RLR MSport opened its 2021 account with a hard-earned podium in the European Le Mans Series (ELMS) 4 Hours of Barcelona (16-18 April).
The Motul-powered team and driving trio Mike Benham, Alex Kapadia and Malthe Jakobsen fought back from a drive-through penalty to convert a front-row start into a second-place result at Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, finishing within striking distance of the eventual winner in a thrilling end to the 240-minute race.
Each driver had a turn at the wheel of the #15 Ligier in FP1, but RLR MSport restricted its free practice mileage in a tyre preservation exercise, to take a strategic advantage into the headlining 4 Hours of Barcelona.
In spite of the reduced run-plan, Jakobsen was confident in his pace and was only narrowly pipped to pole position by 0.021s, instead securing a prime front-row grid slot for teammate Benham’s opening double race stint.
Benham aimed to replicate the “career-best start” he produced en route to victory in the supporting Michelin Le Mans Cup on Saturday (17 April), but the British Bronze slipped to third, surviving a chaotic opening lap that triggered an early Safety Car.
However, running at a competitive pace against vastly more experienced Silver and Gold-graded drivers, Benham stood his ground for much of the first hour, until the #18 Villorba Corsa entry found an opening in among overly aggressive LMP2 traffic.
Sixth after the first scheduled stop, Benham enjoyed peak grip from a fresh set of Michelins left-over from free practice and maintained track position until the end of his double stint, despite serving a drive-through penalty for speeding in pit lane.
In fact, Benham’s efforts enabled teammate Kapadia to set his crosshairs on the fight for fourth, and both the #18 Villorba Corsa and #13 Inter Europol cars were cleared in two decisive overtaking manoeuvres during the third hour.
With flat-spotted tyres, the hard-charging Kapadia set about consolidating fourth position, but swift work by the RLR MSport pit crew ensured Jakobsen started his stint even further up the leaderboard in P3, and the Danish teenager immediately showed he had the sort of pace required to catch the leaders before the chequered flag.
The top three in LMP3 converged at an enormous rate, and in a thrilling climax, Jakobsen picked off the #4 DKR Engineering car and relentlessly hunted Cool Racing’s Matt Bell, just falling short of his target and finishing in a well-deserved, but slightly underwhelming second position.
“It’s nice to start the season so well but it’s important to keep our minds clear to ensure further results come,” said Jakobsen. “We spent much of testing on high-fuel race preparation, but I always knew the pace was there, and I was able to show that in qualifying. In the race itself, the drive-through penalty obviously put us back, but we still felt third or even second place was achievable, although we didn’t expect to be so close to the eventual winner.
“It was so much fun pushing that hard in the last stint! I ran on my qualifying tyres so I didn’t have an advantage there, yet we had so much speed compared to our rivals and I think we would have taken the victory if we had had one more lap. In fact, the 4 Hours of Barcelona shows we don’t need to be lucky to win; we would have had around 30 seconds in hand without the drive-through, and it’s nice to know we can win on pure pace if we have a clean race.”
Kapadia said: “We should be over the moon with a second-place result, but we’re a bit underwhelmed because the win was there for the taking. There were a few things we could have improved, but it’s important to recognise we are at the sharp end of the European Le Mans Series LMP3 field on pure pace. I believe we are going to be a force to be reckoned with.
“This was our first time out as a trio and things will flow more naturally next time around. It’s particularly great that Mike (Benham) has returned to motor racing after a year away by following a Michelin Le Mans Cup victory with an ELMS podium – he held his own against some really quick and experienced drivers. All-in-all, I’m really happy to be back in the ELMS and to have pulled off a podium result at the first time of asking.”
For Benham, the ELMS-Michelin Le Mans Cup double-header marked a very successful return to racing after more than a year away, and he said: “I could never have expected to achieve these kinds of results, having not raced an LMP3 car for so long. I wouldn’t have put any money on it, that’s for sure! I’m delighted for RLR MSport, as they’re a talented bunch who really think about what they’re doing, and it’s nice to reward their efforts. In all honesty, I was a little disappointed with second, but Alex (Kapadia) rightly pointed out that we are at the front on merit, not because we got lucky, and without my tiny error in the pits we would have been some 30 seconds up the road.
“There are lots of positives to take away and I’m excited about where we can go from here. We’re undoubtedly going to be in the mix for the rest of the season and it’s a great place to be. Malthe (Jakobsen) is hugely talented, he’s growing in confidence and it’s good he’s disappointed with second place. He knows we’re in the fight and Alex and I can help him shine.”