Audi exclusion lands Porsche the RAC Tourist Trophy whilst a faultless drive saw Simon Dolan, assisted by Harry Tincknell and Giedo Van Der Garde, finally claim a second Silverstone ELMS victory after narrowly missing out in both 2014 and 2015.
As opposed to re-mortgaging your house to visit the British Grand Prix, just £40 buys an adult weekend pass for the opening rounds of the European Le Mans Series and the WEC. Even better value for money when you consider that, unlike the F1, there is no charge for parking at the circuit!
Both series have seen changes for 2016, the most obvious being the removal of GTC and the separation of qualifying for all three classes in the European Le Mans Series whilst the WEC welcomed new GT regs that would feature aggressive rear diffusers for the GT PRO machines. None of which appeared to have done any harm as the ELMS boasted a whopping 44 car entry whilst the WEC managed a quality filled 33. No better way to commence my circuit racing season.
The 4 Hours of Silverstone would fill it’s now traditional Saturday afternoon slot and with great anticipation we made the little over an hour journey down to the home of British Motorsport in far from ideal conditions. You don’t expect the ‘Warning Ice Possible’ sign to appear on your dashboard in mid April, and even more bizarrely we didn’t anticipate the WEC free practice session to be red flagged as a result of Snow!
Pleasingly however, whilst remaining cold, sunshine finally broke through the clouds as the 44 strong ELMS entry began their formation laps; the Thiriet by TDS Oreca 05 on pole courtesy of a stonking lap from long time Rebellion racer, Mathias Beche.
The day would not end as well as it started for the pole sitting machine however, initially running wide at the start before a stuck throttle would send Pierre Thiriet into the Luffield Barriers. Which, alongside the mechanical failure of Tristan Gommendy’s Eurasia Oreca 05 at Woodcote on the very same lap, would bring out the first full course caution period of the afternoon.
In the meantime, works Ford man, Harry Tincknell had built a healthy lead in the G-Drive Gibson with only Paul Loup Chatin in the Panis-Barthez Ligier able to stay in touch. A lead that was relatively commanding before Chatin was able to take advantage of a second full course yellow to allow legendary French Goalkeeper Fabian Barthez to jump aboard; Barthez emerging in the lead of the race courtesy of the earlier G-Drive stop occurring under green flag conditions.
But whilst Barthez was not able to keep Dolan behind for long, driver rankings dictated that the former was required to spend much less time behind the wheel; a tactic which looked favourable given Timothe Buret’s pace. Unfortunately however, just as the lead battle looked to be getting interesting, the Ligier hit mechanical problems and dropped way out of contention; thus leaving the way clear for ex Caterham F1 pilot, Giedo Van Der Garde, to cruise to victory. Although crossing the line with just 3 seconds remaining and then setting the car’s fastest lap of the race on the very last tour must have eroded the team manager’s finger nails somewhat!
Behind, the SMP racing BR01 of Stefano Coletti, Julian Leal Covelli and Andreas Wirth came home second whilst a stunning late stint by Olivier Lombard lifted he, Vincent Capillaire and Jonathan Coleman onto the final step of the podium. Meanwhile Alex Brundle, Mike Guasch and Christian England claimed top spot for United Autosports in the Ligier dominated LMP3 category.
In GT, disqualification for the JMW squad robbed them of a home victory, where instead the Aston Martin of Andrew Howard, Darren Turner and Alex MacDowall claimed top spot. A late push from GT pole man Richie Stanaway almost made it an Aston 1-2 but for a debatable last lap move on the AT Racing Ferrari; the New Zealander crossing the line first but subsequently relegated 1 position at the discretion of the stewards.
Fans had packed into Silverstone on Sunday, basking in conditions that could not have been more different to that of the previous morning. And several coffees, a quick walk around the underwhelming paddock and a lap of the circuit later we were finally back at Luffield, eagerly anticipating the start; a build up to the race disappointingly ruined by an amateurish warm up act on the PA in preference to Radio Le Mans. The mind boggles!
In tricky conditions, Audi had stunned onlookers by beating Porsche to pole position and it was the #7 R18 in the hands of Andre Lotterer who lead the opening laps of the race. However its was a lead that would last just 25 minutes as Mark Webber in the #1 Porsche was a man on a mission, going on to build a commanding lead before handing over the reigns to Brendon Hartley.
