JMW Motorsport needed only to finish seventh in the European Le Mans Series finale at Estoril to put the GTE title beyond the reach of Beechdean AMR. However, nobody could have foreseen the catastrophic gearbox failure which put the Ferrari out of the race and presented Andrew Howard’s team with an open goal. In a Racing.GT exclusive, JMW’s Rory Butcher – who raced for Beechdean in the final British GT meeting of the year at Donington – shares his experiences of a rollercoaster weekend.
Usually I’m very confident on lap one and when I’ve started races this season, I’ve tended to arrive at the end the first lap in first place, but this weekend was just a little different from normal… I was really nervous on the grid – all the team had been saying all weekend was ‘take no risks’ and I just got a bit swamped on the way into turn one.
There was the usual carnage on the first couple of laps, with LMP3 cars hitting GTE cars and so on. I just let it play out in front of me, but I could still see the leaders – Aguas, Talkanitsa and MacDowall. As the race started to open up with the LMP2 traffic coming through, I could see I was starting to reel them in and when the others had issues, it was just MacDowall ahead.
We came into turn two and I was pretty close to him. He went to the inside for turn three and sat in behind the LMP3 car to cover his line, so I sent it into the corner and held it around the outside. I managed to open the car out a little bit, so I came out alongside him and made the pass into the next right-hander. It was quite a cool move, I’m sad it didn’t get caught on TV!
The problem first appeared on my in-lap. I got the call to box, all was well and then as I went to short-shift out of the penultimate corner, the car didn’t change gear. I tried again and it still wasn’t working, so I looked down to the dash and there was a warning light for a lack of gearbox pressure.
We lost some time in the pits because we wanted to make sure that all the sensors were okay before we sent Rob out on track. Unfortunately, over time the box malfunctioned and we ended up with a crack in the casing, which meant that oil was leaking and the gearbox overheated. It’s something really rare, but it happened at the worst time for us. We were getting little bits of information back from Rob, he was saying things were getting worse and he could hear noises coming out of the gearbox, then on the lap that we called him in, it came to a halt on its way into the pitlane.
It was so frustrating for the whole team, but I didn’t envy Rob at all in that situation. He brought it back and there was a lot of work happening on the car, Ferrari engineers getting stuck in as well and all the while Rob was sitting there all on his own. We took turns at going in and explaining to him what was happening, saying ‘it’s not over, we’re still trying our best’, but it must have felt like a very long hour for him. It was horrible.
We did manage to get the car going again and get it back on track, but just after Rob left pitlane, an LMP3 car spun and hit him, totally out of the blue. I couldn’t believe it! We probably wouldn’t have finished the race anyway, but we were trying everything we could to get the car back on track and for that to happen was like rubbing salt into the wound. The car didn’t have any damage all year and it’s still got the same bodywork from when we started at Silverstone, but it took a hefty impact there, which was a real shame for the team. Rob certainly got a fright!
Of course when it’s out of your hands, you start looking at the scenarios that would demote the Aston to second and give us the championship, but by the last half hour we realised that they were falling by the wayside. Aguas, who was leading the race early on, got knocked out of the way by an LMP2 car twice, the Griffin car got two punctures which put them out of the story and the Talkanitsa AT Racing car had a fire in pitlane. We thought the rain might mix it up a little bit and then about ten seconds after the chequered flag dropped we had the most almighty rainstorm, which just about tells the story of the day.
A small consolation is that it’s gone to a really worthy team. The guys at Beechdean have done an amazing job all year, they’ve arrived at the last round with a chance of winning the championship and done everything correctly, so well done to them.
Despite how it ended, I look at the year as probably the most enjoyable one I’ve had so far. It’s been brilliant to work with JMW and I definitely feel like racing in the ELMS has put me on a different platform now. It’s been an amazing experience, especially working with a World Champion like Andrea and I’ve come out of it a more complete driver. Now I can’t wait to come back and have another go at winning it!