Portuguese weathermen were doing their jobs like real pros back on Saturday and Sunday (21 & 22 Oct) - two beautiful weekend days of warmish to hot air and as we all know, hot air is about all you’ll ever get out of a race fanatic.
The United Autosports LMP2 car and both LMP3 United cars used FP2 on Saturday morning to fine tune our delicate instruments, moving solidly up the rankings versus our FP1 results, which were disappointing and even a bit confusing. We didn’t really need to exhume Einstein’s grave to figure it all out. The ...a millimeter of ride height, a single shim less up front, add the rear Gurney back on etc. As usual Christian went out first and established the bedrock confidence level for the car before handing over to me on old tires and an 80% fuel load to simulate the race’s second stint tires I would be racing on. Lots of traffic and some driver errors but even on tires fast receding into the history books, I found reliable 1 minute 45 second times (or maybe 1:43s on better tires and lower fuel). Gave me a target of 1:44s and 1:45s under race conditions.
Our last FP2 exercise, as usual, was to let Wayne Boyd get two laps into his head on the same old fading tires, pit for new rubber and then let him deliver a 2 lap pre-quali simulation (around 3 PM on Saturday’s calendar). Worked like silk - 1:43 followed by a 1:41, implying a very respectable Quali outcome.
2:55 PM allowed LMP3s out on track for the traditional 10 minute Quali slot. Quali was not traditional nor was it respectable for anyone. Before a single car had registered its flying lap, a red flag shut down the track. When a second red flag was called (never happened in the past two years of Quali sessions), there was only a meager 3 minutes 31 seconds left on the clock, indicating the entire field would get only a single flying lap and some teams would be unhappy, jammed in traffic feeling left out and abused by (1) a silly short Quali window and (2) a red flag condition they hadn’t contributed to.
The result was worse than that.
Sean Rayhall in the # 2 United car left the pits with Wayne 30 yards behind in our # 3 car, each with just enough space to record a respectable or even a solid lap. The tension in the cockpit was immense - one small slip up and no time left to book another good lap. On the screen Rayhall (1:40.66) had P1 by about a tenth with Wayne in P2 (1:40.8); furthermore both went by Start-Finish 5-7 seconds too late to squeeze in another flying lap. In fact, of the 17 LMP3 cars, only 3 (those who randomly happened to be at the front of pit-out when Quali finally resumed) passed a Start-Finish in time to get an extra lap done...no surprise, one of them got P1. The ultra-fast pro driver for the Talkanista car.
So Rayhall and John Falb, already LMP3 championship contenders who couldn’t afford to finish behind 7th this weekend, owned P1 for a matter of seconds until Sean’s lap was erased by the stewards for exceeding track limits (by about a tire width). So just like at Spa, the super-quick Jensen in the winning Talkanista car, owned the front row with Wayne...and because we have such significant influence over the ACO, we again arranged for the slow JUMBO sponsored LMP2 car to be at the back of the LMP2 starting grid...right in front of Jensen. At Spa that inconvenient fact cost Jensen 5 positions by the end of Turn 1. My sinister thinking turned out to be irrelevant for this race, with the Jumbo car having no influence on the start at all.
Adding insult to perjury, given the #2 car had no other recorded lap times other than the one discarded by the ACO officials, they had to start the race at the back. Back, as in behind even the GTE cars. P35! The championship challenge just got a lot harder for the #2 car. It wasn’t yet out of the question, for sure, though they would be spared the normal chaos of the front end of the starting line all trying to squeeze through Turns 1-4 at the same time.
At his home race, Filipe Albuquerque earned P5 for United’s # 32 LMP2 car and my old French LMP2 teammate (Nathanael Berthon) put the Panos Barthez car on pole, his first of the season. Nathanael clipped 1:33.675 with Filipe 0.87 of a second off that quicksilver lap, starting right behind the championship leaders, G-Drive in P4.
The autograph session displayed national pride in an amazing way, with a crowd of 30 or 40 local fans queued up and waiting for 15 minutes in front of the #32 car’s table, long before even one driver took a seat. There was not a single signature-seeker lined up at any other table along the entire range of racing trailers. Filipe is hot and in his own country he’s a racing god.
Getting ready before 12:30 on Sunday to join our squad for the grid line up, Christian and I went in to put on our racing gear. I gazed down at my empty bin which to my complete surprise only had ear pieces, electrolyte pills and racing gloves, but no Nomex fireproof gear at all. Ouch! I’d emptied the racing underwear the previous evening after driver change practice and had forgotten to bring fresh gear back from the hotel. This is what team mates are made for: Christian promptly leant me his 2nd set..the same underwear he had been using for the prior two days! Hysterical. A little light in the head too from the aromatic emissions.
