Audi ended 2016 on a high note as the No. 15 Phoenix entry of Laurens Vanthoor, Robin Frijns and Christopher Haase gave the four rings a second consecutive victory in the Sepang 12 Hours, despite starting from the pitlane. On his final appearance with the brand before switching to Porsche, Vanthoor also became the inaugural Intercontinental GT Challenge champion, while Audi also took the manufacturers title after Bentley elected not to field an entry. Here’s what we learned.
1. Vanthoor ends on a high
The contrast between Laurens Vanthoor’s victories in the 2015 and 2016 Sepang 12 Hours couldn’t have been more marked. Whereas the previous year, Vanthoor had been the hunter, wresting victory away from WRT team-mate Christopher Mies with 40 minutes to go, this time Vanthoor was in command for over half of the race thanks to some clever strategy from the Phoenix crew.
— Laurens Vanthoor (@VanthoorLaurens) December 10, 2016
But while the final winning margin over the No. 911 Manthey Racing Porsche of Earl Bamber, Nick Tandy and Patrick Pilet stood at over a lap, an Audi victory hadn’t looked at all likely for much of the event, as both cars struggled to get the ultra-hard Yokohama tyres up to temperature in qualifying, before an electrical issue was discovered that forced Christopher Haase to start from the pitlane. Though he was able to climb through the order to seventh by the end of hour 1, neither Audi could match the two leading Porsches and No. 50 AF Corse Ferrari in dry conditions.
Vanthoor’s farewell party threatened to be turning into a damp squib, but Audi’s master strategists had brought their A game. In hour four, Haase came in for a quick top-up under a Full Course Yellow, which allowed him to run longer into his next stint as the rain loomed large. One by one, his fuel-restricted rivals came in and had no option but to take on another set of slicks, but Haase continued on until the heavens opened.
As everybody who had already pitted for slicks had to come in again, Robin Frijns found himself with a huge lead. When both the Porsches lost time in the pits with brake changes, Vanthoor could rest secure in the knowledge that he would end his five years at Audi exactly how it began at Nogaro in 2012 – on the top step of the podium.
The Intercontinental GT Challenge may not be the biggest prize at present, but he can leave for pastures new with his head held high. Just don’t mention Macau…
— Porsche Motorsport (@PorscheRaces) December 10, 2016
2. Frijns ready to take over the reigns
There was a certain irony to Vanthoor departing with Robin Frijns at his side, one year after he had shared the top-step with Stephane Ortelli on his mentor’s last appearance with Audi. Naturally, the dynamic between Vanthoor and Frijns is very different – they were born only three months apart, whereas Ortelli has 20 years on Vanthoor – but there are clear similarities, as Vanthoor was already a well-established GT driver when Frijns stepped across from single-seaters in 2015.
The partnership got off to a rocky start when Frijns crashed in practice at Nogaro and sustained chassis damage which prevented their participation in the weekend, but a clean sweep of wins across Brands Hatch and Zolder showed the Dutchman was blossoming in his new discipline. Another victory at Portimao made the pair favourites for the Sprint Series title when Vanthoor’s horror shunt in the Misano qualifying race ruled them out for the weekend. The overall Blancpain GT Series crown was the consolation prize, but hinted at what was to come.
Frijns and Vanthoor were split up for the character-building 2016 Blancpain campaign, but when re-united in Sepang, it was the Dutchman who did most of the heavy lifting. He didn’t put a foot wrong throughout his mammoth 2hr 10 minute double stint in the heavy rain and greasy conditions which followed the transition back to slicks, which ultimately determined the outcome of the race.
— Robin Frijns (@RFrijns) December 10, 2016
Remarkably, it was the first wet running the teams had experienced during the entire weekend, but as the Porsches toiled with finding the correct tyre pressures, Frijns excelled in the worsening light, showing spectacular car control that would come as no surprise to anybody who witnessed him finish third, on three wheels, in the 2015 Putrajaya e-Prix.
Vanthoor’s departure, along with Rene Rast moving across to race in DTM, means Audi have two sets of boots to fill next year and Frijns’ impressive drive in Sepang – following a stellar performance in Barcelona alongside Sprint Cup champion-elect Enzo Ide – proved to the powers that be that he is a man for the big occasion.
Two clashes with his Andretti Formula E will programme will likely cause a few headaches, but even if he is forced to skip Misano and Silverstone, 2017 could still be a breakout year for Robin Frijns in GT racing. It’s time for him to step out of Vanthoor’s shadow.
3. Porsche lose their wet-weather touch
An exchange of messages on Twitter between Corvette Racing’s Antonio Garcia and Bamber was telling of how the race panned out.
