In years to come, the classic BBC2 quiz show ‘A Question of Sport’ will almost certainly introduce a clip of Laurens Vanthoor’s Audi R8 sliding on its roof in the 2016 FIA GT World Cup before posing the question, ‘what happened next?’ Indeed, Vanthoor himself was just as bemused as everybody to be declared the winner after his frightening roll at the high-speed Mandarin corner brought out the red flags. With just one racing lap completed, it certainly wasn’t a thriller, but the dramatic conclusion will certainly live long in the memory. Here’s what we learned.
1. “Awkward” Vanthoor won’t win many stranger
Laurens Vanthoor told Racing.GT last week that he would go ‘all in’ for glory in Macau, but he couldn’t possibly have imagined it would end up like this.
The 25-year-old was hugely frustrated to narrowly miss out on pole to Audi team-mate Edoardo Mortara in a close-fought qualifying session, but when Mortara removed himself from contention with a spin at the start of the qualifying race, Vanthoor had a free run for the main event.
The Belgian aced the start and had pulled a gap on Earl Bamber’s Porsche when his lead was neutralised by the arrival of the safety car to retrieve Ricky Capo’s BMW Z4 from the barriers at Fisherman’s Bend. After four slow laps, the red flags were waved, leaving only 15 minutes on the clock when the race resumed.
This time, Bamber was close enough to get in the tow coming through turn one and slipped past on the run towards the blind right-hander at Mandarin, which had already claimed Pasin Lathouas and Richard Lyons in qualifying.
Unwilling to let Bamber get away, Vanthoor chased him into Mandarian with a view to slipstreaming the Porsche down to the next braking zone at Lisboa, but misjudged the corner entry and turned in too early. He clipped the inside kerb, which unsettled the car and spat him into the armco barrier with enough force to be launched skywards.
Never want to see this in my mirror again. Scary stuff. Glad knowone got hurt. It shows how far the sport has come with safety!! pic.twitter.com/ir0F6N6PoR
— Earl Bamber (@earlbamber) November 21, 2016
Vanthoor landed upside-down and skated along the circuit, giving next cars on the scene Kevin Estre and Maro Engel the shock of their lives. Miraculously, nobody hit him and Vanthoor emerged from the wreckage with only wounded pride. Unsurprisingly, the red flags came out again, this time for good.
But in a bizarre twist, when the results were counted back one lap, it was Vanthoor who was declared the winner, the stewards electing not to take action for causing the stoppage. It wasn’t popular with everybody, but the result stood, culminating in one of the least enthusiastic podium ceremonies Macau has ever seen.
After the biggest shunt of his career – confirming to Racing.GT afterwards that it was the first time he has ever rolled – Vanthoor cut a sombre figure in the post-race press conference, admitting that he felt “awkward”.
“I wish I would have been more happy – it’s a strange way to win such a big race,” he said. “I’ve been wanting to win this one very bad, you could say I’ve done it but it’s an awkward way. I’d prefer to cross the finish line and win it like you should win it.
“There’s nothing we can change about it, everybody would have liked to have a different end, but that’s the way it is. At least we’ve shown all weekend that we were strong and we were in the fight for the win – that shows that we kind of deserved it, but we’d like to have done the finish.”
Thankfully, the accident didn’t cost him his sense of humour though.
If you win, you get media attention. If you do a big crash you get media attention. If you do both…. : Twitter explosion.
— Laurens Vanthoor (@VanthoorLaurens) November 20, 2016
2. Porsche left to rue red flags
Few had more reason to be aggrieved by the result than Bamber’s team-mate Kevin Estre. On only his second visit to Macau, the Frenchman was one of few front-runners not to make a mistake all weekend long, but had to make do with the second spot on the rostrum.
Audi may have had the highest top-end speed, but Porsche’s superior torque out of the corners and, crucially, at the restarts meant it was perhaps an even stronger package in the race.
Estre was shaded in qualifying by Bamber – a former winner at Macau in the Asian Carrera Cup in 2013 – but made a fantastic start to the qualifying race to usurp Nico Mueller’s Audi and Maro Engel before Lisboa, before spending the duration of the race attached to Bamber’s rear bumper.
He fancied his chances of making progress in the main event from the second row, but with only one full lap under green, Estre never had the chance, although he did get bumped up to second when Bamber was given a five-second penalty for squeezing Engel into the wall at the start. As a result, the disappointed Kiwi was classified fourth, although Estre wasn’t much happier.
P2 in a too short race!Had a great start and made no mistake the whole w-e. Not enough to win 2day but I’m proud of the team!@manthey_racing pic.twitter.com/DI3f0YV3W8
— kevin estre (@kevinestre) November 20, 2016
“Macau is a fantastic track [but] we should count on more time to do the race because it’s almost sure that there will be some Safety Car or some red flags,” he told Racing.GT.
“We lost the win both ways, we lost the win because Earl got a penalty. Maybe it’s right, maybe it’s wrong, but it’s not by job to judge this.
“In the end, I am the only one which did no mistakes today and I finished second, but that’s the way it is. I have to accept it and we’ll try to come back next year and win.”
3. Boots on the other foot for Mercedes
Maro Engel and the Mercedes SLS AMG have been a dominant force on the streets of Macau for the last three years, only missing out on victory in 2013 to a puncture, before taking back-to-back wins in 2014 and 2015.
However, an unfavourable Balance of Performance for the new Mercedes-AMG GT3 meant Engel and Renger van der Zande were playing catch-up all weekend long, giving away over 12 km/h to the Audis and Porsches on the straights.
