After narrowly missing the podium in their last two races the multi-national SMP Racing squad was determined to turn things around in the south of France at the 4 Hours of Le Castellet. With a strong car straight out of the box, and the best weather the European Le Mans Series has seen all season, there was a slight air of confidence as the team prepared to perform on what could be considered their home-track – with BR Engineering based just a short journey away.
Under scorching summer skies the team practiced and prepped their #32 Nissan-powered BR01 for two days and managed to qualify on the second row in 4th place for the main event.
“The car has been strong right from the start this weekend,” began Wirth “our SMP Racing crew has done an amazing job to give us the tools to get the job done once again. Stefano (Coletti) qualified strong for us and we’ve got a great starting position, so it’s fingers crossed now for tomorrow that everything continues to go well.”
Taking to the wheel of the #32 for the green flag, Andreas got off to a great start, launching to 3rd place by the 1st corner. Managing to hold his own for the majority of his stint, it was only after some good battles with LMP2 competition and slower LMP3 traffic that Wirth was forced to relinquish his place, falling back to 4th before handing the car over to Julian Leal at the driver change.
After positions shuffled out after the driver change, Leal was sitting in 6th place, but before long he started stretching the legs of the #32 SMP BR01 and did some impressive overtaking, launching them back into 3rd place. The next pit stop for the team would serve up a good luck/bad luck scenario, as the #32 pitted just before a full-course caution was called. Despite having gained one spot on track, moving them into 2nd, had the SMP squad called their driver one lap later they would have managed to keep tighter rein on the leader who benefitted by pitting under caution.
After having just seen a full-course caution for contact between two competitors entering the pit, Leal was almost a victim of the same misfortune as he pitted for the final driver change. Luck somehow was on SMP’s side this weekend as the contact from behind had no consequence. Handing their LMP2 machine over from 2nd place, it was all on the shoulders of Stefano Coletti to bring the podium home.
After the advantage the leaders gained on the earlier pit stop, there was nothing Coletti could do to catch the seriously-quick TDS machine – so he settled in and drove his stint without any real threat from behind. Tension mounted however during the last half hour of the event as commentators announced the #32 was under investigation for speeding during the full-course caution. After a long delay and just a few short minutes left on the clock, the race director issued a drive-through penalty for the SMP Racing squad – which Coletti quickly served. Fortunately, the team had stretched to a considerable lead over 3rd place and their feet were firmly planted on the 2nd step of the podium.
Relieved to be back on the podium, and obviously very happy with their result, Wirth summarized, “We finished P2 – what can I say – we’re very very happy. The SMP Racing Team did a great job again today and I have to thank all our guys, my teammates did a great job, and I’m happy I got us off to a good start. We had some minor issues in the middle of the race, but overall the car was strong, strategy was good, and we seem to be back on pace. We had some bad luck at the end today when they gave us a drive through penalty which we don’t believe we deserved – this could have been very bad for us, but it is what it is – fortunately we didn’t lose any positions. Now we’re looking forward to our next race at Spa – it’s going to be really awesome! Somehow we’ve got to try to beat TDS, but this isn’t going to be easy – that thing is in a space of its own at the moment! But seriously, it was time for us to be back on the podium after our bit of bad luck – it feels great, but next we shoot for victory.”
Having wrapped up the fourth round of 2016 ELMS competition, the #32 SMP Racing rookie squad sits 3rd in the championship hunt – just 8 points back from 2nd place, 17 points from 1st and 20 solid points ahead of 4th.
The series heads to Belgium next for the penultimate round of competition at the legendary circuit of Spa Francorchamps. The ELMS 4 Hours of Spa takes place on September 23 – 25 – don’t miss it!
Photos: © SMP Racing