On a day dominated by Bentley, it was the Garage 59 McLaren of Rob Bell, Shane van Gisbergen and Come Ledogar that took the spoils in the Paul Ricard 1000km. As if that wasn’t enough, they also reclaimed the lead in the championship, after gearbox problems struck down the HTP Mercedes. Here’s what we learned from an eventful six hours building up to the Spa 24 Hours.
1. Bentley blows its big chance
Malcolm Wilson certainly won’t look back on this event with any great fondness. After a best-ever qualifying in third and fourth places, Guy Smith and Wolfgang Reip were first and second by the end of the first lap, their only challenge in the first hour coming from the Pro-Am-leading Scuderia Praha Ferrari of Matteo Malucelli.
But it wasn’t long before things started to go awry. Not only did Smith have to contend with cockpit temperatures of 48 degrees during his energy-sapping double stint in the late afternoon sun, but the ABS system on the No. 7 car was also beginning to fail. The problem worsened when Vincent Abril took over, and required a two-lap spell in the pits while it was fixed, leaving them well down the order.
With Maxime Soulet at the wheel, the No. 8 car took over the reins up front and looked set for a first-ever Endurance Cup victory when disaster struck during Andy Soucek’s final fuel and tyre stop. Fuel spilled on the hot exhaust and erupted into flames, costing them the best part of two minutes. Soucek set a blistering pace after rejoining fourth, but couldn’t catch Filipe Albuquerque’s Audi for the final podium place.
On a day they had dominated, it was a bitter pill to swallow.
When you lead for five hours and both cars prove they have what it takes, it’s tough to go home empty handed. But, our team did us proud.
— Bentley Motorsport (@BentleyRacing) June 25, 2016
2. Consistency pays for McLaren
While M-Sport were busy scratching their hands and pondering what more they could have done, McLaren were busy picking up the pieces.
Although Garage 59 is a fundamentally different team to the Von Ryan Racing squad which served as McLaren’s de-facto works operation last year, they appear to have picked up a few strategy tips from the departed Dave Ryan, who masterminded last year’s victories at Silverstone and the Nürburgring.
— Shane van Gisbergen (@shanevg97) June 26, 2016
After a strong start from Bell, Garage 59 actually lost ground to the leaders by not pitting under the second full course yellow– the result of Ian Loggie demolishing the barriers with the rear end of his Team Parker Racing Bentley – and needed Ledogar to get his skates on to put themselves in the picture. The Frenchman duly obliged, slipstreaming past Jazeman Jaafar on the Mistral before muscling past Dries Vanthoor’s Audi to take third.
That became second after Michele Beretta’s Lamborghini fell away, but despite van Gisbergen’s best efforts, the 650 S GT3 just didn’t have the pace to match the race-leading Bentley and soon fell prey to the charging AF Corse Ferrari of poleman Alessandro Pier Guidi. Fortunately, another FCY brought them back into the fight with an hour to go.
The Bentley and McLaren came in together, but only van Gisbergen would leave the pits on schedule. The race then returned to green before Pier Guidi could make his own stop, costing the Ferrari 30 seconds and ensuring Garage 59 became the first double winners of the 2016 Blancpain GT Series season.
“It was a brilliant call to take that pitstop and it gave us the big jump,” said van Gisbergen. “We didn’t have the speed of the Ferrari or the Bentley today, but good strategy and great pitwork won us that race, we were always on the limit of doing the shortest stops we could.”
But can they keep the ball rolling at Spa? That will be another question altogether.
3. Has the Ferrari 488 been tamed?
Although Pier Guidi just ran out of laps in his bid to catch Van Gisbergen, the Ferrari 488 GT3 now appears to have reached a stage where its abundant speed can be paired with drivability.
— Ale Pier Guidi (@Ale_PierGuidi) June 25, 2016
At Monza, tellingly it was Daniel Keilwitz’s older 458 that took the challenge to Dominik Baumann’s Mercedes in the early stages. Several Pro drivers complained that the 488 felt nervous on the limit and was difficult for Ams to get to grips with, although factory driver Giancarlo Fisichella would go on to set fastest lap in his late race charge.
