After extending their European Le Mans Series GTE championship lead to 20 points with a third win on the trot at Spa, JMW Motorsport’s Rory Butcher, Rob Smith and Andrea Bertolini only needed to finish seventh in Estoril to take home the title. But motorsport is nothing if not unpredictable, and a debilitating gearbox failure for the Ferrari – and a hefty whack in the driver’s door – allowed Bechdean AMR’s Andrew Howard, Alex MacDowall and Darren Turner to turn the tables in an exchange that would leave most BBC Two scriptwriters open-mouthed. Here’s what we learned.
1. MacDowall leads Beechdean revival
This might be the race that in years to come, Alex MacDowall looks on as the making of him. The Cumbrian didn’t hit the heights of his team-mates in his two seasons in the WEC and has often gone under the radar in the Beechdean Aston Martin Racing setup this year, but just as at Silverstone right at the start of the year, it was MacDowall who did much of Beechdean’s heavy lifting in Estoril to put the Vantage GTE in the picture.
— Beechdean AMR (@BeechdeanAMR) October 23, 2016
Beechdean needed to win to have any hope of taking the title and did themselves no favours by qualifying at the very back of the eight car grid. At this point, they could have been forgiven for switching their attentions to focus on protecting their second position in the standings – and with it the automatic invitation to the 2017 Le Mans 24 Hours – but found MacDowall in inspired form, as the 25-year-old charged through to the lead in the early laps.
He couldn’t quite manage to keep Rory Butcher behind him, but a slow stop for the JMW Ferrari 458 Italia GTE meant Andrew Howard emerged almost a full lap ahead of Rob Smith, who brought the car back to the garage shortly afterwards.
Still, JMW’s maladies would mean nothing if Beechdean couldn’t deliver on their side of the bargain and after Darren Turner saw off the challenge of Rui Aguas, it fell to MacDowall to manage the gap back to Alessandro Pier Guidi’s fire-damaged AT Racing Ferrari. There was no panic, no fuss – just a typically understated stint, when Beechdean needed it most, to bring the car home in one piece.
— Darren Turner (@DarrenTurner007) October 23, 2016
“Alex has just grown this year,” the elated Howard told Racing.GT. “To me, Alex has gotten stronger and stronger as the year’s gone on, he’s great to race with over a weekend, but most importantly he delivered; for him to get in the car and gap the two Pros behind him when we were struggling unashamedly with grip – the car was certainly the hardest I’ve driven it, everyone was suffering from tyres going away – I think he did a fabulous job. He’s come into the team and embraced the way we work and dare I say, it’s worked for him.”
Whether MacDowall will remain a Silver-graded driver in the light of his title success and what that will mean for his continued involvement in the team is yet to be answered, but his performance surely won’t have gone unnoticed by David Richards and co.
2. JMW’s Estoril curse strikes again
Nobody will be happier that Estoril is to be replaced on next year’s calendar by Portimao than Jim McWhirter. The JMW boss has now seen his car expire while in a winning position twice in as many years, but as if the experience of seeing James Calado pull up with electrical gremlins in 2015 wasn’t hard enough, this time the consequences were far more serious as the ELMS title slipped through their fingers.
What is it with @JMWmotorsport and Estoril.. Last year and this year 👎🏼 horrible luck guys. That was yours.
— James Calado (@JamesCalado) October 23, 2016
Just like last year, Rory Butcher carved through to the lead in his first stint, but it all went downhill when the Scotsman brought the car in for their first pitstop as co-driver Rob Smith struggled to find a gear. When he eventually managed to re-join the fray, it was clear that the Ferrari wasn’t in a good way and he soon returned to the pits.
The problem still wasn’t fully fixed when Smith ventured back out onto the circuit some 40 minutes later, when to add insult to injury, Smith was harpooned by the spinning United Autosports Ligier of Mike Guasch. Somehow, Smith managed to drag the badly wounded Ferrari back to the pits, but JMW’s day was well and truly done.
The team to beat all season long had fallen at the final hurdle – tying down their own Le Mans entry at Spa now seemed a distant consolation.
3. AF Corse #55 ends the year on a high
“A tale of being in the wrong place at the wrong time,” was Matt Griffin’s assessment of the No. 55 AF Corse team’s ELMS campaign – it would be hard to disagree with him.
