The final 15-minutes of Saturday’s two-hour Michelin Le Mans Cup race at Monza effectively determined the outcome of the event for Nielsen Racing and its rivals. After moving to the front of the field and dominating with Tony Wells and Colin Noble, heavy rain and winds turned the race around meaning that on this occasion, the #2 squad had to be content with the final step of the podium.
Whilst disappointed not to take the first win of the season, it was a strong race from the team with Mark Crader and Alex Mortimer taking an impressive and hard-fought fourth position in the sister entry.
It all began smoothly with a short test on Wednesday ahead of the event, before the Michelin Le Mans Cup second round got underway properly with the opening practice sessions. This allowed the Nielsen Racing crew to find a good balance on the two Norma entries ahead of the main events on Saturday afternoon.
Qualifying was a busy affair with a red flag mid-session scuppering initial hopes of a pole position from Tony. With just 15 minutes of qualification, momentum is the key and Tony was right on the pace running third fastest and going purple in the final sector, just as the #11 entry went off at the second chicane.
After a short stoppage, Tony regrouped and saved his best until the final lap where he stopped the clocks just a tenth sky off the pole position. The #20 Grainmarket entry meanwhile saw Mark Crader improving as the session progressed and like Tony, recorded his best lap as the chequered flag flew for ninth position on the grid.
Lining up second and ninth, Nielsen Racing had high expectations, whilst keeping a close lookout for expected storm on the weather radar. All was going well in the opening stages with both Tony and Mark taking a sensible approach to the dangers of the first chicane at the start. As a result, Tony ran third – right with the leading duo – while Mark settled in in P11 before an impressive race towards the front of the field.
Tony ran at the front of the field in P3 throughout the first hour of the race, describing his stint as a ‘long qualifying run’ as he kept pace with the leaders. Pitting at mid-distance, Colin took over and thanks to the quick work of the Nielsen crew emerged in second position. This became the lead as he soon passed the #43 entry and went on to build a solid seven second margin at the front of the field.
Into the closing stages, the race win was there for the taking but with heavy rain falling, Colin was forced to pit for wet Michelin tyres with 15 minutes remaining. With teammate Alex Mortimer also pitting on the same lap, this cost the team a little time, but the big issue was the car failing to re-fire before returning to the circuit. From a dominant lead, Colin exited the pits second and under pressure for third; a position he would be forced to yield in the treacherous conditions in the final minutes.
Alex meanwhile made great progress through the second half of the race in the #20 Norma. Mark put in a good stint, even as he suffered with visibility issues thanks to oil on the windscreen. From ninth, Alex underlined his practice pace as he picking off those ahead, whilst also taking advantage of the conditions and issues for his rivals to claim a super fourth position. This underlined the potential in the driver pairing heading to Le Mans next month.
Stuart Moseley, Michelin Le Mans Cup Team Manager
“It’s a funny feeling as P3 and P4 is a good result, but equally I’m gutted for Colin and Tony. For Mark and Alex, that is as good a result as they could have expected so I’m really pleased for them as they proved in testing and practice that they could be right up there. Turn one here is a bit of a lottery, but both cars wisely opted to be cautious and then to race forward.
“Alex dealt with a lot of pressure at the end with the restart, but he dealt with that while both Colin and Tony did everything 100 percent right and didn’t deserve to lose out at the end. Our pit timing as it started to rain was the right call. With both pitting together, it cost time, but not a huge amount and wasn’t a factor in the end result but what ultimately hurt us was the #2 car not starting after the pitstop.
“The conditions were then brutal. Both Colin and Alex were saying the race should be stopped. It’s not that a third and fourth isn’t good. I am very happy with the fourth, but the third… to suffer so much in a dramatic change of conditions is frustrating. Before the race we thought we’d win it and in the race we thought we’d win it, so it’s a bit deflating. Having said that with Alex and Mark coming P4, that feels a bit like a win today, so we’ll take that!”