The start of the 2021 European Le Mans Series (ELMS) season got off to a rip-roaring race at the Circuit de Catalunya on Sunday 28th April. Qualifying had been a close affair and despite the changes to the top category, LMP2 the #26 G-Drive Racing team took pole with a 1:31.788 the remainder of the category spread across a mere 3 seconds. LMP3 went further with pole to last in category separated by 1.5 seconds and the LMGTE spread being barely a second! This surely gave an indication that the race would be closely fought, and from the beginning it was a points too close. Here is out by category race summary.
It was series debutants #41 Orlen Team WRT Oreca-Gibson of Deletraz/Kubica/Ye that took the chequered flag marking the first ELMS win for a Belgian team from second on the grid. The gap was over 20 seconds to the #65 Panis Racing who held a lead of a further 67 seconds from the third placed #22 United Autosports.
At the start, Rusinov in the #26 G-Drive Racing car was canny and compressed the field with a very slow approach to the line which had consequences behind. Firstly at T2 the #32 United Autosports Oreca of Jamin spun off into the gravel cool tyres and proximity to the team car #22 being likely causes. It the end of the opening lap #21 DragonSpeed USA Oreca of Hedman spun at the chicane and beached itself on a sausage kerb. Dragonspeed later took to social media to berate the #34 Racing Team Turkey, but its a 4-hour race, caution in the initial stages is usually rewarded. Sadly the clutch of the Dragonspeed did not survive much longer and it was an early retirement.
All the opening drama demanded a Full Course Yellow (1st of only 2 in the race) whilst the circuit was made safe. On resumption the #26 G-Drive Racing Aurus of Rusinov, the #41 Orlen Team WRT Oreca of Louis Deletraz and the #22 United Autosports Oreca of Phil Hanson were nose-to-tail for several laps. Rusinov set the fastest lap of the race a 1:35.797 on just lap 8 in the #26 but given the fuel load at the time it may have taken a lot out of the tyres as his performance started to fall away. Just 3 laps later #41 WRT took the lead at T1 and is almost followed through immediately by the remaining United Autosports(UA) car. Indeed a lap later and the UA #22 Oreca goes to the outside on approach to T1 and outbrakes the #26 of Rusinov in into the corner.
The revised engine map for the reduced power output (and additional weight) of the LMP2 runners (as well as the FCY period) meant that initial pitstops were not taken until close to the 50min mark. Once all had stopped and things settled down, it was clear the #41 Orlen Team WRT Oreca held an over 30 seconds advantage from the #22 United Autosports Oreca. It was to remain thus to the flag.
Canal in the #65 Panis Racing Oreca was able to challenge Argentine Colapinto now aboard the #26 Aurus for third place but Franco continued to impress from his Asian Le Mans Series outing and provided a solid defence to retain the position. This was to change when the #26 G-Drive Racing team was assessed for a drive through penalty for not respecting the start procedure dropping the car from third down to fifth.
Deletraz swaps out of the #41 after 1hr 40mins to handover to Chinese hot-shoe Ye. The lead remains at over 10 secs from the #22 UA-Oreca now of Gamble, with Stevens in the #65 Panis Racing Oreca in third, 45 secs further back. In 20mins, as we approached half-race distance Ye has opened up the lead to a commanding 33 secs and it becomes a matter of bringing the Orlen Team WRT car home.
A strong drive from the #26 G-Drive Racing Aurus now with De Vries driving briefly brings it back to the podium step. However as the race entered the final hour #26 G-Drive Racing Aurus acquired a further drive through penalty for sloppy pitwork, misplacing a wheel. This time these is insufficient time to recover and they ultimately bring the car home in fourth place.
After the final pitstops Kubica, now in the #41 holds a 30 second lead, with super-sub Aubry in the #65 in second. The #29 Ultimate Oreca of Lahaye in third but having to make final stop. Once complete he rejoined in fifth overall, yet highest placed in the newly introduced Pro-Am competition.
As the chequered flag flew the #41 Orlen Team WRT Oreca-Gibson swept by, as mentioned scoring the Belgian team’s first win, 22 secs ahead of the #65 Panis Racing and 89 secs ahead of the #22 United Autosports. The #26 G-Drive Racing came home fourth.
The #19 Cool Racing Ligier-Nissan of Maulini/Kruetten/Bell took the LMP3 class win following a considerable tussle. In particular the #4 DKR Engineering Duqueine-Nissan built up a considerable lead in the first half of the race with Laurents Horr behind the wheel. As is the way unfortunately once bronze driver Alain Berg took over the driving duties, the lead shrank away as Kruetten closed the gap from over a minute to just 5 seconds, leaving Bell in the #19 to finish the job in the final hour of the race.