The 1 PM race start in perfect azure skies not yet burdened by clouds was more than chaotic, exploding into a 7 wide burst of ambition down to the very quick 4th gear Turn 1 tourniquet. Most first corners are a hairpin like Spa or a second gear slow-down-you-bozos, but at Portimao Hermann Tilke has left lots more room for misplaced egos. From TV footage it was hard to gauge what happened but Wayne emerged P3 with most cars managing a frictionless first lap or two. Yet by Lap 4 the first FCY of many hit the screens after the Oreca LMP2 # 21 galloped too ambitiously up the inside of Turn 5, hitting the rear of a competitor already occupying that apex. That’s a high rising sharp left turn with not much grip at the apex - touching another car right there is a recipe for a spin and retrieval from the kitty litter.
Hugo de Sadeleer, reliable starter for the United LMP2 car, had emerged P1 with championship leader G-Drive in P2, just 2 seconds behind. Sean Rayhall was moving up the field like an HP calculator, nabbing P22 overall from his P35 start, all within 6 or 7 laps (12 LMP2 cars owned the front spots)...each successive pass becoming more challenging as he moved up the grid (he stood P9 in the LMP3 class).
By Lap 22 of the four hour race a GTE spun on its own barreling over the blind Turn 16 cliff face, quickly becoming an unrecoverable gravel digger and causing the second FCY. While this was 7 or 8 laps too early for our pit window strategy (so Wayne stayed out), the Talkanista car pitted for fuel to expanded the seat time of their fastest driver. This meant they were betting heavily on multiple FCY or Safety Car calls, or they’d have to do an extra “splash” fuel stop before the end of the race.
Wayne had been passed by Alex Kapadia, so held P4 just a second or two behind, yet losing a little time each lap without clean air. The top 4-5 LMP3s were all doing 1:42 and 1:43s. Not just Jensen in the Talkanista car, but several LMP3 cars had pitted, so Boyd restarted in P2 behind Kapadia in the lead as the track went green.
The fuel-for-my-racehorse bet is a calculation of pit time versus faster laps, plus how many FCY calls there will be. It’s a bet. Like Zuma and the Gupta family robbing South Africa blind, believing the ANC will always cover for them. Here the ACO covers for no one. This bet didn't work out for those teams on this day, but it helped us find more clean air. Slowly we began to put our foot on the competition’s throat. Wayne ended up running most of the remainder of his stint in P1. We kept him in for an hour 10 till the tanks were empty.
I had a decent one hour stint (about 38 laps at this track) with 3 best times in the 1:45s versus Wayne on newer rubber kicking around 1:42s and 1:43s like a metronome. The 2nd stint tires were handling better than the worn FP2 Saturday tires we used for the sim, so I just tried to deliver consistent times that wouldn't let us slide too far back before Christian in his clean underwear got to take the 3rd hour. Right towards the end of my stint I passed a standing car near Turn 16 under a local yellow flag and the next lap Doc started mumbling something on the radio about a possible FCY. In the confusion of the moment, I thought I’d better pit as this was my last or second last lap. Trying to tell the wall I was coming in after the final corner didn't work as Doc was already on the radio calling the FCY countdown: 8-7-6-5-4....Bronze drivers have to complete a full hour and with no clock inside the car, I didn’t realize that I was pitting one lap early. Coming in is the engineer’s call, not the driver’s. Doc bellowed at me not to stop in the pit box and just cruise on through at the 60 kpm maximum speed limit. All that was going through my head was that I’d ruined our chance at winning our first race together. Under green conditions my decision would have cost us a lot of time, but in effect, with the 80 kph FCY under way, it cost us 20 kph for 600 yards or so. Rescued by fortune.
I never heard from pit wall where we were during the stint, other than going back out onto the track in 4th an hour ago, so I assumed we’d maybe fallen back to 10th or 12th. Turns out we had held on pretty well and were in P4 or 5, which is where clean-undies Christian England went back out (P5), squeezing completely fraudulent Bronze times out of our car in the 43s like a first rate Silver Swiss watch, over and over again. With an hour 15 left he was up to P4 about 39 seconds behind John Falb, who was running strong 44s and 45s on the new tire phase of his double stint, doing everything right to secure the LMP3 championship.
