Early pace fades after an incident and accident packed race for the AMR runners at the ELMS visit to Spa

Monday, September 25, 2023

Just like the Michelin Le Mans Cup before it, this weekend’s fourth round of the European Le Mans Series from Spa Francorchamps produced another high charged and incident packed race capable of fulfilling the appetite of any decerning endurance race fan.

Having started the proceedings with a private test day at the circuit on Wednesday which was attending by two of the three Aston Martin Racing Vantage GTE crews scheduled to take part, a full contingent and officially timed sessions did not start until Friday with the first Free Practice session.

With TF Sport again supporting a two car ELMS entry for that of Arnold and Max Robin with Valentin Hasse Clot aboard their all French supported #72 car and the #95 car of John Hartshorne, Ben Tuck and Jonny Adam, they were of course joined by the Danish #44 GMB Motorsport crew of Jens Moller, Gustav Birch and Nicki Thiim.

Whilst both the #44 and #95 cars head recent track data from their earlier test to run mid table within their class during the opening session, it was something of a game of catch-up for the #72 crew as they built up their own momentum and used cross series data available to them from their dual Le Mans Cup Series entry with the Racing Spirit of Lemans AMR Vantage GT3.

Next came the Bronze Driver test session and the first signs of real pace from the Aston Martin as both Arnold Robin and Moller took control of the first two places on the timing board with a gap of just over half a second to the chasing pack ahead of Saturday’s second Free Practice and Qualifying sessions.

Declared a wet track in the morning, track limits blighted the #44 crews position where Race Control forced them to sit time out within pit lane whilst the #95 moved up to a mid-table position with the #72 maintaining its momentum to end up P5 as the bronze rated drivers about to perform again in Qualifying.

This time the Aston Martin’s would not get everything their own way as Arnold Robin had to settle for a front row P2 start with Moller immediately behind in P4 whilst Hartshorne again struggled for pace, eventually starting from last in class.

Race day, and with the words of Race Control about the race being a four-hour affair and not just the first corner already in distant memory in the minds of some – the chaos ensued as the now collective forty strong grid hurtled its way into La Source for the first time.

Scattering LMP2 an LMP3 cars around the first corner, the chasing GTE field did at least avoid the carnage, but the race was immediately brought back under the control of the Safety Car for the first time whilst the debris was cleared having already seen a change to the running order with the #44 up to P2 and the #72 down to P3.

Twenty minutes were lost to that caution as the first racing laps showed a great dual in the making between the two lead Aston Martin’s whilst Harthorne had already pitted for a splash of fuel and a change to his cars strategy under the Safety Car.

At the top of the first hour, the first FCY was called for debris on track after which saw both #44 and #72 cars pit for the first time (for only fuel and tyres each) whilst the #95 car inherited the class lead thanks to their earlier stop. Once that sequence had cycled through, the biggest problem for the Aston Martin’s at the time was the pace of the #16 Proton Porsche which was doing more than enough to keep the chasing pack at bay.

The earlier challenging #66 JMW Ferrari meanwhile had clipped the tyre wall at Raidillon have spun coming up from Eau Rouge and their damaged steering would see that car stop on track bringing the Safety Car back out for a second time. Whilst the #72 benefitted with track position after their misfortune, the #44 GMB car would get a Drive Through Penalty for track limits (again), and that would cost the Danes heavily in terms of track position by the time that Nicki Thiim had come out for his hour stint at the midway point.

A further FCY was called for a stranded car in the barriers with 100 minutes remaining, a place in the race where the #72 car was P6, the #44 car was down to P8 and the #95 in P10. Those places would soon change again however as on the restart, small rear contact from Thiim with the #72 car of Robin saw the #72 get turned around but was thankfully able to re-join, albeit twenty or so seconds in arrears.

Ninety minutes to go and a heavy impact in the barriers for an LMP3 car saw another, prolonged appearance of the Safety Car as debris and repairs were made by the ever-efficient circuit marshals. This gave the #95 crew the chance to make their final stop under the slower pace of the caution as Ben Tuck got his first racing laps of Spa in an Aston.

An hour to go, and Thiim pitted the #44 car for their final driver change as the young Gustav Birch stepped aboard form their now P8 position in class. Unfortunately, the combination of cold tyres and over exuberance from the young Dane saw him ride the kerb at Les Combes to get spat back out to nose and tail his #44 car into the tyre wall whilst trying to catch the end of the Safety Car train ahead of the packs impending release.

Losing the rear wing, damaging the defuser amongst other things saw that car limp back to the garage and into immediate retirement leaving just the #72 of (then) Hasse Clot and the #95 of Tuck to see what each could both rescue from their P8/P9 places respectively.

Despite their best of efforts and the further intervention of two further Safety Car periods within the final half hour, the capabilities of those aboard the cars ahead and the gaps between them were too much to overcome in such little time for the #72 and #95 cars to finally come home in P6 and P9 respectively.

A disappointing end to the race and the GTE’s final appearance at the Belgium circuit for the AMR Vantage powered crews as the series now looks ahead to its final two quick fire rounds of the series at Portimao in late October. 

As far as the Championship goes – that has already been determined that it won’t be going to any AMR powered team unfortunately – not this season anyway!!

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