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April 01, 2020

Five Things We Learned from Blancpain Endurance Nurburgring

Five Things We Learned from Blancpain Endurance Nurburgring
Photo Credit To Gary Parravani/www.xynamic.com

That McLaren’s Rob Bell, Come Ledogar and Shane van Gisbergen should win the Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup at the Nürburgring despite a calamitous run to 30th says everything about an enthralling season full of twists and turns that wasn’t decided until the very last lap. Christian Engelhart soaked up huge pressure from Laurens Vanthoor to mark his Blancpain debut with a victory for Grasser Racing, while Nissan’s Lazarus act prevented HTP Motorsport from snatching the title under the noses of Garage 59. Here’s what we learned.

1. McLaren can win ugly

Sometimes the sweetest victories are those that you don’t expect. And on a day that saw Rob Bell penalised for contact with Marco Bonanomi and Daniel Zampieri, supersub Duncan Tappy pick up a puncture and Come Ledogar pitched into a spin, it seemed highly unlikely that Garage 59 would end the day sipping champagne. Unable to control their own destiny, all they could do was sit tight and wait to see if Maxi Buhk could catch Alex Buncombe for third. On this occasion, their luck held as HTP came up one point short.

“It’s a bit weird because we’ve won the toughest GT championship there is, which feels absolutely amazing, but we had such a terrible race!” said a bemused Bell afterwards. “I was thinking ‘we can’t possibly win anything today with this going on’, but come the end, it all fell into place.

“The last stint was horrible, I was pacing around not knowing where to put myself, but if someone had said to me at the beginning of the season ‘do you want to win this championship by a point but you’ll have a crap last race?’ I’d have replied, ‘yes please, I’ll have a bit of that!’”

To put the icing on the cake, Bell and Ledogar’s failure to score means they didn’t move clear of season-long team-mate Shane van Gisbergen, will also have his name carved into the trophy despite having to skip the round to fulfil his Supercars Championship commitments in Australia.

“We won two races which is more than anyone else, so we deserved to win it,” Bell continued. “I don’t want to go through today again, ever, but we all stuck together. Come did a mega job and Duncan has come in and hasn’t put a foot wrong – it’s a group sport and he should feel as proud as all of us.”

For Sporting Manager Bas Leinders, it was the crowning glory of his first year at the helm that included the Bathurst 12 Hours at the start of the year and Endurance Cup victories at Monza and Paul Ricard. Bell and Alvaro Parente are still in contention to win the Blancpain Sprint Cup at Barcelona in two weeks time.

“It was very weird because you cannot control anything, the last hour was very stressful, but you win a championship, you don’t win a race,” he said. “We have a very dedicated team, very motivated people and we do a good job.

“We’re not a big team, we’re quite a small team with not a lot of money and we did very little testing, so I’m sure if we did a little bit more testing, we can improve the car, the drivers and the team itself, so there’s still progress to be made in the future.”

2. Bortolotti sets the record straight 

Almost forgotten amid the clamour over McLaren’s championship and Christian Engelhart’s debut victory was the role played by team-mate Mirko Bortolotti in the opening stint. Frustrated at having to watch as the sister Lambo of Luca Stolz took pole, the Italian had risen from fifth to second on the opening lap and was soon past Stolz into a lead he would never lose, handing over to team-mate Rolf Iniechen with a six second lead over Frederic Vervisch.

Involved with the project since the very beginning, Bortolotti knows the Huracan like the back of his hand and has taken more pole positions than anybody else (three) during his time in the Endurance Cup, but remarkably was still waiting for his first win. Some 526 days after his team-mates Fabio Babini, Jeroen Mul and Andrew Palmer won on the car’s debut at Monza last year, he finally set that record straight.

“I’ve been waiting for this result for quite a long time now and finally we managed to take this first win, I’m really happy,” he said. “I’ve said several times that we had the chance to win some races – I think about Paul Ricard in 2015 where I was leading for two and a half hours and we couldn’t even finish on the podium and other situations like this year at Spa, where I had two hours in the lead and then we had some bad luck as well.

“This championship doesn’t allow you to make the smallest mistake, so if you want to be successful, everything has to work out more or less perfectly. Perfection doesn’t exist, but you have to be close to it. I’m always happy when a Lamborghini wins, but when I’m sitting in it, that’s the top scenario.”

3. Nissan re-pays the favour

Of all the cars to play a crucial role in handing the title to Garage 59, few could have predicted that it would be the RJN Nissan, which benefitted from the Von Ryan Racing McLaren playing spoiler to win the championship 12 months ago.

As documented on Racing.GT last week, Nissan’s title defence has never really got going this year and they came into the weekend with nothing at stake but personal pride. But thanks to cool temperatures and the long run up from the Dunlop hairpin which allowed the GT-R to stretch its legs, Nissan were an altogether different proposition to the largely peripheral figures they’ve been all year.

