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October 20, 2017

Blancpain Sprint Series – Round 6 Zolder

Blancpain Sprint Series – Round 6 Zolder

The usual opening lap shenanigans aside, Sunday’s Main Race was more of a processional affair than was yesterday’s Qualifying Race. The pick of the drives came from the HTP Mercedes SLS of Max Buhk and co-driver, Driver’s Championship leader, Max Gotz with a substantial chunk of help from their pit-crew. After starting sixth Buhk steadily worked the field to be fourth as the pit window opened and when the three cars in front pitted, Buhk used the clean air to perfection bringing the car into the pit for the perfectly efficient pit-stop that delivered Max Gotz onto the road ahead of both the P3 #1 Ramos/Vanthoor Audi and P2 #28 Bleekemolen/Proczyk Lamborghini. As the race-leading #95 NSC Lamborghini’s right-rear jack didn’t disengage after its tyre change, meant a DNF for Peter Kox, last year’s winner, and series debutant Nicky Catsburg who was left stranded in the car wondering what might have been. Hari Proczyk spent his stint trying to keep Laurens Vanthoor behind him, a task at which he succeeded, admirably given Zolder is Vanthoor’s expertise here, and this left Gotz the relatively simple task of gap management and finishing the race to take maximum points. P1 for the #84 car extends Gotz’s Driver’s Championship lead over Proczyk and Bleekemolen to 27 points with only 33 left available at the final round in Baku in a fortnight.

There are people mustering behind the idea of single file rolling starts behind a safety car, where the emphasis is upon the Stewards to preserve order, as opposed to the current rolling grid side-by-side starts, where the emphasis is upon the drivers’ skills and abilities to preserve order and/or maximise their opportunities in the face of simple preservation by other drivers; this last strikes me as motor racing and the former as nannying. If we must have rolling starts, as opposed to standing starts, then let them stay as they are with a bit of fight left in them. There is an argument that the alleged ‘rush of blood to the head’ nature of the start leads to increased car damage, however, the drivers are perfectly capable of that alone and unaided; witness the huge air gained by the #27 Grasser Lamborghini at the final chicane in the Qualifying Race, when recovered the pit-crew found a cracked gearbox and ancillary engine damage, a cracked chassis, and more than two dozen varying weld points had broken away! Hence, the car didn’t make it to the Main Race grid.

The Main Race start was taken by Vanthoor who was out-dragged by Proczyk’s Lamborghini in the run to the first turn but the Czech seemed to get nudged into the wall and backed off a bit. Further back, P6 starter Tomas Jäger got it all wrong and took to the turn 1 grass, returning safely enough for turn 2 where, incidentally, Enzo Ide was forced into a spin and hit the barrier hard. The suspension damage sustained was sufficient to leave the #2 Audi immobile and brought out the first of two Safety Cars. The bumping and boring through the first turns claimed other victims too: Alex Zanardi picked-up a puncture; Sten Pentus in the #61 Bhaitech McLaren lost a wheel; both returned to the pits safely with Jäger and all three re-joined at the back. Unfortunately for Jäger he had to return to the pits to retire on the following lap.

Peter Kox led Hari Proczyk and Cesar Ramos at the re-start and all three caught Buhk napping as a gap formed behind them. BMW woes continued as Nelson Piquet Jnr. coasted with an over-heating engine back to the pits on Lap 6 where the car would stay. In a couple of laps of racing Peter Kox was able to pull out a second’s lead over Proczyk before another Safety Car stoppage coming due to the huge off experienced by an airborne Sergei Vasilyev in the #177 Gt Russian Mercedes SLS. Having started last the Russian was aggressively defending against the re-joined Zanardi. Approaching the turn 5 first chicane Vasilyev weaved left to defend the inside whereupon Zanardi took his superior speed to the right. Contact was inevitable when Vasilyev weaved back to the right and a slightly sideways SLS mounted the barrier, continued along it, shedding carbon fibre parts as it went, before coming to rest 80 metres later in the turn 5 gravel.

