RLR MSport took its cars to fifth and seventh in the drama-filled European Le Mans Series (ELMS) 4 Hours of Portimao (14-16 October), frequent rain showers creating treacherous and unpredictable track conditions throughout.
Consequently, the Bolton-based squad missed out on third place in the definitive ELMS LMP3 Teams’ and Drivers’ Championships by a single point with the #5 trio of Michael Jensen, Nick Adcock and Alex Kapadia, who remain upbeat about the final outcome.
In Saturday qualifying, RLR MSport finished inside the top six with the #15 Ligier LMP3 of Valentino Catalano, Horst Jr Felbermayr and Austin McCusker, and tenth with Kapadia, Adcock and Jensen, but both crews felt more was on the table and were optimistic they could move forward in the race proper.
However, the blue skies that the ELMS paddock had become accustomed to during testing, free practice and qualifying were replaced by unsettled conditions on Sunday, and the rain that was in the forecast materialised earlier than expected, just moments before the delayed start of the race.
The precipitation intensified while teams made their final preparations on the grid and tyre selection was a real lottery, but RLR MSport’s starting drivers, Austrian Am Felbermayr and Danish Bronze Jensen, bravely took to the track on slick Michelins.
Many, including Jensen, span on the formation laps, but both RLR MSport drivers survived the ever-changing conditions, initially tip-toeing around the 4.6km Algarve circuit in the lower half of the top ten but eventually getting a handle on the low-grip track surface.
The rain came and went and Felbermayr appeared confident, as he set personal best lap times and sporadically dipped into the 1m41s on his way up to fourth in LMP3 before passing the reins to American teammate McCusker.
The #15 crew seemed on course for a top five finish, but a decision to fit wet tyres during a Full Course Yellow (FCY) put them on the backfoot, as the rain dissipated and the circuit dried out, forcing RLR MSport to stop again for slicks.
Jensen, meanwhile, had to weather well-worn slicks while RLR MSport waited for a FCY as his stint elapsed, but, despite saving fuel in the rain, the team eventually had to make the call to install Kapadia in the #5 Ligier under green flag conditions.
The desired caution period came just a handful of laps into Kapadia’s race run and, as per its pre-determined strategy, RLR MSport immediately switched the British Pro for Adcock, in doing so completing its first of two mandatory timed stops.
The South Africa-domiciled Bronze remained inside the top eight despite spinning at Turn 8, and RLR MSport took advantage of yet another FCY to conduct its second mandatory stop and fit wet tyres so Adcock could push hard to the end of his minimum drive-time.
Kapadia was inserted back into the slick-shod #5 car with approximately two hours to go and was seventh with diminishing gaps to those ahead, who were evidently less confident on a damp track, with eighth-placed Catalano finding his feet in unfamiliar wet conditions to end up seventh.
The rain came and went, Kapadia gained chunks of time and passed the #4 DKR Engineering car for fifth, but double-stinting the final set of tyres prevented him from taking P4 and the one additional point required to overhaul DKR for third place in the final LMP3 Teams’ and Drivers’ standings.
“There were so many twists and turns that it’s hard to remember what happened in the ELMS 4 Hours of Portimao,” said Kapadia. “Michael (Jensen) was first in the car and he took to a wet track on slick tyres, which he isn’t very experienced with. I got in the car but gave way to Nick (Adcock) after only a handful of laps because a caution came and that’s what we had said we would do in our pre-race strategy meetings.
“I got back in the slick-shod car at around mid-distance and everything went well because we were seventh and catching drivers who aren’t as confident as me in the wet, especially as the rain kept coming and going. We made up a lot of time at that point of the race but I wasn’t able to gain enough positions to take third in the championship because we had to double-stint my tyres. Still, we’re happy to have finished fourth in the championship, this being Michael’s first year in the ELMS.”
Adcock said: “I don’t think any driver really enjoys the sort of changeable conditions we experienced in Portimao. It was lovely and dry when I got in the car for my race stint but the rain came and things got tricky. There were some decisions to make during an FCY and I told the team that they should fit Alex (Kapadia) with slicks, and that aided our progression through the field.
“Having started at the back after spinning on the formation lap, fifth place is a very good result. It has been a great season because we finished every race, had a lot of driving time and a lot of fun, and if you had offered us fourth in the championship at the start, I think we would have taken it. However, we are a bit gutted to have missed out on third by a single point.”
Jensen added: “It was like we had four seasons in four hours in the ELMS 4 Hours of Portimao. We may have made some wrong tyre calls but for so much of the race it was right on the edge between wet and dry. I’m happy we survived such a tricky race, and fifth is a really good result considering everything we faced.”
McCusker said: “It was nice to finish the race. We were on course for a top five result but made what proved to be a wrong strategy call by putting wet tyres on during the first FCY of my stint, only for the rain to stop. We had to box again for slicks and were on the backfoot from that point, so all I could do was chip away at it. The car’s pace was good in my eyes and I’m pleased to have reached the chequered flag with a top seven result.”
Catalano added: “The weekend started well because the entire team felt comfortable with the #15 Ligier from free practice onwards, and qualifying sixth was satisfying, even though a top four result was possible. The race itself was crazy; you couldn’t judge who was winning on strategy because the rain kept coming and going, but we made some wrong calls. Nevertheless, I’m pleased when I look at how much we have progressed in terms of pace and feel during the latter half of the season.”