The all-new Prototype Winter Series raced for the first time at Estoril in Portugal this weekend. And the first of four rounds across Iberia this winter provided two contrasting races at the legendary former Portuguese Grand Prix venue.
Saturday’s first-ever race in the open category for LMP3 and similar cars may have been a short and soggy affair, but it was not without its share of drama. On Sunday, however, the second of the two scheduled enduros did go all the way. And it culminated in a three-abreast moment as the leaders raced down the pitstraight with minutes to go.
On Saturday, the prototypes were the unluckiest of the three categories in action at Estoril. The afternoon produced a brief spell of British-style heavy rain – and it hit just as the PWS race was getting going.
Also out of luck were Kevin Rabin and the ANS Motorsport team. Rabin, aged just 16, was at the wheel of the lone Nova NP02 car taking on the LMP3 machinery in Portugal. And he was leading the race when the red flag flew after just two completed laps.
But the reason for the stoppage was an accident between the two leading drivers. Danny Soufi (Konrad Motorsport Ligier) was running a close second behind Sandro Holzem (Rinaldi Racing Ligier) when he hit a huge pool of water as he braked for Turn 1. The American couldn’t catch the resulting spin, never mind find a way to slow down. He pirouetted into the back of Holzem, who had led the early going from pole position.
With both cars damaged and stuck in the gravel trap, Rabin inherited the lead for a few sweet moments. But given the cleanup job and the conditions, a red flag was inevitable. And the results, of course, are declared at the end of the previous lap, meaning Holzem was the winner despite being beached.
Soufi was demoted for causing the red flag, meaning Rabin could at least celebrate second place. And if anyone could count themselves lucky, it was Holzem. It’s not often you still get the win when you’ve been punted off the road – and half points for two laps’ work is also a rare treat in motorsport.
Soufi could take revenge on Sunday, as the second enduro race lasted the full 50 minutes. So it was the first opportunity to see how the handicap system, where mandatory pitstop times vary based on the rider’s qualities, would work.
It was still raining and its intensity varied throughout the race, but the conditions never came close to the previous day’s level. What also made Soufi’s task easier was the absence of Rinaldi Racing’s car. The Ligier could not get away for the warm-up lap and was pushed off pole position after its rear axle broke on its way to the grid. This was due to damage from the previous day’s accident.
Soufi put in a consistent race en route to victory. Daniel Keilwitz (in Rinaldi’s other Ligier) and Laurents Horr (DKR Engineering Duqueine) stayed within shooting distance until the pitstops, with five seconds between the trio when the pit window opened. The system meant Soufi had to stay in the pits longer as a solo ‘silver’ driver – not to mention a battery problem that cost him a few extra seconds. But his ‘gold’ rivals handed over the wheel to slower ‘bronze’ team-mates and that made all the difference.
Soufi made up for the 29-second deficit he had accumulated after the stops by passing Tom van Rompuy (DKR) and Steve Parrow (Rinaldi) in one go as the trio raced down the straight with about seven minutes left on the clock. Van Rompuy might still have had a claim to victory had he not lost a few seconds with a spin in Turn 4, shortly after taking over the car. And unfortunately for the Belgian, he will not get the chance to try to make up for the mistake next weekend in Portimao. Van Rompuy had been called up at Estoril last-minute as a replacement for Jon Brownson, who suffered an injury during testing earlier this week.
Fourth behind the cars of Konrad, DKR and Rinaldi was Rabin, who was impressively steady in the changeable weather but lacked the pace to match the leading trio over a full race distance.