It was always expected that the swelling of the LMP3 class would have a knock-on effect with the GTE field, but the No. 55 Ferrari Griffin shared with Duncan Cameron and Aaron Scott has seen more than its fair share of LMP3-induced scrapes; Cameron was assaulted at the Silverstone season-opener and again entering the pits at Paul Ricard, while Scott was clattered from behind at the first corner in Austria, which bent the suspension and made for a very frustrating afternoon.
Having also been at the wrong end of the Imola rainstorm – with Griffin’s entire stint was spent behind the Safety Car – they arrived at Spa without a podium to their name. Having put that statistic to bed in the Ardennes following an epic scrap with Marco Seefried, the No. 55 crew added a second podium on the trot in Estoril, despite two punctures.
— Matt Griffin (@MGriffinRacing) October 23, 2016
Scott was running second and one lap away from his pitstop when he picked up a puncture, the car’s second of the day. After completing a slow in-lap and installing Griffin, the Irishman rejoined a minute down on Pier Guidi, but managed to pull back 20 seconds on the AT Racing machine over the final hour. Without the puncture, he might even have challenged MacDowall, which really would have made for a barnstorming conclusion…
“The fact that I took 20 seconds out of Pier Guidi over the final stint shows how quick we were, so it’s a little bit bitter sweet to finish third when we probably could have won,” he said. “If we hadn’t been unlucky and had the two punctures – even if we’d just had one – we would have been right there in the fight to try and win the race, but to finish the ELMS with consecutive podiums is a really good way to finish the season.”
4. Barker shines on ELMS return
Making his first appearance in the ELMS since Estoril 2014, Ben Barker made an instant impression by becoming the third different Porsche driver to qualify on pole this season after Wolf Henzler in Imola and Matteo Cairoli at the Red Bull Ring.
The greasy conditions certainly favoured the Porsche Barker would share with Proton Competition team boss Christian Ried and Gianluca Roda, but the Briton still had to get the better of team regular Henzler and did so comfortably, despite minimal running in practice thanks to a broken driveshaft.
— Ben Barker (@BenBarkerMsport) October 24, 2016
However, his hopes of a strong finish were thwarted when Ried, running second, was hit by an LMP3 car exiting the final corner, which caused a puncture and split the power steering hose. Five minutes were lost while it was repaired, although Barker was still able to set a time within 0.001s of Pier Guidi’s fastest of the whole race.
“It was a shame about the contact – the trouble is always that the acceleration is so similar and some drivers are unaware of this,” he said. “We had a LMP3 exit from last turn having been up the inside of Chris, then squeezed him onto kerb and contact was made that ultimately wrecked any chance of a podium.
“They really need to make the difference in speed far greater between the two classes. Driving standards won’t change in Pro-Am racing, so the ACO and the FIA need to make the gap larger to help this.”
5. TF Sport also heading to Le Mans
Aston Martin’s triumphant weekend got off to the best possible start on Saturday evening, as TF Sport’s second GT3 Le Mans Cup victory of the season gave them the team’s championship and with it, the all-important invitation to contest Le Mans in 2017.
— British GT (@BritishGT) October 24, 2016
Confusingly, Salih Yoluc and Euan Hankey didn’t win the driver’s championship. Instead, that honour went to Ferrari pairing Alexey Basov and Viktor Shaitar, who after skipping the opening round at Imola, won four races on the trot at Le Mans, Red Bull Ring, Paul Ricard and Spa. But since the Russians were entered at Le Mans under the AF Corse banner and thereafter as SMP Racing, Basov and Shaitar actually faced a four point deficit heading into Estoril.
In the winner takes-all finale, a scrappy stint from Basov – running through the turn four gravel on lap 13, before spinning in the same place four laps later – allowed Yoluc to build a handsome lead that Hankey managed to the finish, while Shaitar could only recover to second.
“There was a lot of pacing around, it was a very long two hours when you have to sit there and watch it!” said Ferrier, whose squad also took the British GT teams and drivers championships with Jonny Adam and Derek Johnston. “The guys did a great job and it was just a case of bringing it home to the end. I’m a very, very happy boy at the moment.”
— TF Sport (@OfficialTFSport) October 24, 2016