On a baking hot afternoon at Brands Hatch, the first of a British double-header in the Blancpain GT Series saw Christopher Mies and Enzo Ide take a first Sprint Cup victory of the season after a perfectly-executed pitstop from WRT jumped them ahead of Jules Szymkowiak and Bernd Schneider’s Mercedes. Here’s what we learned.
1. WRT deliver a reminder of their pitstop prowess
We’ve known for a very long time that WRT walk the walk and talk the talk when it comes to pitstops, but a practical demonstration of that fact at Brands Hatch was vital to handing victory to Mies and Ide. The no. 33 Audi had been the quickest of the WRT fleet in qualifying and made light work of Marlon Stockinger’s identical ISR R8 LMS at the start to run second behind Schneider. Allowing for his lack of experience next to Schneider, Ide kept pace impressively with the veteran German – who had enjoyed a 21-second winning margin in the qualifying race – and pitted at the first opportunity to allow his mechanics to get to work.
WRT turned the car around in just 42.53 seconds before sending Mies on his way, the 2012 Blancpain Endurance champion using his fresh tyres to set what was at the time the race’s fastest lap in a bid to overhaul the Mercedes when it pitted. Unfortunately for Szymkowiak, HTP were some five and a half seconds slower than WRT, which meant the Dutchman found himself under attack from Andy Soucek’s Bentley. Although a Safety Car would allow Szymkowiak to close the gap, Mies had the race under control and took a first ever Sprint Cup win, while it was a first for Ide since Zandvoort in 2014. After two rounds, the pair now head the Sprint Cup drivers’ standings – what price would you put on them holding it after the Nürburgring?
2. Szymkowiak the apprentice to Schneider’s master
It’s not possible to buy experience, but sharing a car with Schneider is possibly the next best thing. The Luke Skywalker to Schneider’s Obi Wan, Szymkowiak has made huge progress since last year racing HTP’s Silver Cup Bentley. It’s all too easy to forget in light of Schneider’s late charge at Misano, but his heroics were only made possible by Szymkowiak’s quietly efficient drive through the field from 37th to 17th in the opening stint, and the Dutchman was on form again at Brands Hatch. Consistently among the quickest throughout practice, that it was Szymkowiak who was chosen to do Q3 and not five-time DTM champion Schneider spoke volumes.
He was equally impressive in race-trim, launching a stunning move around the outside of Franck Perera at Paddock Hill Bend on the opening lap of the qualifying race, before setting fastest lap in the main event under pressure from Soucek. Whilst he could not find a way past Mies, there could be no shame in finishing second in a 37-car field. Many more weekends like this and his trophy cabinet might need a little extension…
“The biggest thing I learned from Bernd is his calm, cool and collected behaviour that he always carries round, he’s a big inspiration and for me the best GT driver in the world,” he said. “We know we have the speed and I’m feeling really comfortable in the Mercedes, I always say it’s my girl! Let’s see if we can win the main race in the Nürburgring because that’s my aim.”
3. Never discount Bentley
After difficult qualifying session for the Bentley number 8 crew 24th, there was little expectation that Soucek and Maxime Soulet would manage to finish on the podium at a circuit where overtaking is extremely difficult, but nobody seemed to have informed them of that. Up tenth by the end of the qualifying race, Soulet made an excellent start to the main event and was soon carving his way through the pack, passing Nici Pohler’s Lamborghini, Clemens Schmid’s Mercedes, Frederic Vervisch in the Audi and then Stockinger in the early laps to run third before the pitstops. M-Sport got the car out in double quick time to give Soucek a shot at claiming second, but spending an entire tour behind the lapped Ferrari of Stephane Lemeret after the appearance of the Safety Car cost the Spaniard three seconds and effectively put pay to that.
Considering where they’d started however, Brands Hatch-newcomer Soulet couldn’t be too displeased with their day’s work.
“When we saw our qualifying, we thought ‘this is going to be a hard weekend again’ but then the track and the car came up to us,” he said. “I took a bit more risk than in the qualifying race, because there’s such a short timing between the races and I wanted to bring the car home safely, but we fought our way up and it all worked out. That’s three races and three podiums, we just have to keep it up there and be on the podium at every race – the tracks coming up should suit us better, so I’m sure it will work quite well.”
4. Title favourites won’t walk it
If you’ll forgive the turn of phrase, Brands Hatch demonstrated that the Blancpain GT Series is a marathon, not a sprint. After the first round in Misano, the WRT Audi of Vervisch and Laurens Vanthoor, and the HTP Mercedes of Maxi Buhk and Dominik Baumann had stood head and shoulders above the rest, but both encountered difficult weekends in Kent. Another to benefit from some WRT pitlane magic, the Belgian pair ran as high as fourth in the main race but would only finish 15th after a puncture.
Meanwhile, Buhk and Baumann were running ninth in the qualifying race when they were hit with given a drive-through penalty for what might be described as a ‘touring car move’ on Rob Bell’s McLaren at Graham Hill Bend.
“The situation was that he went wide by maybe half a metre, not in the gravel in the grass, and he was already back on our tail on exit and wanting to overtake as well, so it would have been enough to say to swap positions,” said a disgruntled Buhk.
That meant they were relegated to P18 for the main event and another difficult pitstop where Buhk struggled to pull away cost more positions, but the German made serene progress in the final few laps, passing Silver Cup winner Luca Stolz (whose Grasser mechanics changed a clutch between races), Tristan Vautier and Steven Kane to recover to seventh.
“Considering where we came from after the qualifying race for sure [we can be happy],” Buhk added, “but that’s not our goal to say ‘we survived somewhere’. We want to be in the top five where we belong, we cannot afford another weekend like that.”
5. Brands GP not the best performance indicator
Four different cars finished in the top four places, but that wasn’t an entirely accurate reflection of the pecking order at Brands, with Mercedes and Audi enjoying a distinct advantage over the rest of the field over a single lap. This was exacerbated by the limited overtaking opportunities afforded by the Grand Prix loop that mired several good cars in the pack and left many unable to show their hand.
A processional qualifying race – featuring no retirements and no yellow flags – was the result, with several in the paddock, namely from the Lamborghini and Nismo camps, frustrated. The situation didn’t get much better in the main race, although Soulet, Buhk and Alexander Sims – who came from the back of the grid to 17th in his stint – showed it was possible to make progress if you choose your moments.
“I still don’t know why we are heavier than the Audi because it’s essentially the same car, so for me I think we need to change the BOP – in qualifying, two tenths is worth ten places, and if we gain that we should be there,” said Stolz, who took pole at the Sachsenring last weekend in GT Masters. “In Germany we are the same weight as the Audis so it is really nice to be able to fight with them, but here it’s really hard to do a top ten for the moment.”
“Our pace was okay, just unfortunately the track position and qualifying sets you up for Brands because you can’t really overtake around here,” added Sean Walkinshaw, who finished 22nd overall after a difficult weekend for the Nissans. “It means you might be able to find loads of time between qualifying and the race, but you’re not able to use it because it’s a bit of a procession really.”
New overall GT Drivers championship leader Bell, who finished fourth, probably put it best.
“If you want to overtake, you go to a different track. The nature of this place is wherever you qualify you finish, I don’t think that’s down to BOP.”