Laurens Vanthoor was forced to miss the FIA GT World Cup at Macau last year through injury. On his return following a tough 2016 Blancpain GT campaign, he told James Newbold just how much it would mean to end his season on a high.
“It’s been a frustrating season where things just didn’t come along. It didn’t have anything to do with our speed, our work, or our performance, but there have been too many mistakes and things that went wrong to be able to win a championship. I’m even surprised that I’m still third in Blancpain GT after everything that happened – to give you an idea, I can give you a sum up of all the things, but I cannot count them on my two hands!”
To describe Laurens Vanthoor’s last 12 months as tumultuous would be a gross understatement. After a horrifying shunt at Misano brought his 2015 campaign to an abrupt halt, he could only watch from the sidelines as Robin Frijns took the Blancpain GT Series title without him at Zandvoort. If that wasn’t bad enough, Vanthoor didn’t get the all-clear from Audi’s doctors in time for Macau, which was given World Cup status by the FIA for the first time. Rene Rast filled in for him in Audi’s two-car roster alongside Edoardo Mortara, but neither could not prevent Maro Engel and Mercedes from taking their second consecutive victory on the final outing for the SLS AMG.
Vanthoor marked his return in style with consecutive wins in the 2015 Sepang 12 Hours and the Dubai 24 Hours in January, but his malaise was far from over. Though the Belgian was rarely found wanting for pace, 2016 was not a vintage year as circumstances conspired to keep Vanthoor from contesting any of the three Blancpain titles on offer, while his GT Masters campaign ended in acrimony when APR Motorsport were thrown out of the championship for running non-homologated air filters at the Red Bull Ring. His LMP1 aspirations were then hit with a hammer blow, when Audi announced that they would be pulling the plug after 18 seasons.
— Racing GT (@RacingGT) November 2, 2016
“It wasn’t an easy season for sure, especially after the end of last year where two championships slipped away because of the accident, I was pretty motivated to get back at it and try to win it,” says Vanthoor. “We were always there [on pace] to be on the podium every race, but in the end on each weekend something went wrong. Mistakes, penalties, if you want you can call it bad luck, but it always comes from somewhere.
“I’m not pointing any fingers if it was me or my team-mates, but in general there was always something which came across the road and destroyed the party. It was the same in the 24 Hours of Spa, the same in the 24 Hours of Nürburgring. At certain points, it became quite hard and frustrating, because basically every weekend I was going home disappointed.”
The first round of the Sprint Cup at Misano set the tone for the year. Vanthoor was incensed at losing victory in the night qualifying race to a fortuitously-timed Full Course Yellow, which allowed the still-to-pit Bentley of Andy Soucek and Alexander Sims’ ROWE BMW to gain a massive advantage over everybody else when they came in.
He recovered to win the main race after team-mate Frederic Vervisch muscled past Philipp Eng in the early stages, but the die was cast. A puncture at Brands Hatch, first lap contact with Filip Salaquarda at the Nurburgring, a pit time violation at the Hungaroring and flywheel problems in Barcelona meant Vanthoor and Vervisch were left on the outside looking in, as semi-pro racer Enzo Ide ‘did a Leicester’ and surprised everybody by taking the title from the other side of the same garage.
It was a similar story in Endurance. The season didn’t get off to the best of starts at Monza when Vervisch took damage at turn one, before Vanthoor’s younger brother Dries was hit with a drive-through for nerfing the Team Parker Racing Bentley into the barriers at the Parabolica. After a fighting second place at Silverstone, a minor brush with Come Ledogar’s McLaren at Paul Ricard cost them several laps in the pits and meant Vanthoor would have to score big points at Spa to get his title challenge back on track.
Teaming up with factory aces Rene Rast and Nico Mueller, the No.28 Audi was running comfortably in the lead group when Rast tangled with Jonathan Hirschi’s Jaguar shortly before the six hour mark and dropped three laps off the lead. Although they would fight back to finish on the podium in the late race shower, the failure to score any points at six or 12 hours meant Vanthoor was out of the running for the championship with a round to spare. To cap his frustration, he spent almost the entire final stint at the Nürburgring latched onto the bumper of Christian Engelhart’s Lamborghini, but was unable to make a pass for the win.
— Laurens Vanthoor (@VanthoorLaurens) August 27, 2016
Looking back on the season, Vanthoor is philosophical. He doesn’t attempt to hide his frustration at seeing Christopher Mies usurp him as Audi’s top dog – the relentlessly consistent German helped Ide to three victories before skipping the final round to wrap up the GT Masters title with Land Motorsport at Hockenheim – but recognises that nothing can be gained from dwelling on it.