@AntonioGarcia_3: Raining (at least in the picture), and Porsche didn’t win….? #Weird
@earlbamber: I feel confused too
In recent years, Porsche’s record in wet weather has been on a par with the German national football team in penalty shootouts; Nick Tandy, Patrick Pilet and Richard Lietz famously won Petit Le Mans outright in 2015, and Tandy also qualified on outright pole for this year’s Daytona 24 Hours amid more torrential conditions. However, Sepang turned convention upside-down, as the two Manthey-run Porsches dominated the opening hours in the dry before losing touch in the rain.
— Porsche Motorsport (@PorscheRaces) December 10, 2016
Bamber in No. 911 made the best start from third to lead into turn one and was able to pull out a gap over a thrilling tussle for second between Alvaro Parente’s K-PAX Racing McLaren, pole-sitter Lietz in No. 912 and Alessandro Pier Guidi’s AF Corse Ferrari, up from 15th on the grid. After taking over from Lietz, Fred Makowiecki managed to get the undercut on Come Ledogar in the pits and inherited second, behind Tandy, when Pasin Lathouras pitted out of sequence. Although Pier Guidi and Michele Rugolo kept up the chase, the Porsches looked comfortable out front. However, all that changed when the rain arrived, as Audi came alive.
Makowiecki and Rene Rast’s Audi responded instantly and pitted for wets, but Tandy stayed out and duly fell off the road twice on his in-lap, dropping to fourth. Makowiecki emerged second behind new leader Frijns, but soon had to pit with brake troubles and dropped out of contention, while Pilet’s struggles to get the Yokohama tyres working in the greasy intermediate conditions meant No. 911 had fallen almost a full lap behind Frijns by the time Pilet came in for a routine brake change of his own.
With two hours to go, a fortuitous Safety Car that came shortly after Pierre Kaffer had pitted under green helped bring No. 911 back into play. Bamber promptly retook second with a bold pass around the outside of turn 1, but any hopes of victory were already long gone. No. 912 eventually came home fifth behind the No. 50 Ferrari, which set the fastest lap of the race.
Their reversal of fortunes will likely see much head-scratching at Weissach, but for Dr. Frank-Steffen Walliser and his team, it was another valuable lesson learned in the development of the 911 GT3-R, ahead of what will be an important season for Porsche in GT3 racing next year.
4. PWC champions not a factor in debut endurance foray
There was significant anticipation in the build-up surrounding the K-PAX Racing McLaren team’s first international appearance, but ultimately their hopes of beating Europe’s best came to nothing. Stocked with McLaren GT works drivers, including Pirelli World Challenge champion Alvaro Parente, and staffed by Darren Law’s crack Flying Lizard squad, K-PAX was expected to feature strongly and duly split the Porsches in qualifying, with Parente just one tenth shy of Makowiecki’s pole marker.
However, that was about as good as it got – Parente held second at the start, but found himself under constant pressure from behind as Bamber escaped up front. The Portuguese picked up two track limits warnings and a third for Come Ledogar meant they had to serve a drive-through penalty, before any remaining positivity was sapped when Shane van Gisbergen brought the car into the garage in hour three with a mysterious suspension problem.
The Bathurst 12 Hour winner had been Laurens Vanthoor’s closest rival for the Intercontinental GT Challenge before the event, but the lengthy delay well and truly scuppered his title hopes and also cost him second in the IGTC standings to Rast.
— McLaren GT (@McLaren_GT) December 10, 2016
It was a very long way to go for so little reward, but this surely won’t be the last we see of K-PAX in the international arena – particularly with SRO’s plans for the IGTC to incorporate an 8 hour enduro at Laguna Seca next year already at an advanced stage.
5. SRO’s global ambitions only beginning
Although the 25-car grid in Sepang was somewhat disappointing, with Bentley and Mercedes electing not to submit an entry, there remains cause for SRO to be optimistic ahead of their expansion into Asia in 2017.
The Blancpain GT Series Asia will be a clear rival to the established GT Asia Series, which announced a tie-up with the ACO and the Asian Le Mans Series on the eve of the season. The highest-scoring team across the 2016/2017 Asian LMS GT championship and 2017 GT Asia Series will receive a free entry to the 2018 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Blancpain Asia is slated to be a regional equivalent of the British GT championship, with a mix of GT3 and GT4 entries expected for the six-round championship, featuring two 60-minute races per weekend including a mandatory pitstop and driver change.
SRO hopes to attract entries from the Audi R8 LMS Cup Asia championship, having avoided any calendar clashes across the two series. Front-running teams Phoenix Racing Asia and Absolute Racing already run cars in GT Asia.
Former British GT champions GruppeM Racing are the first team to commit to the Blancpain GT Asia Series after agreeing AMG Customer Sports Team status. The GT Asia regulars will run three Mercedes-AMG GT3s, with Tim Sugden the first confirmed driver.