Road to Le Mans 1: Victory and a master stroke by Nielsen Racing’s #7 Ligier JS P320

18-21 August 2021 – This was the second edition of the Road to Le Mans for the new-generation LMP3s after their launch on the 24 Hours of Le Mans circuit in 2020. The 24 Ligier JS P320s entered honoured the French make in the two races of the Blue Riband event in the Michelin Le Mans Cup. The competitors found the big circuit a tough challenge and both heats were perturbed by several incidents. Nielsen Racing scored a decisive victory in the first race with its #7 Ligier JS P320 putting the team in the provisional lead in the championship. COOL Racing filled the third step on the podium with #69. The Swiss team came home second in race 2, this time with #19. The #14 RLR MSport Ligier JS P320 crossed the finishing line in third place giving the constructor its second double podium in the sixth running of the Road to Le Mans.  

On Wednesday 18th August, the 34 LMP3s including 24 Ligier JS P320s, most of which were entered for the Michelin Le Mans Cup, got to grips with the 24 Hours of Le Mans circuit. The Ligier JS P320s drew first blood by setting the two fastest times in the opening free practice session led by #22 run by United Autosports and driven by Gerald Kraut and Scott Andrews who clinched first place followed by #19 entered by COOL Racing for Niklas Kruetten and Mathieu de Barbuat. On Thursday, both qualifying sessions were broken up by numerous yellow flags, which prevented the Ligiers from clinching yet another pole position. After three poles on the bounce the JS P320s had to be content with the second row of the grid for the first time this season.

Race 1 - Victory and a master stroke by Nielsen Racing's #7 Ligier JS P320

In the first race of the fourth round of the Michelin Le Mans Cup, Road to Le Mans, British team Nielsen Racing led by its two lucky drivers, Colin Noble and Anthony Wells, left its mark by its race strategy and the performance of its two hotshoes. The #7 Ligier JS P320 claimed victory after a hectic race. The #69 Ligier JS P320 run by COOL Racing driven by Maurice Smith and Matt Bell gave the French constructor a double podium by finishing third and also placed two of its other Ligier JS P320s, #19 and #37, in the top 10. Eight Ligier JS P320s filled the first 10 places in the overall classification.

The first 55-minute race took place on Thursday 19th August with the start given at 19:30. While the drivers roared off under cloudy skies they finished in the evening light shortly before the close of day. Despite a clean start the first incidents soon occurred. Before the end of the first lap the #71 Team Virage Ligier JS P320 crewed by Rob Hodes and Garett Grist spun following a puncture, but managed to get back on the track. After a quick stop and a wheel change it rejoined the fray.

The #98 Ligier JS P320 entered by Motorsport98 with Dino Lunardi and Eric de Doncker made a great start and installed itself in third place in front of Team Virage's #16 with Sacha Lehmann and Matthias Lüthen at the wheel.

At the end of lap 2, a GT slammed into the safety barriers at the pit entry involving one of its rivals in the same accident bringing out the safety car. Two laps later there was another incident. While several cars were running neck and neck and trying to pull out an advantage, the #14 RLR MSport Ligier JS P320 of Michael Benham and Malthe Jakobsen spun and the left-hand rear wheel let go and demolished part of the bodywork. It was all over for the team which couldn't repair the damage in time. #28 run by Nielsen Racing and crewed by Steven Thomas and Tristan Nunez made a mess of things, tagged a GT and left the track. Luckily, the team managed to repair the damaged right-hand rear legality box and #28 returned to the track.

Several competitors chose to carry out their mandatory pit stop while the safety car was still deployed, in particular Nielsen Racing's #7 Ligier JS P320, which emerged from the pits in the lead. Tony Wells had handed over to Colin Noble who gave his rivals no quarter and went on to take the chequered flag. The Scot continued to rack up fastest laps and pulled away from his rivals. Following him home was the #37 COOL Racing Ligier JS P320 with Josh Skelton in the hot seat. #19 and #69 also run by COOL Racing rounded out the top 5.

After five laps, the green flag was finally waved. However, this prevented competitors who had opted for an out-of-sync strategy to carry out their pit stops under the safety car deployment: 25 minutes left to the finish. The #7 Nielsen Racing Ligier JS P320 was now five seconds ahead of the #37 Ligier JS P320 run by COOL Racing. The eighth-placed #23 United Autosports Ligier JS P320 in the hands of John Schauerman-Duncan Tappy stopped at its pit after a puncture on the right-hand front tyre.

More incidents occurred in the last five minutes. On the second-last lap the #74 Ligier JS P320 entered by MV2S Racing and driven by Christophe Cresp-Sébastien Baud, 2020 Ligier European Series Champion in the Ligier JS2 R category, was harpooned by a rival brand's car. The monocoque was damaged forcing the team to retire with the chequered flag in sight - a body blow for the two drivers.

The #37 COOL Racing Ligier JS P320 that had been among the front-runners spun and fell down the time sheets. Bad luck too for #26 run by United Autosports crewed by Jim McGuire and Guy Smith who were tagged by a rival brand and ended up in the wall after the Ford chicane at the entry to the pits straight. The car suffered serious damage in the accident and retired with a few minutes to go to the finish.

After having dominated most of the race, the #7 Ligier JS P320 entered by Nielsen Racing crossed the finishing line in first place with seven seconds in hand over its closest pursuer. The #69 COOL Racing Ligier JS P320 of Maurice Smith and Matt Bell came home in third place clinching their third podium finish of the season.  They were followed by #32 run by United Autosports for Daniel Schneider and Andy Meyrick. Despite a slow puncture at the end of the race the COOL Racing #19 crewed by Kruetten-de Barbuat finished fifth. The #27 Ligier JS P320 entered by Nielsen Racing driven by Nick Adcock and Max Koebolt came home seventh. They were followed in eighth place by Martin Rich and Alex Kapadia who had started in 23rd spot on the grid in #15 run by RLR MSport. Into ninth and tenth respectively came #22 entered by United Autosports (Gerald Kraut-Scott Andrews) and #30 run by the Frikadelli Racing Team (Klaus Abbelen-Axcill Jefferies) followed by CD Sport's #33 (Michael Jensen / Adam Eteki) and COOL Racing's #37.

But both the United Autosports' #22 and the Frikadelli Racing Team's #30 were hit by a penalty converted into additional time for not respecting the minimum pit stop time. They ceded ninth and tenth places to CD Sport's #33 and COOL Racing's #37 and finished 12th and 13th respectively behind #71 entered by Team Virage.

For the full classification of race 1, CLICK HERE .

Photo crédit: DPPI Images