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Imola, Italy, 17-18 May 2014

The second round of the 2014 European Le Mans Series was held at the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari in Imola over the weekend of 17 – 18 May, whose great elevation changes as it swoops through the hillside, were in sharp contrast to Round 1 at the virtually flat Silverstone circuit. The event attracted 38 entries and 37 starters, after Team Ukraine didn’t appear, to a do battle in three classes over a beautifully warm and sunny weekend. There were 9 starters in the main LMP2 class, and 14 each in the two GT classes, LMGTE for GT2 specification cars, and GTC for GT3 specification cars. In terms of numbers Ferrari 430s in both GT2 and GT3 form were the largest in number, filling nearly half the grid with 18 starters.

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The Friday was given over to technical checks and preparation, with no on track activity, whilst Saturday saw two practice sessions, one morning and one afternoon, together with the Porsche Carrera Cup France support race, practice and qualifying sessions. Qualifying for the 4 Hours of Imola, to give the race its correct title, took place on the Sunday morning, with separate 20 minute sessions for the sports prototypes and GT classes. The GT class runners were the first on track, and the session saw a fierce battle for supremacy in the LMGTE class between the # 81 Ferrari 458 GT2 Kessel Racing entry driven by Matteo Cressoni, and the similar # 72 SMP Racing entry driven by Andrea Bertolini, with the former taking pole by 3/10th of a second. In the GTC class it was another Ferrari that claimed pole position, the Danish # 60 Formula Racing 458 GT3 entry driven by Mikkel Mac, from the similar # 95 AF Corse entry driven by Cedric Sbirrazzuoli and the # 71 SMP Racing example of Luca Persiani. In the LMP2 category, it was the car that claimed pole position at Silverstone, but then crashed out late in the race, the # 38 Jota Sport Zytek Z11SN-Nissan driven by Filipe Alburquerque, that once again took the qualifying honours. Second fastest was the # 46 Thiriet by TDS Racing Morgan-Nissan driven by Tristan Gommendy, 0.6sec in arrears, with the # 36 Signatech Alpine driven by Nelson Panciatici 3rd quickest.

The race was started by recently retired Audi star Allan McNish, and immediately the pole sitting # 38 Jota Sport Zytek Z11SN-Nissan leaped into the lead, chased by the # 36 Signatech Alpine, which made up a place off the grid, and the rest of the field. Despite heavy pressure from his LMP2 pursuers, Harry Tincknell kept the # 38 car in the lead through to the first round of pit stops, with the car being taken over by Simon Dolan, who dropped to 5th in class after a minor incident, whilst Paul-Loup Chatin led in the Signatech Alpine, which looked splendid in its historic metallic blue and Dayglow orange livery. The close battle between the front runners continued unabated through to the second round of stops, with the Signatech Alpine still holding a slender lead. The stops saw the # 46 Thiriet by TDS Racing Morgan-Nissan driven by Pierre Thiriet emerge in the lead, chased by the # 43 Newblood by Morand Racing Morgan-Judd with Romain Brandella at the wheel.

The pendulum really swung between the LMP2 runners for the remainder of the race, with a mix of fortunes, incidents, punctures and penalties mixing up the order. As the race entered its closing stages it was the # 38 Jota Sport Zytek Z11SN-Nissan driven by Simon Dolan that led, but he was being hounded mercilessly by the # 43 Newblood by Morand Racing Morgan-Judd driven by Christian Klein. He found a way through with 14 laps remaining, but couldn’t open a gap of any consequence, although he appeared to have enough in hand to take the win. It wasn’t to be, as with around 5mins remaining the car suddenly lost power and stopped out on the track, apparently with engine failure, as the # 38 car, with Simon Dolan probably unable to believe his luck, swept by and on to victory. After the misfortune at Silverstone the win no doubt boosted the team’s spirits, whilst 2nd place was taken by the #24 Sebastien Loeb Racing Oreca 03-Nissan of Capillaire/Charouz, and the final podium spot went to the # 36
Signatech Alpine A450 of Chatin/Panciatici/Webb.

The battles were just as fierce in the two GT categories, although the pole sitting LM GTE class # 81 Kessel Racing Ferrari driven by Matteo Cressoni managed to establish a reasonably comfortable cushion to the pursuing pack, but behind him there were some fraught battles going on, with the sister # 80 car picking up suspension damage, and the # 55 AF Corse Ferrari had to stop to get loose rear bodywork fixed, both after contact. As the race progressed the early advantage of the # 81 car was eroded, in no small part due to a mid race safety car period, and it was exciting viewing in the closing stages as it was hunted down by the # 72 SMP Racing Ferrari in the hands of Andrea Bertolini, who was driving like a man possessed, carving great lumps of time out of the leader as the clock ticked down, passing to take the class win on the last lap of the race. The final spot on the LMGTE podium went to the British # 66 JMW Motorsport Ferrari of McKenzie/Richardson/Zampieri, whilst Ferraris filled the top five places in the class.

In the GTC class it was the # 95 AF Corse Ferrari entry driven by Cedric Sbirrazzuoli that made the best start, to lead from # 60 Formula Racing example driven by Mikkel Mac. They were chased by the # 71 and # 73 SMP Racing Ferraris, and eventually the battle came down to one between the Formula Racing example and the pair of SMP Racing cars, with the Danish # 60 trio of Laursen/Mac/Piccini taking the class laurels from the # 73 SMP example of Beretta/Markozov/A. Ladygin, with the # 71 SMP Ferrari of K. Ladygin/Basov/Persiani taking the final class podium spot, giving Ferrari its second full podium of the day

Text / Images ... Keith Bluemel