The resulting clean-up took a while and there was just a single lap after the restart before the pit-window opened. Pit-wall and crew excellence from both HTP and Beechdean saw them improve; #84 for the lead of the race and the #107 Aston Martin, having started P14 with Andy Soucek at the wheel, picked-up a further two places to emerge fifth on the road with Jonny Adam at the wheel.

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With the exception of the Sports Trophy Team Brasil effort where the combined driver effort of Caca Bueno and Sergio Jiminez brought the #0 car from 16th on the grid to finish eighth, the second half of the race was relatively uneventful affair where the story of making sure of championship points in the bank prevailed and active gap management came to the fore.

Siler Cup leaders Vincent Abril and Mateusz Lisowski managed to get their #4 WRT Audi ahead of their nearest rivals, David Fumanelli and Stefano Colombo in the #34 ROAL BMW, to further extend their lead at the top of the standings to 24 points. With one race left to go there is hope for the ROAL drivers but it will take a lot of luck for them to clinch the Championship, good luck for them and bad luck for WRT as, realistically, only a main race DNF for the Audi drivers would seal it for ROAL BMW.

A final note of congratultion should be struck for young British driver Alessandro Latif and his team-mate Marc Basseng whose solid performance here in the #5 Phoenix Racing Audi was enough to wrap-up the 2014 Pro-Am Championship win as they now have an unassailable points over the second placed #27 Grasser Racing Team Lamborghini of Stefan Landmann and the absent through injury Sascha Halek.

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Saturday

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Round 6’s first action of note, the Qualifying Race got underway with Grasser Racing Team drivers Jeroen Bleekemolen and Hari Proczyk looking to maximise their chances of closing the gap to the Championship leader, Max Götz, who was having a shocker of a weekend so far in the #84 HTP Mercedes SLS. The big Merc was thought to be less suited than most cars to the slow turns at Zolder and so it proved with the SLS being 1.131 seconds slower than the pole-sitter in qualifying.

Bleekemolen starting from P2 looked to have judged the rolling start to perfection but the #1 Team WRT Audi of Laurens Vanthoor held the inside line into the right handed first turn. Bleekemolen tucking-in behind Vanthoor allowed Rene Rast in the second of the WRT Audis to gamble with and succeed with a pass around the outside at turn 2. Contact occurred between Matheus Stumpf’s #30 Team Brasil BMW and Thomas Enge’s #3 G-Drive Lamborghini in turn 3 and, innocuous as it may have seemed, the result was the BMW losing a tyre two turns later at the first chicane. Rast had moved ahead of Vanthoor by the end of the first lap and these two set about opening a gap at the front to over two seconds by the end of the third lap and which continued to grow. The Top Five remained an Audi manufacturer battle at the front and a three-car Lamborghini battle until 15 minutes had elapsed and Laurens Vanthoor took a look into a gap that may or may not have been there entering the final chicane, spinning the lead car of his team mate Rene Rast demoting him to fourth. The Stewards took a look but no action was forthcoming. Meanwhile, Maximillian Götz had managed to muscle the #84 HTP Mercedes up into P9 but three places short of a point scoring position.

The safety car was deployed on lap 15 for Stephane Richelmi going off backwards into the gravel trap at turn 5, the first chicane, and getting beached. With the safety car out and the pit-window open the entire field bar two, which somewhat inexplicably stayed out, decamped from the track for driver changes and tyres. The biggest pit-stop loser was #34 BMW driver Stefano Colombo who received the car in last but put in possibly the stint of the day to pass 10 cars for P13 by the end and to re-take P1 in class. Also losing out was Max Buhk, the #84 Mercedes dropping further away from Championship points, taking the car out in P14 after Götz brought it in ninth.

