It was another week of mixed emotions for Cornish racer Tommy Foster who saw second place snatched away at round five of the 2023 Michelin Le Mans Cup series, writes Tom Howe.
The Newquay native watched from the paddock as teammate Terrance Woodward went 16th fastest in the #26 360 Racing Ligier during Saturday morning’s qualifying session at the iconic Spa-Francorchamps circuit.
That evening’s race was one of heavy disruption, with just 32 laps completed in an hour and 50 minutes of racing. Woodward managed to keep going while others faltered, leading to an inspired pitstop and driver change that saw Foster return at the front of the track.
A battle with Wayne Boyd’s #23 United Autosports Ligier ensued, with the Northern Irishman ultimately taking the spoils, while Woodward’s alleged overtake under safety car conditions resulted in a 30 second penalty that dropped the second place car down to 15th.
“We were on the back foot from the start having to race from 16th place,” Foster told Cornwall Sports Media. “Terrence did a good job to avoid the crash at the first corner but we dropped to 20th as he had to go through the gravel. Most of his stint was neutralised by the safety car so when he handed over to me we were around 19th.
“My engineer made a great call to get us into the pits before anyone else in order to get track position. Once I caught the safety car queue up, it was nice to see that I was the leading LMP3 class with only a couple from the GT class that runs alongside us ahead of me.
“The battle with Wayne was good. I felt that if we had stayed under green flag conditions, I could have kept him behind me but I really struggled to keep tyre temperatures during the multiple safety car periods. He had an advantage on me for the restart and took it, although I didn’t make it easy for him.
“It hurt to then get a post-race penalty that dropped us out of the points. It was all very messy but we do still have one more race to come next month in Portugal – at my favourite track – so I’ll be throwing everything at it to end the season on a high.”
The race Foster refers to, a trip to Portimao and the Algarve International Circuit, could have been such a different proposition for the 360 Racing team if penalties hadn’t meant they ended the last two races without any points.
However, rather than dwell on the negatives, a decidedly upbeat Foster preferred to focus on the pace and ability to compete at the front that he continues to show. Statistics back him up, with the 21-year-old’s telemetry second only to the race winning Boyd.
“We just can’t seem to catch a break,” he explained. “If we had the points from where we have finished on track in each race this year, we would be second in the championship, only a few points off the lead going into the last round.
“It’s very frustrating to know but also very satisfying and gives me a lot of self confidence in my speed. I’ll be going into this last race with only one goal and that is to win. If it’s anything like the rest of this year it won’t be easy but it will be possible.”
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The penultimate round of the six race season took 39 competitors from the sweltering heat of MotorLand Aragon, deep into the heart of the Ardennes forest and the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps.
Drama began before the first lap of the 7.004 km track had even began, with the #23 of United Autosports leaking water across the tarmac from its qualified position of 21st and forcing a start from the pitlane.
The team’s sister car didn’t fare much better, with the #22 Ligier ending its involvement off track at the first corner, alongside a separate incident that left both Team Virage cars facing the wrong direction.
A 20-minute safety car deployment followed as marshalls cleared debris that had been strewn in and around La Source. Woodward managed to avoid the worst of the carnage but avoiding action meant a drop to 20th position.
Only four minutes had passed before the safety car was called upon again though. It reappeared after the #68 M Racing car caught the back of the #4 Duqueine, winners last time out in Aragon. Neither car was able to continue following the heavy impact.
At this point the pit call came, with Woodward pulling in just two seconds over the 45 minute minimum a driver is permitted to be behind the wheel. His entry, during which he appeared to slow in order to pass the allotted time, was immediately investigated by stewards.
That piece of ingenuity proved a masterstroke however, with Foster taking full advantage and returning to the track fourth on the road and second in the LMP3 class behind the #9 of Racing Spirit of Léman.
As they and the rest of the grid scrambled into pitlane for their own compulsory stops, Foster looked confident in the overall lead but his progress was hampered inside three minutes by a coming together of the #6 of ANS Motorsport and #11 of CD Sport.
Struggling to get heat into his tyres, Foster came under immense pressure from the #23 of United Autosports which had made immense progress after its pre-race tribulations.
Foster put up a brave defence but Northern Ireland’s Wayne Boyd had the edge, following a fascinating battle up the Kemmel Straight and into Les Combes, in scenes almost reminiscent of the famous Hakkinen / Schumacher battle in the Belgian Formula One Grand Prix of 2000.
News of the #26’s drive through penalty filtered through prior to a fourth outing for the safety car, stemming from an off for the #7 of Nielsen Racing on the exit of Les Combes.
That, coupled with a full course yellow due to the retirement of the #83 AF Corse Ferrari, meant just 31 and a half minutes of the 110-minute endurance was run in green flag conditions.
The penalty, not physically taken during the race, was added to the #26’s finishing time meaning a second place soon became 15th, once all the scrutineering and various punishments had been handed out, leaving the Foster and Woodward partnership eighth in the standings and left thinking what might have been.
Featured Image: 2023 Michelin Le Mans Cup / FocusPackMedia – Harry Parvin