ARMCHAIR ENTHUSIAST 3 : ELMS – European Le Mans Series

During lockdown and particularly when the weather was rotten and indoors was the only safe place to be, I formed a fondness for motor sport coverage on-line. For the duration I binged on British GT, BTCC, World Superbikes, International GT Open and what used to be familiar as  ‘Blancpain’ but had become the World GT Challenge by then. All were available on YouTube and, if you liked what you saw, a back catalogue was also there for the taking.

ELMS At Spa 2021

One series I didn’t immediately take to was the ELMS, for no other reason than it’s predominantly LMP2 grids  which had a distinctly one-make/spec-formula vibe. And I find I just don’t get excited by all the cars looking and sounding exactly the same these days. In the various GT series and classes that abound around the globe, you have that amazing variety of design concepts all balanced out so an enormous front engine V8 Bentley could run toe-to-toe with a nimble mid engined V10 Audi R8 or a Porsche 911 GT3 with it’s flat six engine sat, as always, in the tail. Mix in Lamborghinis, Aston Martin’s Mercedes AMGs, Mclarens and numerous other makes of car, and it ticked all the right boxes in a sport that has become too homogenised elsewhere.

Spa 2021  LMP2 Oreca -Gibsons dominate the sharp end of the running order, LMP3s in the middle and more diverse GTEs in the distance

However I found myself suddenly running low on events to watch at one point last summer and gave the ELMS a slightly grudging trial run.  And I was pleasantly surprised – once I had got my head round half the field looking near-identical. Although in theory it’s not a single make class, there are four different chassis makes allowed,  LMP2 has naturally developed, as Formula Three did a couple of generations back into something that amounts to one. Every team simply gravitates to the same option. The weapon-of-choice , an Oreca 07 chassis, has simply taken over the class because it’s the best. The engine, a 4,2 litre Gibson V8 is, however, mandated; so they do all sound the same.

Oreca 07/Gibson. COOL RACING (Alexandre Coigny / Nicolas Lapierre / Charles Milesi)

The result is a couple of dozen cookie-cutter cars at the sharp end of the order but all very close in terms of speed and with some very talented and experienced drivers willing to get their elbows out and really mix it with one another on track. The Orecas are very quick, race hard and sound rather nice, although the Gibson exhaust note is more like the old 2 litre sportscars of the 1970s , which were mostly 4 cylinder, than most other V8 engines you will have encountered.

In the middle order are the LMP3 cars,  a similar concept with a smaller chassis, but at least in this case there are currently two different makers on the grid, a Liger JS P320 or a Duqueine M30 – D08 but again there is a spec engine , this time a V8 Nissan engine. Perversely the Nissan sounds a lot more the ticket although the LMP3s are a good bit slower and less spectacular until running wheel to wheel. But shut your eyes and that old-school rumble is very evocative.

LMP3 Ligier JS P320/Nissan and Duqueine M30 – D08/Nissan

Literally bringing up the tail of the field is GTE. The same class that runs at Le Mans and not to be confused (…yes I know…) with the more widespread GT3 you see in most of the regional and national GT series worldwide. There are technical differences between the two GT classes. They don’t really make themselves plain to the spectator or viewer and even the commentators struggle to explain them. But the class boasts the diversity that is generally absent with the LMP classes ahead of it on the grid. That said it is more or less a matter of Ferrari vs Aston Martin vs Porsche at present, but they all look and sound different so who’s complaining?

Porsche 911 RSR chases Ferrari 488 GTE at Paul Ricard 2022

Mix the three classes up and you have enormous oversubscribed grids with traffic playing a part after the first ten laps or so. The driver line up is divided up along the now commonplace grading from Platinum to Bronze (ex F1 to Gentleman amateur) . Confusing sub classes for Pro, Am, Pro-Am and so forth keep the trophy makers in business and everyone is relatively happy. At least until the lights go out at the start!

There are currently 6 rounds in a season, all 4 hours in length and all available live on the ELMS YouTube channel  or on the series own website  where the usual modern wonders of communication can supply all the details you need on what’s going on, when and how.