But, just as Porsche looked like they were going to walk away with it, the young New Zealander made an error of judgement passing the Gulf GTE AM 911 of Michael Wainwright. And just like that their race was over, thankfully both drivers escaping injury after what was a pretty scary collision; the LMP1 regulations appearing to do their job as the #1 Porsche refused to flip.
Meanwhile the #8 Audi had also hit trouble after the first round of pit-stops. Oliver Jarvis had put in a great first stint, managing to pass the sister car during the stops but dropping back with hybrid issues at around a quarter distance; the same issue that would cause a recently installed Lucas Di Grassi to park the troublesome machine out on track. A full course caution was required to remove both of the stricken German machines.
This left the #7 Audi and the #2 Porsche to battle it out for victory with Benoit Treluyer in the R18 managing to sneak past Marc Lieb as the track returned to green after the aforementioned incidents. Both cars would later endure spins, whilst a safety car period for debris would bring the #6 Toyota in the reckoning; the 2014 champions however, whilst showing glimpses of pace, were not able to string consistently quick laps together and would never seriously challenge the top step of the podium.
With just a quarter of the race to go there was still little to choose between the front running cars. Whilst the Audi held a slim lead , attention turned to fuel consumption and whether Porsche could make it to the flag with 1 less stop. As it happened both the Porsche and Audi required a ‘Splash and Dash’ and whilst Jani was expected to close in on Fassler during the final stint, the Audi was never really troubled. It had been a great drive by the #7 Audi which reminded me very much of their mighty performances against the super fast Peugeot not so long ago. Such a shame therefore that they were excluded for an over-worn skid block. Rules are rules however.
Elsewhere Bruno Senna, Ricardo Gonzalez and Filipe Albuquerque put in a great performance in the RGR Ligier to defeat the similar Sebring and Daytona winning ESM machine and claim LMP2 honours with 5th position overall.
Meanwhile AF Corse Ferraris dominated the GT ranks where the PRO machines will be lucky to escape a balance of performance adjustment for Spa; the #71 of Sam Bird and Davide Rigon leading from start to finish whilst the #51 of Gianmaria Bruni and James Calado ovecame starting from the very back of the grid and a 3 minute stop and go penalty to claim 2nd! Further back the 458 of Francois Perrodo, Emmanuel Collard and Rui Aguas topped the AM machines.
It would be fair to say that whilst I thoroughly enjoyed both days of competition, I much preferred the ELMS action at last year’s event. Whilst I appreciate it would be difficult to beat the epic finale to the 2015 opening round, I definitely had a feeling that the Prototype, GT balance has stepped too far in the direction of the former. In my view GT cars are a vital part of any endurance race and 9 from 44 is too low a ratio for me.
The WEC on the other hand felt like a massive step forward. Aside from 3 relatively closely matched LMP1 manufacturer teams, we also saw a revitalised Rebellion on the podium and what must be the best quality LMP2 line-up I have ever witnessed. Throw in the Ford to the GTE PRO ranks and we have a phenomenal formula for success. The only thing missing is a works Corvette.
Other notable points from the weekend ….
- £40 for a weekend pass is incredible value for World level Motorsport. It costs near £100 to watch Wales Rally GB with zero facilities!
- Showsec security are a breath of fresh air in comparison to the G4S of old.
- The array of talent in all 4 classes of the WEC in unbelievable. When you consider the likes of Bruno Senna, Roberto Mehri, Will Stevens and Nic Lappierre feature the second class of competition you know that the FIA and ACO are doing something right.
- The straight line pace of Toyota bodes well for a 3 way fight at Le Mans, lets face it, the one event that matters in the endurance racing season.
- Audi managing to hold their own against their World Champion counterparts.
- The ability to walk the entire Silverstone circuit, inside and out.
- £4 for a can of Guiness? Are you having a laugh? I can get 4 cans from Tesco for the same price!
- The disappointing engine note of the new turbo engined Ferrari 488!
- Disqualification of the winning car several hours after the podium.
- The awful warm up act on the PA system and the lack of Radio Le Mans pre race.
- The removal of the GTC class from the ELMS ranks.
- The lack of varierty in LMP3.
- The stone-age Silverstone ticket ordering system which still doesn’t allow race tickets to be sent to a different address to where the card is registered!
- A lot of hanging around on Sunday morning. Is there really no room for more support races?
However, the positives far outweigh the negatives. Bring on the big one in June. It could be a genuine three way battle at the front …
All images © Paul Commons (Paul Commons Motorsport Photography)