The European Le Mans Series, once the rp4emier sports car endurance-racing series on the continent, lost a lot of luster with the advent of the International Le Mans Cup in 2011 and the World Endurance Championship in 2012.
Rather than fold, the series sought new management and came back strong in 2013, and judging by the 2014 season openr at Silverstone Saturday, things are still getting better.
A field of 38 cars in three classes qualified for the four-hour race (up an hour form last year.) Eleven cars from four constructors entered in P2, 13 GTEs from three manufacturers, and 15 GTCs from five manufacturers (ELMS was smart enough to allow GT3 cars to participate in what was once a single-make class.)
Despite the large field the first three hours of the race ran caution-free, and the only major accident was not the result of bad driving but bad luck.
ELMS added a layer of strategy to its series when it added an hour to its races; now along with planning tire and fuel stops, teams have to juggle drivers by ranking and minimum and maximum drive times. This reduced some of the predictability of the first hours of the race.
Plain good racing also kept the early hours interesting. Four hours is too short a race for teams to count on attrition; drivers have to fight for track position from the drop of the green flag. There were battles all over the track throughout the race.
After more than three hours of mostly incident-free racing, the safety car was summoned on lap 98 after race-leader Simon Dolan in the P2 Jota Sport Zytec-Nissan had an unfortunate accident. Dolan came up on the slower GTE Ferrari of Michele Rugolo and elected to pass him on the outside around a corner. Rugolo apparently didn’t see the P2 car approaching on the outside and took his normal line exiting the corner, which forced Dolan onto the grass.
Dolan managed to cut back to his left to avoid a bridge abutment, but then shot across the track and clipped the passing P2 Larbre Morgan before spearing onto the left-hand wall quite hard. It took a while to safely extricate Dolan from the car but he was conscious and didn’t seem to be in danger when he was taken away n an ambulance.
This incident turned what had been a strategy race for the first three hours into a 20-minute sprint finish with the lead in all three classes changing hands in the final dozen laps.
Thiriet-TDS Takes P2 Win
The race for the overall win came down to a three-way battle the final five minutes.
Michel Frey in the #34 Race Performance Oreca-Judd led at the restart and had the freshest tires. Right behind him was Tristan Gommendy in the #46 Thiriet TDS Morgan-Nissan; his tires were three-quarters of a stint older than Frey’s. Chasing this pair was Gary Hirsch in the #43 Newblood-Morand Morgan-Judd.
With six laps to go it seemed Frey had the win wrapped up, but the race leaders hit traffic which brought them all together. Tristan Gommendy stayed glued to Frey’s wing, and when the Race performance driver was briefly balked by a GTC-class BMW Z4, Gommendy seized the opportunity and went by around the other side.
Hirsch tried to squeeze past as well, but wasn’t able. This didn’t blunt his charge—he pushed his way level with Frey on a couple occasions but couldn’t get in front.
Gommendy picked the right path through traffic to keep from getting held up and when the leaders had clear track, Frey couldn’t close the gap to the Thiriet car. Gommendy ended up winning by a margin of 3.8 seconds, with Hirsch only nine-tenths of a second behind Frey.
Gommendy, speaking for co-drivers Pierre Thiriet and Ludovic Badey, told Radio Le Mans after the race, “We did a pretty good job with the whole team. It is a new car for us–it is our first year with this car.
“The race was tough. The level of competition in this championship is already very high.
“On the restart we knew Frey had new tires, so we pushed really hard. It was a great victory for the team.”
Rugolo Gives AF Corse a Season-Starting GTE Win
AF Corse came to Silverstone with a well-stocked arsenal of five Ferrari 458 Italias, two in GTE and three in GTC. The fastest, the #55 driven by Duncan Cameron, Matt Griffin, and Michele Rugolo, was second at the restart behind the #72 SMP Racing Ferrari driven by Andrea Bertolini.
Three laps after the restart, Bertolini bobbled, losing about eight seconds, and Rugolo sailed into the lead. The SMP driver fought hard to catch back up but Rugolo held on for the class win, ninth overall.
SMP finished second in GTC as well, its #73 Ferrari 458 GT3 losing out to Alessandro Pier Guidi in the #96 Team Ukraine 458 GT3 in the last dozen laps.
The European Le Mans Series will race next at Imola on may 18. Visit the ELMS website for further information and to buy tickets.