RLR MSport snatched victory in the opening round of the 2021 Michelin Le Mans Cup at Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya (16-17 April).
Dogged performances by Mike Benham and LMP3 debutant Tommy Foster were combined with a masterful strategy to secure top honours in the dramatic, topsy turvy curtain-raiser, held in support of the European Le Mans Series (ELMS).
Le Mans Cup free practice consisted of a successful race simulation programme and low-fuel qualifying runs, and, while Benham’s one-lap pace inspired confidence, he ultimately broke into the 1m42s to secure 11th in Saturday’s frenetic qualifying.
Lightning fast from the sixth row of the grid, Benham dispatched a handful of cars on the drag to Turn 1, where he capitalised on a spinning rival to make further progress up to fourth overall.
The British Bronze’s pace was comparable to all those around him, and he recorded personal best lap times to stay with the third-placed #69 Cool Racing car and keep more experienced Silver-graded drivers at arm’s length.
However, the first hour was punctuated by two Safety Cars, and although the first stoppage left Benham open to an attack from the hard-charging #12 Black Falcon entry, the second provided LMP3 teams with an opportunity to switch drivers with a minimal time-loss.
The neutralisations resulted in a broad mix of strategies and while Foster emerged from the pit stops in 13th, he quickly cycled back up to fifth before a third Safety Car, which bunched up the pack yet again and placed him in the thick of a tense four-way fight for second.
The Newquay, Cornwall-domiciled racer showed guile and broke into the podium places just before the race took a dramatic turn when, contrary to the leading Team Virage, RLR MSport reacted quickly to a late Full Course Yellow, summoning the #15 Ligier JSP320 into the pits for a compulsory timed fuel stop.
It was an inspired, masterful call that enabled Foster to sweep into the lead two laps from the chequered flag and snatch the Barcelona Round victory, and the LMP3 rookie was understandably overjoyed, saying: “The race must have been great to watch because I had a lot of fun inside the car! I came out of the pits during a Safety Car and initially struggled to generate tyre temperature, but I stood my ground and still reeled in those ahead of me, picking them off one-by-one. There was a fair bit of tyre management and I timed my moves with that in mind, but some very close strategy calls by RLR MSport ultimately put us in a position to win.
“Starting 11th wasn’t ideal but the entire team was jumping for joy when Mike (Benham) got up to fourth after Turn 1, as he put us in the running for a great result, holding on throughout his stint against some very quick Silver-graded drivers. I’m absolutely delighted with the way this week has panned out, because I came into the Michelin Le Mans Cup wanting to make a statement and hopefully secure my future in motorsport, which remains uncertain. We had a few ups and downs in free practice but pulled it all together when it mattered, and I really hope I find the support I need to continue with RLR MSport in the Le Mans Cup, and build on this victory.”
Benham said: “You dream of starting a season in this way and I’m absolutely delighted with the result. Tommy (Foster) showed incredible maturity, his speed was exceptional, and his racecraft was brilliant against drivers with tonnes of experience who are at the top of their game. Upon reflection, my start was probably the best I’ve ever done, but I was highly motivated to make amends for my pretty underwhelming qualifying performance. I certainly wasn’t expecting to go from 11th to fourth by the first corner, but that’s where we should have been in qualifying and it put us in a position to produce a reasonable result. Ultimately, RLR MSport’s strategists did a monster job to help us win the race, and I hope we can carry some momentum forward into the European Le Mans Series 4 Hours of Barcelona and beyond.”
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