- Italian track makes popular return for 2021 following one-year hiatus
- Fanatec GT World Challenge Europe Powered by AWS set for season-opening event
- Teams and drivers reflect on 10-year milestone
Monza is always a special place to begin the season, but this weekend's Fanatec GT World Challenge Europe Powered by AWS opener will be particularly significant.
Saturday 17 April marks exactly 10 years since the flagship Endurance Cup staged its maiden event, launching a championship that now ranks among the biggest and most competitive in GT racing. There have been a few changes since it began life as the Blancpain Endurance Series, but much of what was created in 2011 remains in place today.
Those who have been present since the beginning agree that the level of competition was always high. In 2011 there were big grids, a mix of professional and amateur drivers, and an incredible selection of high-performance GT cars. The bar has been raised during the past decade, but the fundamentals are the same.
Monza has also been in place from the start. After staging the very first race in 2011 the legendary Italian track became the established season-opener, with only the Covid-19 crisis preventing it from hosting a 10th race in succession last year. For 2021 it returns to its rightful place at the front of the calendar and, on Sunday, will once again showcase a packed grid of GT3 cars.
The maiden race saw 32 starters, seven of them competing in the GT4 class, and was won by the #9 AutOrlando Porsche of Paolo Ruberti, Raffaele Giammaria and Gianluca Roda. Runner-up spot went to Team WRT's #32 Audi, beginning an unbroken run of 50 Endurance races for the Belgian team. A decade on, team boss Vincent Vosse has one clear recollection of that day: "I remember that we didn't win!"
Also on the grid was Jérôme Policand, who drove a Ferrari for his own ASP squad. Now known as AKKA ASP and fielding Mercedes-AMG machinery, the team has emerged as a consistent challenger to WRT at the front of the overall order. AF Corse has also been present from the start. The Ferrari outfit quickly established itself as the benchmark for the Pro-Am class, winning Endurance titles in 2012, 2015 and 2018, and last year it sealed its maiden overall championship.
Jérôme Policand is not the only member of the 2011 grid who has since swapped driving for management: Pierre-Brice Mena (GPX Racing), Lorenz Frey (Emil Frey Racing) and Andrea Piccini (Iron Lynx) also drove at the inaugural race and now work on the other side of the pit wall. Behind the scenes, there are mechanics, engineers, support staff and many others who have been present since the beginning.
Louis Machiels (AF Corse), Gilles Vannelet (CMR) and Matt Griffin (AF Corse) all have the distinction of competing in the opening contest and being on the entry list a decade later. In the case of Machiels, this adds to an already impressive racing CV. A two-time Endurance champion in the Pro-Am class, the Belgian will contest his 41st event this weekend and is poised to break the all-time record of 43 before the season ends.
As part of this weekend's event, the new Fanatec Esports GT Pro Series will stage its very first race. Scheduled for Saturday evening, the pioneering concept will feature real-world drivers competing on Assetto Corsa Competizione and contributes towards the 2021 overall and Silver Cup teams' championships. As it celebrates the 10-year anniversary of its maiden race, the Endurance Cup is laying foundations for its future.
Vincent Vosse, Team Principal Team WRT: "If you ask me about Monza, I remember that the Porsche won and we got the Endurance championship that year by being consistent. I think the series has changed a lot. In the past you could parachute top drivers from other categories into GT3 and they would perform; today, you have guys who are specialists of GT3 with the Pirelli tyres. I think that the last 10 years has been the best GT racing you could find, and it's been a very nice journey since that first Monza race."
Jerome Policand, Team Principal AKKA ASP: "I remember we were in a big rush before Monza. We were happy to start something new and take on a big challenge, but we were so tired when we arrived! We knew that it was already a strong championship with more than 30 cars. Straight away the competition was tough and that hasn't changed. Today, the three-hour races have more or less the same rules, but the series is getting more and more professional. That's the way in racing: you always want to improve and so it was necessary to grow. But the spirit is the same."
AF Corse, Team Principal: "It’s unbelievable – 10 years! Normally, we go where our clients want to go. Therefore, the fact that we have been present in all 10 editions of the series is simply a demonstration that it works well and the clients have been happy to compete. Of course, the past few years have been very good for us with Pro cars but, mainly, we are in this series because the clients want be there."
Louis Machiels, two-time Pro-Am Champion: "The organisation and the race directors in this series have always been very fair with the gentleman drivers. I think that's one of the reasons that I keep coming back. It has been very professional since day one. Racing, for me, it's something like a drug; it gives a very special feeling. And with AF Corse, to see the progress they have made is really great. They have also done an incredible job over the past 10 years.”
Stephane Ratel, SRO Motorsports Group Founder and CEO: "I am very happy that we return to Monza this season, especially as it marks 10 years since the first Endurance race. When the series was launched in 2011, we could not have predicted that it would become so important to our global activities. We have seen grids grow and now stabilise at a very good number, proving that the concept works. I must offer sincere thanks to our teams, drivers, manufacturers, partners, suppliers and the SRO staff, without whom this would not have been possible. It will be particularly special this weekend as we welcome the GT4 European Series and the new Fanatec GT2 European Series to Monza, both of which are the brainchild of SRO. We will also begin a new chapter by launching the Fanatec Esports GT Pro Series, integrating virtual racing into the real-world motorsport for the first time. Monza is the perfect place to take this step forward while celebrating the first 10 years of the Endurance Cup."