The 2017 season came to a close at Le Mans once again, with the Bugatti circuit deciding who would win the overall title, as well as class honours. John Rasse was leading the championship heading into the finale, but with three races and double points on offer, he would have to battle hard against chief rival Christophe Lisandre to claim his second Lotus Cup Europe title and become the first V6 Cup driver to do so.
In the other classes, Sharon Scolari and Sven Pettersson were in pole position for their respective categories, but Jason McInulty was closing in on the latter for the Production title.
Both sessions took place in contrasting conditions; early morning practice was initially foggy, before the sun burnt through the murk to reveal a glorious day. Title leader Rasse seemed to prefer finding his way through the murk, for whilst he was outgunned by Xavier Georges in the morning, the Belgian could only muster seventh place on the grid, his Exige sounding rough in the early moments of the second session.
The surprise polesitter was outgoing champion Tamas Vizin, despite contact at the end of the session that brought out a red flag with just a couple of minutes remaining. Second on the grid was Georges, with Egon Burkus and Steve Williams completing row two, ahead of title challenger Lisandre and Jean-Baptiste Loup. Behind Rasse, David McInulty, Anthony Fournier and Thierry Verheist completed the top ten.
In 13th place overall, Dave Carr headed the Open class runners, with category title leader Scolari down in 20th, but vitally two places ahead of rival David Harvey. Pettersson was where he needed to be, on the Production class pole in 24th place overall, with Thierry Hedoin between him and his main foe, Jason McInulty.
Mired in seventh place on the grid, Rasse wasn’t about to let his chances of the title slip away and he drove a storming race to work his way to the front of the field. It didn’t take him long to assume third place in the running, but a hard-charging Williams was a much tougher prospect for the 2015 champion and it took a few laps for the Belgian to surge ahead.
Once installed in second place, Rasse had to work even harder to chase down the leader, but before long the story of the season was playing out once more; Georges versus Rasse for the win. The Frenchman wasn’t going to give up the place on home ground and as the race headed to its conclusion the pair were as close as they’ve ever been. Rasse made a lunge for the win, but with all four wheels off the track, he had to give up the place. No bother; he simply found another way and made it stick, taking a crucial victory by just six tenths of a second, with Williams just over three seconds behind at the flag.
Rasse’s win was made all the sweeter for him as his main title rival Lisandre endured a torrid race, dropping from the class lead down to last and 21st place overall. Anthony Fournier took the honours in ninth place, one ahead of Franck Laroche, with Neil Stothert completing the category podium.
Fourth to eighth places were taken by pole-sitter Vizin, who headed Burkus, David McInulty, Verhiest and Daniel Palma.
The Open class looked to be heading Harvey’s way, but he dropped to the tail of the class, whilst category title rival Scolari fought her way into the class lead and 12th place overall, just one ahead of Carr.
In Production, Pettersson and Jason McInulty looked set for a titanic battle for the class lead, and therefore category title, but the latter slowed and lost places to Hedoin and Yates, who were both revelling in their Elise Cup Rs, plus Philippe Vanpevenaeyge. Pettersson therefore took a stride towards the class title with 22nd place overall.
By contrast to Saturday’s action, Sunday dawned damp and autumnal. In the first of two standing start races, Vizin attempted to take his first overall win from pole position, but he fell foul foul of the slippery conditions, which seemed to favour Rasse. However, the title leader dropped back, handing the lead to Loup. The young Frenchman held onto the position for much of the race, but Rasse fought back and challenged successfully for the lead in the final moments to take his second victory of the weekend.
Title challenger Lisandre had a much better morning assuming an easy lead of the 2-Eleven class and at one point, the race. He battled with Williams in the second half of the contest, but ultimately lost the final spot on the podium to his British rival. Nevertheless, he made sure he was in championship contention for the double-points finale.
Behind the battling top four, Verheist was best of the rest after a long fight with Burkus, followed by David McInulty, who had recovered from an earlier spin that dropped him to the tail of the field. Next up was the Exige of Stephane Cristinelli, heading the Swedish pair Palma and Nilsson, completing the top ten ahead of the 2-Eleven of Fournier.
Harvey won the Open class to keep his class title hopes alive, as Carr also beat Scolari to the flag. Meanwhile the two Production contenders fought tooth-and-nail for the class win, but Jason McInulty was able to put some air between himself and Pettersson in the final laps.
With one final race remaining to settle the 2017 championship, there was plenty of tension on the grid, not least because there were twice the number of points on offer. It may have been playing on the minds of many drivers as the lights went out, as a startline incident took out four cars. Rasse’s Exige bounced into the air and out of the race along with Loup’s and Burkis’ Exiges. Thankfully most of the grid dodged the accident ahead, apart from Scolari, who somehow was not able to avoid the melee and came to a sudden halt on the pit straight. By this point, however, attention was understandably focussed on Fournier, whose 2-Eleven had ended up on its roof and the marshals and medical staff took extra care to extricate him from the car, and to the medical centre, where he was soon discharged.
Meanwhile, the race had been stopped and restarted under safety car conditions, with a new distance of 20 minutes. Pole-sitter Vizin was soon overhauled by Georges, whilst Williams quickly dispatched with the outgoing champion and set off after the race leader. The Evora didn’t spend a great deal more time in second place, and Georges’ demotion was followed up by a quick trip to the pit lane.
Meanwhile Lisandre was safely installed in the lead of the 2-Eleven class and set for title glory, only his race did not run to this particular script. This left Laroche to take the category win from Benoit Roger and Neil Stothert, and therefore the championship swung in Rasse’s favour once more; with the lead in the standings, the Belgian took the title, with Lisandre having to be content with 2-Eleven honours only.
Unlike Lisandre, Harvey had no such troubles and whilst he was unable to overhaul Carr for the Open class win, second place gave him the Open title at the last gasp.
The Production battle was equally as thrilling; Jason McInulty made sure he stayed ahead of title rival Pettersson, but the two were never far apart, and the final spot on the category podium was equally as close between Hedoin and Yates.
Up front, and following a brief safety car intervention late on, when a brief cloudburst kept everyone on their toes, Williams stormed to the final race win of the season, heading home Vizin and Palma, who was a pleasantly surprised podium visitor.
The final races of the year promised drama and intrigue, and they didn’t disappoint, with the overall championship only settled in the final minutes of the season. Rasse takes his second Lotus Cup Europe title to add to his 2015 victory, but this time he’s the first man to win it from the V6 Cup category. Lisandre will rue his defeat, but at least has the consolation of class honours.
Scolari will also be disappointed to miss out on the Open class, but Harvey’s win is a testament to his determination and dedication to Lotus racing that he has supported for the last decade. Meanwhile Jason McInulty and Sven Pettersson put on a thrilling battle for Production that could easily have been taken by either man.
Congratulations too, to Williams, who returned to the top step of the podium and will be counting down the days to the 2018 season opener at Hockenheim next April, as will all of the drivers.
Words & photos by Kevin Ritson, LoTRDC Press Officer