ILMC’s races. In comparison with the first practice of the year, the one of Le Castellet has seen less participants, with only 27 cars that appeared on the track. In addition to the announced absentees, about them we had already written in the article on the six hours of Silverstone, we have to report the absence of RLM team, that preferred to close the championship two weeks earlier, due to the disappointing results obtained all over 2011. On the contrary we have newly seen the Norma of Estreme Limite team, thanks to the financing help of Portuguese Mello-Breyner brothers, willing to debut at Le Mans Series in spite of their no longer tender age.
To attract the attention from the early test day there has been the duel between the Pescarolo and the Rebellion of Boullion-Belicchi, with the second Swiss car to act as a third wheel despite the slim chances of winning after the unlucky retirement at Silverstone. During the three free sessions, responses of the track were guaranteed by a close fight, with Collard, Boullion and Jani who divided the leadership of classification, even if a more careful analysis showed that Rebellions were remarkably faster on the dry lap.
The special configuration of the circuit, where long straights are followed by a series of tortuous sectors, allowed P2s to stay close to the times of more powerful prototypes, and even to gain the third place overall in the third session with the Oreca of TDS, before the Rebellion n.12. Despite the fight for the title was practically closed, with the Graves team that needed one point to win laurels, also in this category the fight was decidedly hard, with protagonists of the season closed within a few tenths of one second. Among the GTPro cars, Porsche confirmed its progress made at Silverstone, reaching and improving times set by the Ferrari cars that were the real stars of this season with four wins in four races. By the end of the three sessions Lieb-Lietz crew was the fastest, but once more surprising it was Armindo’s performace who, although in a Porsche GTAm managed to get the best time overall among “berlinettes”, and showing his indisputable qualities of Sprinter.
The first of the others was the other crew competing for the title, made by Cioci-Perazzini-Lemeret at the wheel of a Ferrari 430 of AF Corse, behind for over two seconds and a half. To act as watershed between prototypes and GTs there were three Le Mans Formula, with JMB that was leading the dances, ahead of Neal Gardner and Pegasus, in a category whose championship already closed in favour of the latter.
At 12:50 a.m. on Saturday under a hot sun whose effects has become mild by the fresh air coming from the ocean, GTs took the track for twenty minutes’ qualification: the first ones were Armindo and Cioci, that in a few rounds scored the best time among the Am cars, but the Italian driver paid a gap of almost half a second from the rival. The protagonists of GTPro spent the first minutes at the pit-lane, but when the doors of the track also opened for them, they gave life to duel for Pole category played spasmodically on hundredths of a second. Things looked good for the Porsche cars, with Holzer who placed himself before all at 1.39:526, followed by Lietz and the things went even better when the Austrian managed to go down two tenths just at five minutes from the end with 1.39:374, but in the last minute the first category row was monopolized by the Ferrari cars, with Bell first in 1.39:176 ahead of Bruni with 1.39:233.
At 13:20 p.m.was the turn of the prototypes: Boullion set a temporary best time in the early minutes in 1.30:592, but immediately beaten by Jousse in 1.30:317. Also among P2s time went rapidly down with Beche in not enough 1.32:347 for the top of classification. Watts, once again, surpassed himself and after struggling during the free tests, set 1.32:072 which placed him before all others. Meantime, it was Ebbesvik in the other Oreca Nissan, to run alone at a time close to the first two drivers. Fortunately, in a day with no significant accidents, pole position was decided at a few minutes from the end. At first Jani beat the record set by Jousse at 1.30:118 and Kimber Smith allowed the Graves team to gain the title, taking pole P2 at 1.31:800: on Sunday his Zytek P2 will start from the second row.
As might be expected from the climate of the season in Portugal, Sunday promised to be a hot and sunny day in which teams had only to take care of the performance of their cars on the track. During warm-up the values were respected on the track, with Rebellions gaining a slight advantage over Pescarolo: however, the pilots at the lead of the race were aware that the final result would be all played on overtaking the slower cars, that given the speed in doing the lap, the overtaking actions will be repeated with a certain frequency.
At 13.00 p.m. when the red lights went off, Jousse lost the second position favouring Belicchi. The two Rebellions were making the pace for about 20 minutes when Jani was forced to go to pits for a gearbox oil pump problem. He went back to the track after an hour and a half, leaving the tussle to other two P1s for the win on the track. Belicchi took the lead but Jousse started to reduce the gap, and after little more than an hour found himself behind the wheels of his rival, failing to overtake him. It was then necessary to wait the end of second hour to see the handover that occurred in the pits, with Collard who took the wheel of the Pescarolo and Boullion of the Rebellion: the gap between the two former team mates long remained for about 10”. Boullion gained some tenths, lap after lap, paying for a stop and go due to his overtaking under a yellow flag (two laps later there was the same penalty for Collard), and found himself at only 4”. The overtaking was in the air, and after a new pit-stop and some starting feeble attempt, Jean-Christophe sinks the shot to overtake his rival on the central straight on lap 106.
Meantime, in P2 after the starting outburst of Lombard and Kene, the protagonists of an exciting duel in the early laps, the two leading cars have lost ground to the benefit of Boutsen Energy and Oreca of TDS. In GTPro the race was also rather tight, with the Ferrari driven by Bell who had twenty seconds’ lead over the Porsche with Lieb and Lietz, while the Porsche Prospeed was already out, buffered after a few bends, as well as Bruni who was forced to the pits for a technical problem. In GTAm, Cioci was in the lead during the early laps before suffering the return of Armindo: once taken the lead, the French driver kept the lead all over the race, also favoured by the problems of a Ferrari AF Corse, and gained the title for the category with Narac.
The two leading cars went on fighting in close contact, with Pescarolo’s return in the lead on lap 137, when we saw a new pit-stop with a consequent driver’s change. For the French there was the return of Jousse, considered to be much faster on this track than Tinseau, with the latter having no chance to take part in this race. The choice of the only two changes of driver against the three ones involving the Rebellion, played for Pescarolo a decisive role in favour of the French team. There was a gap of about 15” between the two leading cars. Among the P2s, Beche ran a series of good rounds that allowed him to minimize the delay from Ebbervick, but the advantage of the latter was still of 1.05, whilst Race Performance and Graves were fighting on seconds for the third place, taking advantage of the stop made by Acura for the oil pump change. Among GTPro’s the fight was all between Lietz and Bell, separated by only 8”; the two “berlinettes” ran the last 80 laps closely, with the Ferrari that won for one only a tenth of a second, ripping the second place to the rivals in classification, behind the Ferrari cars driven by Bruni and Fisichella.
The fight for title was over at thirty minutes from the end, when Pescarolo made his last pit-stop without changing the driver, but with mounting new tyres; Jousse returned to the first position with only one second’s lead over Boullion, who replaced Belicchi a few laps before, however at the wheel of a Rebellion with old tyres. Pescarolo again took about twenty seconds’ lead and kept the advantage till two laps from the end, when the rival car was forced to pits for a puncture with a delay of one lap. It was a triumph for the Pescarolo!
Even the race for the P2s was decided on the two rounds from the end, when Kraihamer, widely in the lead, hit the barriers of protection, favouring the TDS team’s win, followed by Graves team and incredibly by the Norma of Extreme Limite, that took advantage of the troubles of the others so as to get a brilliant result.
Well, a real thrilling race which gave great satisfaction to the Pescarolo, and has worthily concluded this first chapter of the Le Mans Series history.
Next appointment is in March 2012.