With disqualifications, torrential rainshowers and three different manufacturers sharing the spoils in as many races, the 2016 European Le Mans Series campaign has all the makings of a classic. Before the second half of the season gets underway this weekend at Paul Ricard, Racing.GT take stock of the main storylines so far.
There may be only eight full-season entries in the ELMS this season, representing three manufacturers, but the racing has been high on quality, with just five points separating the top three teams heading into round four at Paul Ricard.
The title protagonists…
Without a win this season but the only crew to finish on the podium at every race, Belarusian father and son duo Alexander Talkanitsa Sr. and Jr sit top of the tree in their AT Racing Ferrari 458 Italia, serviced by AF Corse. Second in the Silverstone season-opener and two thirds at Imola and the Red Bull Ring, both men have made giant strides since last year and developed the handy knack of collecting points on days when they haven’t looked like contenders, which will serve them well as the title battle intensifies.
— Alex Talkanitsa jr. (@atalkanitsa) April 17, 2016
Now in their third year in the championship, AT Racing are a well-drilled unit that rarely make mistakes and are capably supported by Ferrari works drivers Alessandro Pier Guidi and Davide Rigon, twice a winner in the WEC this season.
However, they had to count on a rather large stroke of luck in order to be classified second at Silverstone, after JMW Motorsport were excluded for a technical infringement and the stewards judged that a guesting Richie Stanaway was at fault for the final lap collision with Pier Guidi, which ended their race in the barriers.
While it is these moments that can prove crucial at the end of a season, the Talkanitsas cannot rely on picking up the pieces when others hit trouble. In light of the calendar being extended from five rounds to six, a consistent approach may not reap the rewards they would have done in previous years, so they will be hoping that a first win since Imola last year can firmly stamp their authority on the title race.
Just one point behind them are Beechdean AMR, the chief beneficiaries of JMW’s exclusion for running an unhomologated front splitter at Silverstone. Team patron and reigning British GT champion Andrew Howard had always viewed his expansion into the ELMS as a two-year project, so could be forgiven for turning up to Brands Hatch 24 hours later for the opening round of the British championship wearing the broadest of broad grins.
— Andrew Howard (@BeechdeanAH) July 16, 2016
Combining his first ELMS campaign with a British GT title defence and all without long-time co-driver Jonny Adam, it has been a season of discovery for Howard, which saw him fulfill a lifelong ambition of racing at La Sarthe in June. Alongside the chairman of Wycombe Wanderers football club, Darren Turner and Alex MacDowall have done the consummate professional jobs expected of them, and were unfortunate to see an innovative pit strategy that could have yielded a podium at the Red Bull Ring thwarted by Full Course Yellows.
As Howard continues to grow in confidence in the thoroughbred Vantage GTE, without the creature comforts of ABS and traction control he’s accustomed to in the GT3, Beechdean could be a force in the second half of the season.
JMW Motorsport have been the fastest team for much of the year, but Rob Smith, Rory Butcher and Andrea Bertolini’s season so far has largely been a story of ‘what ifs’. After their on-the-road win at Silverstone was scrubbed from the history books, Jim McWhirter’s team looked set to atone at Imola until Mother Nature decided otherwise. The downpour was so heavy that the organisers were forced to neutralise the final 45 minutes of the race behind the Safety Car, allowing Wolf Henzler, Robert Renauer and Mike Hedlund a surprise win.
Our head of strategy celebrating our RBR win and also not being the team member with the worst bladder control pic.twitter.com/WB47QJlXom
— JMW Motorsport (@JMWmotorsport) July 22, 2016
Finally, everything went right for them at the Red Bull Ring as JMW collected a first win since the late Allan Simonsen and Jonny Cocker won at Donington in 2012. Smith is one of the quickest Bronze-rated drivers in the championship and both he and British GT graduate Butcher have stepped up another level since 2014 ELMS champion Bertolini rejoined the team.
But as impressive as JMW’s recovery from that Silverstone non-score has been, it will count for nothing unless they can continue to score points in the three remaining races. Fighting back from a first round setback is one thing, but hit any more problems and it will be far harder to repeat the trick.
As for the rest…
Still only ten points off the lead, the Proton Competition Porsche of Wolf Henzler and Mike Hedlund sits fourth in points courtesy of their surprise win from pole at Imola, which served as a timely reminder of GT Masters regular Robert Renauer’s abilities behind the wheel of a GTE-spec 911.
The other standout performance in a Porsche came from 20-year-old Matteo Cairoli, who took a sensational pole position on his category debut at the Red Bull Ring. The Italian Porsche Junior finished fifth in the race alongside Bronze drivers Gianluca Roda and Christian Ried, adding a fastest lap for good measure. His will be a name to remember in years to come.
— Matt Griffin (@MGriffinRacing) July 17, 2016
It’s been a disappointing start to the season for the runners up of the last two seasons, air-drumming sensation Matt Griffin and Duncan Cameron. Alongside experienced Silver Aaron Scott, a fourth place at Silverstone remains the AF Corse trio’s best result so far and after the nadir of finishing eighth at in Austria, their performance hampered by damage from first lap contact with an LMP3 car, the only way is up in the second half of the season.
As for reigning champions Formula Racing, 2016 has been nothing short of a disaster. After finishing an uncompetitive fifth at Silverstone, Christina Nielsen shunted heavily in practice at Imola which ruled the all-Danish crew out of the weekend before it had really begun, while a disappointing weekend at the Red Bull Ring wasn’t helped by contact with an errant LMP3 car. Nielsen’s clashing IMSA commitment at the Virginia International Raceway means Mikkel Mac and Jonny Laursen will be joined at Paul Ricard by F3-graduate Mikkel Jensen.