After a three-year absence from the Lotus Cup Europe calendar, the series returned to the former French Grand Prix venue just as the 2018 championship reached its halfway point. Having won at Paul Ricard and Spa-Francorchamps and taken second place in three other rounds, Hungarian Bence Balogh was locked in an intense title battle with Open class dominator Andrew Wright as well as having to face fierce opposition from the Evoras of Steve Williams and Jason McInulty, plus reigning champion John Rasse, who had yet to score a victory this season.
Magny-Cours, located right in the centre of France, has both high-speed sections and technical challenges for the drivers. Also looking for good results were 2-Eleven contenders Christophe Lisandre and Christopher Laroche, and Production runners Sven Pettersson, Mark Yates and Cai Cederholm.
Practice and Qualifying
Balogh topped the opening Friday session just as temperatures reached the late-20s, setting the scene for the rest of a scorching weekend. When Rasse joined in for the second run, the Belgian topped the times, and did so again on Saturday morning.
In Qualifying it was the Hungarian who took the pole position, impressive bearing in mind that he was not on the grid the last time the series visited Magny-Cours. Rasse was almost half a second in arrears, with McInulty and Williams taking up the second row. Xavier Georges and Nikolaj Ipsen would occupy row three, with Tamas Vizin and David McInuty behind. Completing the top ten were 2-Eleven rivals Lisandre and Anthony Fournier.
Notably absent from the session was Wright, leaving David Harvey to take the Open class pole in 11th overall, several places ahead of Pete Storey. Yates held the advantage in the Production category, heading Pettersson and Cederholm.
Into the rolling start, Rasse immediately challenged Balogh as the field entered the long Estoril right-hander leading into the Adelaide hairpin. The Belgian won this particular encounter, and for several laps it looked as though he would finally break his 2018 duck. Balogh, however, had other ideas and kept his rival in his sights, eventually taking his chance on lap six.
For the next ten laps, Rasse made sure that Balogh would not have an easy run to the chequered flag and on several occasions looked ready to pounce, but the lead would not change, giving the Hungarian his fifth win of the season.
Jason McInulty ran in third place for the early part of the race, but began to lose track of the leaders. By contrast, Williams lost out at the start and fell to seventh place, but he staged a strong comeback drive and returned to fourth place two laps later. Having lost ground to McInulty, he clawed back the deficit, but could not steal a place on the podium.
Ipsen, Georges, David McInulty and Vizin raced in close quarters for much of the distance, although Georges dropped out after five laps with engine failure. In the end, McInulty finished best of the rest, followed by Ipsen, then Gyorgy Balogh, who had moved up from 12th place on the grid.
Lisandre failed to make the race and Fournier was at the back of the field, so Laroche would claim the 2-Eleven class win in eighth place overall, with the top ten completed by Verhiest and Daniel Palma.
In 11th place, Philippe Loup completed the 2-Eleven podium, followed home by Storey, the Open class leader, since Harvey had suffered from alternator failure. Just behind, Matt Bartlett was the only other Open finisher.
The overall race lead battle was overshadowed by an epic scrap for the Production class, in which Yates and Pettersson swapped places, before Cederholm split the two to take second to Yates at the flag. Thierry Hedoin also scrapped with the trio early on, but fell to fourth ahead of class debutant Jean-Pierre Genoud-Prachex.
Balogh had a much more straightforward task in race two, having taken the lead off the rolling start. However, Rasse was just as threatening this time round, even if he was again unable to make a successful challenge.
Having also had a better run on the opening lap, Williams resumed his attack on Jason McInulty’s Evora and with the latter displaying increasingly lurid slides around the circuit, perhaps this inspired his rival to have a go. Thus on lap 11, Williams came round in third place, and pulling away a little, secured a place on the podium.
David McInulty had a rather lonely run to fourth place after his earlier scrap, but Ipsen had to challenge Vizin to take sixth place ahead of the Hungarian. Palma made up a few places to take eighth place, followed by Verhiest and Lisandre, who returned to winning ways in the 2-Eleven class with tenth overall.
Jean-Baptiste Loup took over his father’s 2-Eleven and scored second in class, three places ahead of Franck Laroche. Just behind Loup was Harvey, finally finishing a race and taking the Open win, despite a drive-through penalty. Storey and Bartlett completed the Open podium.
Once again the Production battle was hard-fought, with Pettersson taking the early advantage, only to lose out to Yates two laps later. However, the Swede regrouped and resumed the lead, only to lose and regain it, the final time holding on until the chequered flag. Cederholm and Hedoin ensured that Yates had a fight for second in class, but the Briton beat Cederholm to the line at the end of the race.
Rasse made the best of the standing start, but his initial lead would not last the lap, as Balogh once again assumed his authority over the field. Not long after, Williams made his move to take third place from Jason, and with the top four running nose-to-tail, a thrilling contest was being played out.
Soon, Rasse was having to defend from Williams, who eyed a win and just after half-distance the Evora was through. Balogh, however, made sure that his rival could not take advantage, and pulled out a gap. Williams had to settle for second place, but on the final lap made it no further than the Adelaide hairpin. This promoted Rasse to second and McInulty to his second podium place of the weekend.
Having fallen behind Chris Laroche at the start, Ipsen moved up to fourth place ahead of the 2-Eleven class winner. Palma took sixth with David McInulty finishing just behind, along with Vizin. Verhiest and Lisandre completed the top ten.
In 11th place, Harvey scored his second Open victory of the season, storming from the back of the field. He was followed by Storey and Bartlett, who’d demoted 2-Eleven podium-finisher Nathalie Genoud-Prachex after a race-long tussle.
This time the Production class had a clear winner; Yates ran several seconds ahead of Pettersson after establishing the category lead on the opening lap. Pettersson was also clear of Hedoin and Cederholm, who fought for the final podium place, but the Frenchman prevailed this time.
Once again the Evora drivers proved to be the class of the field, with Rasse the only Exige runner to get amongst this contingent. The reigning champion put up a strong fight, and came close to taking his first win of the year, but Balogh is currently proving too hard for the rest to crack. With Wright missing out on the races, the Hungarian now takes a commanding lead in the standings.
Wright’s woes played into Harvey’s hands; despite yet another mechanical issue in race one, the 340R driver fought back to win in the following encounters. Meanwhile the 2-Eleven fight continues to go in Chris Laroche’s favour.
The Production race was perhaps the highlight of the weekend; whilst the overall leaders didn’t let up, at least four cars in the lower-powered category could have won and the lead swapped several times in the first two races. Pettersson certainly looks to have a fight on his hands if he is to take the class title.
The next stop for Lotus Cup Europe is at Belgium’s Zolder circuit on 9-11 August.