Cesar Ramos inherited a good lead and continued to pull away from the #95 NSC Lamborghini of Peter Kox who had jumped the #28 Grasser Racing Lambo during the pit action. By  lap 30 Ramos had built the #1 WRT Audi’s lead to 9 seconds over Kox who in turn pulled out a lead over a consistently slower position-holding Hari Proczyk whose care to score points meant a 5 car train had formed behind with a surging Andy Soucek at the rear harrying Fabio Onidi in the #60 Bhaitech McLaren for P6. In bringing the #107 Beechdean Aston up from P14 Soucek was a clear One To Watch making several impressive passing manoeuvres. The Big Air Award for the day went to Tomas Pivoda who launched the #27 Grasser Lamborghini skywards at the final chicane on lap 31. The final laps of the race can best be described as frantic. Maybe it’s near the end of the season with few chances left to impress or it’s the lack of points at stake in the Qualification Race format but, well, a lot of last ditch overtaking and more mistakes made for viewing that was hard to keep up with. Soucek and Buhk the benefactors or culprits? Both made up a number of places and both biffed poor Caca Buenos’ beemer. Soucek bashed past the BMW with one lap to go and on the last lap Buhk hit him sending the Team Brasil BMW into the gravel, giving Buhk and Götz a championship point for finishing P6.

Silver Cup Championship David Fumanelli had the #34 ROAL BMW up to P12 before a disastrous pit-wall call saw him stay out when the safety car was deployed. Stefano Colombo re-joined last but put in possibly the stint of the day to pass 10 cars for P13 overall by the end and to re-take P1 in class.

Sure it was a bad strategy but I pushed and pushed to recover position in Silver Cup.

Stefano Colombo #34 ROAL BMW

In the Pro-Am class the #5 Phoenix Racing Audi R8 of young British driver Alessandro Latif and Belgian Marc Basseng is pretty much racing itself for the title with the only opposition at Zolder coming from the Endurance Series transplant GT Russian Team #177 Mercedes SLS who are getting in some practice with the format ahead of the Baku World Challenge in a fortnight’s time. Latif took the ‘hard start’ and kept his head as well as the car on the track to hand-over to Basseng to bring safely home for maximum points.

There is no speed in the car to attack and we’re not getting enough from the tyres with our new chassis, but we’re on track for the Pro-Am Cup so I am happy.

Marc Basseng - #5 Phoenix Racing Audi

Earlier in the day Saturday, Qualifying consisted of three short but stimulating sessions where the cars with the top 13 combined first and second session times would be invited into Q3 aka the business end of things.

Q1 was a close affair with more than half of the field, 14 out of 25 cars, being covered by less than a second; Andy Soucek in the #107 Beechdean AMR Vantage was the only driver to post a sub-1:30 lap time in the cool but dry conditions. Notably absent from the top of the rankings were Grasser Racing, Hari Proczyk could only manage 2 laps in the #28 car and finished 12 seconds off the pace in 24th. On a positive note, the Vita4One BMW made it out after overnight repairs to the chassis. If Q1 was close, Q2 was closer still. 20 cars were within a second of the leader when the chequered flag fell and this time it was Lamborghini to the fore with Jeroen Bleekemolen in now revitalised #28 Grasser Racing Team cars reducing the required lap time to 1:29.302. With Q2 lap times being considerably faster than Q1 from the off, the closing minutes of the session became ever more vital to those wishing to go through to Q3. 15 cars were below 1:30 and 14 of those were faster than Soucek’s Q1 best. Chris Van Der Drift’s 1:29.987 put the #61 Bhaitech McLaren into P1 early doors but with lap times falling fast it didn’t last the duration and the Kiwi ended the session in P15 and out of Q3. For the most part Q2 was the Bleekemolen and Vanthoor show with each trading fastest laps before Nicky Catsburg went second and Rene Rast third leaving Vanthoor fourth. That was the way it looked to stay until last lap dives for the line from Dominik Baumann in the #76 Team Schubert BMW nicked second and Giorgio Pantano in the #60 Bhaitech McLaren pinched fifth. Disappointment for Beechdean whose Jonny Adam matched the Q1 pace of his team mate but not that of the Q2 field finishing P14 and just missing the Q3 cut. Similarly struggling for pace but not quite so unlucky were Championship leaders, Buhk and Götz just squeaked into Q3 by finishing 13th for HTP Mercedes over half a second off the pace of the leader.

