The weather gods smiled upon European Le Mans Series’ first visit to the historic Spa-Francorchamps circuit and 35,000 spectators took advantage of the blue skies and warm sunshine for the entire race weekend to witness American team Dragonspeed dominate the weekend, taking fastest times in practice, qualifying and eventually the overall win.
The four hour race provided excitement from the off in all classes, saw two safety car periods (one before the first lap was even over!), a few full course yellows and a stunning ELMS race debut for Belgian team WRT taking a podium finish in the LMP2 class.
In a spirited start, Nicolas Lapierre capitalised on the Dragonspeed Oreca’s pole position into La Source with Giedo Van Der Garde gaining a grid place over the Thiriet by TDS Racing Oreca to slot the ageing G-Drive Gibson-Nissan into second while Pierre Thiriet lost another place to Tristan Gommendy who passed his French rival for third spot into the first corner; as usual at Spa, the following field had it’s fair share of brake lockups and overshoots as eager drivers attempted the tight right hand turn.
In the ultra-competitive LMP3 class, Alex Brundle rocketed his #2 United Autosports Ligier from fifth into second place while fellow British driver Rory Butcher emulated him powering his JMW Ferrari 458 Italia from fifth to first place in the GTE class.
Noticeably absent from the start was the #99 Beechdean Aston Martin Vantage which came straight into the pits following the warm-up lap only to emerge some 5 minutes later.
Tristan Gommendy then spun on the first lap when the stub axle of his #33 Eurasia Motorsport Oreca broke, loosing a wheel bringing the day’s first safety car period and ending the day almost before it had begun – thankfully he was unharmed.
When the SC came back in, Lapierre again showed his metal, holding off a hard charging Van Der Garde in the #38 G-Drive Nissan and Nathanaël Berthon in the #41 Greaves Ligier and worked on extending the American team’s lead. In GTE, Butcher also had a blistering start putting the #66 Ferrari well into the middle of the LMP3 times!
Lap 10 saw the first full course yellow (FCY) period when Eric Maris in the #4 Ligier and Michael Hedlund made a spin at the bus stop and got hit by Michael Hedlund in the #77 Proton Porsche.
During the same lap, Johnny Laursen in the #60 Formula Racing Ferrari and Tracy Krohn in the #40 Ligier traded paint with Krohn ending up with both cars in the gravel trap at the entry of Fagnes. Laursen made it back to the pits for some ‘tank tape’ repairs but would get a stop & go penalty afterwards for causing a collision.
Once racing resumed the Ferrari destruction derby continued when the #56 AT Racing Ferrari of Alexander Talkanitsa Jnr spun off into the barriers at T1 and soon after the #51 AF Corse Ferrari of Piergiuseppe Perazzini went off at T16-T17 and hit the wall following contact with an LMP2 car.
The next SC period came with 2.5 hours remaining when Gary Findlay in the #48 Murphy Prototypes Oreca jinked right into the barriers on the exit of T8, destroying the front of the car.
With 1.5 hours to go, the #32 SMP Racing BR01 pitted and Team WRT moved their #47 Ligier into the lead – some may say a remarkable feat considering the team had pulled an all-nighter the just to get the car onto the grid when, following an incident in qualifying, the damage was severe enough to require the build up of a new tub.
With 40 minutes to go Laurens Vanthoor in the WRT Ligier was leading the race by 8.7 seconds over Nico Lapierre in the Dragonspeed car however, the Frenchman was driving like a man possessed and rapidly closing the gap – within 10 minutes Lapierre had caught Vanthoor and passed the Belgian for the lead at T5.
With 5 minutes of the race remaining the #25 LMP2 of Algarve Pro Racing and #46 Thiriet by TDS Racing collided at T14 with the Algarve Pro Racing car ending up in gravel. Yellow flags quickly become FCY to allow the recovery and with the seconds ticking away the race ended under the FCY with Lapierre bringing home the #21 Dragonspeed to claim the podium’s top step at the end of a dominant weekend. Laurens Vanthoor claimed second overall for the Belgian Audi Team WRT, an amazing result for the debuting local team and Thiriet by TDS Racing rounded out the top three.
In LMP3, despite a Drive Through Penalty for refuelling the car with the engine running and a 30 second penalty for Enzo Guibbert for not respecting the FCY Maximum speed the #9 Graff Racing Ligier converted their pole position start to dominate the class and take a well deserved win, albeit with the time penalty reducing the race winning margin from 34 seconds to 4 seconds.
The big news of the day in LMP3 however was to come from United Autosports as, with a measured drive, Alex Brundle, Mike Guasch and Christian England not only took second spot on the podium but wrapped up the LMP3 championship a race early, taking the pressure off before the team heads to Portugal next month. The #3 sister car of Patterson, Bell and Boyd rounded out the LMP3 podium.
In GTE JMW Motorsport finished a dominant race on the top step of the podium taking their third ELMS GTE win in a row; Andrea Bertolini, Rory Butcher and Rob Smith finishing nearly a lap ahead of their nearest rivals. The #88 Proton Competition 911 RSR took second and AF Corse’s #55 Ferrari F458 Italia closed out the GTE podium.
Today’s result means that JMW are now 20 points ahead of the #99 Beechdean Aston Martin Racing Vantage with one race remaining. No matter what happens in Portugal the UK team cannot finish lower than second place which means they have now secured an automatic invitation to the 2017 24 Hours of Le Mans on 17/18 June.
Full results are available here.