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December 10, 2019

Racing.GT’s Top 10 GT3 Drivers of 2016

Racing.GT’s Top 10 GT3 Drivers of 2016
Photo Credit To Dan Bathie/www.Xynamic.com

GT3 fans were spoiled for choice in 2016, with action on all corners of the globe on almost every weekend of the year. James Newbold did his best to wade through it all and compile a top 10 from the Blancpain GT Series, British GT Championship, ADAC GT Masters and Pirelli World Challenge.

10. Alexander Sims (Spa 24 Hour winner, perennial British GT frontrunner)

Team-mate Maxime Martin stole the headlines after finally breaking his Spa 24 jinx, but Sims’ role in the first major endurance racing win for the BMW M6 GT3 shouldn’t be overlooked. ROWE Racing’s struggles to get to grips with the new car meant that almost all of his points were scored at Spa (a well-judged second in the wet at Misano and a battling fourth at Silverstone aside), however this was another season where the bespectacled 27-year-old’s class shone through.

Alongside Philipp Eng, who made an excellent impression in his first full season of GT3, Sims was a model of consistency all year and his return to Barwell in the second half of the British GT campaign gave the team a huge lift, even if it didn’t bring about a change in fortunes for co-driver Liam Griffin. Sims looked set to mark his comeback with a win at Silverstone until Griffin was wiped out by an errant GT4, then took fastest lap at Spa, despite significant damage resulting from Griffin’s first corner contact with Rick Parfitt Jr.

You only had to witness his embarrassment when greeted by fawning Barwell mechanics at Snetterton one week after his Spa 24 victory to understand why Sims is so popular in the paddock and his promotion to IMSA with BMW reflects the high esteem he is held in by the factory.

9. Andy Soucek/ Maxime Soulet (Blancpain Sprint Cup race winners)

Soucek and Soulet were inseparable for much of the year and emerged from the shadow of the No. 7 car to lead Bentley’s charge in 2016. After a promising run at Bathurst was spoiled by punctures, they executed a perfect strategy to win in the wet in Misano and followed up with a strong drive to third at Monza.

A Brands Hatch overtaking masterclass from Soulet was one of the highlights of the season and served notice of Bentley’s title credentials, but bad luck never seemed to be far away. Soucek was fortunate to survive an off in Q3 at the Nurburgring and still post a representative time, but a sticking wheel at Wolfgang Reip’s pitstop ultimately left him too much to do in the final stint. Still, Soucek’s feisty defence of second from Robin Frijns in Catalunya showed there was plenty of fight left in him, even after likely wins at Paul Ricard and Spa were scuppered by team errors.

8. Maxi Buhk (Blancpain GT Series champion)

It will be little consolation to Buhk that he would have won the Endurance Cup for a second time had it not been for a costly gearbox failure while running fourth at Paul Ricard. In the final reckoning, the 24-year-old finished just a point adrift of Garage 59, but despite the tough nature of the defeat, the defending Sprint Cup champion could nonetheless could be content with another strong season that yielded the overall Blancpain GT Series title alongside Dominik Baumann.

Buhk’s best trait was his knack for picking up points. Returning to the Mercedes-AMG fold after a mixed year with Bentley, he came out of the traps quickly with two second places at Misano and Monza, then had the beating of Laurens Vanthoor at Silverstone. After each of the Mercs were handed a five minute penalty at Spa, Buhk spearheaded a decent recovery to sixth – despite a heart-in-mouth moment for Jazeman Jaafar at Eau Rogue – and was also the man on-hand to pick up the pieces after Enzo Ide’s first lap boxing match with Tristan Vautier at the Hungaroring.

However, there were weekends when HTP stablemates Bernd Schneider and the much-improved Jules Szymkowiak had the upper hand, which Buhk will hope to address in 2017.

