The 2019 European Le Mans Series kicked off on Sunday (14 April) at Circuit Paul Ricard where Nielsen Racing brought together a strong performance from both team and drivers alike to secure a fifth and 14th place finish with its two LMP3 entries.
Fielding the #7 Norma for Tony Wells and Colin Noble and the #8 Ligier for Nobuya Yamanaka and James Littlejohn, the team conducted two days of testing at the French venue ahead of the race, adapting to the new equipment, while the drivers acclimatised themselves to their new working environment.
With plenty of test mileage complete, the team conserved tyres throughout the two free practice sessions and headed into qualifying in a buoyant frame of mind. Qualifying however proved to be a frustrating affair for both Pro-drivers Colin and James with both losing time on the final flying lap of the ten-minute session due to a slow rival on track. The result was sixth and eighth on the grid respectively.
Nielsen Racing looked at Colin’s data post session, believing that a front row start at minimum was on the cards and this would prove to have an impact on Sunday’s race. Colin made a great start, running with field before making a pass on the #17 Ultimate entry. He set about the next car and was soon ahead of #19 M Racing Norma and into fourth position – eyes forward.
A track limits infringement however brought an unwelcome additional ten second penalty to the first pitstop. This was especially unfortunate as it was avoidance in a traffic situation, but Colin had pushed hard enough to gap the cars behind to ensure that he re-joined in fourth position following his stop.
Colin ran a long second stunt before handing over just pass half distance with Tony resuming initially in second position as the stops unfolded. The pressure was on however with the #9 of Esteban Garcia close behind and the eventual race wining #17 car. With 15 minutes of the four-hour race remaining, Tony ran in third but despite his very considerable efforts, had to settle for fifth position at the chequered flag.
The sister #8 car meanwhile saw James run a conservative first stint, maintaining his position throughout the two hours of competition before handing over to Nobu. The Japanese Rookie – competing for the first time on European soil – put in a good run to the flag, regularly lapping on the pace of his immediate rivals.
It was however part of the learning process for Nobu and despite losing vital rearwards vision after a wing mirror separate from the car, put in an exemplary performance to finish 14th.
With a great deal learned and potential aplenty, Nielsen Racing now gear up for the next round of the European Le Mans Series next month at Monza, Italy.
Roger Bennett, ELMS Team Manager
“It was our first weekend with the Norma M30 which proved to be very effective in Tony and Colin’s hands. Qualifying was compromised by a fellow British driver dawdling – frankly on his in-lap – which is not acceptable. This cost Colin a great deal in the first stint as a result, but he drove really well and it was great pitstop work from the team and Tony got in the car and acquitted himself well, holding his own against some quick professional drivers to finish fifth. It’s definitely something to build on.
“James and Nobuya had a good weekend, with Yamanaka-San making progress throughout the week with James’ coaching. We started just two places behind Colin, despite also being blocked in qualifying – by the same individual – it with a clean and good run from James. Nobu did really well to have an incident-free race on his double stint and again it’s a result to build on as we go to Monza.”
Colin Noble, #7 Norma
“It was quite a tricky race from P6 at the start and we held that initially and then started to pick them off. It was tough as we were a little down on top end speed on the straight and pretty quick in sectors one and two due to the setup we had, so this made passing a little tricky in traffic.
“Once in clear air though, we were the quickest car on track though and hunting the leaders down. The car was great; it’s been a good weekend for us in both ELMS and the Michelin Le Mans Cup.”
James Littlejohn, #8 Ligier
“The start was quite busy and with a bit of aero [downforce] on the car this weekend we lost two positions on lap one but then in behind Ross Kaiser in the 360 Racing car, but it’s so hard to pass here. We got into a nice rhythm and stayed with the cars ahead. We opted or a long first stop for strategy but were unlucky on the re-join as there was lots of traffic, but it’s been good.
“We have a solid result and lessons learned for the next round at Monza. We have things we want to try with the car, perhaps a different approach to setup too. The whole idea this weekend was to make my teammate Nobu comfortable in the team and in the car; to ensure that he got the best from the team and to enjoy his European debut.”