With Saturday’s rain showers nowhere to be seen, the Sunday of the 2016 Blancpain GT Series’ opening weekend proved to be an ideal day for racing. With the #8 Bentley Team M-Sport Continental and #99 Rowe Racing BMW occupying the front row for the first main race of the Blancpain GT Series Sprint Cup, and behind them cars that had been quicker in qualifying but were surprised by the subsequent qualifying race’s mixed conditions, the opening laps of the one-hour contest were always going to be hectic.
Eng reacted fastest at the start, nosing his Rowe Racing BMW in front of Maxime Soulet's Bentley, which fell into the clutches of those behind. Indeed, the Belgian was immediately under pressure from two of his countrymen at the wheel of their Belgian Audi Club Team WRT R8 LMS : Dries Vanthoor in the #4 car and Frederic Vervisch aboard #1. While the latter found a way past the #8 Continental GT, the younger of the two Vanthoor brothers made contact with the rear of the Bentley, spinning Soulet around. With it went Soulet and co-driver Andy Soucek’s chances of victory after dropping to 35th position. The move subsequently earned Dries a drive-through penalty.
Up at the front Vervisch was soon putting leader Eng under pressure and eventually took first with an inspired overtaking manoeuvre, which also allowed Baumann’s #84 HTP Motorsport Mercedes-AMG to nip past the Rowe Racing BMW. With Tristan Vautier in the #88 AKKA ASP Mercedes-AMG right behind them, the leading pack at the start of the pitstops was four cars strong.
The Belgian Audi Club Team WRT-mechanics were true to their reputation and executed a near-perfect wheel change on the Vervisch/Vanthoor car, giving the 2014 Blancpain GT Series champion a five second lead after his pitstop. Buhk, replacing Baumann in the #84 machine, managed to close the gap in the final laps, but the first main race win of 2016’s Blancpain GT Series season went to Belgian pairing Vervisch and Vanthoor. For the latter it was the perfect way to put the bad memories of his 2015 Misano meeting to rest, while Vervisch scored his fourth consecutive podium finish, a series that started in last year's Zandvoort Qualifying Race.
The battle for third produced some of the best GT racing in recent years, with Sims - who had taken over from Eng in the Rowe Racing BMW - fending off European F3 champion Felix Rosenqvist in the #88 AKKA ASP Mercedes-AMG. The young Swede eventually managed to find his way past the wide BMW M6, but his podium ambitions were cruelly crushed soon afterwards: his car apparently ran out of fuel, leaving Sims the opportunity to share third with his Austrian team-mate Eng. Alvaro Parente and Rob Bell in the #58 Garage 59 McLaren made it four different makes in the top-four.
The battle for the remaining points in the top-10 produced some entertaining racing as well, but the most spectacular of comebacks was conjured by young wolf Jules Szymkowiak and silver fox Bernd Schneider. Technical issues during the qualifying race meant the Dutch-German duo had to start the main event from 36th, but with their #86 HTP Motorsport Mercedes-AMG they cut through the field to end up an impressive seventh.
In Silver Cup the #5 Phoenix Racing Audi of Nicolaj Moller Madsen had taken the lead at the start, passing polesitter Luca Stolz in the #19 Grasser Racing Team Lamborghini. The Italian kept the gap small and after the driver changes team-mate Beretta was right behind Markus Pommer, who had taken over from Moller Madsen. It was on-the-limit racing all the way, but unfortunately sometimes over the limit, too. That resulted in a drive-through penalty for not respecting track limits for the #19 Grasser Racing Team Lamborghini, dropping it to fourth. Behind winners Madsen and Pommer, second in the Silver Cup went to Stuart Leonard and Michael Meadows in the #2 Belgian Audi Club Team WRT R8, with Dutch Lamborghini duo Van Splunteren/Mul taking the final podium position.
In Pro-Am there was no-one to really challenge Kessel Racing Ferrari-drivers Michal Broniszewski and Giacomo Piccini. The #12 Boutsen Ginion BMW could have been a contender but was spun around by the #4 Audi of Dries Vanthoor, which resulted in a second drive-through for the Belgian youngster. The Kessel duo, who finished in 13th overall, eventually built up a comfortable advantage over #87 AKKA ASP Mercedes-AMG pairing Beaubelique/Moullin Traffort in second, who finished three seconds in front of the Boutsen Ginion M6 of Henkola/Martin.
The Am Cup saw some pretty agitated opening laps as well. From third at the start, Cédric Leimer in the #963 X-Bionic Racing Team Lamborghini swiftly took the class lead and built a decent advantage over the two Ferrari 458 Italia cars behind him. But when 2015 Total 24 Hours of Spa Pro-Am winner Stephane Lemeret took over the #55 AF Corse Ferrari for the second half of the race, his adversaries stood little chance. The Belgian took the class lead halfway through his stint and crossed the line some 40 seconds clear of the competition.
The second round of the 2016 Blancpain GT Series is the first of the Endurance Cup rac-es, which will be held on April 23/24 at the Monza Autodrome in Italy.
Laurens Vanthoor (#1 Belgian Audi Club Team WRT R8): “I haven’t thought that much about what happened here last year, but the memories definitely came flooding back up on the podium. So it is good to put that to bed. The level of teams and drivers is so high in this championship so I think we can be really proud of the result. Everyone’s done a great job - the mechanics were even better than us! - and we did what we had to do. I thought Maxi [Buhk] was really quick in his stint and it was not easy for me to maintain the gap. Fortunately it was enough in the end.”
Maxi Buhk (#84 HTP Motorsport Mercedes-AMG): “Consistency will be key this year so finishing on the podium here is a good start. Reducing the number of Sprint weekends from seven to five does not make that any easier because you must still focus and make no mistakes. I think anywhere in the top-five is a solid result. I did not have the pace to catch Laurens [Vanthoor] but maybe the traffic helped me make up a little time. But even then I think he saw me in his mirrors and was happy to manage the gap.”
Phillip Eng (#99 Rowe Racing BMW): “We seemed to have a good package today and maximised the car’s current potential. There’s still more to come from the M6 but, for now, we have done everything we can. My start was pretty good and I was able to overtake Maxime [Soulet], who was very fair, but Fred [Vervisch] eventually got me with a good move, I have to admit! It is a pleasure to race with such professional drivers; everyone knows how to treat each other, which is always hard but fair. That is how it should be. I am really happy to be back on the podium today. Let’s hope we are here more often.”
Nikolaj Moller Madsen (#6 Phoenix Racing Audi): “Today was my first rolling start in a race car so to sit there behind the Nissan was something special. We managed to go from P19 to 11th or 12th, I think, before the pit-stop. There were some good fights and I learned a lot out there. You get many more laps than in practice so you have a better opportunity to understand the car. Just because we are competing in the Silver Cup doesn’t mean we’re not aspiring to be on the overall podium, and if we can continue like this throughout the year then we should end up closer to that target.”
Giacomo Piccini (#11 Kessel Racing Ferrari): “We have had a very good weekend but yesterday I spun like an idiot at the second corner so that is something to improve on, I guess! Seriously, I am very happy. As Michal said, the car keeps on improving every time we go out and we are also learning more. He did a really good job in the first stint, which allowed me to take no risks because we were leading the class. The car was great to drive and I feel very confident about the rest of the season.”
Stéphane Lémeret (#55 AF Corse Ferrari): “I enjoyed myself a lot out there; I had to push really hard over what turned into an interesting stint. I am so happy to be racing in this championship because the level is so high, which also spurs me on to improve further.”