The European Le Mans Series has been motor racing’s best kept secret for a while now.
After hitting a tumultuous spell in 2012, the ACO-run championship has reinvented itself over the years to become a highlight of any sportscar enthusiast’s calendar. 2016 promises to be another landmark year, with a massive grid of over 40 cars including 20 in the rapidly growing LMP3 category. Greaves Motorsport and Formula Racing are back to defend their LMP2 and GTE titles, but they can expect some stiff opposition from rival teams featuring ex-Formula One racers, World Endurance Championship stars, and even a World Cup winning goalkeeper!
A fair amount. At the end of 2015 it was announced that the dwindling GTC class would not return, instead morphing into the separate Michelin GT3 Le Mans Cup. That left three classes – LMP2, LMP3 and GTE – although entry surges in these categories were expected to compensate for the loss of GTC.
The other big change concerns the structure of ELMS race meetings. Excluding the 4 Hours of Silverstone, which runs as support to the FIA World Endurance Championship, all ELMS events will become three-day race weekends. In September 2015, the ACO confirmed a partnership with Renault to provide a full support program for 2016.
This includes Formula Renault 2.0, the Renault Sport Trophy for RS.01 GT cars, and the Michelin GT3 Le Mans Cup. The move is a major step to gaining international recognition for the ELMS, as well as providing a varied programme that will persuade more fans to head trackside.
In terms of the regulations, there is considerable continuity from 2015. The major change comes in LMP3, where platinum rated drivers are no longer allowed. Qualifying will also be revised, owing to the explosion of entries for LMP3. Each class will now have its own 10 minute qualifying session, replacing the grouped prototype and GT sessions of old.
A visit to the picturesque Circuit Spa-Francorchamps increases the ELMS calendar to six events, totalling 24 hours of racing. Belgium’s flagship track is ideal for endurance competition with its variable topography, dynamic microclimate, and challenging mix of speed and sinuosity. Spa will host the penultimate race of the season in late September, making it a crucial event in terms of the championship. Before then, the teams will hop across the continent taking in Silverstone (this weekend), Imola, the Red Bull Ring and Paul Ricard. The season finale is once again set for the fervorous Estoril circuit in late October, which is always well-attended by the locals!
4 Hours of Silverstone – April 16 (GBR)
4 Hours of Imola – May 15 (ITA)
4 Hours of Red Bull Ring – July 17 (AUT)
4 Hours of Le Castellet – August 28 (FRA)
4 Hours of Spa – September 25 (BEL)
4 Hours of Estoril – October 23 (POR)
What the Prologue said
Two days of testing at Circuit Paul Ricard in March produced an interesting set of results, leaving predictions wide open for the opening race. Krohn Racing led the way overall with its Nissan-powered Ligier JS P2, while Thiriet by TDS Racing finished second just 0.197 seconds behind. The top five LMP2 entries all came within a second of the quickest lap, suggesting this season will once again be close-fought at the sharp end despite the difficulty in gauging the level of attack each team employed during testing.
Reigning champion Greaves Motorsport has completely restructured its lineup for 2016, with four-time Grand Am champion Memo Rojas joining the rapid Julien Canal and promising Polish youngster Kuba Giermaziak. The British team also has a new car to get to grips with, replacing its open-cockpit Gibson with a Ligier JS P2 that ran consistently well at Paul Ricard.
Jota Sport ran Greaves close last season, and once again Simon Dolan and co will be aiming for a maiden ELMS crown after years of coming close. This time the #38 Gibson 015S will be furnished in unfamiliar orange, pointing to the new partnership with G-Drive Racing that now bears the entry’s name. A different look, but with former F1 driver Giedo van der Garde joining Dolan and the rapid Harry Tincknell it should once again be challenging for wins from the start.
Also on the radar is the Thiriet by TDS Racing Oreca 05 that finished second last year, now linked with LMP1 squad Rebellion Racing. The French team is reunited with Rebellion’s own Mathias Beche, who won the 2012 ELMS championship alongside Pierre Thiriet, while exciting Japanese youngster Ryo Hirakawa comes straight from Toyota’s development program.
Other entries to look out for will be the two SMP Racing-entered BR01s, the 2015-16 Asian Le Mans Series-winning Race Performance Oreca 03R, and the Panis-Barthez Competition Ligier JS P2 driven by, you guessed it, football icon turned sportscar racer Fabien Barthez. Six time Olympic champion Chris Hoy is also in action, stepping up to the LMP2 class with Algarve Pro Racing for rounds one and two.
LMP3 features a swarm of full-season Ligier JS P3s – 19 no less – signalling a very successful winter for the French outfit! United Autosports led the way during testing with its two entries, although challenges are expected to come from Graff (which debuted the car last year), Duquiene Engineering and RLR Msport. The only non Ligier entry comes courtesy of Irish squad MurphyP3-3Dimensional.com which has opted for the American-build Riley-Ave chassis. For Silverstone at least, Murphy will run an interim Ginetta-Nissan.
Finally, in GTE, nine entries are slated for the new season. That may be thin on the ground compared to the two prototype classes, but the standard of competition should be just as intense. Champion Formula Racing is back with a Ferrari 458 Italia ‘Dane Train’ for Johnny Laursen, Mikkel Mac and Christina Nielsen, but defending that title will be a tall order. Proton Competition, for example, features two Porsche 911 RSRs with a factory star – Richard Lietz and Wolf Henzler – in each. But it was AF Corse that set the pace in preseason: the #51 and #55 Ferrari 458 Italias were synchronously quick, just about keeping the rest of the top five at bay.
Keep up to date with the opening round of the 2016 European Le Mans Series thanks to continuous updates from The Checkered Flag at Silverstone. The session times for this weekend (April 15-16) are as follows:
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