The European Le Mans Series title took another step towards being decided in the penultimate round at Spa-Francorchamps as JMW took a comfortable third win of the season, but there was plenty more to see beneath the skin in the GT3 Le Mans Cup and Renault Sport Trophy support series. Here’s what we learned.
1. JMW have got the taste for winning
To recycle an old trope, race wins are like buses; you wait for what seems like an age and then three come at once.
JMW Motorsport know all about that truism. After Jonny Cocker and Allan Simonsen’s win at Donington in 2012, they had to wait four long years before Andrea Bertolini, Rory Butcher and Rob Smith took the spoils at the Red Bull Ring in July. Having recaptured that winning feeling, they haven’t looked back since, taking another win at Paul Ricard – despite a late splash and dash – and following it up with a third win on the bounce at Spa.
— JMW Motorsport (@JMWmotorsport) September 25, 2016
This was perhaps the most routine of the lot, Butcher making serene progress from fourth to first in the early laps and building up a lead of over a minute before the Safety Car helped them gain a lap over the rest of the field.
Thereafter, all Smith, Bertolini and Butcher had to do was stay out of trouble to collect another 25 point maximum, which sees them extend their championship lead to a commanding 20-points over the troubled Beechdean Aston Martin with only one round remaining. Andrew Howard, Alex MacDowall and Darren Turner – who only drove 27 minutes in the four hour race – were unable to recover from losing a lap at the very start after a pitstop to remove radiator blanketing that had been left on for the formation lap. They eventually finished fifth.
“At first we thought the Safety Car was going to hinder us and we were going to lose our advantage, but then we realised we would get a wave-by because we were ahead of the overall leader on track and there was a huge wave of relief,” explained Butcher. “From then on, it was just a case of don’t get in trouble and bring the car home, which is exactly what we did.
“We’ve got a 20 point lead and there’s 26 points up for grabs, so we’ve just got to go [to Estoril] and keep doing what we’ve been doing all year. As soon as we take our foot off the gas, that’s when something will go wrong – we can’t let it get to our heads, we have to stay focused and approach it as we would any other weekend.”
2. Don’t rile Marco!
As JMW stroked away to another victory ahead of Matteo Cairoli’s Proton Porsche, the best battle on track was for third, with Matt Griffin eventually coming out on top after a titanic scrap with Marco Seefried to take a first podium of the year.
Marco Cioci might have hoped to join them in the second AF Corse Ferrari, but their afternoon was scuppered when Pierguiseppe Perazzini clashed with the Greaves Motorsport Ligier at Blanchimont and clattered into the barriers.
Cioci was in no doubt as to where the blame lay and made his feelings plain to pit reporter Charlie George in comfortably the best TV interview we’ve seen all year.
— James Newbold (@james_newbold) September 25, 2016
“My God, we spun thanks to a superhero, I didn’t see the number, I’m looking forward to know who is this guy,” fumed the Italian, who then directed his attentions directly to the camera. “You did a very good job, you tried to pass around the outside our gentleman driver in GT2, he spun, crashed and broke his race. I will be in the car the next stint, I would like to meet you. I will be waiting for you, superhero!”
Perhaps he was just frustrated that his birthday celebrations were spoiled. Many happy returns for yesterday Marco!
3. Bachler’s timely reminder
For the second Michelin GT3 Le Mans Cup race in succession, the Mentos Racing Porsche came up agonisingly short of victory as the ultra-consistent SMP Ferrari of Alexey Basov and Viktor Shaitar showed why they are the red-hot favourites for the title. After Ben Barker’s impressive cameo at Paul Ricard, this time it was Klaus Bachler’s turn, the Austrian serving up a timely reminder of his abilities to the bosses watching on from Weissach.
What a tight race yesterday. 0.7sec was the gap to P1 after 2h. We tried everything. Team did a… https://t.co/yxNCJvbMQn
— Klaus_Bachler (@klausbachler) September 25, 2016
Still in the loop at Porsche after graduating from their junior programme, Bachler’s season has been somewhat fragmented, having popped up in various series throughout the year in addition to his regular commitment in the GT3 Le Mans Cup alongside Edigio Perfetti. The one consistency has been bad luck.