7. Jonny Adam (British GT champion)

The recently-engaged Scotsman will remember 2016 fondly for many reasons, not least his record-breaking prowess in the British GT championship. Leaving his Beechdean comfort zone behind, Adam quickly hit the ground running with new team-mate Derek Johnston and scored two wins straight out of the blocks at Brands Hatch and Rockingham. In his second year at TF Sport, Johnston raised his game and was consistently among the quickest Ams, but much of that can also be explained by the time spent away from the circuit with Adam, who as a result became the first man ever to successfully defend the British GT title.

Adam also spear-headed Motorbase’s Blancpain Pro-Am campaign and was unlucky not to add more silverware to his tally in the British championship, losing a near-certain victory at Paul Ricard to suspension failure. He rounded out the year on class pole and sixth overall at the Nürburgring, but all went awry at the very first corner when team-mate Ahmad al-Harthy tangled with Duncan Cameron.

6. Laurens Vanthoor (FIA GT World Cup champion, Sepang 12 Hours winner)

That Vanthoor could be disappointed with a year in which he won the Intercontinental GT Challenge and Macau GT is testament to his high standards. No question, things didn’t exactly pan out as planned in what turned out to be his final season with Audi, with several frustrating setbacks limiting him to only one victory throughout the entire Blancpain GT season while WRT stablemates Christopher Mies and Enzo Ide hogged the limelight. But to his credit, Vanthoor never let his head drop and always had a storming drive in his locker, as seen by recovering from losing two laps to finish third at Spa and two entertaining drives through the field at Catalunya.

Of course, his victory at Macau was hardly the most conventional (many argued, quite reasonably, that he shouldn’t have profited from causing the red flag) while victory in Sepang was largely dictated by clever pit strategy rather than outright pace. However, Vanthoor can leave for Porsche with his head held high and start a new chapter of his career in IMSA knowing his ‘season of luck’ certainly wasn’t for a lack of trying.

5. Felix Rosenqvist (Blancpain Sprint Cup race-winner)

GT rookie Rosenqvist’s prodigious speed aboard AKKA-ASP’s Mercedes-AMG GT3 was not a surprise for anybody who had followed his career in single-seaters, where the unassuming 25-year-old became the first man ever to win both the Macau Grand Prix and Zandvoort F3 Masters twice. Though he started 2016 dovetailing his Blancpain programme with Indy Lights in the US and ended it as F1-bound Esteban Ocon’s DTM understudy/Formula E polesitter in Morocco, Rosenqvist never let his hectic schedule get on top of him and ended the year with a popular victory in Barcelona.

Alongside speedy Frenchman Tristan Vautier, he was immediately on the pace and would have marked his debut in Misano with a podium had it not been for late mechanical troubles. On his sole Endurance Cup appearance at Spa, Rosenqvist again stood out, recovering from a five minute penalty to finish second after overhauling AMG colleague Maxi Goetz and the No. 8 Bentley in a chaotic final stint.

However, it was at the Hungaroring where the Swede really came of age in a GT car. He was the class of the field in qualifying and pipped the on-form Christopher Mies to pole, then led comfortably until some classic WRT pitwork handed the initiative to Mies and Enzo Ide. Rosenqvist was unable to show his pace in the main race, stymied in traffic after Vautier came off second-best in lap one contact with Ide, but his indelible mark had already been made.

4. Rob Bell (Blancpain Endurance Cup champion, Sprint Cup and British GT race-winner, Asian Le Mans Series GT champion)

No matter whether it was at Snetterton in British GT, Paul Ricard in the Blancpain GT Series or Buriram in the Asian LMS, wherever Bell could be found racing a McLaren in 2016, it was invariably at the sharp end of the grid. The Tynesider has been there and done it all before of course, winning back-to-back Le Mans Series GT2 titles as long ago as 2007 and 2008, but this season will have meant a lot to him after five years of hard graft with the brand he first joined in 2012.

As the starting driver in Garage 59’s lineup alongside Come Ledogar and Shane van Gisbergen, it was Bell’s opening stints that set the tone. His drive from 16th to third at Monza was a masterclass in patience and choosing his moments, while his four-wide power move on the Mulsanne at Paul Ricard showed Bell could be aggressive too. You had to look hard for it, but his opening lap in the Sprint Cup at the Hungaroring from 17th to 10th was one of the best of the season.

