17 April, 2018
Matt Bell’s 2018 race season got underway last weekend with a double-header of racing at the Paul Ricard Circuit in Le Castellet, France. Competing in the Michelin Le Mans Cup and the European Le Mans Series means that Bell will have a series of busy race weekends throughout the season but that’s just the way he likes it!
Saturday’s Michelin Le Mans Cup race was Bell’s 100thrace with the United Autosports team so he was keen to mark the occasion with a top result. The amateur driver of the Pro-Am pairing qualifies in this series and Matt’s teammate Jim McGuire qualified 19thin class.
When the race began, McGuire spent the opening laps making his way through the GT traffic before pitting from 13thplace in the middle of the two-hour race to hand the #22 AERO Ligier JS P3 to Bell.
“The lead group had really pulled away by that point,” explained Bell. “So my target was a Top 10 finish. We had a perfect pit stop and the car felt really good so I was hopeful. Unfortunately I exited the pits 10 seconds behind (ex Bentley works driver) Andy Meyrick. I managed to catch him after a few laps but then spent a frustrating 45 minutes on his tail!
“It was a fantastic battle,” Bell continued. “He had better straight line speed than me so could pull away on the straights but I had more grip so I could challenge through the turns. It was probably the most colossal scrap of my entire career as we were so evenly matched. We both made up a few positions but despite even trading a bit of paint I couldn’t get by so all credit to him for being a good defender! It was hard work but a lot of fun and it was good to see we had good race pace.”
Bell finished the race in 11th position.
Sunday’s challenge was the first round of the 2018 European Le Mans Series, in which Bell shares the #3 Ligier JS P3 with Tony Wells and Garett Grist. Bell was disappointed to qualify in sixth position as his pace in practice had suggested a higher position was possible.
“We were in the Top 3 throughout practice and the test sessions before that,” he explained. “For some reason in Qualifying I didn't have the grip I thought I would have on new tyres. I got one lap out of them which at that point was good enough for pole but then they seemed to flatline.”
Bell got away well at the start of the four-hour race and was soon battling with the frontrunners. He again suffered with his tyres though, losing out when everyone had new rubber but catching them again as everyone’s tyres went off. He pitted at the end of his stint whilst battling with the United Autosports sister LMP3 car of Sean Rayhall. They pitted line astern and Garrett Grist jumped in to take over from Bell.
Despite struggling for pace Grist held onto fourth during his run before Wells got in for the run to the flag. As the ‘bronze’ classified driver of the trio, Wells has to complete 1hr 45 minutes of the race. Unfortunately for him a safety car period took away the gap they had built up, which meant that the professional drivers that many of the other teams put in at the end of the race caught Wells so he dropped to seventh for the chequered flag.
“That was a bruising opening weekend!” said Bell. “It became very apparent that the level of competition in both series has gone up significantly. The areas where we lacked a bit of pace really hurt us whereas last year it wouldn’t have been too much of a problem. It’s a wake up call for us so we’ll delve into the analysis and come back stronger for Monza!"