Going into the sixth and final round of European Le Mans Series competition at the Autódromo do Estoril this weekend, Andreas Wirth and the SMP Racing team held onto a glimmer of hope as they remained mathematically in the fight for the championship. Lesson number one of endurance racing – Never give up!
With the championship fight down to the final race, everyone expected exciting racing, but little did anyone know the thrills that would be served up during the 4 Hours of Estoril. Uncharacteristically cool and wet weather played its part to challenge the teams throughout the weekend, keeping everyone on their toes from the starting grid, right through to the podium celebrations.
Determined to have a fighting chance in the season finale, SMP took advantage of additional testing time at Estoril earlier in the week, but struggled to find the hoped-for speed in their Nissan-powered BR01. While things seemed to be going the right direction in free practice on Friday, the disjointed session ended prematurely when the red flagged was thrown when even the track sweeper had become lodged in the gravel trap. With little time in the car on Friday, Wirth took to the wheel first in the cool and misty early morning practice on Saturday. Sadly, conditions took their toll quickly as Wirth struggled to get their Dunlop tyres up to temperature, and he found himself making light contact with the barrier. Later in the session alternator issues demanded mechanical attention, further robbing the team of valuable practice laps. Despite the less than favorable conditions throughout the day on Saturday, Vitaly Petrov managed to qualify the #32 SMP Racing machine in 5th place for the final ELMS event of the year.
As cars took to the grid and anticipation mounted, the race director threw team strategists a last minute challenge as he declared a wet race, for safety’s sake, giving teams the option to change tyres as the track had yet to fully dry. Confident in their strategy, SMP Racing was ready with Vitaly Petrov behind the wheel. With a conservative start at the wave of the green flag, Petrov avoided potential danger, but enjoyed his share of skirmishes with the championship leaders, fighting hard to gain track position on the narrow Estoril circuit. At the driver change, Petrov handed the #32 over to Wirth in 5th place.
After settling in for his double stint, it wasn’t long before Wirth found his rhythm and was clocking laps as quick as the leaders, but G-Drive was out front once again with a strong gap, so there was nothing to do but push through, lap by lap. Despite the frustration of finding his way through packs of slower traffic Wirth kept his cool knowing there was no room for error and everything to lose. With the championship on the line and the title favorites tending to their ailing car for upwards of 45 minutes, commentators were continually analyzing the statistics and considering the possibilities. By the time his pit window for fuel arrived, with just over 2 hours left in the race, Wirth had clawed his way as far up as 2nd place after some well-fought challenges. After some back and forth with Krohn Racing, a lot of on-track excitement and a brief Safety Car period, Wirth handed the car off to Stefano Coletti in 2nd place with G-Drive still safely in the lead but Krohn Racing not far behind.
Climbing behind the wheel, Coletti had no small feat ahead, but what was behind would be of far more concern. With Krohn Racing’s enthusiasm to secure their first podium of the season it seemed they weren’t to be satisfied with 3rd place – they were hungry for more and they were willing to fight for it. After multiple moments of contact, Coletti was forced to surrender 2nd place as the pair clashed on the unforgiving circuit amid slower traffic. The final pit stop saw Coletti regain the position, but the battle between the two only ended after both cars were forced to concede 2nd place to the DragonSpeed ORECA, and the #32 BR01 was accosted one final time by the Krohn Ligier who made contact once again, this time spinning themselves out of contention. With only a handful of minutes remaining Coletti could breathe a sigh of relief, having more than earned his victory for 3rd place.
With three podium finishes in only six races, Andreas Wirth, Stefano Coletti and SMP racing can be proud of their 2016 achievement – 3rd place in the ELMS title hunt. Against the odds, along with Julian Leal, this rookie trio entered their first year of endurance racing and proved themselves worthy opponents to the veteran endurance racers and factory drivers.
Wirth summarized the season saying, “It’s great to finish the season on a high with one more podium – what a year! Of course we would have loved to have got the win here at Estoril, even if it wasn’t for the championship, but we can certainly be happy with 3rd today – that wasn’t easy, and hats off to Stefano – he did an amazing job to hold onto it for us. Honestly, all year we’ve been battling with these guys, and the competition in this series is seriously tough. That said, I think we can be proud of what we’ve achieved – 3rd place in the championship for our first year isn’t too bad!
I’ve learned a lot, and it’s been a lot of fun racing with Stefano (Coletti), Julian (Leal) and Vitaly (Petrov). It’s cool bringing drivers together from different racing backgrounds – there’s always something we can learn, so I want to thank each of them for helping make this an awesome year.
SMP Racing, what can I say – what an amazing opportunity to race for such a great team, a great group of people, a real honour to race here and I can’t thank them enough for giving me this chance. I really have to thank everyone involved in making every race weekend happen – it’s a lot of work, but especially I appreciate all the hard work and determination of the mechanics and engineers who have done an exceptional job all year to always give us the best car and the right strategy to fight for the podium.
A big thanks too to all of my sponsors, your support and partnership is truly appreciated. My family, friends, and of course my wife – I can’t thank all of them enough for the love and encouragement they continue to show year after year through all the ups and downs.
And last but not least, a shout-out to the fans – your support and enthusiasm for this sport and what we do, it’s truly appreciated by all of us in the paddock. We hope you enjoyed the season as much as we did, hope you’ll still be cheering us on next year.”