RLR MSport scooped up podium finishes across multiple classes in the 2023 Ligier European Series Le Castellet Heat (14-15 July).

Mexico’s Ian Aguilera and Kuwait’s Haytham Qarajouli once again scaled the overall JS P4 podium, while ‘The Racing Reverend’ Simon Butler and Maximus Mayer added a brace of third-place results and Pro-Am victories to their tallies in both one-hour races at Circuit Paul Ricard.

In the headlining JS P4 division, Aguilera and Qarajouli improved between FP1 and FP2, and the former went on to take the #75 prototype to fifth on the race one grid, before the latter secured a sixth-place starting position for race two.

The first Ligier European Series encounter in the South of France began with Aguilera moving forward to fourth and engaging the #17 Pegasus Racing car in a thoroughly entertaining battle for the final podium place.

The Mexican teenager repeatedly tried to create an opening and his persistence paid off, as he slipstreamed his way into P3 on the fifth run along Circuit Paul Ricard’s Mistral Straight before going after the lead duel.

Instead, Aguilera was caught and passed by the hard-charging #60 Team Virage machine before going for a spin in avoidance of an incident.

He skilfully avoided contact and pitted from sixth in class and, while Qarajouli was third on the other side of the stops, flat-spotted tyres left him vulnerable to the #50 Les Deux Arbres and #1 Team Virage entries, a final-lap reshuffle putting him and Aguilera back down in P6 at the finish.

From sixth on the race two grid, Kuwait’s Qarajouli initially rose two positions but dropped back to fifth after taking the decision to conserve the #75 car’s tyres on the approach to the mid-race driver-change, after which Aguilera was able to trade places with the #7 LR Motorsport car in third position.

The fight raged on lap-after-lap and the RLR MSport charger set personal best lap times in pursuit of his rival, who was slapped with a ten-second penalty that assured the #75 pairing of a place on the JS P4 rostrum.

“It has been a very positive weekend in the Ligier European Series Le Castellet Heat,” said Aguilera. “We struggled a bit in free practice because of the heat but changed the setup to optimise the package for the conditions, and we had a really good car come qualifying. In fact, I believe we have taken a step forward from the previous rounds in Barcelona and Le Mans, and that’s reflected in the sixth and third-place results we achieved in the races, which are encouraging.”

Qarajouli said: “I’m happy to have ended the Ligier European Series Le Castellet Heat on the JS P4 podium. I’ve been out of the car for quite a while, as I was unable to join Ian (Aguilera) for a test at Circuit Paul Ricard prior to the race weekend. We found some small gains here and there in free practice, which gave us an indication of where we stood.

“We went a bit more aggressive for qualifying on new tyres and were happy with fifth and sixth, knowing we had pace over the longer runs, and I’m pleased with my performances under what were very challenging circumstances, especially as track temperatures soared to above 50 Celsius.”

It was a perfect start to the Ligier European Series Le Castellet Heat for RLR MSport’s Butler and Mayer, as they topped JS2 R in first practice, even though the latter’s run was cut short by a mechanical problem.

The pairing continued improving during an untroubled FP2 session and were positive about their chances in the two-part qualifier, in which Mayer ended a “mega day” in pole position for the first of two races at Circuit Paul Ricard.

Poleman Mayer maintained position at the head of JS2 R and immediately made good his escape, extending his advantage by approximately a second per lap to ensure Bronze-graded Butler had a small buffer after the compulsory pit stop, in which a ten-second penalty was served.

The #42 ANS Motorsport and #43 LR Motorsport cars slipped past Butler shortly after the driver-change, but ‘The Racing Reverend’ looked comfortable in third position and, while a Safety Car could have left him vulnerable, he held station to secure another JS2 R podium finish and a coveted Pro-Am victory for himself and Mayer.

As a red flag thwarted what would have been Butler’s fastest qualifying lap, the vicar from Hampshire, England was understandably disappointed to round-out the shortened Q2 session in fifth.

In Saturday’s second race, he kept his nose clean at the start and stood his ground in P5 for the duration of a relatively lonely stint, and there was plenty of work for Mayer to do to overturn what was a 30-second deficit to the top four at half-distance.

The Alicante, Spain-based Mayer pushed hard on ageing tyres that were well and truly past their best to climb to third in class and build enough of an advantage over his pursuers to counter a ten-second penalty for a pit lane infringement that threatened his and Butler’s second consecutive podium and Pro-Am victory at Circuit Paul Ricard.

“It has been a really great weekenc for me, Simon (Butler) and RLR MSport in the Ligier European Series Le Castellet Heat,” said Mayer. “We had a mega Friday, as Simon improved in every session and, even though an issue cut my FP1 run short, we made up for lost time in FP2 and felt very positive entering qualifying. I was really happy to net pole position for race one, but we were all a little gutted for Simon, whose fastest lap was spoiled by a red flag. Nevertheless, he still progressed in the races.

“I’m pleased with my stints because my consistency was good, even while on very old tyres in the second race. I had a clear view of P2 on the last lap and it’s a shame I couldn’t catch them in time, but a slight problem in the pit stop meant we had a ten-second time penalty and I’m glad to have overcome that and brought home another podium. Overall, I’m pleased with the work we have all put in, and that we are making Simon a quicker driver.”

Butler said: “I’m really pleased with our results, having finished first in Pro-Am and third in the JS2 R class in both Ligier European Series races in Le Castellet. Importantly, I have found a chunk of performance and put myself on terms with the mid-pack behind Maximus (Mayer), which was a key personal target for the weekend at Circuit Paul Ricard. Max drove as brilliantly as ever, it was a great weekend of competitive running and I’m looking forward to the next one.”