Although the European Le Mans Series, more or less a step below the FIA World Endurance Championship, has had a race under its belt since June’s 24 Hours of Le Mans, it would be tough to deny that the 29 sports car teams ready to tackle the Circuit Paul Ricard in France are eager to return to action this weekend. For most of them, there is a realm of knowledge present for this layout, the just over 3.6 miles design has been the regular spring training site for those electing to participate in either the ELMS or FIA WEC, and with a mix of long straights and technical sections it will test and expose any strengths or weaknesses for any type of sports car, whether prototype or grand touring machine.
And so it is here, that the penultimate round of the 2015 ELMS campaign will be contested. Representing the fourth of five rounds, Circuit Paul Ricard will likely be the scene of what has become commonplace in the world of sports car racing this year, close competition and amazing finishes. Such is the scenario in the headliner LMP-2 division, where each of the three rounds have been won by a different team. Of those winners, two have called upon the upgraded Gibson 015S (formerly Zytek) open-top prototype as their vehicle of choice, while the other squad used perhaps the newest of the “star” cars in the smaller prototype division: the Oreca 05 coupe.
The Gibson runners: Jota Sport and Greaves Motorsport each have a long tradition of success in LMP-2, with each having a class win at the 24 Hours of Le Mans next to their name. Greaves, led by drivers Jon Lancaster, Gary Hirsch, and former Formula One test driver Bjorn Wirdheim claimed the season opening event in Silverstone, England, but have finished no better than fourth in the following two rounds. Jota Sport, who have access to factory LMP-1 stalwarts Harry Tincknell (Nissan) and Filipe Albquerque (Audi) in non-conflicting rounds finished second this year at Le Mans, and even claimed the FIA WEC round in Belgium earlier this year as a wild card entrant. Jota’s big score in mid-July at the Red Bull Ring in Austria moved them to the top of the current points table, but only two points ahead of the closest pursuer.
That challenger is the French-based Thiriet by TDS Racing squad, who despite taking the win in Imola, Italy earlier this season, have had their own tastes of misfortune in their last two race outings. Pierre Thiriet’s Oreca coupe appeared destined to duel with the KCMG squad (who won in FIA WEC competition last weekend) at Le Mans, only to be eliminated from the race after being spun into the barriers by a GTE-Pro Aston Martin runner. The team also looked primed to win in Austria likewise, but a late race drive through penalty relegated them to runner-up status behind Jota. Although Tristan Gommendy is the main cog in the driving department, fellow French co-drivers Ludovic Badey and team boss Pierre Thiriet have been equally effective so far in the 2015 slate.
While the big three are the main story, there are players looking to rock the party on Sunday at Paul Ricard. Among them is American entrepreneur Tracy Krohn’s Ligier-Judd coupe squad, who are still after their first podium result of 2015, despite holding fourth place in the championship entering this weekend. The team has been held back a little bit by Krohn’s own lack of pace, but this weekend the Texan has a pair of strong co-pilots who know the Ligier well. Brazil’s Oswaldo Negri, Jr. drove Michael Shank’s Ligier to the pole position at the United SportsCar Championship’s Rolex 24 at Daytona in January, while returnee Olivier Pla drove the Krohn entry to the number one starting spot in March at the 12 Hours of Sebring. If the Judd V-8 can hold up to the strain, the lime green liveried entry could surprise.
Elsewhere on the Paul Ricard property, keep an eye on these story lines as well…
In LMP-3, ELMS’s equivalent to the TUSCC’s Prototype Challenge, Holland’s Team LNT is again the overwhelming favorite. The squad has won two of the first three events, with former Tour de France cyclist Chris Hoy and veteran Charlie Robertson earning both triumphs. While new challengers are expected for 2016, the final two 2015 clashes should see LNT continue to rule the throne.
In the GTE division, Ferrari 458 runners Formula Racing look to maintain their championship lead, after claiming it with a victory in Austria. As potent as they are in the FIA WEC slate, AF Corse’s own pair of Ferraris should will pose a threat to Formula’s quest, as will the BMW Z4 of Mark VDS Racing. Gulf Racing UK’s Porsche 911 operation, and AT Racing’s Ferrari are further down in the points table, but each have also won a race in the ELMS this season and cannot be overlooked.
Finally in GTC, TDS Racing’s BMW continues to hold its points lead earned via victory in the season opener at Silverstone. AF Corse is also potent here, having won the past two rounds.
Stay tuned to OnPitRoad.com for updates from round four of the ELMS throughout the weekend.