LMP2 wasn’t the only European Le Mans Series class that had a surprising championship outcome at last weekend’s Four Hours of Estoril, with Beechdean AMR able to beat JMW Motorsport to title in the GTE class.
The championship win came as a surprise to many, as JMW had a considerable points lead before the final round.
“I’m not 100 percent sure it’s sunk in yet,” admitted Beechdean AMR team owner Andrew Howard to Sportscar365. “We turned up at the weekend as relative underdogs for even finishing second in the championship.
“The pace of the other cars in the championship has been very, very good. Certainly, for me, it’s been hard to get onto the pace of the other Ams, and there are some very quick Ams.
“We had all the calculations and spreadsheets to tell us what we had to do depending on what the others did. We assumed that JMW would disappear into the distance like they have in most races.”
While the No. 99 Aston Martin Vantage GTE of Howard, Darren Turner, and Alex MacDowall was second in the standings before the Portuguese round, they weren’t expecting to be fighting for the top spot.
“Our focus was just not to be silly,” Howard said. “It was one of those weekends when you go to your last race thinking, ‘Well I hope we can get something out of this.’ Second in the championship was the key to getting the Le Mans entry.
“It didn’t even occur to us that we would even go for the championship. There are only eight cars in the field, and if you finish eighth, you get four points and if you finish seventh, you get six points.
“We were 20 points behind them and you can only get 25 for a win. One of the other cars was on pole so they got the point. All JMW had to do was finish seventh.”
Nevertheless, the No. 99 Aston Martin V8 Vantage GTE ended the season with a class win and the championship. It was the second race victory of the season for the field’s only Aston Martin, which also took a home win at Silverstone in April.
This came after a last-minute driver change for the team, which was originally entered with Jonny Adam as the Pro driver.
“We did Estoril at the end of ’15, and obviously I had raced with Jonny for five years [in British GT] and I was hoping to move across to GTE with him,” Howard continued.
“He had commitments with British GT and unfortunately there were two clashes. He had a really strong program this year, and it was just a date clash. It just worked out that it was really lucky that Aston has got a good stable of drivers and we got a fantastic replacement in Darren.
“I think the Pro in the car is probably the most critical person when it comes to Am driving, and Jonny has been absolutely brilliant with me, and Darren has been very similar in terms of what he does.
“He’s obviously got more experience, and he’s certainly the most experienced Pro I’ve ever driven with, and he’s got more experience in the GTE. It was absolutely ideal for me. I couldn’t have asked for a better Pro in the car.”
Impressively, this ELMS championship win marks Beechdean’a fifth title in four years, after winning the British GT GT3 honors in 2013 and 2014, and the GT4 top spot in 2014 and 2015.
The team’s ELMS success this season secures it a spot on the grid for the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2017, which will be its second entry in succession after a maiden outing in the endurance classic this year.
“We were very lucky to get an entrance to Le Mans this year,” Howard said. “It was very much on an invitational basis, and we were absolutely thrilled to get one.
“As with any championship or any opportunity, you shouldn’t just turn up and assume everything’s going to go right first time.
“Our job at Le Mans this year was just to go through the experience. Quite a few people told me that your first Le Mans is just a blur, and you don’t really remember it because everything’s going on and so much is happening.
“For me, it was literally getting hours and hours of driving time around the circuit and understanding the process.
“It is just the most incredible experience and if you want to do reasonably well at it, you’ve got to get used to the whole thing. That isn’t just the race; that starts a week before.”