Dramatic Start to 2019 Season at Le Castellet
Michael Benham and Duncan Tappy celebrated the first victory for Lanan Racing in the Michelin Le Mans Cup since Road to Le Mans last year. The all British team started third on the grid and after two hours of racing, with safety cars, full course yellow periods and penalties for some of their rivals, Tappy crossed the line to secure the 25 championship points.
2018 GT3 Champions Sergio Pianezzola and Giacomo Piccini got the defence of their title with Kessel Racing off the best start with a hard fought victory at Le Castellet, despite a late race stop and go penalty. The Italian duo finished well ahead of the rest of the GT3 field after the no71 Luzich Racing Ferrari, with whom they had been battling for the lead, received a two minute stop and go penalty, along with eleven other competitors, for running a red light at the pit exit during a safety car period.
Two Hours of Action
The race got underway with the no3 DKR Engineering Norma of Francois Kirmann leading the 31-car field into the first corner. The no43 Keo Racing Ligier of Michael Markussen ran wide at the second turn after contact with another car. The Dane spun again before receiving a drive through penalty for a jump start.
Francois Kirmann in the no3 Norma held a lead over the no39 Graff Norma of Adrien Chila, the French driver ahead of the no25 Lanan Racing Norma of Michael Benham and the no9 Graff Norma of Eric Trouillet. Trouillet kept pace with Benham and saw his opportunity when Benham ran wide at the last corner to take 3rd from the British driver.
The no71 Luzich Racing Ferrari of Fabien Lavergne got a great start at the head of the GT3 field and was up to 6th overall by the end of the first lap. Sergio Pianezzola also got a good start in the no8 Kessel Racing F488 and the Italian started to catch the French driver as he battled with the LMP3 runners. By lap 10 the gap was down to 7 seconds closing by a few tenths each lap.
At the head of the field Wayne Boyd in the no24 United Autosports Ligier was carving his way up and moved ahead of Benham and Trouillet in short order. He then caught and passed Adrien Chila to take second and was seven seconds behind Kirmann’s DKR Engineering Norma.
On lap 18 the first of the two safety car periods were declared when the no4 Cool Racing Ligier of John Schauerman got onto the kerbs on the exit of the last corner and spun out of control into the barriers on the inside of the track. The American driver was OK, but the car had to be removed from a dangerous location with 15-minutes until the pitstop window.
Eric Trouillet brought the no9 Graff Norma into the pits for fuel and tyres but stayed in the car in an inspired move. Having completed the scheduled pitstop he only had to pit again at the top of the hour to change drivers.
The Safety Car was withdrawn after ten minutes and Wayne Boyd challenged Francois Kirmann for the lead of the race straight away but the French driver held his nerve and the place. Sergio Pianezzola also used the restart to challenge Fabien Lavergne for the GT3 lead but the no12 Eurointernational Ligier of JM Littman was damaged after contact with the no5 DKR Engineering Norma of Marcello Marateotto bringing out the Safety Car again three minutes after it was withdrawn.
The Safety Car allowed the majority of the field to head to the pits to complete their mandatory pitstops, with the no11 Racing Experience Norma of Charlie Martin now leading the race.
The Safety Car was withdrawn again, and racing resumed with 52 minutes left on the clock. However 12 cars were under investigation, including the no71 Luzich Racing Ferrari, for not stopping at the pit entry when the light was showing red.
The no8 Kessel Racing Ferrari of Giacomo Piccini was leading the no71 Luzich Racing Ferrari of Mikkel Mac by less than one second, but then the pressure was removed when Mac had to serve a two minute stop and go penalty along with the other eleven competitors for the red light incident.
The no9 Graff Norma was now leading the race thanks to the earlier strategic decision and Adrien Trouillet was leading the no39 Graff Norma of Nicolas Schatz by less than one second, with Duncan Tappy in the no25 Lanan Racing Norma in third ahead of Laurent Hörr in the no3 DKR Engineering Norma.
Hörr passed Tappy for 3rd but had run wide outside of track limits to complete the move, a decision that would cost the German a drive through penalty later in the race. Hörr moved ahead of both Graff Normas to take the lead but the drive through penalty dropped him back to 5th place.
Duncan Tappy had also moved past the two Graff cars to take second place and when the DKR Engineering Norma came in with 22 minutes left on the clock, the no25 Lanan Racing Norma took the lead of the race, which Tappy held until the chequered flag.
There was a Full Course Yellow on Lap 50 when the no14 RLR MSPort Ligier of Tom Olsen went off into the wall on the inside of Signes Corner and while the cars circulated at slow speed the no7 SVC Mercedes AMG GT3 of Roberto Pampanini lost a rear wheel at T11. Both cars were removed to safety and racing resumed with less than eight minutes remaining.
The drama was not yet over as the no8 Kessel Racing Ferrari was served a one second stop and go penalty for not respecting the minimum pitstop time earlier in the race. However Piccini was over a lap ahead of his nearest rival, Yannick Mettler in the no54 SPS Automotive Performance Mercedes AMG, and came in and went back out with plenty of time to spare.
At the front of the field Tappy was heading for the victory but the battle for the other two places on the podium was far from over. Laurent Hörr had passed Colin Noble in the no2 Nielsen Racing Norma for 4th and then went past Nicolas Schatz in the no39 Graff. However the German gave the place back as he had run wide to take the place and he didn’t want to incur the displeasure of the stewards once again.
On the last lap Hörr dived down the inside of Schatz at T5 and there was contact between the cars. The no3 DKR Norma took the place and took the chequered flag six seconds behind the no25 Lanan Racing Norma and just 0.6 seconds behind the no9 Graff Norma of Adrien Trouillet.
However after the race the no9 and no39 Graff Norma-Nissan’s were both given a drive through penalty, which was converted to a 35 second time penalty, because the drivers did not reduce speed to 80kph under Full Course Yellow procedure within the required time (Stewards Decisions no21 and no22). This promoted the no3 DKR Engineering Norma to second place and the no2 Nielsen Racing Norma of Tony Wells and Colin Noble to third in the final results. The no9 Graff was classified in 5th and the no39 Norma in 6th behind the no11 Racing Experience Norma of Charlie Martin and Gary Hauser.