Strakka Racing made history in Hungary in the fourth round of the Le Mans Series (LMS) by taking the first ever overall win for an LMP2 class car in the 1000km of the Hungaroring.
The team had already begun their entry in the record books when their HPD ARX-01 took overall pole position thanks to Danny Watts' lap late in the 20-minute session on the morning before the race, the LMS field once more ran into the darkness.
The British team which has been the pace setter throughout the year in the LMP2 class, in which they also won the class at Le Mans, topped the time sheets with a lap of 1:32.431 – an incredible four tenths faster than the no.13 Rebellion Racing Lola, the best of the five LMP1 cars that occupied the remainder of the first three rows.
Predictably Watts, who was given the honour of taking the first stint – the opportunity of enjoy the pole he claimed – was quickly passed by the LMP1 cars he kept at bay in qualifying. Superior horsepower initially gave Andrea Belicchi in the Rebellion car the lead, before the Team ORECA Matmut Peugeot 908 assumed the lead shortly before the end of the first hour by virtue of the better fuel consumption of the HDI engine.
The Peugeot – the only example of diesel power in the race – looked to be on their way to another dominant win to add to their triumph from Portimao. The team and drivers Olivier Panis, Nicolas Lapierre and Stephane Sarrazin steadily built up a lead, holding a two lap advantage at half race distance. However, just thirteen laps later a transmission problem was cause for a lengthy pitstop, which cost the team any chance of fighting for the win.
ORECA were not alone in the LMP1 class for problems. Belicchi and teammate Jean-Christophe Boullion had kept pace with the Peugeot after losing the lead until a slow puncture caused by minor contact with slower cars necessitated a pitstop. A mechanical problem which caused the rear of the car to seize up led to their retirement, while an alternator problem dropped the Signature Plus Lola-Aston Martin out of contention after they had inherited Rebellion's second place.
The myriad problems in the premier class allowed the LMP2 cars back to the front, though it the Miguel Amaral/Olivier Pla Quifel-ASM Ginetta that initially took the lead when the Peugeot faltered. However, they were quickly replaced by the once more rapid Strakka car which took the lead after 149 laps and never relinquished it, Watts, with teammates Nick Leventis and Jonny Kane, completing 207 laps of the 4.38km track in the six hour race, a full lap ahead of the Quifel entry which held onto second place.
“We felt we had a chance of a podium, but we never dreamed of an outright win,” said Piers Phillips, Strakka’s team manager. “I just feel so proud for the team. It was an intense weekend, but everyone played their part – Wirth Research, HPD, Michelin, the drivers, the mechanics, technicians, the engineers, everyone. They've all worked so hard, and this is the result they deserved.”
Strakka and Quifel-ASM were just the peak of an LMP2 iceberg at the top of the final results (a far cry from the fragile machinery which was the norm in the class until only a few years ago). The OAK Racing Pescarolo-Judd of Matthieu Lahaye and Jacques Nicolet completed the podium. RML, Team Bruichladdich and Racing Box completed a top six comprised entirely of cars from the second class.
The first of the survivors from LMP1 finished seventh and eighth, Greg and Leo Mansell two-handing Beechdean Mansell their maiden class win in the LMS on their return to the championship after they sat out the previous round after family patriarch Nigel's crash at Le Mans. The no.12 Rebellion car, which had spent nearly half-an-hour in the pits due to a leak in the cooling system, finished second in class six laps behind the Mansell's Ginetta and thirteen from the surprise winner.
ORECA's problems left them struggling for pace even after their return from the pits – running times forty seconds of the pace. Hughes de Chaunac's squad settling simply for classification by completing the 70% race distance to the score points which keep works Peugeot driver Sarrazin in the lead of the LMP1 drivers' championship.
“This was a race that we clearly could have won,” said his ORECA teammate Lapierre. “The start wasn't easy but we managed to stay out of trouble. We were really in the right rhythm and we avoided all the pitfalls caused by the traffic. We were not the quickest in qualifying but we were the fastest in the race,” he continued, their fastest lap stopping the clocks at 1:34.934.
Porsche drivers Marc Lieb and Richard Lietz scored their third win of the year for Team Felbermayr Proton to extend their own points lead in LMGT2. The reigning champions stole the lead away from the battling AF Corse and CRS Racing Ferraris at the final pitstop and fended off the latter's late attempts to retake the lead, the margin of victory just nine seconds. The first four cars in the class all completed 192 laps, Patrick Pilet and Raymond Narac taking to the lowest step of the podium for Imsa Performance Matmut ahead of the Jean Alesi/Giancarlo Fisichella/Toni Vilander AF Corse entry which set much of the early running leading 96 of the first 105 laps.
“That was our toughest race this season. The Ferraris made our lives difficult right to the finish,” said Lietz. “I only managed to pull away slightly in the last lap. This victory is all the more valuable because our starting position down the grid wasn't that great. We definitely need to do something about our qualifying.”
“We said we'd shout the boys 100 litres of beer for good pit stops,” added a smiling Lieb. “Our team again did the best stops and that put us in the lead. Above all, the final stop was world class.”
Finally in the LMGT1 class of just two entries the Larbre Competition Saleen of Gabriele Gardel, Patrice Goueslard and Fernando Rees led throughout, the other entry – another Saleen but fielded under the Atlas EFX-Team FS banner unclassified after completing just 68 laps.
The final round of the Le Mans Series is the Autosport 1000km at Silverstone on 10-12 September. The race also forms the first of the three races in the Auto Club de l'Ouest (ACO) organised Le Mans Intercontinental Cup.