Strakka Racing's incredible team spirit was rewarded at the 6 Hours of Le Castellet, when it dealt with speed-restricting matters beyond its control to take its twin-turbo V6 engined HPD ARX-01d to a podium finish on the car's Le Mans Series debut. With a disparity in the LMP2 class which saw the team's car 13.6mph (22kph) slower than the fastest LMP2 car down the Circuit Paul Ricard straights, consistency, patience and incredible driving by Jonny Kane, Danny Watts and Nick Leventis saw them finish 3rd in LMP2 and 5th overall..
Jonny, a driver of vast experience, was moved to say that the team spirit and effort contributed to "one of the most pleasing results I've probably ever had, because the performance in the car isn't there."
Free practice and qualifying highlighted some fundamental disparities within the LMP2 category, with the straight-line speed of the HPD (Honda Performance Development) cars considerably slower than the competition. Strakka Racing's qualifying lap time of 1:53..582 was 4.654 seconds slower than the class pole this year, whereas last year it recorded pole by 2.123 seconds. It was a similar situation in the race, with its 1:53.236 best 2.984 seconds slower than the fastest LMP2 car, compared to it setting the fastest lap by 1.840 seconds at Paul Ricard last year - proving that the new regulations had not transferred over on a level playing field, with some teams gaining a big advantage and others receiving a considerable penalty.
The team could do little at the circuit to reduce its four seconds per lap air-restricted time deficit and instead concentrated on engineering a set-up that would at least limit the time it was losing down the long Mistral and start/finish straights, reducing the downforce on the rear wing. This, however, reduced cornering grip levels, with drivers having to use all their skill to control big 150mph oversteer slides. The team tried various damper and ride height combinations before the best compromise was found for the race.
The team initially planned for each driver to do a double stint, with Jonny, Danny and Nick racing in that order, and Jonny then returning to the car for the final sprint to the chequered flag. However, the chassis and Michelin tyres were working so well that the team elected to run Danny in a near triple stint and for Nick to bring the car home to the finish.
In hot, sunny and 25°C conditions, Jonny began the race from outside of Row 7 and 8th in LMP2. As the lights came on to signify the start of the race, the Safety Car was still out on track at the front of the pack. As the cars behind the front row accelerated hard and then jumped on the brakes, the inevitable multi-car pile up erupted midfield. Luckily it broke out behind Jonny, although the 37-year old Thame-based Northern Irish driver locked his brakes and only narrowly avoided running into the back of the car ahead.
After two more laps under the Safety Car to clear the debris, the race got underway - and Strakka's strategy of being consistent, patient and avoiding problems came to the fore. A flawless performance saw Jonny climb to 6th overall and 4th LMP2 by the time his stint came to an end after two hours and 60 laps.
An exceptional pit stop by the Strakka Racing team saw them gain a position during it's first driver change, allowing Danny to re-join the race 3rd in class. After patiently negotiating heavy traffic, Danny settled into a rhythm and held position after a refuel stop five minutes shy of half race distance.
Danny made a pass for position and then took the LMP2 lead when the ò45 Boutsen Energy Racing Oreca lost five laps in the pits after three and a half hours. At the same time the Safety Car came out to enable the recovery of the abandoned ò46, leaving the 31-year old driver from Buckingham in more heavy traffic at the restart.
Danny stopped to refuel 20 minutes later (after 115 laps) and handed over to Nick after a smooth and precise 2hr 40min stint.
On fresh tyres, a full fuel tank and with 1hr and 18mins remaining, Nick came out of the pits just five seconds ahead of the ò41 Greaves Motorsport Zytek. As he got the car back up to race temperate, this and the ò39 Pecom Racing Lola overtook, as the 30-year old London-based driver settled into the team's post-pit stop predicted position of 3rd in LMP2 and 5th overall. Nick maintained position after a splash and dash stop for fuel 16 laps from the finish, and drove immaculately to secure a hard-earned podium.
Nick Leventis: "It's been a huge uphill struggle for us this weekend, all through matters which are beyond our control, and I think the team has handled itself in the most professional and positive manner. I believe the ACO is doing everything it can to assess the situation and are aware that there is a problem because we are 22kph down on top speed, massively underpowered and are having problems overtaking GT2 cars. It's very disheartening to be overtaken by a fellow competitor in a P2 car like it's a P1 car and it's frustrating for us, and the GT cars, because we're neck and neck with them down the straight and having to compromise both our races by dive-bombing them in the corners. The best thing we could do in this situation is go our and score points, and to finish on the podium is incredible. Jonny did a great job with a double stint at the beginning, Danny was faultless again with his longer middle stint and once again they made my job to bring the car home very easy. For me the proudest thing is to see the magnificent team spirit; we win together, we lose together and we've dealt with things that are beyond our control together. We always act in the most professional manner and that is why this team has a great future."
Danny Watts: "It was a massive team effort. When you're sitting in the car driving ‘round it's always difficult to read what's going on and you rely so much on the pit wall and I thought Dan [Walmsley, chief engineer] calling the shots was absolutely brilliant. He gave us a lot of time by allowing me to stay out on the track for as long as possible and not coming into the pits. I thought the Michelin tyres were brilliant and allowed me to do a near triple stint, again saving us time. These key elements were very important for us during the race. It was easy to get frustrated with a lack of speed and it was a real struggle to overtake GT and Formula Le Mans cars. But it was a case of being smooth, tidy, accurate, disciplined and not making mistakes that was the key and I was able to reel off the laps consistently and didn't have any problems at all. Overall, we were clearly slow, three to four seconds per lap off the pace, but we've pulled a result, and a really good result, out of the bag."
Jonny Kane: "It's been a hard weekend, not really from anything we can control, but the regulations have made it tough for us this weekend. But that's how it is and I'd like to take the positives. I'm massively impressed by the team effort - the drivers, mechanics, engineers, all the people from HPD and everyone who has worked so hard t achieve the best result we possibly could have this weekend. The Michelin tyres worked very well and my stint gave us some good information for Danny to do almost a triple stint. The improvements we made to the car between the warm-up and the race just calmed the rear of the car down and made it a really good and predictable race car and that meant we could push on the whole time. We knew our overall lap time wasn't going to be stunning, but we pushed as hard as we could, tried to be consistent and I have to say this is one of the most pleasing results I've probably ever had because the performance in the car isn't there, through no fault of our own, but through a massive team effort we got an exceptional result."
Piers Phillips, Team Principal and Technical Director: "It might have been a third place result, but in many respects it was a victory for the team, the effort and the professionalism of everyone involved at Strakka Racing. We didn't have the best start to the weekend with a disappointing qualifying, through nobody's fault and because of a regulation issue at the moment, but to have picked ourselves up and performed impeccably on race day is incredibly impressive. Last year, when we didn't win we didn't finish and championships are all about points, so on days when you're not going to win you have to maximise points and we did that fantastically well. It's gives us a platform to go to Spa, hopefully with the regulations readdressed, and be in a position to score even better points there. I'd also like to pay tribute to Michelin this weekend - we could not have wished for more at Paul Ricard in terms of performance and longevity. We didn't have a single issue with your tyres and that enabled us to score a podium. It was also the first time we'd run the new twin-turbo V6 engine for a straight six hours, and its reliability out of the box is a testament to HPD in the level of hard work and expertise that's gone into the project. It's a very proud day for everyone at Strakka Racing."