In a time where the future of endurance racing is looking tentative – the exodus of manufacturer teams in the World Endurance Championship hardly helps that perception – the European Le Mans Series proved to be in rude health. A thrilling season, complete with a range of new teams and exciting drivers added lustre to the 2017 edition of ELMS, and the high level of competition in each category contributed to a vintage year.
Let’s look back at 2017, and sift through the season’s highlights and points of interest.
DragonSpeed breathes fire into G-Drive challenge
Having switched from the departing Jota Sport setup to Elton Julian’s DragonSpeed operation, G-Drive Racing was once again the class of the field. The American team was clearly the fastest on outright pace, sharing four of the six pole positions between their two cars, and the #22 G-Drive Oreca only failed to finish on the podium once, in the final round.
An incredibly worn tyre cost G-Drive victory in the season opener at Silverstone, but the trio of Ryo Hirakawa, Memo Rojas and Leo Roussel hit back to win the 4 Hours of Monza next time out.
Of the three, Roussel was arguably the breakout star. The silver-ranked Frenchman had to bear the bulk of G-Drive’s championship challenge on his shoulders, and he ultimately delivered. With three-time Daytona 24 Hours winner Memo Rojas blowing hot-and-cold, and Hirakawa making way for DragonSpeed’s sporting director Nicolas Minassian for the middle pair of rounds, Roussel’s impressive pace was the constant driving force behind the #22’s success.
The other side of the DragonSpeed garage had a far more inauspicious year. Certainly, the #21 team’s qualifying pace was blistering, and Ben Hanley delivered three poles at Silverstone, Le Castellet and Spa-Francorchamps.
Yet, the Brit was all too often relegated to digging the team out various (and sometimes literal) holes, following frequent misadventures from Henrik Hedman. The Swede, one of DragonSpeed’s financial supporters, suggested he was not entirely cut out for LMP2 competition and was seen far too often struggling to handle the #21 Oreca 07. The team was unable to capitalise on Hanley’s heroics, and the platinum-rated Nicolas Lapierre was ultimately wasted.
United Autosports keeps it together in LMP3
Zak Brown’s United Autosports team welcomed an all-new, all-American line-up in the #2 Ligier, bringing in former Indy Lights racer Sean Rayhall alongside bronze-ranked businessman John Falb. The net outcome was no different, and the #2 team won its second consecutive LMP3 title having largely dominated the season. Although Falb almost threw away a season-opening victory with a mistake at Copse in the 4 Hours of Silverstone, the duo was otherwise strong – a clumsy attempt at an overtake on AT Racing’s #9 car at Monza’s Curva Grande becoming the only real blot on Rayhall’s copybook.
Joining Wayne Boyd and Mark Patterson in the #3, Christian England was unable to manage a second title in a row, although the trio ended strongly with a class win at Portimao. United Autosports also made a successful step up to the LMP2 category, finishing second overall as Will Owen, Hugo de Sadeleer and Filipe Albuquerque formed a formidable trio.
Graff steps up admirably, SMP makes rampant return
Deciding to eschew a return to LMP3 in favour of a twin LMP2 program, Graff Racing proved excellent competitors in the ELMS’ top class. Enzo Guibbert was a real stand-out performer in the French team’s #39 Oreca, and displayed searing qualifying pace alongside strong form on race day.
The #40 team’s year started less strongly after Richard Bradley crashed heavily in qualifying for Silverstone, but won the final two races having been boosted with the shrewd acquisition of former Indy Lights veteran Gustavo Yacaman. The Colombian complemented the rapid Bradley and the metronomic James Allen perfectly and, if the trio sticks together for next year, they’ll surely be a factor in the championship.
After missing the first two races, SMP Racing made its return to ELMS at the Red Bull Ring, with World Series Formula V8 3.5 stars Egor Orudzhev and Matevos Isaakyan in tow. Perhaps assessing the duo for future endurance programs, the two acquitted themselves fantastically well despite no experience with prototype machinery. Under the tutelage of Warren Hughes, the Russian pair grabbed victory in the 4 Hours of Le Castellet – Isaakyan in the car for over almost two-and-a-half hours – to secure a first ever win for Dallara’s LMP2 program.
#18 M.Racing-YMR’s winless year leaves Muller cornered
In the hunt for the LMP3 title until the final round, the #18 M.Racing-YMR squad can be considered to be 2017’s surprise package. The trio of Alexandre Cougnaud, Romano Ricci and Antoine Jung was a consistent presence in the intermediate-tier podium, but ultimately fell short through having failed to win.
Almost unhelpfully, the sister #19 team managed to a victory thanks to the efforts of Erwin Creed and Ricky Capo – replacing the absent Yann Ehrlacher. Claiming chassis constructor Norma’s first ELMS victory, Creed and Capo led an M.Racing-YMR one-two at Monza. Although Ehrlacher – and Creed on occasion – showed great pace, introducing Neale Muston into the line-up at Spa-Francorchamps was disastrous, and the Australian notably crashed heavily at Raidillon.
Jensen intercepts LMP3 qualifying crown
Snatching three pole positions for the AF Corse-run #9 AT Racing squad, Mikkel Jensen was the undoubted king of qualifying. Joining the team on its step up from the LMGTE category, Jensen drew first blood by grabbing pole at the 4 Hours of Silverstone, and followed that up by leading the LMP3 off the line at Spa and Portimao.
Although the less-experienced pair of Alexander Talkanitsa Sr. and Jr. were prone to undoing Jensen’s good work, the Belarussian father-son duo were almost flawless at Spa – creating enough of an advantage over the #7 Duqueine Engineering team that even a stop-go penalty couldn’t stop AT Racing from winning.
JMW switches cars en route to GTE victory
A mid-season switch to a new Ferrari 488 helped the #66 JMW Motorsport squad clinch the LMGTE title, a mere two points ahead of TF Sport’s #90 team. Ever-present Jody Fannin and Robert Smith were dogged in their pursuit of the class championship, and gave the team’s old Ferrari 458 Italia the perfect send-off with a victory at Monza.
The supporting cast of Rory Butcher, Jonny Cocker and former F1 driver Will Stevens also mucked in admirably, and helped the British team to its first series GTE crown.
Beechdeen AMR’s title defense melted away after failing to recapture last year’s success – the trio of Andrew Howard, Darren Turner and Ross Gunn were thoroughly outclassed by fellow Aston Martin Vantage runner TF Sport and, having been declared out of the running for the GTE title by Portimao, elected to hand an audition to Blancpain GT racer Immanuel Vinke in the season finale.