The Extreme Energy Drink-backed Algarve Pro Racing Team once again salvaged a podium finish from a trying outing in the Asian Le Mans Series 4 Hours of Fuji (2-4 December).
Who would be the form team was unclear at the conclusion of free practice at Fuji International Speedway, as the top four LMP2 runners were split by just 0.262s in FP1, before the order shifted and the #25 Algarve Pro Ligier JS P2 of Andrea Pizzitola, Michael Munemann and Andrea Roda set the pace with a 1m33.523s in FP2 (Friday 2 December).
The snow-capped Mount Fuji provided a magnificent backdrop to Asian LMS qualifying on Saturday (3 December) morning and Italy’s Pizzitola was brisk in the bright and fresh conditions, recording a 1m32.646s to secure Algarve Pro’s second successive pole position of the 2016-17 season.
But the Portugal-based team was just at base camp and its ascent to the top step of the rostrum would be frustrated by penalties and inadequate tyre warming in the race proper.
Munemann and Tacksung Kim were elected to start the Asian LMS 4 Hours of Fuji on Sunday (4 December), but a protracted Safety Car intervention lasting 20 minutes caused tyre temperatures to fall significantly and prompted the Algarve Pro pit wall to reassess its strategic options.
It was deemed sensible to keep Munemann in position near the front of the train, but Kim was boxed for fuel twice during the Safety Car period in a bid to extend the Korean Am’s opening stint in the #24 entry, when many teams ran their Pro drivers.
Munemann made way for Andrea Roda 50 minutes into the race to keep the #25 Ligier on the lead lap and give the Italian and teammate Andrea Pizzitola a chance to bridge the gap to the lead LMP2 cars in the final three hours.
However, Algarve Pro’s hopes of getting back in the fight for victory all but evaporated when the Safety Car reappeared immediately after Roda’s first stop and the team was served with two drive-through penalties for a pair of pit lane infringements.
Both Roda and Pizzitola possessed race-winning speed for the duration of their stints and matched the leaders’ fastest laps with heavily worn tyres, but a lap down, could only take the #25 Nissan-propelled Ligier to third in the overall classification.
Meanwhile, in the #24 Ligier JS P2, Mark Patterson followed Kim and put in a stellar stint before passing the reins to Swiss Pro John Hirschi, who drove faultlessly to fourth on the road at the chequered flag.
Algarve Pro Racing Team Principal, Stewart Cox, said: “It’s really difficult running gentleman drivers against teams who are fielding super-quick young guns from the FIA World Endurance Championship, but I’m pleased with the rate of progress. The cold conditions at Fuji made generating and maintaining tyre temperature a challenge – you had to push very hard to keep them in the window – but it’s all part of the learning curve for our Am drivers and we are trying to give them as much mileage as possible.
“Our Pros have shown that they’re faster than those in rival teams and we would have had a one-two in qualifying if John (Hirschi) hadn’t encountered traffic and made a mistake in the final two sectors of his fastest lap. Michael (Munemann) and Tacksung Kim started the race against quick Pros and unsurprisingly lost time, but we extended both drivers’ stints, confident we could get back in the mix.”
Cox added: “Unfortunately, we were given two drive-throughs; Andrea Roda switched the car on while refuelling and was then unable to switch it off when the nozzle went on during the second stop, having failed to engage the pit limiter. Nevertheless, our pace suggests we would have been well in the hunt. Andrea Pizzitola was undoubtedly the star of the weekend – he was consistently quick throughout free practice, qualifying and in race-trim, driving exceptionally well on tyres that had run four stints.”