With that considered, Engel’s qualifying lap to take fourth on the grid – just two tenths behind Mortara – was something truly special. Engel reckoned it was “probably the best lap I’ve done in Macau in my career,” while team-mate van der Zande told Racing.GT there was no more time left in the car.
— Maro Engel (@MaroEngel) November 19, 2016
However, there was no compensating for the lack of power in the races, as Engel was out-dragged by Estre into Mandarin and spent the rest of the race trying to get back on terms. Van der Zande didn’t fare much better, and was given a three-place grid penalty for making contact with Nico Mueller at Lisboa, putting him behind Adderly Fong’s lurid-yellow Absolute Racing Bentley, Macau rookie Nick Catsburg’s ROWE BMW and Audi privateer Fabian Plentz.
Depite losing out to Fong at the start at the main race when Bamber cut across his bows, Engel was able to recover to fourth with a daring move into Lisboa, while Van der Zande passed Plentz and Catsburg to take sixth before the red flags came out.
“It was a difficult weekend for us in terms of BOP, but I’m really proud of the team and how they pulled together to get the best out of our package, especially after Thursday where we were quite a long way off,” said Engel. “We managed to close that gap down quite a lot, but there was nothing we could do about that straight line disadvantage.”
“Maro put some mega laps in in qualifying, that’s why it didn’t look so bad,” added van der Zande. “But we were way down on the straight, so we couldn’t fight the Porsches and the Audis. Even though if they want to keep the same lap time with the BOP I think they could at least give us more weight and more power, so give something away but also take something.”
4. Macau brings out the best and worst of Mortara
On his last weekend as an Audi driver and at the a circuit where he has won on five previous occasions across Formula 3 and GTs, Edoardo Mortara was in formidable form on Friday. Laurens Vanthoor had looked to have the edge for much of the session, but there would be no stopping Mortara on his final run as he danced through the streets in the fastest ever time set by a GT car around Macau, becoming the first man ever to dip under the 2m17s barrier.
— Racing GT (@RacingGT) November 21, 2016
But if his qualifying effort was sublime, the start of the qualifying race was plain ridiculous. The Italian made a good start and ran side by side with Vanthoor through turn one, but suddenly lost control on exit and spun backwards into the wall. Faster than you could say ‘Mr Macau’, his hopes of a strong finish were dashed.
Mortara was able to pit for repairs to his broken rear wing under a safety car brought out when Nico Mueller shunted at the same corner, but his fightback was curtailed by a mistimed lunge on Darryl O’Young’s Porsche on the final lap, which earned him a three-place grid penalty for the main race.
With so little time to make progress before the red flags waved, Mortara could only recover to 13th at the finish. It wasn’t the way he would have wanted to end his Audi career, but you can bank on him being back next year with Mercedes, where he will be desperate to make amends. We certainly haven’t seen the last of him at Macau just yet.
5. Could Macau be the wrong venue for the World Cup?
Aside from the controversy over the finish, there’s another large elephant in the room to address when looking back on the GT World Cup – the lack of spectacle.
On the face of it, this appears to be a contradiction in terms. GT cars are evocative, noisy creatures, and when placed on the Macau Guia circuit – widely regarded as one of the greatest driving challenges in the world for its unique blend of speed and zero margin for error – the season-ending GT World Cup ought to be one of the highlights of the calendar year.
However, the racing is often processional with very little room to overtake and disparities in the BOP par for the course, because the circuit is only used once per year.
To make matters worse, the narrow confines mean racing is frequently interrupted by safety cars and red flags. This was the second year in a row that the World Cup failed to reach its full 18-lap distance, after a local driver in a Porsche crashed under safety car and blocked the circuit in 2015.
While Macau as a circuit is held in the highest regard by drivers, it just doesn’t seem to work as a venue for GT racing. Is it damaging the credibility of the nascent World Cup, and should it therefore be staged elsewhere?
“After the Nordschleife it’s for me the most enjoyable and exciting track to drive, but the racing is really bad here,” said Estre. “It was not so good last year and it was definitely worse this year. It’s something which we have to think about for the future with the FIA to know if they really want to do a World Cup on this track, because it’s not really representative and it’s not good for the fans.
“The reputation of the event is I think still okay, because it’s one of the nicest tracks in the world, but for the FIA GT World Cup it’s a question mark to know if it’s the right place or not.”
Laurens showed today that the saying “to finish first, you first have to finish”, is not always how it works. Unsatisfying day for all of us
— Renger van der Zande (@Rengervdz) November 20, 2016
“It’s a very unsatisfying weekend for all of us, including the winner,” agrees van der Zande. “It’s just a shame, they should have skipped the podium and given us more drive time or restarts or something like that.
“I’m not sure how this will influence companies like Mercedes or Porsche, or if they will want to come back for a World Cup with only three laps of racing. It’s an amazing place to go racing, but not this way.”
Inaugural GT World Cup winner Engel countered that the challenge posed by Macau makes it the ideal location for the event, but warned that the timing issue needs to be rectified in future for it to be taken seriously.
“We definitely know that Macau is a track where incidents happen and it’s common to see safety cars, but it’s definitely the most challenging track in the world, so I think it’s only fitting that an FIA World Cup is held on a track where the challenge is the highest,” he said.
“The main issue for us was just the timing and the fact that the first crash caused Armco barrier damage. I think if we have a look at that timing situation, it’s a bit of a paradox that if qualifying is red flagged, the time is halted and if a race is red flagged, the time continues, so that’s something we should have a look at to make sure we don’t have a repeat of what happened on Sunday.
“You could see in all of our faces that nobody was happy, we all wanted a real race and at the end of the day have a real winner who wins the race on track. It’s a shame how it ended, but the most important thing is that Laurens is okay. It’s just a day that none of wanted to go like it did.”