We opened this article last year by claiming that, "if there's one form of motorsport that European cars can be safely said to dominate, it's endurance racing." Well, as of this year's 15th annual running of every endurance racer's favorite sadistic pleasure, that sentiment holds true - and I get a freebie intro.
Yes, team Flying Lizard won the race again, and what's more they did it with the same no. 45 ES-class Audi R8 LMS they did last year, but that's where the similarities end. This year's win came at a much closer finish, thanks to much closer competition from other European cars with manufacturers many have never heard of and strategies that span the gamut of endurance racing.
And that's just speaking of the race for the overall win - European entries added more wins and held their own so well in various racing classes throughout the day-and-an-hour-long battle that we couldn't pass up the chance to provide a solid, comprehensive look at their efforts.
Think of this as the 25 Hours of Thunderhill's GT class. This is where you might find your favorite door-slammers of TUDOR, Pirelli World Challenge, WEC, and similar series past - even circle-track racing (since, after all, these too are built for the long-haul). Usually based on production cars, ES machines can often carry more fuel, employ more common components, are more resilient to contact, and fare better in inclement weather than their smaller, more open, more aero-equipped racing prototype rivals.
In this realm Audi, Porsche and BMW have proven themselves king at Thunderhill for years. Once the rain fell on last year's race and its major competitors suffered mechanical failures, Flying Lizard enjoyed a handy win, and in doing so inspired a veteran competitor to enter a surprising machine this year that might've taken the win if met with the same conditions: CLP Motorsports and their all-wheel-drive no. 14 Lamborghini Gallardo Super Trofeo.
With a team of drivers including Tanner Foust and Tyler McQuarrie trading the wheel, it posed a solid competition threat with fastest lap times and top speeds nearly identical to Flying Lizard's Porsche RSR, and not far off their defending champion Audi.
Alas, the rain never fell and that all-wheel drivetrain may have incrementally become more of a disadvantage than a proper RWD setup over the course of 25 hours of racing. Still, grabbing third in class (the Flying Lizard RSR claiming second) is nothing to sneer at.
Other impressive ES-class performances were led by Tiger Racing/Bavarian Tuning and their no. 2 BMW M3, basically a converted street grabbing fourth in class of professional race machines ...
... followed by Lowe Racing Group and their no. 2 BMW M3, Rearden Racing and their no. 43 Porsche Cayman GT4, and Storm Motorsports and their immaculate (at least, at the start of the race) no. 67 BMW M4, which was unfortunately taken out of the running on the first night by a much slower competitor who refused to yield its pass.
We hope to see this gem back together soon.
ESR cars are the renegades of the field. Where ES class is typically dominated by the European makes and models we've come to associate with performance in the general automotive marketplace, the bespoke race machines of the ESR Class are faster and their manufacturers nearly completely unknown outside diehard motorsports enthusiasm. Case and point: this year's top qualifier, race leader for nearly all of its 25 hours, and very nearly upset winner become Ryno Racing's rock-solid no. 57 Ginetta G57 - a British-made racing prototype in this case powered by a low-revving, 6.3L GM LS3 engine.
With dry conditions throughout the race, its extensive aero gear, low weight, and subsequent quicker lap times proved the overall fastest strategy for the 25-hour race, until an over-torqued right rear hub gave way in the 21st hour of the race, causing the leader to drop back nearly a dozen laps from the Flying Lizard Audi's new lead.
The Ryno Racing team was able to repair the hub and get their ace back out, and its team of drivers were able to finish the race an admirable - yet painful - six laps from the lead it very well could've won.
Nabbing Second in ESR was Ryno Racing's no. 5 Ginetta, which also finished fourth in the overall running after a hub failure of its own.
Much of the ESR class clocked faster laps than Flying Lizard's best, but didn't see their speed-over-efficiency (and reliability) strategy play out in the long run. Still, ONE Motorsports' no. 44 and no. 67 UK-built Radical sports cars managed strong finishes with their third- and fourth-place in-class finishes, followed by JFC Racing's Italian-made, high-revving, 2.7L, V8-powered Wolf Racing GB08.
Claiming last place in ESR was one of the coolest cars of the race in unfortunately uncharacteristic form: TFB Team Praga's Praga R1 - a Slovakian racing prototype powered by a Renault turbo-four that last year won the class by a very healthy margin (when campaigned by Gryphon Racing). Another one we hope to see enjoy its full potential in future competition.
Possibly the battle of the weekend took place in E1 Class - also the largest class of the event -where Grip Racing and ART Racing teams each crossed the finish line after 677 total laps, in their no. 95 and no. 46 BMW 330cis. In the end it was a brave gamble that might have sealed the deal for Grip Racing, when in the final 10 minutes of the race, Andrew Newell and team decided to forego a final fuel-fill, despite running on fumes.
Another tight victory was won in E2 competition, where the humble BMW E30 of KD Motorsports edged out the venerable Mazda RX-8 of Mazda USA Vice President Robert Davis's Team RDR, 645 laps to 642, to take the class win.
Endurance Racing is possibly most impressive in how many components it demands be involved in a winning strategy. All areas of vehicle performance, team dynamics, preparedness, and experience play leading roles in orchestrating a win. Perhaps that's why European cars - and the teams who have built, raced, and relied on them for so long - seem to fare so well here.
Until next year!