Sophia Floersch denied potential ELMS podium after series of unfortunate events
Despite being denied a certain top-five with 7 minutes to go due to a tyre puncture, Sophia Floersch’s pace proved once again she belongs to the ELMS podium – having fought back from a series of misfortune and ill-timed FCY from P15 on the grid at the 4 Hours of Imola.
Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari in Imola returned to host a round of the European le Mans Series for the first time since 2016, with the fourth edition 4-hour race in Emilia Romagna making its way back on the calendar. 42 cars battled on track in the three classes, in what was the last preparation race for many of the teams ahead of the "big one": the legendary 24 Hours of Le Mans. The 2022 ELMS season had started with a bang for Sophia Floersch, driver of the #19 LMP2 Algarve Pro Racing Oreca, who claimed a record-breaking second place and her second consecutive podium in the series at the season opener at Le Castellet, France. Floersch is partnering former F2 racer Bent Viscaal in a really strong all-Silver-rated line-up at the Portuguese outfit and has shown enough pace to be a consistent podium finisher in the championship. Floersch and Viscaal's lap times are particularly close; the German driver was marginally faster in FP2 and went out on track for her first qualifying of the season on Saturday. With the sister car of Peroni/Falb/Allen topping both practice sessions, Floersch/Viscaal had high hopes for a strong starting position - which would have been particularly important at Imola due to the tight nature of the Italian track, especially in traffic conditions. A small team mistake in the pits meant that Peroni and Floersch were sent out in traffic in the short 10-minute qualifying session, resulting in a disappointing 15th place for the young German racer, who had pace for a top-six. "In qualifying, we had the package but we didn't make the best out of it" - Floersch told us. "Many small issues led to a not-so-good quali. Here the level is really high, so everything needs to work perfectly – which it didn't." "Unfortunately just P15, it's not the best place to start into the race but we saw at Paul Ricard when we started tenth and finished second – it's a long race, a lot of things can happen in 4 hours: in free practice there were many reds and Full Course Yellows. We'll see, we'll try to have a clean race, try to make good strategy calls and the goal is to finish in the top-five for sure", she summed up. LMP2 pole position went to the AF Corse Oreca of Alessio Rovera, who preceded the TDS Racing x Vaillante prototype of Mathias Beche. The latter, though, was forced to start from the pitlane on Sunday, leaving an empty spot on the front row that allowed Lorenzo Colombo to take the early lead in the Prema Racing's Oreca at the green flag.
In the #19 APR Oreca, Bent Viscaal took the start of the 4-hour race and had a really impressive first stint. The Dutchman was already up to eleventh at the end of the first lap – and had made further progress to P9 when the first Safety Car of the race was deployed only 10 minutes into the race. The #6 360 Racing LMP3 Ligier of Terrence Woolward had in fact made contact with the tyre barriers at Tosa, ending its race prematurely. Prema's Colombo retained the lead at the restart, as the second and third placed COOL Racing and Panis Racing of Kruetten and Canal made contact that sent the #37 across the gravel at Tamburello, losing third to Duncan Tappy (#22 United Autosport). Viscaal resumed his charge and made his way past the sister APR car of Falb and Memo Rojas after an exciting battle. He would move into fourth place withing the first 30 minutes, overtaking the #65 Panis Racing of Julien Canal - who went around at Variante Alta - and the polesitting car of Perrodo. A second neutralization proved particularly costly for the #19 crew, who had just refuelled before the FCY caused by the accident between Michael Fassbender and Pierre Ehret at Tosa. When the other LMP2 pitted under caution, Viscaal found himself down to tenth and had to rebuild his race once again. The FCY, though, was great timing for the race leader Colombo, who had to serve a drive through for changing lane before the start – which he served during the first round of pit stops - and made the most of the neutralization to refuel, incredibly retaining the lead. A further mistake, though, cost him a second penalty when he crossed the white line at the exit of pit lane; the #37 COOL Racing and #65 Panis Racing both leapfrogged the Prema Oreca. Viscaal charged back to sixth and had more stunning battles on his way to the mid-way pit stop with driver change that saw Sophia Floersch taking over the #19 Algarve Pro Racing's Oreca. Floersch had just as strong a second half of the race and managed to climb to fifth and was quickly catching up with the #28 IDEC Sport driven by Patrick Pilet. Floersch pitted on lap 86 and rejoined fourth after the round of pit stops. When the Prema Racing of Deletraz pitted - now a bit off-sequence – Floersch was up to third place, on her way to yet another podium finish. With one hour left on the clock, a Full Course Yellow was deployed for the beached BHK Motorsport LMP2 entry of Sergio Campana at Villeneuve chicane. Algarve Pro Racing saw the opportunity to pit Floersch again for fuel after only 9 laps – attempting a similar strategy to the season opener at Paul Ricard. This time, though, the strategy did not pay off and Sophia dropped to eighth. The race resumed with 51 minutes to go, with all the front-running LMP2 teams still having to complete one stop for fuel. The young German stopped for the final splash-and-dash from third place under caution – following the contact between the #21 Mühlner Motorsport of Thomas Laurent and the #30 Duqueine of Richard Bradley - which put her back into fifth position for the final minutes of the race. The FCY was again perfect timing for Prema Racing and the #22 United Autosport, which climbed to first and second place. At the restart, the Panis and COOL racing prototypes driven by Van Uitert and Ye Yifei battled hard for third - allowing Floersch to close in on the fight for the podium. When she was looking strong for a certain top-five – if not higher – it was heartbreak for Algarve Pro: a carbon debris hit the front left of the #19 Oreca, causing a tyre puncture with seven minutes left on the clock. Floersch pitted for a quick tyre change, dropping to eighth. In a final lap restart, Prema Racing conquered its second win in two races with Ferdinand Habsburg taking the #9 across the chequered flag ahead of the #22 United Autosport of Hanson/Gamble/Tappy. Ye Yefei held off the attacks of Van Uitert and claimed third for COOL Racing. Sophia Floersch was P8, after another really impressive race ultimately marked by a series of unfortunate events.
“That’s racing sometimes" – Floersch told us at the end of the race. "We started P15, Bent did a great job in the first stint and came actually P4. Then the Full Course Yellow came out and we were P11 again – which was super annoying at first."
"Strategy, bad luck – it just didn't fall into place today. Still, in the end we were fighting for P4 or P5 – but we ended up having a big piece of carbon debris in the front left tyre so I got a puncture, which made us finish P8."
“It’s disappointing, we know we have the car for a podium – but it was all bad luck." – she continued. "I hope all the bad luck is done now.”
Still, positives can be taken from the second ELMS round in Imola: despite being out of place in qualifying, Floersch and Viscaal have the race pace to score podiums with consistency.
“We know that we’re quick, and if everything goes normal – not even perfect – we end up on the podium", Sophia said. "So that’s the positive thing, we have the pace and that’s good.”
The 21-year-old from Munich will now switch her focus on the most important race of the year: the 24 Hours of Le Mans, on 11-12 June.