Although a messy opening stint at the Nürburgring Endurance finale threatened to jeopardise his grip on the title, few could dispute that Bell was a wholly deserving champion, all the more so for his positive impact on others in the team. GT3 rookie Ledogar benefitted enormously from Bell’s experience, while in British GT, Ecurie Ecosse team-mate Alasdair McCaig capped his upward trajectory with a victory at Donington. That bookended the year nicely after Bell helped Clearwater Racing’s Weng Mok Sun and Keita Sawa to the Asian Le Mans Series GT crown in January.

3. Maro Engel (Nurburgring 24 Hours winner)

One of the chief antagonists of popular police procedural Brooklyn 99 is a detective from the Serious Crimes Unit nicknamed ‘The Vulture’, who is renowned for taking over cases that are almost complete and taking the full credit. Engel isn’t cut from that cloth, but the nickname is rather fitting, particularly if you had bumped into him just after team-mate Oliver Morley gave him an unflattering haircut at Spa…

The German’s starring moment came at the Nürburgring 24 Hours, a race that had his name written all over it from the off. Despite the fleeting appearances of Audis atop the practice times, the Mercedes-AMG GT3 was the car to have and Engel made full use of it in the Superpole, lapping just 2.5 seconds off the all-time record despite damp conditions and Earl Bamber’s stranded Porsche in the middle of the road at Bergwerk.

Driving two cars throughout the 24 hours meant Engel was looked a wreck by the time he jumped in for his final stint in the No. 4 car he shared with Bernd Schneider, Manuel Metzger and Adam Christodoulou. But if his bloodshot eyes gave away his fatigue, you wouldn’t have known from looking at the laptimes as he forced the race leading HTP Mercedes of Christian Hohenadel into upping his pace and missing the fuel number he needed to reach the end without another stop. After Hohenadel emerged from taking on a splash of fuel, Engel drove like a man possessed and had caught up by the final lap. When the pass came, there was an air of the inevitable about it, not that it mattered a jot to HTP, who felt they’d been Vultered!

Away from the ‘Ring, Engel also starred on the streets of Macau, setting a time within three tenths of poleman Edo Mortara’s new all-time record, despite battling a 10 km/h deficit on the straights. Mortara’s on-board showed he hit the wall at the final corner – one dreads to imagine how many times Engel flirted with disaster…

2. Shane van Gisbergen (Blancpain Endurance Cup champion, Bathurst 12 Hours winner)

Van Gisbergen won the Blancpain Endurance Cup despite being asleep in bed across the other side of the world. A key part of the Garage 59 triumvirate with Rob Bell and Come Ledogar, the Kiwi couldn’t have expected to win the title in his wildest dreams due to a clash with his V8 Supercar race at Sandown, but it was only right that he got to share in his team-mates’ success after a season in which he hit the high notes every time he got behind the wheel.

Only a rear-wing failure on his WeatherTech Racing Porsche at Daytona counted Van Gisbergen out of contention for victory in the closing stages, but he put that right with a drive at Bathurst that at times bordered on surreal. In qualifying he simply blew them all away, lapping over half a second clear of anybody and 1.3s faster than Laurens Vanthoor’s previous best the year before. After setting new lap record after new lap record in the race, Van Gisbergen went for a nap and got back behind the wheel to take the finish.

He then headed over to Europe for the opening round of the Blancpain Endurance Cup, resisting massive pressure from the much-faster Buhk to win at Monza. That was followed by another victory at the Paul Ricard, which remarkably leaves Spa as the only circuit he has not won at in his two-year stint in Europe. That statistic might have been somewhat different without a mysterious electrical glitch in Superpole, thwarting what had looked like a Mercedes-troubling run.

1. Christopher Mies (GT Masters champion, Blancpain Sprint Cup race-winner)

This was the year that Mies really stood up for the count and took his place as Audi’s top dog. Between campaigns in Blancpain Sprint, ADAC GT Masters, VLN and Australian GT – where he took four pole positions in as many meetings – the 27-year-old was in an R8 LMS GT3 almost every weekend of the year and maintained a consistently high level throughout. Only an unfortunate calendar clash prevented him from adding the Blancpain title to his GT Masters championship.