As mentioned the slow start at the front of the field caused chaos for some of the LMP3 field scattering left and right on the start finish straight, shaking up the order. The field was led by the #2 United Autosports Ligier, current champion Wheldon at the wheel, with Horr in the #4 DKR Engineering Duqueine in second, the #15 RLR MSport Ligier of Benham in third. The big mover was the #19 Cool Racing Ligier of Maulini up from eleventh to fifth just behind the #3 United Autosports Ligier.
Following the early FCY, Horr took full advantage of the restart and moved into the lead in the #4 Duqueine, passing Wheldon in the #2 Ligier. By lap 14 the lead gap had opened up to nearly 8 secs.
Contact between the #3 United Autosports Ligier of Bentley and #13 Inter Europol Competition Ligier of Hippe led to the #19 Cool Racing Ligier moving up to fourth and challenging the #15 Ligier of Michael Benham for third. After an hour of racing the no4 DKR Engineering Duqueine had opened the gap to over 30 seconds to the chasing pack.
Unfortunately an electrical issue saw the #2 United Autosports Ligier pit and garaged. Resolving the issue took several laps and dropped the reigning champions out of contention. After 1hr 40mins the #6 Nielsen Racing Ligier of Adcock was tipped into a spin by the #26 G-Drive Racing Aurus of Colapinto at T9.
At half distance the #4 DKR Engineering Duqueine of Horr held a 78 secs lead over the #14 Inter Europol Competition Ligier of Pasini, with Maulini continuing to push hard in third in the #19 Ligier. #4 of Horr pitted to handover to Berg, with Maulini handing the #19 Cool Racing Ligier to Kruetten. Berg had an 80 second lead but his average pace per lap was some 4 seconds slower than Kruetten.
In the closing stages when Kruetten pitted the #19 to hand the car to Matt Bell, the gap to the leader #4 had shrunk to less than 5 seconds. With just 24 minutes of the four hours remaining the #19 Cool Racing Ligier swept into the lead at Turn 1. To add to the heartache at DKR, the #15 RLR MSport Ligier of Jakobsen also overtook to take second place, with Jakobsen also slowly closing the gap to the leader as Bell struggled with worn front Michelins.
At the flag Bell held on in the #19 Cool Racing finishing just 2.2 seconds ahead of the #15 RLR MSport Ligier at the flag. The #13 Inter Europol Competition Ligier of De Wilde took the final podium step after a strong drive by the young Belgian driver to finish just ahead of the #18 1 AIM Villorba Corse Ligier, with the #4 DKR Engineering Duqueine finishing a valiant fifth after a spirited run.
The #80 Iron Lynx Ferrari 488 GTE EVO of Mastronardi/Cressoni/Molina scored the first LMGTE class win of the 2021 season, and the first ELMS victory for the Italian team. Molina took the chequered flag at his home track one lap ahead of the #77 Proton Competition Porsche of Evans and the #55 Spirit of Race Ferrari of Perel.
A slow start at the front of the field shook up the LMGTE field, with the #80 Iron Lynx Ferrari of Mastronardi moving to the front of the field, with the #77 Porsche of the ever-present Ried dropping from category pole to third behind the #60 Iron Lynx Ferrari of Ruberti. After the FCY and Safety Car period, the #77 Porsche and the #83 Iron Lynx Ferrari of Gostner were fighting for third, with Gostner getting ahead on lap 12 to make it an early Iron Lynx 1-2-3. At the front of the field the #60 and #80 Ferraris were split by just over two seconds, with Ruberti unable to fully break away from Mastronardi.
After the first driver changes the #60 Ferrari now in the hands of Schiavoni, the Italian coming under pressure from Bruni in the #77 Porsche. At the chicane Schiavoni braked and Bruni ran into the back of the Ferrari, for which Bruni was shown the black and white warning flag. Bruni was now in the lead, just ahead of Cressoni in the #80 Iron Lynx Ferrari and the #93 Proton Competition Porsche of Lietz.
The #55 Spirit of Race Ferrari of Griffin had also been staging a challenge for the podium but had to pit when the rear right tyre blew out. Cressoni closed the gap to Bruni as the #77 Porsche struggled for grip. Cressoni took the lead in the #80 Ferrari with 1hr 40mins left of the race. The #77 Porsche came into the pits to change tyre to try and cure a vibration issue in the rear left of the car. Bruni handed the #77 Porsche back to Ried while Lietz handed the #93 Porsche back to Fassbender in third place.
Unfortunately Fassbender was clipped by the #66 JMW Motorsport Ferrari of Fontana and spun at T10. Fontana was given a black and white warning but it cost the #93 Porsche two places as a consequence.
Molina took over the #80 Iron Lynx Ferrari for the final stint, over a lap ahead of the #77 Porsche of Jaxon Evans, the New Zealander just 8 seconds ahead of Perel in the fast recovering #55 Ferrari.