Alex Cascatău had never driven a lap around Paul Ricard before last weekend. Alex Cascatău had never driven the Nova Proto NP02 on Michelin rubber before last weekend. Alex Cascatău had never driven for ANS Motorsport before last weekend. And yet he should’ve won the race.
Motorsport is filled with ‘wouldda-shouldda-couldda’ stories and you’d probably hate to read of yet another one but it’s hard to think otherwise when faced with the facts. For starters, it’s a fact that Alex had never turned a wheel around Paul Ricard, the track that, up until this year, has hosted the French Grand Prix. He got his first laps around the 5.82-kilometer course during the free practice sessions and that also the first time he got a feel for the Michelin rubber that’s mandated in the Ultimate Cup Series.
Mind you, Alex still had sobering flashbacks of the dull behaviour displayed by the Nova NP02 on the GT & Prototype Challenge-specific Hankook rubber. The Michelins quickly proved to be a change for the better as the car actually felt like it was doing something in the dry. Then there’s the team. ANS Motorsport has campaigned the otherwise new NP02 all throughout 2022 and they’ve got their fair share of positive results, cobbled together with some misfortune.
For the season finale, an ELMS-esque four-hour endurance race, Alex would team up with Pierre Courroye and Nicholas Schatz. Both Pierre and Nicholas had mileage behind the wheel of the car and Schatz has also driven in the ELMS, apart from his considerable experience in hillclimb racing. As such, Alex had to get up to speed quickly and it was the professionalism of the entire team that proved to be instrumental in this pursuit for speed all throughout the weekend.
The three practice sessions were held in rather different conditions, as the organizers had set up FP2 to be the night-time practice session in order to ensure that the drivers get some drive time under the (lack of) lights. It was then that Alex found out that: A) the lights of the NP02 were semi-useless, and B) that you could really push the car through the fast corners of the Le Castellet track (which featured the chicane in the middle of Mistral), even though the car ran in a de-tuned spec so as not to interfere too much with the LMP3 machinery that would share the grid.
While FP1 was all about learning how to drive the car on Michelins, FP2 saw Alex rise to the occasion and turn laps in the low 2:01's, over a second down on the quickest lap recorded in FP1. The cool temperatures certainly helped, but Alex would get quicker every time he got out on track, despite the fact that he’d run on used rubber in every free practice sessions (each driver got about 20-odd minutes of driving in each of the three sessions).
Qualifying was an ELMS/GT World Challenge-style affair with three qualy sessions, one for each driver to step in and make his mark. At the end of the three rapid-fire, 15-minute sessions you’d get your average and that’s what would decide your position on the grid.
The ANS Motorsport No. 74 car was thus third quickest overall which meant it started from the class pole. Its class, which was made for this type of car, comprised of five entries, including one chassis prepared by the factory team. Cascatău & Co. had the works boys beat as the Romanian set a PB of 1:59.36, which was followed by Courroye’s 1:58.56, and Schatz’s 1:57.09. All said and done, the average lap time of 1:58.34 was a mere 0.34 seconds off pole position which was grabbed by the Graff Racing-entered LMP3 car of Allen/D’Amato/Rossi (no, not that Rossi). The similar Nielsen Racing-campaigned P3 example was gridded 2nd and was driven by Lars Kern, Manthey Racing driver and former Nurburgring production car lap record holder.
Talking about qualifying, Alex was less than impressed with how it all unfolded. For starters, he had to go out on used rubber that Courroye had used in Q1. On top of that, a bunch of local yellow flags meant (including one for a spinning P3 right in front of Alex) and a red flags meant that Alex never could get his tires up to temperatures as you’d usually need half a dozen laps to get the Michelins in the right window due to the ambient temperature of about 17 degrees Celsius.
Regardless of what went wrong, everyone was rightly pleased with third overall and the class pole and it all looked good for race day. Sunday’s four-hour prototype race got underway with almost 20 cars taking the green flag (there was also a separate race for GT’s) and it was Pierre who was behind the wheel first. He immediately started battling with the LMP3 cars before his oil and water temperatures started to go up, prompting him to drive with a higher degree of caution.
The first pit stop was brought forward slightly due to Courroye’s concerns about the car reaching boiling point and that meant Alex had to get suited and booted after only about 50 minutes since the race had gotten underway. With the car stationary, the team noticed a water leak that took about 10 minutes to fix. The issues dropped the No. 74 Nova Proto a few laps down on the leaders, and Alex re-joined down in 14th.
Not to be outdone by his quick team-mates, the Romanian turned some very competitive lap times to climb up to ninth at the end of his one-hour stint. He also turned the third quickest lap time of his class despite running on used tyres at all times, with a 2:00.172 placing him only behind team-mate Schatz and Silver-rated driver Jordan Perroy. Within this series, the NP02 runs about 60 minutes on a full tank of fuel, while the driving stint is rigidly set at 65 minutes. During his first stint, Alex was oftentimes the quickest car out there, lapping comfortably around the 2:00-minute mark on used rubber.
Sadly, a clumsy moment in Turn 1 when encountering the No. 555 car that resulted in contact saw Alex get a stop-and-go penalty. This further delayed the crew but, regardless, the trio soldiered on with Schatz doing most of the third hour before Pierre got through a quick 20-minute stint. Alex then brought the car home fifth overall, and third in class respectively after some of the rivals encountered some terminal problems.
The team incurred a one-lap penalty for Schatz's driving time infringement and that meant that the No. 74 NP02 ended up behind the CN-winning No. 72 Norma entered by the same outfit. The race was won by the Graff Racing Ligier and only 13 cars saw the checkered flag after four hours.
Photo credit: Paul Iconicstudio
Alex Cascatău: „My first experience with ANS Motorsport was amazing. Away from the frustration of not winning on debut, which was entirely possible given our strong pace, the major takeaway is that the team is really professional, as were my very quick team-mates. Nicolas is a previous Road to Le Mans winner and ELMS podium finisher, so for me the opportunity to compare myself to such a driver was amazing. On top of that, the Ultimate Series Championship is a professional championship with a good-looking paddock. At the end of the day, I can only be grateful for the opportunity of taking part in this race and it's something that has inspired me to keep pushing to put together a full programme for 2023. I would like to thank Nicolas and the entire ANS team for their help and trust.”