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May 23, 2019

Five Things We Learned From Barcelona Blancpain Sprint

Five Things We Learned From Barcelona Blancpain Sprint
Photo Credit To Gary Parravani/www.Xynamic.com

The 2016 Blancpain GT Series bowed out in style in sunny Spain, as Felix Rosenqvist and Tristan Vautier took a much-anticipated first win for Jerome Policand’s AKKA ASP squad, Maxi Buhk and Dominik Baumann were confirmed as the overall champions and Enzo Ide’s fairytale season was capped with the Sprint Cup title. Oh, and Andy Soucek shaved off his moustache. Here’s what we learned.

1. Ide the coolest customer in the place

If anybody ought to have been nervous ahead of the weekend, it was Enzo Ide. Although his championship status would suggest otherwise, the Belgian is not a Pro driver. He’s been around the block a fair few times, with three FIA GT3 championship wins in 2011 and a Blancpain Sprint win from Zandvoort in 2014 under his belt, but Ide purely races for fun alongside his family business commitments.

With the vastly elevated level of the competitiveness in the Sprint Cup this year, due to SRO’s ruling that manufacturers must enter two full-season cars to be eligible for a Pro entry in the Spa 24 Hours, few figured him for a championship contender at the start of the season. An average weekend in Misano did little to change that, but Ide relishes his underdog tag and began to hit his stride with a first win of the year at Brands Hatch.

Further victories in the qualifying races at the Nürburgring and the Hungaroring alongside co-driver Christopher Mies – the man called upon to deliver the goods in qualifying, who deserves enormous credit for his part in Ide’s success – put him into the box seat for the championship in Barcelona, but would he be able to hold it all together in the absence of Mies?

Of course he could. Stand-in team-mate Robin Frijns stepped up to the plate and hit a home run in the qualifying race, making a bold move from third on the grid to pass both Franck Perera and Mirko Bortolotti into turn one for the lead. Ide completed the job with relish to all but secure the championship, putting him on the front row for the feature and out of the way of any chaos behind him.

Showing the temperament of a champion in-waiting, Ide knew which battles to fight and which to leave. Unlike at the Hungaroring, he didn’t get involved in any opening lap argy-bargy with Tristan Vautier and was content to allow Maxime Soulet’s Bentley past as well, before defending his third place from Philipp Eng and Nicolai Moller-Madsen until the pit stops.

With nearest rivals Maxi Buhk and Dominik Baumann stuck down in seventh, it was job done and Ide had pulled off one of the unlikeliest triumphs in recent history. Few will have been more popular.

2. Subdued Buhk makes history

Although they had just as much reason to celebrate as WRT, the overriding emotion for newly-crowned Blancpain GT Series champions Buhk and Baumann was more relief than joy. The HTP Motorsport duo endured a frustrating weekend, spending both races mired in the lower reaches of the top ten, with Buhk’s final stint spent staring at the back of Alessio Picariello’s Silver Cup-winning Audi symptomatic of their struggles.

In the end, seventh in the main event was more than enough to beat the Garage 59 McLaren Rob Bell shared with Alvaro Parente, which failed to score points for the third meeting in a row, but it could have been a very different story had the Portuguese not been handed a drive-through penalty for gaining an advantage by cutting the chicane at the start of the qualifying race.

It certainly wasn’t the way they would have wanted to win it, but they all count and Buhk’s status as only the second man ever to win the full set of overall, Sprint and Endurance titles is now confirmed. For a man of only 23, that’s not bad going.

3. AKKA ASP have got what it takes

Speaking to Racing.GT ahead of the Spa 24 Hours, where his team were granted factory support from AMG, Jerome Policand was uncertain whether the deal would continue for 2017. But after a second place finish in the Blancpain Endurance Cup’s blue-ribband event – despite a five minute penalty – a stellar performance at the Hungaroring and now a first win at Barcelona, it’s surely now only a question of time before AMG head honcho Jochen Bitzer gets in touch.

