2016 Petit Le Mans: Ligier-Honda JS P2, MSR, Olivier Pla, three big hitters!
This year the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and the Petit Le Mans opened up their doors to the LMP3 category. And a Ligier JS P320 scored the first victory in this category on the American circuit. Five years earlier, another Ligier, the JS P2, clinched the win in the prototype category with #60 run by American team, Michael Shank Racing. This victory made Ligier the only constructor since Ferrari in 1998 to win the three toughest events on American territory in the same year! It was in 2016.
The French LMP2s, which emerged two years earlier from the ACO regulations, were competing against the DPs, the Daytona Prototypes that looked rather like GTs. For the past 13 years they had monopolised the American circuits racing in the Grand Am Championship followed by the IMSA unified series. The #60 MSR Ligier-Honda JS P2 already seemed to be the best placed in the final of the championship on the Road Atlanta circuit. But it had a tough rival in the shape of its sister car, the #2 Ligier-Honda JS P2 operated by another American squad, ESM.
This final had a very particular character as it was one of goodbyes. It was the MSR team's last race for several years in the prototype category in which the squad was making its 250th and last start because in 2017 it would be racing in the GTD category. It was also MSR's emblematic driver John Pew's last event as he brought down the curtain on his long career on the Road Atlanta circuit. It was the swansong of the DPs, Daytona Prototypes, which would be replaced the following year by the new DPi category. And, of course, it was the final race in the United States for the Ligier JS P2. So it goes without saying that the stakes were pretty high! After having won the two iconic races, the 24 Hours of Daytona and the 12 Hours of Sebring with the American ESM team, Ligier Automotive dreamed of adding to its laurels the third major event in North America, the Petit Le Mans, most often just called Petit for the American public.
Olivier Pla clinched the pole position
At Petit on the day before qualifying, after dominating the weekend's four practice sessions, the MSR team was feeling pretty confident, encouraged by its success at Laguna Seca and its great performances at Daytona and Sebring. French driver Olivier Pla was entrusted with qualifying the car. “I really loved driving at Road Atlanta and the circuit suited the Ligier JS P2 down to the ground. The car was competitive right from the start of the weekend and we kept on improving it throughout the sessions. We had to seize the slightest opportunity and we wanted to be there at the end to fight for victory. We had nothing to lose.” No sooner said than done! Olivier dialled in a lap in 1:13.061s and clinched pole position with almost half-a-second in hand over the second-best time set by a DP.
On 1st October Pla hared off into the lead absolutely determined to win the 19th Petit Le Mans like his team-mates, Ozz Negri and John Pew. After 10-hours racing, it was in the bag with the fastest lap in the race as the cherry on the cake! But it was far from being a stroll in the park.
“Tension was at its height”
“It was very intense,” Olivier remembers, “with neutralisations and safety cars, and not always at the best moment. I was battling with Pipo Derani in the other Ligier JS P2, #2 entered by ESM. My team-mates and I had led for the whole race and after nine hours 40 minutes we had to do it all over again. A car in the pits caught fire and the event was neutralised. That's what it's like in American races where you always have to start from scratch again. It maintains the suspense right till the end, but it's very difficult to cope with in the cockpit. Tension was at its height. I had to remain completely focused at the restart and take risks in the traffic to eke out a lead. The car was perfect from start to finish. And I crossed the finishing line after 10-hours racing less than four seconds in front of the other Ligier. We led at Daytona and we had to retire with a blown engine; at Sebing we were on pole, but we had a mechanical problem in the race. This victory was really very important for us.”
“It was our greatest victory,” added Michael Shank, the team owner. “Winning one of the three biggest races in the USA! That meant much more than just a victory. It set the tone for what our team had become and showed the motor sporting world that we were a force to be reckoned with. I owe a lot to Jacques Nicolet and to Ligier Automotive. They ensured that we always had what we needed and they always kept their promises! That's very rare. A big thank you to them all!”
Victories at Daytona, Sebring and Petit Le Mans
It's Ligier Automotive's turn to thank MSR for that really great win that brought the 2016 season to an end in a blaze of glory adding to the French constructor's laurels the three most prestigious races of the championship in the same year! And a big thanks to ESM who, with their second place, gave Ligier a double after its superb victories at Daytona and Sebring.
Thus ended the DP era leaving the scene to the DPis, the Daytona Prototypes International. Ligier Automotive also launched itself into the DPis in brilliant fashion with two more outright victories: the Petit Le Mans in 2017 and Sebring in 2018 after which it entered for the LMP3 category. This year, it clinched the three victories in the three most prestigious races so the French constructor's marvellous adventure on American soil continues!