RLR MSport’s Haytham Qarajouli troubled the podium and classified as the second best full-season driver in the 24 Hours of Le Mans-supporting Ligier European Series Le Mans Heat (8-11 June), preserving his championship lead.
The Kuwait teenager featured highly in free practice, locking out third in JS2 R, before qualifying fourth for the first of two races, but it was Horst Felix Felbermayr who popped up in fifth in the FP2 times and led RLR MSport’s Q2 charge in P4, after a throttle sensor failure cost his heaps of track-time in FP1.
In the first part of the Ligier European Series Le Mans Heat (Friday 10 June), Qarajouli maintained track position and, despite pressurising the #72 LADC Motorsport entry for a spot on the famous Le Mans podium, had to settle for fourth in the final result.
However, there was still an opportunity to bag a result in race two, held during the build-up to the 24 Hours of Le Mans on Saturday (11 June) morning.
Qarajouli was one of the biggest movers on lap one, rising from 16th to seventh to join a four-car battle for the podium, but several rivals gained chunks of time by pitting with a slow zone in place, and the race came to a close with the Kuwait teenager 12th overall, but as the second highest-placed full-season driver.
“I never expected the Ligier European Series Le Mans Heat to be easy and it wasn’t” said Qarajouli. “The positives we can take away from the week are that we qualified on row two of the grid for the first race on Friday, and I fought hard to keep that position to the finish.
“I was hampered by yellow flags in qualifying for race two and had to start from near the back of the JS2 R pack, but a lot of the frontrunners were also impacted. From 16th on the grid, all I could do is run m own race and stay clean. There were a lot of incidents and I had a few scary moments myself, but I overcame them and I’m proud to have completed two races at Circuit de la Sarthe. The other plus is that I was the second-best full-season driver in race two and I still lead the championship.”
Felbermayr, on the other hand, had a great deal of forward momentum, successfully navigating his way up into P4 in race one, only to retire after being struck by a rival at the Porsche Curves.
The misfortune carried over to the second heat on Saturday, as the young Austrian tumbled from his starting position of fourth to 22nd in the final classification following a first-lap collision on the descent to Tertre Rouge, which necessitated an unscheduled pit stop.
“They really weren’t the results I hoped for from the Ligier European Series Le Mans Heat,” said Felbermayr. “To qualify fourth and seventh despite losing so much track-time in FP1 due to a technical issue was satisfying, but the first race was ruined when a rival shut the door as I tried to pass on the entry to the Porsche Curves, sending me into the gravel.
“In race two, I was a little over-exuberant, asking too much by attempting an overtake that was never really possible at Tertre Rouge. There was contact and I had to make an extra stop, which sent me to the back of the field. Nevertheless, I learnt a lot and will come back stronger in the next round at Monza.”
In the Michelin Le Mans Cup ‘Road to Le Mans’, Chilean racer Nico Pino was called up as a lastminute substitute for the absent Tommy Foster, flying out on Monday (6 June) and arriving at Circuit de la Sarthe to fill the breach just hours before the start of the first free practice session on Wednesday (8 June) afternoon.
A time of 3m49.694s took Alex Kapadia and Am teammate Horst Jr Felbermayr to fourth in the FP1 times, and both found improvements in the #15 Ligier JSP320 to repeat the feat during FP2, in which Pino and Martin Rich also showed well.
However, RLR MSport was severely compromised by slow zones and crashes in qualifying and subsequently started both parts of the ‘Road to Le Mans’ well out of position.
In race one on Thursday (9 June), British Bronze Rich climbed 12 positions from 27th to 15th during his stint, which ended after 22 minutes, when Felbermayr also boxed from 25th to pass control of the #15 car to Kapadia.
Slick work by the RLR MSport crew ensured the #53 and #15 entries emerged from the pits nose-to-tail in 17th and 18th, but both made progress from there, Pino coming home in 14th and Kapadia 16th.
As always, the second instalment of the ‘Road to Le Mans’ was held immediately before the headlining 24 Hours of Le Mans on Saturday 11 June) morning,
In front of full grandstands and spectator banks, both RLR MSport cars thundered up the LMP3 leaderboard, the #15 of Felbermayr going from 30th to 23rd and the #53 of Rich from 47th to 19th overall prior to the compulsory driver changes, conducted with the Safety Car on-track.
RLR MSport installed Pino in the #53 and Kapadia in the #15 for what became a two-lap dash to the chequered flag.
A determined Kapadia pulled off a remarkable surge from 21st to 12th overall , but Pino tumbled back down to 21st after being tipped into a spin on the final run through the Dunlop Chicane.
“We hoped for better, but I can take quite a lot of satisfaction from the second race because those final two laps were great fun,” said Kapadia. “Le Mans week started well, as RLR MSport provided a great car and our pace was really strong, but the fact Horst (Jr Felbermayr) and I had to start each qualifying session from the back of the queue for not being a full-season entry left us vulnerable to incidents and slow zones in qualifying, and Horst had a big shunt at Tertre Rouge that knocked his confidence. The ‘Road to Le Mans’ is such that any mistakes or misfortune puts you at a big disadvantage, but we made a lot of progress in both races. Things just didn’t go our way this time.”
Rich said: “Mine and Nico’s (Pino) pace in free practice filled us with optimism, but, unfortunately, a collision with the wall in qualifying meant Nico didn’t set a fully representative lap time and I didn’t get out at all. That put us on the backfoot in the races, but I made good starts and I’m actually really happy with my performances. In fact, I set a new personal best for the number of cars I passed in my stints. On the whole, I love being at Le Mans – I love the atmosphere, I love racing there and I love the circuit – and my performances were about as good as I could have hoped, so while the results are disappointing, I had a lot of fun.”