It’s a double bill of things we learned this weekend, with round three of the European Le Mans Series from the Red Bull Ring and a madcap Paul Ricard 24 Hours both demanding our attention. It was a weekend of contrasting fortunes for Ferrari teams, of star turns from drivers new and old(er) and saw plenty of teams get a harsh lesson in the realities of 24 hour racing. So without further ado, let’s jump right in.
1. JMW banish their demons
It seems remarkable that Rory Butcher and Rob Smith had yet to record a victory in the ELMS until this weekend. It could have come in the wet at Estoril last year and it definitely should have come at Silverstone in April, only to be thrown out of the results for running an unhomologated front splitter. They had another near-miss at Imola, finishing second after heavy rain caused the race to be neutralised behind the Safety Car for the final hour, but at last, their back luck was laid to rest in Austria.
— andrea bertolini (@abracing73) July 17, 2016
After surviving a scare when Butcher was nerfed off the track by the race-leading Panis Barthez Ligier in the first hour, the JMW Ferrari was only headed when Smith lost the back-end at Turn One and had to concede to Marco Seefried’s Porsche upon rejoining. Once Seefried finally peeled into the pits after a marathon opening stint and Andrea Bertolini had seen off the challenge of Darren Turner’s Beechdean Aston Martin, Butcher was able to enjoy a clear run to the flag.
Despite their non-score from Silverstone, JMW are now right in the thick of the title battle and sit just five points behind new leaders AT Racing at the halfway point in the championship. On current form, you wouldn’t bet against them leading it before very much longer.
2. Cairoli is a star in the making
As a way to mark your debut in the ELMS, this really was rather impressive from Matteo Cairoli. Although he’s already raced at the Red Bull Ring three times this year – twice in Carrera Cup Germany and once in Supercup – the 20-year-old Italian wasn’t expected to stick it to the championship’s established pacesetters on his first outing in the 911 RSR. No matter, Cairoli had Bertolini and Alessandro Pier Guidi beaten, his benchmark time some 1.5 seconds quicker than Wolf Henzler could muster in the sister car.
— Matteo Cairoli (@Cairoli96) July 16, 2016
With Bronze drivers Gianluca Roda and Christian Ried alongside, Cairoli was always going to face an uphill task to come away from the weekend with a podium, but fifth place and fastest lap will go down as a job well done. When he finally climbed aboard in the middle portion of the race, Cairoli made significant inroads into Bertolini’s lead, although he couldn’t sustain the fight in the next stint on his second set of tyres.
Already a two-time winner in Supercup this year, Cairoli could be a star in the making and as an added bonus, is currently classed as a Silver-graded driver. But if the Porsche junior carries on like this, he surely won’t be for much longer…
3. Porsche runs like clockwork
It’s rare that a 24 hour race goes by where one car is both faster AND more reliable than the rest, but that’s exactly what the Herberth Motorsport Porsche 911 GT3 R managed at Paul Ricard as Robert Renauer, Alfred Renauer, Ralf Bohn and Daniel Allemann took a crushing 14-lap victory.
— Owen Mildenhall (@owenmildenhall) July 17, 2016
After the decision to top up with fuel under a Code 60 enabled Robert Renauer to run longer in his opening stint, the Zandvoort 12 Hour winners exchanged the lead with the Bernd Schneider/ Clemens Schmid/ Wim de Pundert/ Brice Bosi HTP Mercedes-AMG GT3 as the pitstops cycled through, until repeated visits to the pits due to radio problems left the Porsche unchallenged at the front.
From there on, Herberth made the uniquely stressful business of 24 hour racing look remarkably easy as they responded to everything their pursuers threw at them, all while running problem-free. There really isn’t a better compliment to pay them than that.
4. Campbell-Walter shines on return
He told Racing.GT before the weekend that a podium finish was the goal, so second place in the Paul Ricard 24 was mission accomplished for comeback kid Jamie Campbell-Walter and the newly re-liveried RAM Racing Mercedes. Despite a few delays during the night caused by excessive pad wear and recurring throttle problems, consistent stints from Stuart Hall, Roald Goethe and Dan Brown – also making his first racing appearance of the season – meant the defending event winners were always likely podium contenders.
— Rebecca Jones (@TheRebeccaJones) July 17, 2016
But it was the supposedly race-rusty Campbell-Walter who will grab all the headlines on his first race outing since the Dubai 24 Hours 2015. The 2000 FIA GT champion’s electrifying pursuit of the Scuderia Praha Ferrari in the morning was vintage JCW and reminded everybody exactly what they’d missed in his time away.
It’s only a one-off for the time being, but Campbell-Walter has shown there’s still plenty left in the tank should ROFGO owner Goethe, or any other team managers for that matter, should decide to call on him again. Frankly, it would come as a surprise if they didn’t.
5. 24 hour racing is a cruel, cruel mistress
24 hour racing being 24 hour racing, hard luck stories weren’t hard to find on the French Riveria. A strong return to the championship for Optimum Motorsport counted for little when the gearbox packed up in the ninth hour, robbing Joe Osborne, Ryan Ratcliffe, Flick Haigh and Edward Sandstrom of second position.
Then, with four hours to go, Grasser Racing’s hopes went up in smoke – literally – when a puncture ruptured an oil line and caused a fire in the engine bay. It was a bitter pill for Jeroen Bleekemolen, Rolf Iniechen and Adrian Amstutz to swallow, having fought their way through to second from the very back when they were forced into the garage to fix the air jacks inside the first hour.
— 24H SERIES (@24HSERIES) July 17, 2016
But if they felt bad, just imagine how Peter Kox, Matteo Malucelli, Josef Kral and Jiri Pisarik must have felt. Scuderia Praha had decided to enter their venerable Ferrari 458 GT3, following the dual logic that the proven car would be more reliable over 24 Hours and would achieve higher top speeds on the Mistral Straight than their newly-acquired 488 model, yet however sound the thinking, it didn’t pan out as hoped.
The Czech squad’s podium chances had already been severely hampered by repeated left-rear punctures when, finally, a gearbox failure with ten minutes to go brought their race to a premature end. Poor Malucelli could scarcely muster a shrug when Radio Le Mans came knocking – had interviewer Joe Bradley offered the Italian a chance to swap with the Massive Motorsport Aston Martin squad, which packed up and left after their power steering hose broke just two laps in, he might well have taken it.