Algarve Pro Racing quickly ascended the leaderboard to get on terms with the top three in LMP2 Pro-Am with the #45 crew of James Allen, Steven Thomas and Rene Binder during the opening quarter of the 90th 24 Hours of Le Mans (11-12 June).
However, Sophia Flörsch, Jack Aitken and John Falb in the #47 are on a recovery drive from the back of the field after gearbox troubles brought their car to a halt moments after the start, necessitating an early repair stop.
Allen made an impression from the outset of free practice on Wednesday (8 June), as the Aussie sat on the edge of the top five and second in Pro-Am on a 3m32.621s for much of the three-hour session.
However, single-lap performance was not a priority, and both the #45 and #47 ORECA 07s were continually brimmed with fuel and sent out into full race simulations, with Algarve Pro’s engineers closely monitoring drivers’ stint averages, tyre performance and car behaviour.
Setups were adjusted accordingly to increase tyre longevity and there were very few shifts in the order until the latter stages, when the #45 crew was demoted to sixth in class and Aitken in the #47 recorded a 3m33.113s to pop up into eighth in LMP2 and third in Pro-Am.
Aitken was subsequently placed on qualifying duty and, while a lap was lost to track limits, a red flag and heavy rain prevented the Williams Racing F1 Reserve Driver from registering a representative time and he ended qualifying in 21st in LMP2 and sixth in Pro-Am.
However, Algarve Pro was fully focused on an overnight push to rebuild a bare tub, after the #45 car sustained heavy damage in an innocuous-looking collision with the wall at the Ford Chicane late on in FP2.
Aitken, Falb and Flörsch, meanwhile, continued working through their run-plan during the first night practice session on Wednesday, and the trio sat atop the Pro-Am standings as the sixth fastest LMP2 contenders when the chequered flag fell at the strike of midnight.
Algarve Pro’s mechanics completed a marathon nut-and-bolt rebuild and the brand new #45 ORECA chassis entered the fray during the first hour of FP3 on Thursday (9 June) afternoon.
Allen was plugged in to conduct system checks but soon made an impact on the leaderboard as he, Binder and Thomas attempted to make up for lost time and maximise their race package, but, having been unable to participate in Qualifying-Practice, they were obliged to start from the back of the grid.
The 90th 24 Hours of Le Mans began at the traditional 16:00 start time on Saturday (11 June) and Algarve Pro immediately made headway with Allen in the #45 ORECA.
From the tail end of the grid, the Australian racer was soon up inside the top 20 in LMP2 and fifth in Pro-Am with crosshairs on the #10 Vector Sport entry, which he cleared to conclude the opening stint in 18th.
Thomas was installed in the #45 at the top of the first hour and the American Bronze stood his ground on the edge of the top 20 in LMP2, even dipping into third in Pro-Am during a stellar double race stint that took him close to the three-hour mark.
For Binder, the main targets were the Pro-Am leading #39 Graff Racing and #83 AF Corse machines, which he was catching when he stepped aside for Thomas and Allen, who took the #45 ORECA into the darkness.
However, it hasn’t been plain sailing for Algarve Pro because, moments after the start, the #47 machine slowed to a standstill with an overheating gearbox actuator.
Mercifully, Flörsch was able to trundle back to the pits at a snail’s pace, losing five laps to the LMP2 leaders while mechanics resolved the issue, but the ORECA has since run competitively, Aitken setting car-best lap times in the 3m33s after taking the controls approximately two hours into the race.
The #47 crew pushed on and began progressing up the LMP2 leaderboard during Falb’s stint, rising to 25th as some hit trouble, trading places with the #10 Vector Sport machine on strategy.
Steven Thomas (#45 Algarve Pro Racing ORECA 07 LMP2): “Our chief mechanic did an absolutely brilliant job in building me, James (Allen) and Rene (Binder) a great car from scratch overnight on Wednesday through to the start of FP3 on Thursday afternoon. The #45 Algarve Pro Racing ORECA 07 LMP2 is just like new, and it has been very consistent, reasonably quick for an Am driver like me and a lot of fun.”
Rene Binder (#45 Algarve Pro Racing ORECA 07 LMP2): “I’m very happy with our progress so far, as the #45 Algarve Pro Racing ORECA 07 feels great. It’s a long race but I think we’ve done the maximum to get ourselves back in the game. Everything ran smoothly after the crash on Wednesday, even though we lost a lot of track time. Algarve Pro Racing did a great job to build up a new car – it was a big overnight effort and a lot of hard work went into it to ensure we could get back out in FP3 and FP4 on Thursday, where we collected a lot of useful data. We entered the race feeling hopeful that we have a good strategy.”