The English commentary team is very good; the coverage in general is well up to par with plenty of in-car footage. It all dove-tails nicely with the WEC  coverage and many of the same cars feature in both series which adds a little extra Kudos to the ELMS . Once you get used to spotting which Oreca is which, the racing excellent. It’s fast and often furious with a fair degree of battle damage evident by the flag fall although nothing like you used to see in the BTCC a few years back!  The LMP2s are heavily aero dependent and possess ferocious cornering capabilities but they can and do run very close so there is no need for any DRS or fan-boost gimmicks to enable them to overtake. In that respect it’s quite a purist style of racing and all the more satisfying as a result.

Start of the 4 Hours of Le Castellet at Paul Ricard

The first race of 2022 was at Paul Ricard in Mid April and proved pretty entertaining after some early dust ups and safety cars.  Paul Ricard is a strangely alien looking place but the camera located at the end of the Mile-long Mistral straight captures one of the great shots in motor racing as the LMP2 cars pitch into the almost-flat-out 180 mph Singes corner as if on rails. The first few times you see this it’s quite breath-taking.

But if Ricard was good, the most recent round at Imola was outstanding.  The new-for-2022 Prema/AF Corse team managed a last gasp victory after seemingly endless dramas during the race. Such was the pace of stand-in driver Lorenzo Columbo that his rather free-thinking approach to the rules, which earned two drive-through penalties and a later time added to a regular stop, still didn’t prevent the car winning in the end. It was all a bit “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”, where the Knight progressively gets cut to pieces but declares “tis but a scratch!” and keep fighting on and on.  It was a stellar but slightly chaotic performance as each penalty was indeed ‘but a scratch’ and with team mates Louis Delatraz and Ferdi Habsburg  backing him up in style, blasting back up the order with each set back and lucking in with a pit stop ‘under yellow’ when all their rivals lost time pitting ‘under green’. It looked as if a new star was being born in Columbo!

PREMA RACING’s Oreca GT3 (Lorenzo Columbo/ Louis Deletraz / Ferdinand Habsburg) take the flag at Imola

It was fascinating stuff. Second fell to the United Autosports team with it’s trio of young British hot-shoes Tappy, Gamble & Hanson. GT3 also fell to United Autosports  and the Ligier of van Berlo & Bentley while GTE was handsomely won by  al Harthy/Sorensen/deHaan in probably the best looking GT car running at the moment, the Oman/TF Sport Aston Martin Vantage AMR .

Aston Martin Vantage AMR (Ahmad Al Harthy / Marco Sorensen / Sam de Haan). GTE winner at Imola

They were was pushed hard early on by the all female Iron Dames  crew of Sarah Bovey/Michelle Gatting/Rahal Frey in their striking pink Ferrari 488. But Frey suffered a blown tyre mid race and a a disastrous pit stop that followed left a loose wheel rolling down the pit lane and a penalty applied to further ruin their day as they dropped from 2nd to 8th at the end.

Ferrari F488 GTE EVO / IRON LYNX / Rahel Frey / Michelle Gatting / Sarah Bovy

If your attention span can cope with a four hour race I’d highly recommend giving the ELMS series a look. Live streams are always a little special but for practicality, watching it all back later does give the chance to whizz forward through the numerous yellow flags and safety car interventions!

Oreca 07 – Gibson / PREMA RACING (Lorenzo Colombo / Louis Deletraz / Ferdinand Habsburg)

Now I don’t pretend to find the look of an LMP2 car attractive (LMP3 even less so) it’s got that google-eyed , shark-finned gawkyness that only a mother could love but it’s a class that does produce very good, very fast racing and if you get that, most other objections can be overlooked, I find.

Half the field now appears to be heading off to Le Mans for the 24 hours next month but battle is re-joined in the series at Monza in July.  Take a look for yourself.

ELMS 4 Hours of Imola Race Start amid the falling blossom

Ferrari F488 GTE EVO / RINALDI RACING (Pierre Ehret / Nicolas Varrone / Gabriele Lancieri) at Imola