Cumbrian racing driver Alex MacDowall produced a true champion’s performance during the sixth and final round of the European Le Mans Series at Estoril in Portugal on Sunday, 23rd October, to help Beechdean Motorsport earn a dramatic race victory and, with it, the prestigious LMGTE title.
Going into the final weekend of the season a full 20 points behind the JMW Motorsport Ferrari entry, the 25-year-old from Carlisle and Aston Martin Racing team-mates Darren Turner and Andrew Howard overturned the huge deficit to seal an unexpected championship triumph by five points.
Even though qualifying didn’t go to plan for the Beechdean squad, a sensational opening stint from MacDowall elevated the No.99 Aston Martin V8 Vantage GTE into the class lead, from eighth on the LMGTE grid, inside just 10 laps.
During four hours of unpredictable drama for the AMR trio’s rivals, the Aston Martin ran faultlessly and MacDowall took the chequered flag at the end of his second stint a lap clear to seal the team’s second victory of 2016. As well as the drivers’ championship, the result also secured the team title.
“Our aim in Estoril was to finish the year second, not to win!”, said the elated Briton, “We started the year with a win and finished with a win, and the championship. There have been ups and downs along the way this season, and I’ve had so much bad luck in my career, so it’s nice things have gone our way this weekend. We made our own luck though, we had to deliver and the whole team did.”
From eighth on the LMGTE grid, MacDowall produced a simply outstanding performance to carve his way into the class lead inside just 15 minutes of intense action – laying the foundations for the eventual title glory.
Officials declared the contest a wet race at the beginning, with damp patches offline due to earlier rain, but the track was certainly dry enough where it mattered for slick Dunlop tyres on the No.99 Aston Martin and the Briton stormed away when the action began.
Climbing into seventh in LMGTE on the opening lap, he moved up into the class top five on the subsequent tour and, by the start of lap four, he was fourth in LMGTE and, very importantly, ahead of the class points leading JMW Ferrari F458 Italia.
Breaking into the podium placings the next time around, the Cumbrian then seized second place in LMGTE on lap five and rapidly closed on the leading AF Corse Ferrari. Swarming all over the car into lap seven, MacDowall continued to apply significant pressure as he served up impressive pace.
Then on lap 10, as the two LMGTE front-runners where lapped by the overall race leading LMP2 prototype cars, the Ferrari was tagged by the Gibson-Nissan of Giedo van der Garde which enabled MacDowall to grab the LMGTE lead with only a quarter of an hour elapsed.
Initially putting some space between himself and Rory Butcher in the pursuing JMW car, the Aston Martin driver soaked up significant pressure but on lap 21 he chose to let the Ferrari go. Running in second place as the first of the mandatory pit stops approached towards the end of the opening hour, the JMW car pitted first so MacDowall re-took the class lead before pitting a lap later.
Handing the car over to Howard, the first of several dramatic twists then took place further down the pitlane for the JMW entry. As a result of a mechanical issue, the Ferrari lost a huge amount of time and more woes struck shortly after with a return to the pits. Ultimately, contact from an LMP2 car at the halfway point ruled Beechdean’s chief rivals out of contention.
Howard, meanwhile, moved back up into the class lead and he completed his stint successfully just prior to a Safety Car period caused by the aforementioned tangle. Turner then put together a terrific third hour to remain in the LMGTE lead before MacDowall returned to the driving seat with around 55 minutes to go.
Needing the race victory to snatch the championship crown, the Briton increased his lead from 25 seconds at the start of his second stint to well over 45 seconds with just a few laps to run. Light rain threatened during the closing stages but didn’t pose any problems, with MacDowall going on to take the chequered flag a lap clear in LMGTE.
“At the start I got into first place quite quickly, avoided the chaos, but Rory was pretty fast so I let him go”, explained MacDowall, “Andrew did a good job in the second stint, Darren was quick as always, and we had a healthy gap to second during the last hour. It’s fantastic to win the title!”
Final 2016 European Le Mans Series LMGTE Driver Standings:
CHAMPIONS: Alex MacDowall/Darren Turner/Andrew Howard, 98pts
Final 2016 European Le Mans Series LMGTE Team Standings:
CHAMPIONS: Aston Martin Racing Beechdean Motorsport, 98pts
Source. Marc Orme/Photo. Peter May/PM Images