With the French Government changing the Covid quarantine rules unexpectedly, it meant all the pre-planning was for nothing. Lauder’s Steve Kershaw, with only his team mechanic in tow, had to load a van with as much as he could and sprint overnight to Dover to get the tunnel to France and into the country, to beat the deadline and still be able to compete in round one.
Without the team truck, extra spares and personnel, it was always going to be a risk if they had problems – and so it turned out, reports Robin Wilson.
All week, the Le Mans weather remained warm, dry and sunny, with practice and qualifying going without a hitch. Kershaw and passenger Ryan Charlwood got on the pace, posting fourth fastest time to start on row two, alongside French hopefuls Peugeot/Peugeot and, just behind the front three crews, Swiss duo Schlosser/Fries and two Anglo-French pairings, Ellis/Clement and reigning champions Reeves/Rousseau.
Only a second covered the top five in qualifying, so a great battle was anticipated to Friday’s start to the season – and it certainly delivered.
From the start, Reeves used all his racecraft to lead a six-crew train across the line at the end of lap one of 18 and it was a continuous game of cat and mouse between all the top crews, trying to slipstream each other around the ultra-fast GP circuit. On lap three, Kershaw/Charlwood got back round the Peugeot brothers into fifth and on to the tail of fast-starting Finnish legend Paivarinta/De Haas.
But, with the bike running in the hot air created by the machines ahead, the engine started to overheat and Kershaw couldn’t benefit from the slipstream to progress forward and finished the race in the same place.
At the front, Reeves/Rousseau rode an inch-perfect race to keep the others behind to record his first victory of the year.
Schlosser/Fries’ impatience to get to the front led to a mistake which let Ellis/Clement through to second on lap 17 but fought back on the final lap to reclaim second. Only six seconds covered the top five at the end for one of the best races seen in many a season.
Overnight, team Kershaw worked on the outfit to get more cooling air to the engine and radiators, even trying a thinner grade engine oil to help. Race two on Saturday was held earlier in the morning but the expected cooler temperatures didn’t happen, so it was fingers crossed that the problem was cured.
Off the line, again Reeves/Rousseau led the same top three but Kershaw/Charlwood held station in fourth until lap two, when it became apparent the overheating was back and making the engine lose power. Kershaw rolled off the revs and nursed it round for 16 laps to record a frustrating but good point scoring seventh place.
Up front, Schlosser made no mistakes this time and, on lap four, blasted through to lead. His relentless pace split the field, with only Reeves able to hang on until his gear linkage snapped, leaving him stuck in fifth gear and dropping to fifth place at the end.
Schlosser/Fries took the win and now lead the series from Ellis/Clement, who took a lonely second ahead of Paivarinta/De Haas, who just pipped the Peugeot boys from a debut podium.
Team Kershaw now lie in equal sixth place in the series and have only just over a week at home to work on the overheating issues before having to set off to Hungary for round two. Again, they’re unable to take the truck but the series organisers have arranged pitlane garages and hotel accommodation for all teams travelling.
“We’re pleased with our pace over race distance,” said Kershaw. “We’ll make some modifications to the cooling system. Unfortunately, there’s no time for testing, so we can’t be too radical. Another two finishes are crucial – I think the championship will come down to reliability in the end, as all the top crews are so evenly matched.”