Q3 opened with a stormer from Bleekemolen who clocked 1:28.882, the first driver of the weekend to post a sub-1:29 lap. Dominik Baumann for Schubert BMW, Georgio Pantano for Bhaitech McLaren, Rast for WRT Audi, and Catsburg for NSC Lamborghini all traded laps within 2 tenths of Bleekemolen but the response from Vanthoor in the #1 Team WRT Audi was emphatic. The local hero was able to respond with comparable lap times before a last ditch effort yielded a very quick 1:28.580 for Audi, +0.302s faster than Bleekemolen’s Lamborghini and which wouldn’t be beaten.

Bleekemolen was quick to pay tribute to the effort at the post-qualifying press conference

He [Vanthoor] was very quick; I knew I couldn’t go any quicker because I made no mistakes, he did a really good job. It is his home track, which helps, but he’s always quick.

but perhaps he had his eyes on the Championship with Max Götz on 23 points and clearly struggling for pace? All of the Mercedes’ had nothing to match the leaders, only the #84 HTP Motorsport Mercedes SLS of the two Maxes made it into Q3 and even then only finished 12th of 13 and over a second off the pace. If that continued under race conditions then the ‘nil-point’ for HTP would mean a 10 point lead for Proczyk and Bleekemolen in the Drivers’ standings come Monday morning.

Friday

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The Free Practice sessions held Friday saw a Kiwi driver Chris Van Der Drift fastest FP1 in the #61 Bhaitech McLaren a 1:30.720 being the fastest of his 31 laps, posted an hour into the session after the sun had dried out the early session dampness due to overnight rain. FP1 also went well for series debutants Beechdean Aston Martin and NSC Motorsport Lamborghini, the #107 Beechdean Aston finished P2 (+0.146s) and the #95 Gallardo FL2 P3 (+0.375s). Currently sitting second in the Championship standings, Jeroen Bleekemolen will have taken some pleasure in finishing the session P4 in the #28 Grasser Racing Lamborghini three places and seven tenths ahead of Championship rival Maximillian Götz’s #84 HTP Motorsport Mercedes who ended the session seventh.

FP1 ended five minutes from the end with a red flag for the 2014 series returnees Vita4One BMW venturing off track before stopping on it and its subsequent recovery. The cause of the issue was a fault with the steering column and a crack in the chassis, damage that would prevent the car from reappearing in FP2.

FP2 went better for WRT Audi, after appearing to struggle in FP1 in which Vanthoor and Ramos could ‘only’ manage a P5 the Audi pair returned to top the pops after finding almost two seconds in the back of the garage somewhere. With current Blancpain Endurance Series Champion Laurens Vanthoor doing the damage the Team WRT Audi sat P1 with a 1:29.752 at the end, keeping the first of the newbies Nick Catsburg (#95 NSC Motorsports Lamborghini) +0.234 seconds behind. Throughout the session Catsburg had been trading fastest laps with another newbie, Andy Soucek in the Beechdean Aston Martin. A notable feat for the Spaniard as this meeting is the first time that Soucek has sat behind the wheel of a Vantage GT3.

After a brief stoppage, Marco Asmer in the #177 GT Russian Mercedes pulled off the track and had to be recovered, Soucek put the Aston before a riposte from Catsburg broke the 1:30.0 barrier for the first time. The Lamborghini remained P1 until local boy Vanthoor saved the best for last, lapping in 1:29.752 five minutes from the end of the session. Bleekemolen and Proczyk finished P5 in the Grasser Racing Lamborghini this time two-tenths behind an HTP Motorsport Mercedes but, significantly, not that of rivals Maximilian Götz and Maximilian Buhk. Dusseldorp and Afanasiev in the #85 car finished the session in fourth with the two Maxes in sixth place. The BMW Sports Trophy Team Schubert BMW pulled into the pits with a smoking engine, overheating requiring an overnight engine change tonight.

 

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About The Author

Nathan Heywood

Nathan Heywood is the Blancpain GT Series correspondent and Racing.GT's tech guru. With his iconic moustache sadly hidden from view, you will be hearing a lot of Nathan's gentle Norfolk tones behind the microphone in Racing.GT's Periscope coverage.