On his only WEC outing of the year at Silverstone, subbing for Pat Long at Abu-Dhabi Proton Racing, the 25-year-old starred in terrible conditions to grab pole position. Bachler consolidated the lead in his opening stint before suspension problems robbed the team of an almost certain victory.
The rest of his season has continued in a similarly frustrating vein; Bachler’s lone ELMS appearance at Imola was disrupted by atrocious weather that caused his final stint to be neutralised behind the Safety Car, a pitlane speeding penalty cost him the lead in the Road to Le Mans support race, while a promising top-ten run in the ADAC GT Masters at the Nürburgring was abruptly ended by Markus Winkelhock, prompting team boss Christian Schütz to confront the sheepish Audi driver when he returned to the pits!
This wasn’t the first win of the season that he had so hoped for, but he came mightily close. Taking over from Perfetti with 7.5s to make up, Bachler quickly set to work and had halved the gap before Shaitar managed to get his tyres up to temperature. After several laps of stalemate, Bachler began to pile on the pressure and was crawling all over the Russian’s Ferrari by the final lap, crossing the line just 0.7s behind.
Bachler’s Gold driver grading undoubtedly counts against him for future opportunities as current juniors Matteo Cairoli, Mathieu Jaminet and Dennis Olsen all rated Silver, but his latest performance will have done him no harm at all.
4. Kubica back in business in Renault Sport Trophy…
You could be forgiven for not remembering Robert Kubica’s circuit racing comeback in the Mugello 12 Hours, which was ended prematurely by suspension problems. Six months on from his “one-off” outing, the popular Pole was back in the Renault Sport Trophy as he continues on his path towards recovery from the horrifying rally crash which effectively ended his Formula 1 career.
The high-downforce RS01 is not an easy car to jump into and perform, so it was difficult to know what to expect from Kubica making his series debut at the penultimate round. Far from disgracing himself, he ended the Saturday Endurance race on the podium alongside Duquiene Engineering team-mate Christophe Hamon, albiet only after Steijn Schothorst was penalised for his robust move on Markus Palttala.
— Julien Billiotte (@jbilliotte) September 24, 2016
After spending much of his stint following in the wheel-tracks of Tanart Sathienthirakul, Kubica delighted his many supporters with a gutsy move on the brakes into the Bus Stop chicane for what would become third place on the penultimate tour after the ailing Palttala pulled off.
The Renault Sport Trophy also holds two individual sprint races for Pro and Am drivers, which gave Kubica another chance to remind everybody what they had been missing. He qualified third and ran side by side with second-placed Schothorst into Eau Rouge, only for the Dutchman to use a generous slice of run-off and snatch the position without recourse. Kubica then had to give best to Kevin Korjus at Les Combes, but didn’t let him out of his sights for the rest of the race while successfully defending from Palttala.
Having reignited his passion for racing again, will we see Kubica back out soon? You bet.
5. …But Schiller steals his thunder
A quick look at Fabian Schiller’s website reveals Spa-Francorchamps is listed is his favourite circuit. After this weekend, you can certainly see why.
— Markus Palttala (@markuspalttala) September 25, 2016
Taking pole position for the Am race – with a time that would have put him second only to Pieter Schothorst on the Pro grid – victory and fastest lap to boot, the 19-year-old German’s performance was as complete a show of dominance as you’re likely to see all season. Schiller showed Fredrik Blomstedt a clean pair of heels at the start and promptly cleared off into the distance, his fifth win of the year wrapping up the Am title in fine style with a round to spare.
The son of Hardy Schiller, who co-owned the KSM LMP2 team which entered Allan Simonsen at Le Mans in 2008 (the Great Dane’s only non-GT appearance at the 24 Hours), Fabian has racing in his blood and at 19, has plenty of time on his side to fulfill the potential recognised by his Marc VDS team-mate Pattala at the start of the year.
“He joined us from F3 so it’s been a steep learning curve, but we’ve worked very well together and he’s made great progress as a driver this year,” the Finn told Racing.GT. “Although couple of the young Ams have given him good fights, he has dominated most of the season.
“At Spa, he deservedly secured the title, but even more importantly, he handled the weekend like a Pro and also had the pace of a Pro. He has some choices to make how to go on with his future, but he definitely has the potential to make it in the world of sportscar racing whether it’s in GTs or prototypes.”
That’s high praise indeed – it may not be too long before we hear a lot more from Fabian Schiller.