Algarve Pro Racing secured a critical race win in the Asian Le Mans Series 4 Hours of Fuji (7-9 December) to bring itself back into the fight for outright title honours at the midway point of the 2018-19 season.
Harrison Newey and Andrea Pizzitola possessed blistering speed, but had to stave off stiff opposition in changeable conditions to take the spoils at Fuji International Speedway, while Mark Patterson, Chris McMurry and Anders Fjordbach completed a tumultuous race in third in the Amateur Trophy classification.
The first Asian Le Mans free practice session at Fuji consisted of high-fuel stints on worn tyres, but Algarve Pro Racing still ended the 90 minutes with the third and fourth fastest times;
Reigning Asian Le Mans Series Champion Newey and 2018 European Le Mans Series title-winner Pizzitola ended FP1 inside the top three, having clocked a 1m34.107s during 38 tours of the Japanese circuit;
The #24 pairing just shaded Mark Patterson, Chris McMurry and Anders Fjordbach , who were fourth and crucially ahead of ARC Bratislava’s and United Autosports’ Amateur Trophy challengers;
Third in FP2 but with a reduced three tenths deficit to the pacesetters, Newey and Pizzitola once again headed Algarve Pro’s charge;
However, the Albufeira, Portugal-based team concluded qualifying for the Asian Le Mans Series 4 Hours of Fuji in second and fifth overall;
A 1m32.020s from France’s Pizzitola secured a front-row starting position for the #24 crew, while Fjordbach in the #25 ended up as the second quickest of the Amateur Trophy contenders in P5;
On raceday, ambient and track temperatures fell further and Asian Le Mans Series Race Director, Eduardo Freitas, gave drivers two formation laps to acclimatise to the prevailing conditions;
From second on the grid, Newey snatched the initiative from United Autosports’ Phil Hanson under braking for Turn 1, where a collision between Patterson in the sister #25 car and the #4 ARC Bratislava entry – one of Algarve Pro’s rivals for the Asian Le Mans Amateur Trophy – ensued;
Patterson, who tumbled to 12th on the opening lap, was served with a drive-through penalty for his part in the incident, but the South Africa-born American put on a strong recovery to breach the top ten before the first round of scheduled pit stops, when Chris McMurry took the reins of the #25 Ligier;
Newey set quick sector times to extend his lead over second-placed Hanson to 5.3s during the first 30 minutes, despite having to lap the Asian Le Mans Series’ GT contingent;
However, the pace slowed dramatically as rain began to fall at Fuji International Speedway;
Newey nursed the #24 Ligier back to the pits for fuel and wet tyres, following a tentative in-lap that featured a spin at Turn 1 and a wayward moment at Turn 10;
Newey remained aboard the #24, but his call to pit one lap later than his nearest rivals cost Algarve Pro Racing time and meant he re-entered the race alongside United Autosports’ Hanson, who snatched the initiative at Turn 1;
Algarve Pro Racing’s deficit to the race leader grew to 16 seconds during the second hour, when #25 was handed two additional drive-through penalties for crossing the white line at pit entry and passing under yellow flags;
However, BRDC Superstar Newey made significant gains on race leader Hanson as the rain abated, more than halving the gap as the 4 Hours of Fuji reached mid-distance, when French racer Pizzitola took control of the #24 Ligier;
Pizzitola was soon a full second faster than Hanson, but an inspired and timely decision to switch to slick tyres enabled Algarve Pro Racing to overturn United Autosports’ advantage and assume a healthy 20-second lead;
Shortly after, McMurry was ejected from #25 following a solid double stint, Algarve Pro Racing fitting slicks for Fjordbach’s push to the chequered flag;
French racer Pizzitola maintained a 20-second lead entering the fourth and final hour and only briefly relinquished the initiative as the final round of fuel and tyres stops played out;
Algarve Pro Racing returned to the head of the field when United Autosports carried out the last of its scheduled pit stops, but a late Safety Car negated the Portuguese team’s advantage and the race would be decided during a tense 28-minute sprint to the finish;
Denmark’s Fjordbach ran at the leaders’ pace to drag the #25 car back up to ninth place overall and third in the Amateur Trophy classification, despite serving a fourth drive-through for speeding in the pit lane;
At the resumption of racing, Pizzitola kept a cool head, retaining first position and edging out a comfortable 16-second lead over ex-Formula 1 driver Paul di Resta to secure 25 invaluable points for the 4 Hours of Fuji victory.
Harrison Newey (#24 Algarve Pro Racing Ligier JSP2): “My stint was up and down, because the pace was unbelievable on the slicks and I pulled out a big gap, but I made a late call to box for wet tyres and lost the lead. I regained a lot of the lost ground during the second half of my stint before handing over to Andrea (Pizzitola), who not only did a super job to keep an ex-Formula 1 driver behind, but pull 16 seconds on him. I’m really looking forward to the second half of the Asian Le Mans season. Buriram is a track I know from last year, when I raced well to second position. I hope to come back and win the race, especially as Ate (Dirk de Jong) will be re-joining us. We’re looking forward to having him back.”
Andrea Pizzitola (#24 Algarve Pro Racing Ligier JSP2): “I feel really good. The car was great in dry conditions so for me it was purely about not making any mistakes on a day when it was all too easy to lose a lot of time by running deep on the brakes or spinning. I pushed really hard and it worked, so I’m delighted.”
The 2018-19 Asian Le Mans Series resumes in the New Year at Thailand’s ultra-modern Chang International Circuit (10-12 January).