Felix Rosenqvist was the class of the field in Hungary and was only prevented from securing the victory his pace merited by an astonishing pitstop from WRT and a first-lap skirmish between Ide and Vautier that meant they were both mired in traffic. But there was to be no repeat this time, as Vautier made a textbook start from third on the grid (promoted one spot after a 30-second penalty for Laurens Vanthoor), sweeping around the outside of Ide and Nicolas Pohler’s Lamborghini to take the lead.

While there was action galore further back – Bernd Schneider spinning across the bows of Baumann as he attempted to pass Takaboshi’s Nissan and Will Stevens clattering into Pohler at the turn 10 hairpin, forcing Takaboshi to lose a whole heap of places in avoidance – Vautier continued to his pitstop untroubled, managing the gap back to Soulet at around four seconds. That was more than enough for Rosenqvist to stroke it home and if Policand can keep the team together for next year, it could well be the first of many.

4. Laurens Vanthoor with nothing to lose is a frightening prospect

This has been a strange old year for Laurens Vanthoor. We’ve become so used to seeing the Belgian winning races and championships over the last few seasons that it seems almost hard to believe that he hasn’t won since the Misano season opener, although his speed has never been in doubt.

For all the near-misses – finishing a close second to HTP at Silverstone and to the Grasser Lamborghini at the Nürburgring in the Endurance Cup – Vanthoor’s car has too often been a magnet for trouble, ruling him out of the title race on all three fronts. Frederic Vervisch sustained a costly puncture at Brands Hatch, Vanthoor was torpedoed by an out-of-control Filip Salaquarda at the start of the Nürburgring qualifying race, his brother Dries lost time at Paul Ricard after innocuous contact with Come Ledogar, Rene Rast tangled with Jonathan Hirschi’s Jaguar at Spa, while a penalty for an unsafe release at the Hungaroring cost Vanthoor and Vervisch a podium.

Any hopes of ending his Blancpain campaign on a high appeared to be at an end after flywheel problems in practice meant Vervisch – given the opportunity to do Q3 for the first time all year – had completed minimal running and could qualify only 18th. But a strong opening stint from the underrated Belgian brought the car up to 12th, before another immaculate WRT pitstop saw Vanthoor emerge in seventh. He continued Vervisch’s good work by making light work of Soulet on cold tyres to take sixth, then lining up team-mate Stevens and pursuing Vautier, who was pressured into a small error at turn 5.

Marlon Stockinger’s Audi was his next target and appeared to leave the door open for Vanthoor, who duly obliged by sticking his nose down the inside just as the Filipino turned in. Contact was made and although a sheepish Vanthoor would also take Pohler for second in the final lap, a 30-second penalty dropped him to 13th. Progress was slightly harder to come by in the main race, but they would likely have made it onto the podium had the car ahead not been Frijns, leaving Vervisch to settle for fourth.

Vanthoor won’t want these comebacks through the field to be a regular occurrence next year, but it served as a timely reminder that when the chips are down and there’s nothing to lose, he is one of the very best in the business.

5. Last lap skirmish leaves us wanting more

It was apt that even on the final lap the season, with the championships all but decided, there was still no letting up in the action, leaving those watching at the Circuit de Catalunya-Barcelona in no doubt as to what to expect in 2017.

Having closed relentlessly as the clock ticked down, the inspired Frijns found himself within striking range of Andy Soucek’s second-place and duly made a lunge at the turn 10 hairpin. The move initially looked to have come off – much to the delight of the WRT crew, hunched over the TV monitors waiting to cheer Frijns across the line – but Soucek was having none of it and retook the position as they headed up the hill, glancing the front of the Audi as it re-joined the circuit.

After shooting themselves in the foot at Paul Ricard and Spa, it was an encouraging end to the season for Bentley – the winners of the very first race of the season under the floodlights in Misano – and with multiple Le Mans-winning engineer Leena Gade becoming ever-more established in the team, they will be as eager as anybody for next season to start in earnest.

The journey to Misano begins now…

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.