In many respects, the picture tells the story. This was a race that went down to the wire in a classic duel between Shane van Gisbergen’s Garage 59 McLaren 650S and the pole-sitting HTP Mercedes-AMG GT3 of Maxi Buhk, but despite several attempts to hang it around the outside of turn one, Buhk couldn’t make it stick. Here’s what we learned, as the 2016 Blancpain Endurance Cup kicked off in earnest at Monza.
1) McLaren don’t need strategy to win
Whilst both wins scored by the Von Ryan McLarens last season owed much to clever strategy and taking advantage of the Full Course Yellows to gain track position, this one was all down to pace and racecraft. The no. 58 car was quick throughout qualifying in the hands of Come Ledogar and Rob Bell, but would start only 16th after van Gisbergen was mired in traffic in Q3. No bother – a typically efficient opening stint from Bell put the car in contention, carving through the top ten and making vital passes on the Nissan of Lucas Ordonez and Andy Soucek’s Bentley to pit from second in class and third on the road.
— Shane van Gisbergen (@shanevg97) April 24, 2016
That became the outright lead when Jazeman Jaafar’s engine cut out leaving the pits after taking over from Dominik Baumann, which allowed GT3 debutant Ledogar to build and maintain a steady gap of around ten seconds before his final pitstop. However, Van Gisbergen’s struggles in traffic continued when he came across the train of cars battling over 11th led by the very wide ISR Audi of Filip Salaqurda, which allowed Buhk to close right in.
But with the smell of victory in his nostrils, van Gisbergen didn’t make it easy for the Mercedes driver and showed an acutely perceptive understanding of where to place his car for a man making only his second visit to the Italian cathedral of speed. Perhaps all the more surprising is that the McLaren was not expected to challenge at what has historically been a power circuit more suited to the Ferraris. Aptly next on the schedule is Silverstone, where van Gisbergen took his first Blancpain win last year. On current form, you wouldn’t bet against him making it two from two…
2) Luck beginning to turn the way of Bentley no. 8
After a troubled 2014 and ’15, there appears at last to be light at the end of the tunnel for the no. 8 M-Sport Bentley team. Often bearing the brunt of the team’s problems last season, Andy Soucek and Maxime Soulet appeared to have inherited the same poor luck which had afflicted the car’s previous inhabitants Jerome d’Ambrosio, Duncan Tappy and Antoine Leclerc, whilst the sister no. 7 car launched a title challenge that went down to the wire at the Nürburgring.
However, the first two rounds of the 2016 Blancpain GT Series have seen a considerable momentum shift within the M-Sport camp, as Soucek and Soulet followed their strategic blinder in the Misano qualifying race by taking a podium finish in Monza to get Wolfgang Reip’s new chapter as a Bentley Boy off to an ideal start.
“It looks like it,” said Soucek when asked about his upturn in fortune. “It’s still early to say, this was only the second race of the season and the first in Endurance, but it shows that luck changes. All the bad luck we had last year is turning not into good luck, but at least normal races where nothing strange is happening and we are getting the best out of the car. If you had asked me before the weekend whether we could finish on the podium I would have said no, but it looks like we always get better over the weekend – happy days!”
3) Keilwitz can cut it outside Germany
There’s something about Monza and the Black Pearl Ferrari 458 that just works. Pierre Kaffer qualified the Pro-Am entry on the front row last year and this weekend it was Daniel Keilwitz’s turn to shine. Best known for his forays with Callaway Competition in the German ADAC GT Masters series, where he holds the record for the most number of wins, Keilwitz held his own against the tirade of new 488s by going third quickest in Saturday’s pre-qualifying session, before following it up with a solid tenth on Sunday morning.
The older car may not be as quick over a single lap, but enjoyed a clear advantage in a straight line and Keilwitz was confident that it would give gentleman co-drivers Steve Parrow and Alexander Mattschull the best possible chance to defend their positions against the Pros later in the race. But even he could surely have only dreamed that after three laps he would be up to fourth and not long after that hassling Baumann for the outright lead, eventually passing when the Austrian was held up behind a backmarker at Ascari. Recognising that the Ferrari would not be a factor in the outcome of the race, Baumann wasn’t overly worried about forcing the issue to get back ahead, but then Keilwitz didn’t give him much of a chance.
— Racing GT (@RacingGT) April 24, 2016
Despite being overhauled for the class win by the ultra-consistent Kessel Racing 488 of Alessandro Bonacini, Andrea Rizzoli and Michal Broniszewski, then for second in the closing stages by a charging Giancarlo Fisichella, Black Pearl could be very pleased with their efforts. For his part, 26-year-old Keilwitz could soon be a man in demand.
4) Pitlane woes ‘part of the show’
After an impressively frugal 35-lap opening stint in the ISR Audi, Frank Stippler became the first man to fall foul of a new regulation for 2016 that places a 65 minute limit on stint-times. Whilst it was unlikely that many could have gone far beyond this at Monza – Stippler himself only exceeded the limit by one minute – the corollary was that the majority of the field came into the pits at the same time. With 57 cars entered for Monza, there were bound to be problems.
Nissan were the worst affected. After Ordonez had finished his stint to hand over to Mitsunori Takaboshi, the Japanese found himself unable to leave his pitbox, trapped between the Attempto Porsche in front and Boutsen Ginion BMW behind. The Nismo mechanics frantically got the car up onto its trolley jacks and spun it round, but even with the new minimum pit stop times introduced for this season, Alex Buncombe still reckoned that the car had lost around eight or nine seconds, which was enough for the Bentley to build an unassailable gap.
— Lucas Ordonez (@Lucas_Ordonez) April 24, 2016
Despite missing out on the podium, Ordonez was magnanimous.
“I think its part of the show – today it didn’t play in our favour but maybe it will in Silverstone and the Bentley gets stuck in the pitlane, that’s racing,” said the Spaniard, who added that he didn’t believe the number of cars was an issue. “We don’t really know if [the new rule] is good or bad for the safety and the blocking of cars, but we need more races to see what happens.”
They weren’t the only ones affected.
“It’s always tricky when there’s 57 cars here and the pits are very tight,” added Jonny Adam. “We had to come in at a different angle and then lost more time having to be pulled back, so we lost around 8 or 9 seconds because of that.”
5) BOP is close to spot on
Whisper it quietly, but SRO managed to get the BOP down to a tee at Monza, with seven different manufacturers represented in the top eight finishers.
Although slightly disappointed to narrowly miss out on a Pro-Am podium, Motorbase Aston Martin’s Ahmad Al-Harthy only had positive things to say afterwards.
— Ahmad Al Harthy (@AlHarthyRacing) April 25, 2016
“It was one of the nicest races I’ve had – finally we have a car that can compete, which was great,” said the Omani. “Huge credit to SRO, I’m not saying that because of anything other than we saw 31 are qualifying within a second, so something is definitely right there.”
While Soucek admitted that he didn’t have the pace to match the duelling McLaren and HTP Mercedes, he agreed that there wasn’t much more that could have been done to equalise the cars.
“It was fair wasn’t it?” he said. “Our laptimes were competitive, maybe not as quick as the top two, but it was only 25 seconds after three hours, so if you take the average it’s not that much.”