Talkanista Sr. was doing my lap times holding onto P1, but they had another fuel stop to worry about, while in the LMP2 class United somehow was holding steady in P3 right on the heels of leading championship contender Leo Roussel the G-Drive car. The tragedy that befell United’s LMP2 car earlier in this critical race was Hugo pitting under FCY for fuel, hitting the pit limiter button (60 kph) and getting a PhD in “control button override preference” at exactly the wrong moment. When the FCY button is pressed, idiotically, the slower Pit Speed Limiter is not engineered to prevail...so race stewards “awarded” him a drive-through penalty for speeding in pit lane. This unknown engineering fact effectively removed United’s challenge for the championship, barring a catastrophic error by the G-Drive car.
Falb out front was hit by a Norma on the crest of Turn 16 on lap 97, managing to stop the spin before the pebbles, or their championship run would Alia have been at risk. This closed their 38 second lead over Christian to just 29 seconds. Christian, who had stayed in the car at the final fuel stop, was delivering better lap times than Falb by 1-2 seconds on old rubber, so with United lying P1-P2 in this category, our only remaining mission was to reverse the order of which LMP3 car ran where. This was the first time we had not used Wayne for the final stint, so Doc was betting Bronze Christian could catch and take Bronze Falb; and avoiding a driver-change error occurring like at Spa - which threw 23 seconds out the window.
While the math was simple (Falb doing 45-47s against Christian plinking mostly 43-45s into the book), the remaining half hour should just produce a result like this: take no risk and Falb wins the championship, while Christian passes and the # 3 car wins it’s first race. To make sure there was no room for a misunderstanding or an exhausted driver losing sight of the bigger picture, I jogged from the garage teeming with sponsors, guests and crew members, across pit lane to the wall and chatted openly with Max (team manager) and engineer Doc to ensure both drivers had been told what the team orders were in a situation like this.
38 minutes to go, 13 seconds behind Falb; 23 minutes, 2.8 seconds. Fate and lap times, for once this season, were on our side. The Talkanista bet didn’t pay off despite all the FCYs - 2 more in the final hour - they had pitted for fuel with 22 minutes to go, ceding P1. Falb dutifully stepped aside and got passed with 19 minutes to go, right when our garage had applauded Jim McGuire and Matt Bell being handed a Le Mans Cup P3 trophy (post-race) as one of their top 3 competitors had been penalized after scrutineering, letting Jim and Matt get their first Le Mans Cup trophy of the season. Christian’s pass was further reason for happy behavior in the garages.
With just 14 minutes left to go, Christian got hit by a pigheaded LMP2 going into the very conventional Turn 6 hairpin, and spun around...mercifully, like Falb’s unearned spin, this was not a critical incident. A hair here and a hair there and the results could have been radically different.
Filipe in the LMP2 car ain’t no quitter - with only minutes to go he was hauling in the #27 Dallara by a second or more per lap, shutting down a 10-15 second P2 lead over P3 to just a second and a half. Under 4 minutes left and Filipe earned the Kamikaze move of the race award, splicing a splinter through the inside of daunting Turn 16, diving headlong over the massive drop-off to take P2! The entire garage erupted with applause and pride. Down but far from out. Equity would rank Filipe on the edge of an F1 career...racing fairness leaves him teaching really top pros how it’s really done when the chips are down. 33 impossible seconds off P1. That FCY vs Pit Speed Limiter button....
Christian’s double stint left us comfortably ahead of the entire LMP3 Field even counting my daft decision to pit a lap too early under what turned out to be the beginning of an FCY. UAS is likely to be subject to a class action lawsuit brought by all the other ELMS teams collectively: this weekend alone, a Le Mans Cup P3 trophy, LMP3 P1 and P2, plus LMP2 got P2. Oh, and then there’s the overall championship trophies were United snatched P2 for the LMP2 class, P1 and P3 for the LMP3 class (yes, to our surprise, we managed to finish 3rd in the championship...by just 2 points), plus Hugo de Sadeleer won the Rookie of the Season trophy too. Very, very hard to grab more Tiffany plastic hardware than that!
Sorry for the long report, the last of the 2017 season, but a win like this restored our confidence in what could have been a magical Wayne-Christian-MP combo this season, had we not irked the mechanical gods somewhere along the line. Great and memorable podium celebration and an Awards ceremony deep into the night.
A broad embrace of thanks to Richard and Zak, Max and Doc, Charlotte and Ashleigh, our massively hard working crew (to mention a few: Ken, Gaz, Ollie, driver changer Jack - some of whom I’ve had on United cars for 6-7 years now). All crews work hard - these guys work hard AND they enjoy ripping the drivers apart for every foible and fault we bring to the table. Without them, race cars don’t go round and round.
E N D O F R A C E R E P O R T # 2 (finally)
October 23, 2017