With one week to go until the European Le Mans Series takes to the track for the opening round of the 2017 season, we take a look at the results from the official tests at Monza last week, speculate a little and see if we can draw any conclusions prior to next weekend’s inaugural race.
Thirty five highly tuned racing machines driven by over 100 drivers from 22 countries will take to the grid next Saturday breaking down as: 12 new-for-2017 LMP2, 17 LMP3 and 6 GTE cars.
All change in LMP2
Although the regulations allowed for ‘grandfathering in’ previous generation LMP2 cars all of the top category grid features chassis’ from the new ‘Global LMP2’ formula with no legacy cars; initially this may have been seen as a strange choice given that the teams will have had to replace their existing machinery but when we look at the figures, it makes a lot of sense – the new spec Gibson engine produces 100bhp more than the older engines, so on that alone any previous generation LMP2 would have been uncompetitive before even factoring in the benefits of the 2017 car’s aero. Lastly, we see that with the exception of Dragonspeed, IDEC Sport and G-Drive, all of the teams in LMP2 have either stepped up from LMP3 or are new entrants in 2017 so have had to purchase cars anyhow.
We will see three versions of the ‘Global LMP2’ chassis at Silverstone; the French Oreca 07 (which set the fastest top speed during the test at Monza in the hands of Australian James Allen) and Ligier JSP217 and the Italian Dallara P217, all of which will run the Gibson V8 engine.
United Autosports, Graff, Panis Barthez Competition, Tockwith Motorsports and Villorba Corse all step up to the top-class from LMP3 in 2016. United Autosports and Graff Racing fielding two cars each (Ligiers for UA and Orecas for Graff) with the remainder fielding one car each. Both UA and Panis Barthez Competition will also be fielding multiple cars in the LMP3 category.
A Legend returns
Silverstone will also see the return to prototype racing of Dutch Legend Jan Lammers. The ex-F1 driver is also a Le Mans veteran having made 22 trips to the grid at La Sarthe (with a win in 1988 in the Silk Cut Jaguar XJR-9LM) and teams up with fellow Dutchman Frits Van Eerd for the season opener in the Racing Team Nederland Dallara P217 – unmissable in it’s yellow Jumbo supermarkets livery.
LMP2 – Ones to watch
We also see the welcome return of Richard Bradley to the LMP2 class, the Englishman joining James Allen (AUS) and Franck Matelli (FRA) in the very fast #40 Graff Racing Oreca 07. Bradley is no stranger to Oreca machinery having won the LMP2 class at Le Mans in 2015 in an Oreca 05-Nissan alongside Matthew Howson and Nicolas Lapierre.
Lapierre himself has a crazy busy 2017 season lined up – the Frenchman returns to Dargonspeed to partner Henrik Hedman (SWE) and Ben Hanley (GBR) in the team’s Oreca 07 (updated from the 05 spec). With a DNF at Silverstone in 2016 the trio will be hoping for a good points haul this year. On top of his ELMS commitments Lapierre will be driving the Signatech Alpine LMP2 in the majority of the 2017 WEC rounds and also returns to the Toyota LMP1 family in the third car for the Six Hours of Spa-Francorchamps and Le Mans.
The ever smiling Filipe Albuquerque returns to the ELMS in the #32 United Autosports Ligier JSP217, the Portuguese driver partnering William Owen (USA) and Hugo de Sadeleer (CHE). As ‘Ligier UK’, UA know a thing or two about these cars and Filipe is properly fast when he’s in the groove – certainly a car to watch out for this year.
With no entry from Greaves this year, Memo Rojas moves to the TDS Racing run G-Drive Oreca for 2017. A three-time winner of the 24 Hours of Daytona, the Mexican lines up with Ryo Hirakawa (JPN) and Frenchman Léo Roussel (a solid Gold, Gold, Silver driver line-up) and with the ever-professional TDS team on the spanners the G-Drive car should be a force to be reckoned with.
LMP3 – Bursting at the seams
Thankfully, the ACO have extended the prototype ladder and made the LMP3s eligible for the Michelin Le Mans Cup this year otherwise there would have been a fair chance the whole ELMS grid was made up of LMP3 cars! The formula has certainly succeeded exactly as was hoped by providing a cost-managed entry to prototype racing. As it is, the LMP3 class makes up the bulk of the grid with 17 cars entered for Silverstone.
As with 2016, the Ligier JS-P3 is still dominating the grid but we should also see two of the new Norma M30 entered by M.Racing YMR and Oregon Team (subject to a] holologation and b] the teams rebuilding them as both were badly damaged during the Monza tests). Look out for the multi-coloured #10 of the Oregon Team, this car set the fastest speed of the test in the LMP3 class at Monza (279.1 kph) in the hands of Dario Capitanio and the colour-scheme on it will give your DSLR’s sensor a good workout!
The biggest French company nobody has ever heard of, Duqueine Engineering, return with a two-car squad for the opening round. Watch out for the #8 Ligier JS-P3 which features perennially quick French Gentleman Driver Henry Hassid partnered with Vincent Beltoise.
With the majority of the entrants being the Ligier, this should be a great test of the new Norma chassis but more pointedly, class honours are likely to come down to the best driver/preparation over a runaway performance difference, so there is everything to play for in this highly competitive field. If we had to single out one car for special praise, we’d currently choose the #17 Untimate Team car because of its great metallic red livery.
GTE – Down on numbers
2017 sees a 50% drop in GTE field numbers over 2016, however don’t for a moment think that means a similar percentage drop in competition – far from it with this class promising some fantastic racing throughout the season.
2016’s class winners Beechdean AMR return with every intention of retaining their crown. With a fantastic driver roster featuring factory drivers Ross Gunn (GBR) and Darren Turner (GBR) partnering owner/driver Andrew Howard (GBR) and the 2017 #99 Vantage V8 including all of the aero-updates from last year’s WEC Pro car, we expect to see lap times drop.
TF Sport will run the second Aston Martin Vantage for Turkish driver Salih Yoluc. He’ll be joined by Euan Hankey (GBR) and AMR’s ‘Dane Train’ factory driver Nicki Thiim (DNK). Providing Yoluc can get his ‘exuberance’ under control, the #90 Vantage could well be the black sheep to look out for this year.
Swiss team Spirit of Race bring two of the turbocharged Ferrari F488 GTEs with the #51 car featuring and all-Italian driver line-up of Gianluca and Giorgio Roda and five-times Le Mans entrant Andrea Bertolini. The second car is the almost-all-British trio of Duncan Cameron, Aaron Scott and Matt Griffin (IRL).
However, the Ferrari camp is not yet complete either as JMW Motorsport again return with their yellow 458 GTE Italia. While some may think this a strange choice as the newer 488 is now eligible for ELMS it could be a ‘canny’ decision by the super-professional Scottish team; they know every nut and bolt of that car and in their hands it’s quick too, Rory Butcher took it to 270.7 kph at Monza, 0.7 kph faster than Matt Griffin in the fastest of the newer 488 GTEs! You can bet your next month’s mortgage payments that they will be triple-checking the height of the front splitter this year as well!
Finally in GTE we have a single Porsche 911 RSR (991) from Proton Competition peddled by Christian Ried (DEU), Joël Camathias (CHE) and Gold driver Matteo Cairoli (ITA). The #77 was the slowest of the GTE entrants in the Monza tests so we will see in a week whether they were ‘sandbagging’ or have somewhat of a hill to climb.
Qualifying takes place on Good Friday, 14th April from 14:05 and the 4h race stars Saturday April 15th at 14:30. See you there!