The Blancpain GT Series returned to Zandvoort last weekend after an absence of almost four years, with a capacity 28-car field tackling the undulating 4.3km layout amid the dunes of the North Sea coastline.
It proved to be a popular return among the competitors, with several describing the old-school Dutch venue as one of the most enjoyable on the calendar to drive. With its variety of challenging corners, plenty of elevation changes and no discussion over track limits, Zandvoort was a definite hit.
Representing the third doubleheader round of the Blancpain GT World Challenge Europe campaign, the event took the sprint-format championship's past its halfway point and followed the same pattern set at Brands Hatch and Misano, with two new crews adding their names to the list of 2019 race winners.
Here are some of the key stats and stories from the weekend.
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After six races of the Blancpain GT World Challenge Europe season there have been six different crews on the top step of the podium. If we add in the Endurance Cup and look at the overall Blancpain GT Series there have been nine winners from as many races, with AKKA ASP the only team to win twice. In terms of brands, only Mercedes-AMG (three wins) and Audi (two wins) have triumphed more than once this year. Despite this it is a Lamborghini squad that tops the overall championship, which confirms just how competitive the season has been.
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Saturday's opening race saw Vincent Abril and Raffaele Marciello take their first win as a duo, though it was certainly not a maiden series triumph for either AKKA ASP driver. Abril's previous victory in the sprint-format championship also came at Zandvoort. The Monegasque triumphed at the track in the 2015 season finale, the previous time the series visited the Dutch venue. Marciello returned to winning ways for the first time since clinching the Blancpain GT Series Sprint Cup title with victory at the Nürburgring last September.
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Sunday's race represented a maiden win in the sprint-format championship for Sainteloc Racing and its #25 Audi drivers, Christopher Haase and Simon Gachet. Haase and the Sainteloc squad are no strangers to victory, most notably having triumphed at the 2017 Total 24 Hours of Spa, but for Gachet the result represented a new career high point. The Frenchman's previous best was a runner-up finish as part of the same squad during last year's Hungaroring contest.
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Black Falcon maintained its metronomic consistency in Blancpain GT World Challenge Europe by finishing fourth in both Zandvoort races. This means the #4 Mercedes-AMG crew of Luca Stolz and Maro Engel has been among the top four in every one-hour race this season. Though they did not stand on the podium at the Dutch track, the #4 crew managed to extend their Blancpain GT World Challenge Europe points lead and closed on the top of the overall standings.
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AKKA ASP's winning run in the Silver Cup ended at Zandvoort. The French squad swept the class at Brands Hatch and Misano and was on course for another victory in race one until Timur Boguslavskiy slid into the gravel during the final minutes. This allowed the #62 R-Motorsport to bag its first class win of the season thanks to Aaro Vainio and Hugo de Sadeleer. They doubled up on Sunday, when AKKA ASP did not reach the class podium for the first time in 2019.
The #89 AKKA ASP crew of Nico Bastian and Thomas Neubauer still lead the standings, but their advantage has now been cut to 15 points over the #62 R-Motorsport pairing. The #56 Attempto Audi duo of Mattia Drudi and Milan Dontje also remain in contention.
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The Pro-Am title battle looks to be narrowing to a two-way fight between Orange1 FFF Racing and Rinaldi Racing. These squads shared the wins at Zandvoort, with Hiroshi Hamaguchi and Phil Keen taking the #519 Lamborghini to race one victory before Rinat Salikhov and David Perel triumphed in race two with their #333 Ferrari.
As such, the Hamaguchi-Keen pairing leads the way on 78.5 points, with Salikhov and Perel not far behind on 68. While other crews have shown race-winning form in 2019, these two have combined speed with consistency more often than their rivals.
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Despite a number of heavy rain showers hitting Zandvoort prior to the weekend, both races were staged in dry conditions. The rain was especially heavy on Friday – which led to some spectacular images of the cars on-track – but was all but over by Saturday morning. This helped to ensure a clean weekend, with the safety car appearing only briefly at the start of race one.
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The best lap of the weekend was set by Christopher Haase, who posted a 1m35.636s in the second qualifying session to bag the all-important pole for Sunday's race. The fastest racing lap of the weekend went to Maro Engel, with the German ace circulating in 1m37.408s during race one. This was just 0.016s faster than Andrea Caldarelli's best effort on Sunday.
The quickest Silver Cup time came from Nico Bastian, whose 1m37.630s in race two was comparable with the best overall times. The same went for Pro-Am pace-setter Phil Keen, who posted a 1m37.717s in race one. In the lone Am Cup car, Florian Scholze went quickest with a 1m39.736s.
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With two doubleheader rounds remaining the championship battle is approaching its deciding phase. Heading into the summer break, it is Luca Stolz and Maro Engel who hold the advantage with 61.5 points. They are followed by Marco Mapelli and Andrea Caldarelli (53 points), Raffaele Marciello and Vincent Abril (42.5 points), and Mirko Bortolotti and Christian Engelhart (38.5). These are the likely title contenders heading into the final rounds.
Things are even tighter in the teams' standings, where Mercedes-AMG squads Black Falcon and AKKA ASP sit level on 61.5 points. Orange1 FFF Racing are just six points behind, while Belgian Audi Club Team WRT (45 points) should not be ruled out either.
In the global Blancpain GT World Challenge standings, a strong weekend at Zandvoort has seen Mercedes-AMG pull further clear at the top of the table. The German marque now has 8,781 points, well clear of the rival Ferrari brand's 6,437.
Finally, the overall title battle looks to be a straight fight between the same two crews that are battling for Blancpain GT World Challenge Europe honours. In the drivers' championship it is Caldarelli and Mapelli who lead with 98 points, while Engel and Stolz have 82.5.
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Talk of the overall championship is premature, however, as the Total 24 Hours of Spa could have a dramatic impact on the standings. With a huge haul of points available at the season's marquee event, a number of crews could yet emerge to challenge for the title. For now that is secondary as all attention switches to Spa, with the opening practice session for the Belgian endurance classic just one week away.
Blancpain GT World Challenge Europe will resume after the summer break with back-to-back events at the Nürburgring (30 August – 1 September) and Hungaroring (6-8 September). Though favourites have emerged in each class, there is still everything to play for as the season reaches its climax.