However, as the season has progressed and teams develop an understanding of its nuances, the car has started to come alive. Of course, its prodigious straight-line speed on the Mistral was a real help and it was no surprise to see the likes of Pier Guidi, Maclucelli, Olivier Beretta, Matt Griffin and Michele Rugolo lighting up the timing screens.
— Adam Christodoulou (@AdamChristo) June 25, 2016
The real acid test was whether inexperienced Indonesian Pasin Lathouras could keep the car in contention. Tasked with starting the race on used tyres with a pack of hungry Pros on his tail, Lathouras endured a shaky opening lap that saw Bell briefly make it four-wide on the Mistral with the two Bentleys, but thereafter settled into a rhythm on the cusp of the top ten.
Once in the hands of Rugolo and Pier Guidi, the Ferrari was rarely anything but the fastest car on track and would certainly have won had AF brought Pier Guidi in on the same lap as Van Gisbergen.
“If we just look one race behind we can see a big improvement in our setup,” said Rugolo. “We worked really hard to understand the problems before this event and we can really look forward now to Spa for the 24 Hours.”
4. Mercedes aren’t invulnerable
After Mercedes’ utterly dominant display at the Nürburgring 24 Hours, it was a strange sight to see them beset by problems over 6 hours at Paul Ricard.
An ABS failure in qualifying for the No. 57 Black Falcon car of Hubert Haupt, Andreas Simonsen and Adam Christodoulou started the weekend off on a sour note, but there were still high hopes for the race with team-mates Yelmer Buurman and Maro Engel both inside the top ten.
However, when the clock struck 12pm, the best-placed Merc was three laps down in 17th, after a bruising day for all three AMG Customer Sports teams. AKKA ASP were running a car in the Pro class for the first time this season, but Renger van der Zande only lasted two laps before suffering a broken radiator.
— HTP Motorsport (@HTPMotorsport) June 25, 2016
HTP Motorsport didn’t fare much better, with gearbox problems eliminating erstwhile championship leaders Maxi Buhk, Jazeman Jaafar and Dominik Baumann from fourth. Buurman, Bernd Schneider and Abdulaziz al Faisal were due to collect fifth when they were struck down by a similar issue half an hour before the end, promoting the RJN Nissan of Alex Buncombe, Lucas Ordonez and Mitsunori Takaboshi.
There weren’t many cheery faces in the Mercedes camp afterwards, but you would expect they won’t mind a jot if they can come back and win at Spa…
5. Motorbase can contend with anyone in Pro-Am
While you’d be hard pressed to find a team more disappointed than Bentley after the race, their paddock neighbours Motorbase would have run them a close second.
If it was a nice surprise to see David Bartrum’s team in the thick of the Pro-Am fight at Monza, the Aston Martin was always expected to go well at Silverstone and only missed out on victory after an entertaining scrap with Engel’s Mercedes.
They were right in the mix again at Paul Ricard and running second after tidy stints from Ahmad al-Harthy and Devon Modell when Jonny Adam took over for the final two hours. With only the Kessel Racing Ferrari driven by Bronze-rated Michal Broniszewski ahead and Griffin’s AF Corse Ferrari some thirty seconds behind, the omens were looking good.
— Devon Modell (@Devon_Modell) June 25, 2016
But no sooner had the British GT champion settled into the darkness when his front-left suspension failed, robbing the team of a likely victory that would have put them into the lead of the championship.
Instead, the Kessel Ferrari of Broniszewski/ Alessandro Bonacini/ Andrea Rizzoli held on for its second victory of the season, narrowly ahead of Griffin/ Duncan Cameron/ Davide Rizzo. Barwell’s Phil Keen, Marco Mapelli and Leo Matchitski completed the podium after an engine change caused them to start from the pitlane.
It was a crushing blow for Bartrum’s merry band, but the championship is anything but over with 30 hours of racing still to come…