“That was one of the things which most frustrated me, because in the past it’s always been our number one car which was on top,” he admits. “There is no doubt that Enzo is a magnificent guy and he has a lot more talent than people expect from him and Mies there is no question about it, he is one of the best GT drivers on the planet at the moment. But for some reason we were not able to get on top of things in the Sprint Cup. When we were at Spa, doing GT Masters or doing any kind of race, we were performing like we wanted to do, but in Sprint we were always missing out to Enzo and Mies and without a clear reason why. In the end, maybe they were just doing a better job than us, I think that’s a fair conclusion to say.
“In the end it makes no sense to take yourself down and say ‘it’s a shit season, what’s happening, I’ve lost my game’ or whatever. It’s done and the reasons why it happened, I know them. It’s still a pity and I’m not going to hide that it was frustrating, but life goes on – you have to learn about it and be better next time.”
Vanthoor instead plans to focus his energies on finishing the year on a high with WRT in Macau, one of few circuits where he has yet to win. In his four starts in F3, he came closest in 2010, when Signature team-mate Mortara pipped him at the post. The Italian will depart Audi for Mercedes after Macau, so Vanthoor won’t be content to play second fiddle yet again.
— Laurens Vanthoor (@VanthoorLaurens) October 27, 2016
“He took first place from me with five laps to go, so I need to pay him back for that!” Vanthoor joked. “It would mean everything in the world at the moment, for multiple reasons. It’s an event I haven’t won in my career yet and it’s a place I absolutely love to go to.
“It’s been a shitty season, so the World Cup would be a nice way to end it on a high – for the last two months or even more I’ve not been able to win a championship, so the only thing I have in my head is Macau. I’m going to go there and go all in, because finishing second or third is not enough – I’m very clear that I want to win there, so I’m going to try everything I can.”
After Macau, Vanthoor will return to Sepang as part of a two-car factory entry from Phoenix Racing, alongside Frijns and Christopher Haase. While not the most prestigious of prizes in GT racing at present, Vanthoor is nonetheless hopeful of entering the history books as the first winner of the Intercontinental GT Challenge, which he leads courtesy of strong finishes at Bathurst and Spa.
“Sepang is one of the toughest races I ever did because of the heat – Formula One drivers complain about it, but put a roof over your head and it gets even warmer!” he said. “Okay, today that championship is not the world’s highest championship, but if we could win, it would be something nice to add on the list. There are not 50 drivers who have done all three races, but it doesn’t change a thing – winning a championship is still winning a championship.”
If indeed he can do the Macau-Sepang double, then perhaps 2016 won’t leave such a bitter taste in the mouth after all.
Macau runners and riders
Vanthoor will face stiff opposition in Macau, as the GT World Cup grows year by year. Only four manufacturers, including Audi, have nominated entries, but there is still plenty of competition for the top ten spots on the grid.
— Maro Engel (@MaroEngel) November 13, 2016
Fresh from the disappointment of losing a probable points finish in the Marrakech ePrix to mechanical gremlins, reigning double champion Maro Engel will be back and gunning for his Macau hattrick. The Mercedes-AMG GT3 is unproven on street circuits, but Engel loves the place and can always be relied upon to extract every tenth. He will be joined in the works AMG team once again by Renger van der Zande, who has played tail-gunner for Engel the past two years. But after the Dutchman was denied victory in the Nürburgring 24 Hours when Engel passed Christian Hohenadel on the final lap, the German can’t expect too many favours this time around…
Porsche are taking the event very seriously too, with two works Manthey 911s for Earl Bamber and Kevin Estre joined by experienced Craft-Bamboo pair Darryl O’Young and Richard Lyons.
Lamborghini are the fourth factory entrant and are represented by Andrea Caldarelli’s FFF Racing outfit, which clinched the GT Asia championship with Andrea Amici and Edoardo Liberati. Their hopes are pinned on local driver Andre Couto and Macau rookie Mirko Bortolotti.
Nicky Catsburg (ROWE Racing-BMW M6) and Nico Mueller (Phoenix Racing Asia-Audi R8 LMS) are also new to Macau, but will each hope to challenge for a podium place, while 2012 event winners Absolute Racing could also be an outside bet. As in the Asian Le Mans Series, the Hong Kong-based squad have entered two cars, one Bentley Continetal GT3 for GT Asia race-winner Adderly Fong and one Audi for Franky Cheng.