Three years ago, the European Le Mans Series seemed like nothing more than a thorn in the ACO’s side. Dwindling grids and sparse calendars resulted in the need for a mini-resurrection by the series’ governing body. And what a resurrection it has received. This year, a healthy grid of 31 entries will compete for overall and class honours in a five-race season that weaves across the continent from April until October. While it may still exist in the shadow of the FIA World Endurance Championship, the ELMS has re-invented itself in such a way that it has restored its position as one of the most important endurance racing series on the planet.
If last year is anything to go by, the 2015 season should provide a wealth of scintillating on-track action. In 2014 five different winners in five races produced a championship fight that went to the final round, with Signatech Alpine emerging as the teams’ champion. British squad JOTA Sport finished just four points behind, although a class win at Le Mans against the FIA WEC field did ease the disappointment somewhat. This year, an impressive 11 LMP2 teams will take to the grid at Silverstone on Saturday, which is enough to suggest that we’ll be treated to yet another close-fought struggle for the teams’ championship this season.
JOTA Sport heads in as the title favourite, with last year’s formidable line-up of Simon Dolan, Harry Tincknell and Filipe Albuquerque returning to the fold. Dolan’s team started every race of the 2014 season on the front row of the grid, and backed this up with a win at Imola. The revamped Gibson 015S Nissan performed well at the pre-season Paul Ricard test, and with two factory LMP1 drivers in the line-up the team indubitably has its best chance of claiming its first championship.
Another team to keep an eye on will be Thiriet by TDS Racing. The French privateer squad, led by Xavier Combet, is the only entrant of ORECA’s new 05 LMP2 coupe. Despite having less mileage than the majority of the 11 entries, the ORECA 05 was the fastest car on the second day of the official pre-season test, in the hands of Tristan Gommendy.
The all-new Greaves Motorsport trio of Bjorn Wirdheim, Gary Hirsch and GP2 race winner Jon Lancaster should also provide some stiff competition, with the #41 Gibson 015S Nissan also impressing at Paul Ricard.
In addition to ORECA’s latest LMP2 challenger, four ORECA 03R chassis will be entered into this year’s championship, providing a healthy mix of current and future-gen machinery. Murphy Prototypes head into the opening weekend on the back of a successful Paul Ricard test, at which Nathanaël Berthon set the fastest lap. Spanish squad Ibanez Racing will campaign two ex-Millenium Racing ORECA 03Rs, while the final 03R ambassador is Eurasia Motorsport, fresh from a campaign in the Asian Le Mans Series.
The two ORECA 03 entries have been reserved by AF Corse, although in reality it is the SMP Racing squad competing under the guise of the Italian team, in order to circumvent the supply sanctions placed against SMP Bank in the wake of the USA/Ukraine crisis. Boris Rotenberg’s SMP squad will likely field its new BR01 LMP2 coupe in the second round of the championship at Imola, after deciding to prolong the car’s development.
Only one team has decided to go against using the much-favoured Nissan V8 engine this year. American team Krohn Racing has opted for its Ligier JS P2 to be propelled by a Judd V8 power unit. With Daytona 24 Hours polesitter Oswaldo Negri Jr at the wheel, the team in green could snatch a pole position or two on their first foray into the ELMS.
The arrival of the LMP3 class has fascinated the sportscar faithful. The ELMS will be the only platform supporting LMP3 competition this year, which serves as a direct route to next year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans.
This not only appeals greatly to drivers who are chasing the Le Mans dream (like Sir Chris Hoy, who will share a team LNT Ginetta-Nissan with Charlie Robertson), but also to teams that want to compete in a world-beating championship without the unprecedented cost of running a full-season LMP2 operation.
Five Ginetta-Nissans (powered by a Nissan V8 engine producing around 420 bhp) will compete at Silverstone, with the hope of a second manufacturer, probably Onroak, joining the field later on.
The 2015 GTE and GTC championships will once again be hotly contested, with a combined total of 16 entries taking part in the opening round. The #52 BMW Team Marc VDS Z4 GTE will be a car to keep an eye on, with multiple WTCC champion Andy Priaulx at the helm alongside Jesse Krohn and Frenchman Henry Hassid. However, the proven pace of the six GTE-spec Ferrari 458 Italias should create an unpredictable race for the title. The #55 AF Corse Ferrari of Duncan Cameron and Matt Griffin will be a regular at the sharp end of the field, while the #81 line-up of Stephen Wyatt, Rui Aguas and Michele Rugolo comes straight from the same team’s FIA WEC programme, so expect these two rapid GT racers to be in the hunt for class victories.
Add in the experienced Gulf Racing Porsche 911 RSR crew of Mike Wainwright, Adam Carroll and Phil Keen and the GTE class battle becomes even more absorbing.
AF Corse is the only GTC team that has stayed on from last year, although the addition of the TDS Racing BMW Z4 GT3 will undoubtedly threaten the Italian squad’s dominance. The #62 AF Corse Ferrari 458 Italia of Thomas Flohr, Stuart Hall and Francesco Castellacci boasts one of the strongest line-ups: established GT3 racer Castellacci posted the fastest time of the Paul Ricard test, while Hall will be doubling up in the FIA WEC this season. A Gulf Racing Lamborghini (Silverstone only) and Massive Motorsport Aston Martin V8 Vantage will add extra variety to the GTC grid this year.
While the ELMS calendar only features five stops, it includes some of the continent’s best-loved classic tracks. From the technically challenging Silverstone grand prix circuit to the serene parklands at Imola, onto the sweeping Red Bull Ring, the daunting Mistral Straight at Paul Ricard and ending at one of Formula 1’s classic late 80s venues in Estoril, the ELMS calendar is a marvel in itself.
The majority of the LMP2 and GTE fields will also race at the jewel in the crown of global endurance racing: Le Mans. While the 24 hour classic is an FIA WEC round, it provides the ELMS’ finest with the opportunity of competing against, and possibly beating, the world’s best sportscar teams.
While it may be considered a support championship to the FIA WEC, the ELMS is swiftly becoming the kind of sportscar series that everyone wants it to be. Few modern championships are able to boast the level of variety and competitiveness that the ELMS brings, and as a result the grid numbers are flourishing. Having regained its balance in the last two years, the series is now ready to push on and create a sustainable legacy of its own.
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