Andy Soucek and Maxime Soulet’s gamble to start on slick tyres at a damp Misano paid dividends as the Bentley duo drove from ninth on the grid to win the first race of the 2016 Blancpain Sprint Cup.
The victory was the perfect way to mark the factory M-Sport team’s first appearance in the Sprint Cup and the team’s first since Steven Kane, Guy Smith and Andy Meyrick won at Paul Ricard in 2014.
The no. 8 Continental GT3 barely featured in the opening laps, with wet tyres favoured by the front-runners. Laurens Vanthoor made his customary excellent start from pole to lead Alvaro Parente’s McLaren and the fast-starting Robin Frijns. Parente wouldn’t stay second for long though, and in the space of one lap had tumbled down to fifth behind Norbert Siedler’s Rinaldi Ferrari 458 – the new 488 not ready in time for Misano – and Maxi Buhk’s HTP Mercedes.
However, with his tyres now up to temperature, Soucek and the ROWE Racing BMW M6 GT3 of Alexander Sims – who had qualified in 30th position – began to light up the timing screens, while the drivers who had managed to conserve their wets in the early stages also moved forward, with Felix Rosenqvist in the AKKA Mercedes closing onto the back of the three-way battle for second.
A small slip from Siedler allowed Buhk through to attack Frijns, who lost two places in quick succession as his tyres began to overheat. Their battling allowed Vanthoor to pull serenely away and seemingly to a victory after handing over to Frederic Vervisch, but he had reckoned without the intervention of a Full Course Yellow for debris, which turned the race on its head.
Whilst the front-runners had opted to come in as soon as the pit window opened to get shot of their cooked wets, Soucek and Sims stayed out to gain the maximum advantage from their fully warmed-up slicks and had yet to pit when the FCY was thrown.
While everybody who had pitted earlier was forced to lap at 80 km/h, this effectively granted both a free pitstop and resulted in Soulet and Philipp Eng emerging with an enormous lead over Vervisch in third.
Despite the best efforts of an obstinate Daniel Zampieri – lapping at a similar pace to the leaders but a lap down in 21st position – Soulet just held off the attentions of Eng at the flag to score a cherished first win and secure pole for the main race on Sunday.
Vanthoor was less than impressed to finish third, but his 17-year-old brother Dries will have been delighted with fourth on his Blancpain debut after tracking down and passing the vastly more experienced Dominik Baumann after the stops. Siedler and Marco Seefried scored the final point for sixth, having been delayed in the pits when the Ferrari refused to re-fire.
The race’s other major incident occurred when Stuart Leonard was fired into the wall under braking at Turn One by Alex Buncombe. Thankfully, Leonard was able to emerge unscathed, but it meant Silver Cup honours instead went to the Grasser Lamborghini of Luca Stolz and Michele Beretta, which finished 16th overall.