RLR MSport returned to the top step of the Ligier European Series podium with championship leader Haytham Qarajouli at Autodromo Nazionale Monza, where ‘Racing Reverend’ Simon Butler had “a baptism of fire” on his LMP3 debut in the Michelin Le Mans Cup (1-2 July).
In a perfect start to the Monza weekend, Qarajouli and teammate Horst Felix Felbermayr formed an RLR MSport one-two in the Ligier European Series free practice times, the former leading the way in FP1 and the latter in FP2.
The pair were just as dominant in qualifying, as Kuwait’s Qarajouli topped the Q1 times to secure pole position for race one and then became the only JS2 R driver to ever breach the 1m59s barrier at Monza when he pipped teammate Felbermayr to the race two pole.
Qarajouli duly led the field away in the first heat, thwarting an attempt by David Caussanel to snatch the initiative at Variante del Rettifilo before drawing out a three-second advantage, with the last of the Ligier JSP4 prototypes providing a useful buffer between him and the nearest JS2 Rs.
Frustratingly, Qarajouli’s escape was stymied by an early Safety Car and, while the Kuwait driver recorded purple sector times after the restart, he couldn’t quite shake the attentions of the hard-charging Cedric Oltramare and Caussanel.
The trio traded places in a hugely entertaining three-way fight until RLR MSport correctly pre-empted a second Safety Car by boxing both Qarajouli and Felbermayr, who had surged from ninth to fourth during the first ten laps.
However, those who stayed out a little longer were able to continue apace on their in-lap to the pits and emerge ahead of the Safety Car train, gaining a lap on both RLR MSport contenders.
Trapped behind a frontrunning JSP4, championship leader Qarajouli and Felbermayr were prevented from unlapping themselves.
Their pace was such that they gained approximately one minute on the eventual third-place finisher at the resumption of racing, but they were ultimately locked in to disappointing fourth and fifth-place finishes respectively.
Keen to right the wrongs of the first heat, Qarajouli and Felbermayr stood firm in P1 and P2 when the lights went out at the start of race two.
Another early Safety Car intervention was handled perfectly, both drivers checking out and breaking free of third-placed Oltramare, with Felbermayr keeping teammate Qarajouli honest for the duration of extended first stints that took them to lap 14 and the end of the pit window.
In fact, the RLR MSport pairing’s dominance in the opening stages ensured they kept the initiative after the stops, Qarajouli pushing on to a fourth victory of the 2022 season but the unfortunate Felbermayr rolling to a halt two laps from the chequered flag.
“The way race one panned out was completely out of my hands and, while it’s disappointing to be denied a chance to fight for a podium or even victory to the finish, I’m super happy to have achieved a win, show what the car can do and demonstrate my abilities on hallowed ground at Monza in race two,” said Qarajouli. “I’m particularly proud to have set a new Ligier JS2 R lap record at Monza. I hope it stands for some time.
“We experienced extremely hot weather conditions all weekend, but the car was great and RLR MSport was also fantastic throughout. The victory keeps me at the head of the championship so my title hopes are well and truly alive. I’m now looking forward to taking some time out during the summer break, although I’m already extremely excited for the next round at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps.”
Felbermayr said: “I’ve been really unlucky. It looked like Monza would be a turning point for me because everything went brilliantly in free practice and that translated to a strong qualifying performance. I still don’t understand what happened in race one, but the second race was great as I pushed hard to stay with Haytham (Qarajouli) and I was on for a best second-place finish until a fuel pressure issue brought me to a stop with two laps to go. Nevertheless, I’m not feeling too downhearted because these things happen and I definitely took a step forward this weekend.”
It was all-change within RLR MSport’s Le Mans Cup driver line-up, as European Le Mans Series (ELMS) regular Valentino Catalano doubled up his driving duties by joining ‘Racing Reverend’ Butler on his LMP3 debut at the ‘Temple of Speed’.
Following a productive Thursday test, Catalano and Butler immersed themselves in race preparation in Friday practice, the former setting a time in the 1m45s to place RLR MSport within reach of the top ten in FP1, before Butler clocked up plenty of meaningful, educational miles in the red flag-affected Bronze Collective Test and FP2.
Having registered a best time in the 1m54s during Thursday’s morning test, Butler found chunks of pace and confidence in the #53 Ligier JSP320 to drop into the low 1m49s in free practice and then again in the quickfire qualifying session.
In a chaotic 1h50m race, Catalano surged all the way from 29th to fifth overall at a rate of knots, even though his seat time was punctuated by consecutive Safety Cars and Full Course Yellows, before Butler was released into his first ever LMP3 race stint.
The Church of England vicar from Hampshire lapped consistently, ran his own race and was 16th when the #53 machine pirouetted into the gravel at Variante Ascari five minutes from the finish, denying him the opportunity to see the chequered flag on his first Le Mans Cup appearance.
“My Michelin Le Mans Cup debut was extraordinarily good fun, but I think I underestimated how competitive the grid is, because the level of competition is very high,” said Butler. “I arrived at Monza having completed very little testing so it was a baptism of fire, but I found time in every session and got down to my target lap times in the low 1m49s. I’m really pleased with my performance, and RLR MSport was really supportive.
“Had I not thrown the car into the gravel with five minutes to go we would have finished 16th, which would have been a good outcome on debut. The priority was always to learn how to drive the car quickly and get used to the format of the weekend and I hit my own and the team’s performance targets. I learnt a lot about the car and how the tyres behave over the course of a race stint and I’m really looking forward to the next round at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps, as I know the track well and that experience will definitely help me progress further.”
Catalano said: “It was a lot of fun to go through the whole Michelin Le Mans Cup field, from 29th on the starting grid to fifth in LMP3 in just 50 minutes. I benefited from a few incidents but made countless overtakes to move up the order, but it was a shame to be effected by so many Safety Cars and Full Course Yellows. I learnt a lot from the experience.”