Von Ryan Racing played a strategic blinder to deliver Kevin Estre, Shane Van Gisbergen and Rob Bell their second win of the 2015 Blancpain Endurance Series season in the final round at the Nurburgring, as Alex Buncombe, Wolfgang Reip and Katsumasa Chiyo collected the Pro Cup title with a steely drive to third.
The McLaren crew’s cause was helped substantially when the Safety Car was sent out following a heavy shunt for Harold Primat’s HTP Bentley just inside their pit window. Gambling that Estre would be able to make it to the end without exceeding his maximum driving time of 1hr 10 minutes, Von Ryan called van Gisbergen in at the first opportunity while the race leaders trailed behind the Safety Car, which had mistakenly waved Reip past.
Amid the confusion, Estre was able to catch back up to the field, who with the exception of Maxime Soulet and Yelmer Buurman pitted en-mass on the following lap. Once the final round of stops had cycled through, Estre promptly found himself in a comfortable lead, which just as at Silverstone, the Frenchman would successfully manage to the finish.
“The pace was good, but basically without the strategy we wouldn’t have won,” he admitted after starting a lowly 24th. “The team did a magic job behind the monitor, we had the opportunity to win and we took it.
“You can’t do more than one hour ten minutes in a stint [without exceeding the maximum drive time] and we took a big risk there pitting, but the guys at Von Ryan did a good job to calculate this and knew exactly when we could pit. Everybody else had to do another lap, and during this lap I had to drive fast to catch up to the Safety Car, which is where we made the gap.”
After a sterling final pitstop from the M-Sport crew, the No. 7 Bentley of Steven Kane, Andy Meyrick and Guy Smith emerged from the pits in a net third, and set about chasing Buncombe, while Reip retreated to his hire car, too nervous to watch.
Needing to win the race with RJN finishing third to snatch the title from their grasp, Kane pursued Buncombe relentlessly for lap after lap, and finally seized his chance when the Nissan was delayed lapping Oliver Bryant’s Ecurie Ecosse BMW. Kane stuck his nose down the inside into turn three, nudging Buncombe wide and allowing him to edge past around the outside of four, but any hopes of setting off after Estre were soon put on ice when the stewards ordered that he let the Nissan back past.
A fired-up Kane – who also set the race’s fastest lap – didn’t take long to get back to second again with Buncombe’s tyres now long past their best, but there were simply not enough laps to make any inroads on the McLaren.
“Guy and Andy gave me the car in a good position, but it was difficult to get past the Nissan because it was very quick on the straights,” Kane said. “I thought I got past fairly with the first one but obviously I didn’t so I had to do it again, and it was a bit too late to catch up to Kevin. I just want to thank the team for giving us a great car all year and to Andy and Guy for driving well all year.”
For his part, Buncombe felt the move was fair, but in the end it was largely academic. Despite being baulked by Sascha Bottemanne allowing Laurens Vanthoor to close right in, Buncombe was able to bring home third place and with it, the championship – mission accomplished.
“It was a tough stint, probably the hardest of my career I would say,” he said. “As soon as I came out of the pits, just in front of Steven, I knew the Bentley was going to be fast, so I just tried to push as hard as I could in the first five to ten laps. We know our car is not the kindest on its rubber and that was the case again today, I was really struggling with the car towards the end of the stint, but we had a really fair fight.”
Vanthoor would have to make do with fourth, ahead of the charging second Bentley of Andy Soucek, who came back from a drive-through penalty for pitlane speeding to pass the pole-sitting Lamborghini of Giovanni Venturini and Christopher Mies in the Sainteloc Audi.
Eighth place was scant reward for a strong run by the Always Evolving Nissan crew, which had led throughout the first hour after a cracking start from Craig Dolby. With Adrian Zaugg inadvertently acting as a rear-gunner by holding up a train of eight cars, Dolby was able to pull out a commanding nine second advantage before the intervention of the Safety Car to retrieve Garry Kondakov from the gravel trap wiped out his lead.
After the first stops, Sean Walkinshaw found himself shuffled back to fourth, but had battled his way past Robin Frijns and showed genuine race-winning pace before losing more ground in the final pitstops, a clash with Stephane Ortelli hardly helping their cause. Dolby was disappointed to miss out on a podium, but proud of his efforts all the same.
“Definitely we should have been closer to the podium but there’s some races you win, some races you lose, that’s just motorsport,” said the pragmatic Dolby. “I think the positives are a lot bigger than the negatives today and even though I’m a bit down right now, I think when I watch the race back tomorrow I’ll be proud of myself and proud of what we’ve done as a team. Today has been a big step forward and we’ve shown that we can fight for race wins if we can get all the little bits right. I’ve got to be happy with that.”
Using the same strategy as Von Ryan, the Emil Frey Racing Jaguar took a popular maiden win in Pro-Am by just 0.3 seconds. Fredy Barth, Lorenz Frey and Gabriele Gardel were made to sweat however, as newly-crowned Pro-Am champion Duncan Cameron’s reluctance to be lapped almost allowed Cedric Sbirrazzouli’s sister no. 52 AF Corse Ferrari to snatch victory on the final lap.
“It was four years of hard work, tears and joy sometimes, but more tears than joy, but I think now we have tears of joy,” said Barth.
“I don’t understand why he would decide to block me on those last three corners, I think the blue flags were waving and he just turned in on me, we could have lost the position so that was unfortunate, but in the end I could finish and this was the best result we can have,” added Gardel. “I was not going to make it easy to pass, especially in the last three corners – he would have to go over me to pass me!”
Having worked their way to the lead in Pro-Am at the half-way mark after strong stints from Michael Broniszewski and Alessandro Bonacini, Kessel Racing looked to be in the pound seat with Michael Lyons to come, but found themselves outmanoeuvred in the pits and had to work their way back from sixth to third. Early leader Maro Engel’s Black Falcon Mercedes was similarly affected and finished seventh in class.