G-Drive Racing by Algarve protected its championship lead by salvaging an unlikely podium from a stormy and turbulent Asian Le Mans Series 4 Hours of Sepang (14-15 February).
The outfit carried extensive damage but still recovered to third during the Asian Le Mans Series’ first ever ‘into the night’ race at Sepang International Circuit to maintain a nine-point advantage with one round remaining in Thailand.
A torrential downpour prompted race officials to declare the track wet at the start of FP1 on Friday and the extreme conditions limited G-Drive Racing by Algarve to exploratory stints with drivers James French, Roman Rusinov and Leonard Hoogenboom;
Full Course Yellows (FCY) and red flags caused some disruption and the Russian-Portuguese effort ended the 90-minute session sixth in LMP2;
The rain relented in time for second practice – the first Asian Le Mans session to be run at night – and Rusinov went to the top of timing and scoring on a 1m53.788s, leapfrogging the title-rivalling Eurasia Motorsport entries during a six-lap stint;
G-Drive Racing by Algarve maintained P1 for most of FP2 but was eventually demoted to third as further improvements came in during the final throes of the session;
Pole position was potentially pivotal in the championship fight, as it was possible for G-Drive Racing by Algarve to win the 2019-20 Asian Le Mans title and secure an automatic entry to the 88th 24 Hours of Le Mans at Sepang;
Rusinov was selected to represent the team in Saturday’s quick-fire qualifying session and the Russian racer recorded a 1m53.701s on his first attempt to secure third on the starting grid;
The wet weather returned with a vengeance on Saturday afternoon, as torrential rain and an electrical storm struck the circuit during the build-up to the Asian Le Mans Series 4 Hours of Sepang;
Multiple lightning strikes forced officials to delay the race until conditions improved and systems came back online, and the pack was led away from the grid by the Safety Car 100 minutes after the original start time;
At 18:40, the 23-car Asian Le Mans field streamed away onto three sighter laps, with French at the helm of the #26 AURUS 01 on wet weather tyres;
French fell four places to seventh while taking a sensible, cautious approach to the first stint on the wet-but-drying Sepang circuit, aware that there was sufficient speed within the AURUS to make up for lost time later in the race;
The ever-changing track and ambient conditions placed more emphasis on strategy and tyre selection, and new grooved rubber was fitted as Hoogenboom stepped into the cockpit during a FCY;
The pace quickened as the light faded and ambient temperatures decreased, and while a second stop for slicks took Hoogenboom off the lead lap, he was immediately the quickest driver on-track;
Hoogenboom from the Netherlands recorded a string of green and purple sectors to cycle back up to fourth during a mighty recovery run, only to be struck by an errant LMP3 car;
The collision caused a spin and extensive damage to the #26 AURUS 01, which lost a rear brake duct, sustained a broken exhaust and bent radiator, and a smashed sidepod and engine cover;
G-Drive Racing by Algarve responded by winding the front brake bias to 65 per cent and monitoring temperatures to ensure the car went the distance;
Hoogenboom’s pace was impressive while nursing the hobbled AURUS and the young Dutchman even executed an on-track pass for fourth before giving way to Rusinov during a timely FCY;
Russia’s Rusinov was engaged in a tense battle for P4 with K2 Uchino Racing and he kept the threat at arm’s length before a repair stop for the #34 Inter Europol car opened the door to the podium places;
The last fuel stop was dovetailed with another driver-change, as Hoogenboom was reinstalled in the third-placed AURUS;
G-Drive Racing by Algarve completed a remarkable recovery in third position and the team subsequently sits atop the Asian Le Mans standings with a nine-point lead going into next weekend’s season finale at Chang International Circuit in Thailand (21-23 February).
Leonard Hoogenboom (#26 G-Drive Racing by Algarve AURUS 01 LMP2): “We were always shooting for the podium, but it wasn’t easy to achieve at Sepang because we were quite unlucky. Still, it was important to remain positive and just focus on finishing the race. I jumped in the car during the second stint when the track was still 50/50 after the crazy storm, but my pace was good and there was even a lot of speed in the car after I was hit by an LMP3 car. It’s good to still be in such a strong championship position going into the final race in Thailand. I hope for the best and to get back on the podium with a solid result.”
Algarve Pro Racing Team Principal, Stewart Cox, said: “We have to be satisfied with a podium in the Asian Le Mans Series 4 Hours of Sepang, because it was eventful and we carried a lot of damage after a mid-race collision. I have to say, Race Director Eduardo Freitas was very sensible at the start, waiting quite a while to make sure enough water had drained away.
“Nevertheless, James (French) drove cautiously to stay out of harm’s way when the track was at its wettest because we were certain we could regain the time later on, and that was evidenced by the fact Leonard (Hoogenboom) was the fastest driver on-track as soon as we put him on slicks.”
Cox continued: “Unfortunately, an LMP3 hit us as Leonard tried an overtake at Turn 9, sending him into a spin and causing extensive damage to the side of the car. We lost a rear brake duct, the exhaust and radiator were bent and the sidepod and engine cover were smashed, but the car just kept on going. Leonard and Roman (Rusinov) did a really good job to nurse the car home in that state, but the fact we were able to run so competitively is a real testament to how good the car is.”