The DragonSpeed ORECA-Nissan 05 driven by Nicolas Lapierre, Ben Hanley and Henrik Hedman took victory at Spa in a thrilling penultimate round of the European Le Mans Series.
Lapierre, who started from pole, crossed the finish line 2 minutes 20 seconds ahead of Laurens Vanthoor in the debuting WRT Ligier to take the American squad’s first victory of the season.
The winning margin failed to reflect the quality of the race, which featured plenty of close racing at the head of the field.
Lapierre took the lead in the final half hour with a brave pass on Vanthoor’s outside heading into Les Combes, and consolidated his position when the WRT team called their man in for a splash of fuel.
WRT led the middle portion of the race thanks to a strong stint by Laurens’ brother Dries in a car started by Will Stevens. A splash of fuel during the third safety car period enabled the Belgian driver to save time against his rivals who all opted for full services.
That enabled Vanthoor to build a big lead, but Lapierre was able to claw the gap back in the final stint.
The race was truncated by two lengthy safety car periods during the second hour.
Garry Findlay’s violent shunt aboard the Murphy Prototypes ORECA required extensive barrier repairs, before a similar incident for Remy Striebig in the Pegasus Racing Morgan forced an even longer stoppage for the same reason. A brief safety car period was also called on the first lap when Tristan Gommendy lost a wheel from his ORECA.
Third place went to Mathias Beche in the championship-leading Thiriet by TDS Racing ORECA-Nissan shared by himself, Pierre Thiriet and Ryo Hirakawa.
Beche had to thwart a strong charge from Andrea Pizzitola in the Algarve Pro Racing Ligier JSP2 in the final laps, which culminated when Pizzitola spun whilst attempting a move on the inside at Fagnes. The Algarve Pro car retired on the spot, with Pizzitola visibly dejected having helped the team into what would have been its best finish in the ELMS.
That incident played into the hands of Greaves Motorsport, with Nathanael Berthon finishing fourth in the British team’s Ligier JSP2 co-driven by Memo Rojas and Julien Canal.
Completing the top five was the G-Drive Racing Gibson-Nissan, which started well but faded when the safety car periods came into effect. Giedo van der Garde charged ahead in the opening stint, and was the only driver capable of holding sight of race leader Lapierre, but the double safety car dropped the team down the order.
The Jota-run outfit arrived in Belgium nine points behind Thiriet by TDS in the standings, but those aspirations were dented when Simon Dolan lost a place to title rival Beche after a brilliant one-on-one battle. Dolan then spun exiting the final corner, enabling Beche to escape, only for Harry Tincknell to pick up the pieces during the final stint.
The result means Thiriet by TDS Racing will arrive at the final round in Portugal with a 13 point lead over G-Drive.
Sixth place went to the SMP Racing BR01-Nissan driven by Stefano Coletti, Julien Leal and Andreas Wirth. A series of brilliant overtakes by Coletti – including one around the outside of both Dolan and Beche at Les Combes – elevated the Russian team into victory contention, but an emergency headlight repair curtailed its run at the front.
In LMP3, Alex Brundle, Christian England and Mike Guasch clinched the class title a round early with a second place finish.
The United Autosports Ligier JSP3 rose through the field towards the end of the race, when the team opted to run its quicker pit stop. That ensured an unassailable 30 point lead in the championship for the Anglo-American outfit, which maintains its 100% podium record heading to the Estoril finale.
Winning the class on the day was the #9 Graff Racing Ligier of Eric Trouillet, Paul Petit and Enzo Guibbert. The French trio were largely unchallenged from pole position, even riding a drive through penalty for a pit infringement to seal their second victory of the season by 34.912 seconds.
Completing the podium was the sister United Autosports Ligier, driven by Matt Bell, Wayne Boyd and Mark Patterson.
Second place was originally set for the Tockwith Motorsport duo of Philip Hanson and Nigel Moore, but a late puncture relegated the team to 11th in class.
LMGTE was won convincingly by the JMW Motorsport Ferrari 458, which dominated the race after the two major safety cars.
Rory Butcher, Rob Smith and Andrea Bertolini were helped by the fact that the safety car came out after race leader Beche had got past their Ferrari, but hadn’t overtaken the other GT front-runners.
That enabled JMW to open up a huge lead after making the safety car pit stop. That lead was never relinquished, with Butcher crossing the line 2 minutes 45 seconds ahead of the #88 Proton Competition Porsche 911.
Rounding off the top three was Matt Griffin in the best of the AF Corse Ferrari 458s, 30 seconds ahead of the sister Proton entry.
In terms of the LMGTE championship, JMW now has a comfortable lead heading into the final round. The British squad’s cause was aided considerably by a crash for the rival AT Racing Ferrari and an unusual stop-hold in the pits for the Beechdean Aston Martin which lost a lap at the start.