From 11th on the grid, Lucas Ordonez profited from the first corner clash between Ahmad al-Harthy, Duncan Cameron and Phil Keen, but didn’t stop there and had climbed to fourth by the end of his opening stint. Mitsunori Takaboshi has caught the eye with some spectacular overtakes in his first year in the championship and there was more evidence of that here as the Japanese passed Michele Beretta for third – setting the second fastest lap of the entire race in doing so – before Alex Buncombe took over for the run to the flag.

When the Safety Car came out to repair barriers demolished by Louis Machiel’s Attempto Lamborghini, Buncombe had only two cars between himself and the lurking HTP Mercedes of Maxi Buhk. The reigning Blancpain Sprint Cup champion – sharing with Dominik Baumann and Jazeman Jaafar – would win the title if he could clear Buncombe in the final half hour, but the Briton made sure of a first podium of the year with an assured restart. In quick succession, he passed the Team Italia BMW, Maro Engel’s Black Falcon Mercedes and the Boutsen Ginion BMW to put clear daylight between himself and Buhk, much to the relief of the watching McLaren team.

“For car 23 it was a faultless race, the pitstops were half a second over the time stipulated,” reflected RJN team manager Bob Neville. “You need good fortune in racing and the good fortune for us today was that the temperature was cool, our tyres lasted nicely and the guys drove brilliantly – we’re absolutely over the moon.”

4. Bad luck strikes again for Bentley 

Despite stumbling at the final hurdle with victory on the cards at Paul Ricard and Spa, the No. 8 Bentley’s sheer consistency meant they were in prime position to profit from any McLaren slip-ups, only 9 points behind.

But they reckoned without contact during the opening stint which – in a repeat of the qualifying race at Misano – meant the M-Sport mechanics were unable to remove the left-rear wheel at the first pitstop. Although Wolfgang Reip took over from Maxime Soulet in a promising seventh, he was powerless to make any further progress with only three new tyres and simply couldn’t muster the grip to pass Alexander Mattschull’s Black Pearl Ferrari.

Reip’s struggles only got worse the longer the stint continued and after falling behind Andreas Simonsen’s Black Falcon Mercedes and Nikolai Rogivue’s guesting Zakspeed, it wasn’t long before he fell into the clutches of Vincent Abril in the sister Bentley – which had started from the pitlane after shunting in practice with a brake problem – and the two ROWE BMWs of Alexander Sims and Stef Dusseldorp.

Their day was compounded when Andy Soucek had to make a third visit to the pits to change all four tyres and was then slapped with a thirty second penalty for contact, eventually finishing 19th. Bentley’s search for a first title goes on…

“It ended up the worst it could, we didn’t score points,” said a disappointed Soucek. “We came here second and a good contender for the championship, the McLaren didn’t get points so it was a good opportunity to get those nine points back and win the championship. A fourth place would have been enough and that was our goal since the beginning of the race, but it was not possible.

“It’s a bitter year since Ricard and Spa and now the end of the championship not being a good race either, what can I say? It’s very disappointing. We will try to be back and fight for it again.”

5. Qualifying scuppers ROWE 

It’s stating the obvious when there are 54 cars in the field, but qualifying in the Blancpain Endurance Cup really can make or break a weekend. As Spa 24 Hour winners Alexander Sims and Philipp Eng discovered to their cost, it can scupper a championship too.

There were mitigating circumstances – thick fog caused Q1 and Q2 to be cancelled and when Q3 did eventually get underway, red flags early in the session to recover the No. 8 Bentley from the turn one gravel piled the pressure on a final ten-minute shootout.

As the track dried, it was a matter of who could cross the line last, but Olivier Beretta’s spin brought out the red flags again, this time ending the session for good.

There were tales of woe up and down the pitlane, but few were hit quite as hard as the No. 99 ROWE BMW. Nicky Catsburg was unable to complete his fastest lap and was marooned down in 39th place, leaving the team to face a long afternoon with little prospect of reward.

Eng scythed into the top 20 in the opening stint before Sims and Catsburg brought the car into points contention, but tenth was never going to be enough to put themselves into the frame.

“It’s the same for everyone so it’s not for me to whinge about the situation screwing us more than others,” said a resigned Sims. “We got caught out by the red flag as many other people did and we hadn’t got a proper banker lap before then, that’s the long and short of it.

“Our pace in the race was somewhat better than 39th position and certainly if we’d started higher up, it would have been a slightly different race. But despite that, I’m fairly pleased with the whole Endurance season. Fourth place at Silverstone was good and then to win Spa obviously is the jewel in the crown – whatever happened here, the fact that you won Spa means you still leave with a smile on your face.”

About The Author

James Newbold

James Newbold is Racing.GT's Editor. He graduated from a politics degree at the University of East Anglia in 2015, which should help him navigate through the political minefield that is GT racing. He likes Marmite on toast and Oreo cookies. Speaks Spanish, but only when no one is looking.