Whilst Land benefitted from the patronage of Montoplast, which enabled Mies and Connor de Philippi to conduct extensive testing throughout the season, the Audi was a long way from the strongest proposition in GT Masters this year. As the Corvette and Porsche monopolised the victories, Mies and GT3 rookie de Philippi were one of only two Audi crews to win a race all year. Contact with Martin Ragginger at the Red Bull Ring and an ultimately inconsequential off at Hockenheim evidenced just how hard Mies had to push to remain in contention.

There are also mitigating factors to explain his success in Blancpain. WRT’s slick pitwork helped Mies and Enzo Ide to victories at Brands Hatch and the Hungaroring, while Mies was running lighter than his rivals due to the compensatory weight carried by Ide. But take nothing away from the achievement of winning three times with a genuine Silver, who has a day job outside of motorsport. Nobody expected them to launch a credible title challenge, but Mies drove his socks off to give Ide the best possible chance of scoring points, consistently delivering the laps in qualifying when it mattered and nailing the crucial in/out laps.

He also could have been in the mix for victory at the Spa 24 Hours had it not could have been for a puncture which ruptured an oil line and resulted in a massive fire, but made up for his disappointment with some truly magical moments on the Nordschleife. If his pace in the wet VLN4 to catch Zakspeed’s Kenneth Heyer for the victory was impressive, then his last lap move on Jorg Bergmeister at the Tiergarten to win VLN5 was probably the pass of the year.

Honourable mentions:

The secret is firmly out on the vastly underrated Daniel Keilwitz after an impressive dual campaign in GT Masters and the Blancpain Endurance Cup. Helped admittedly by Monza’s prediliction for cars with good top-end speed, Keilwitz stormed his Pro-Am Black Pearl 458 into the outright lead in the opening stint, and ended the year with another giant-killing top five performance at the Nürburgring. In between, he starred in the unheralded new Callaway Corvette, taking the first of three victories in only the second round of the year at the Sachsenring. With a rookie team-mate in Jules Gounon and a tiny budget to go testing, few expected Keilwitz to sustain his title challenge, but it was only a freak accident for Gounon in the Hockenheim finale that swung the balance in favour of Mies and de Philippi.

In his first year as a Porsche factory driver, Kevin Estre made an indelible mark on the GT Masters championship with four wins from eight races. Despite missing the first half of the season, he still finished fourth in points, his excellent record helping Team Bernhard 75 team-mate David Jahn to finish runner-up. He was also one of few drivers to run mistake-free in Macau and by rights, should have won. Though his dramatic shunt at Spa shouldn’t be counted against him, Estre does lose marks for a costly off in the wet at Zandvoort which damaged the radiator.

Records will show that Pat Long lost the Pirelli World Challenge to Alvaro Parente, but the Californian was equally deserving of the title. While Parente began the season impressively, quickly getting up to speed with a number of circuits that were new to him, Long had more than his fair share of adversity to contend with after his Porsche was destroyed in a start-line tangle with James Davison at COTA. But if his charge from the back of the grid to 7th on the streets of St. Pete the following week was immense, a brace of wins at Mosport on his first outing with Wright Motorsport – following the unexpected withdrawal of EFFORT Racing – was even better. At the Laguna Seca finale, Long was one lap from glory when the fateful contact with Johnny O’Connell’s Cadillac handed the title to a grateful Parente.

His Silverstone indiscretion aside, Seb Morris was a revelation in his first season of British GT, with his four pole positions in Team Parker Racing’s Bentley the most of anybody. The GP3 graduate was unfortunate to end the year with only a single victory at Oulton Park after dominating the season-opener at Brands Hatch and will only improve if he does return for a second season with Rick Parfitt Jr. His upcoming prize drive at the Daytona 24 Hours for winning the Sunoco Challenge could open plenty of doors for the talented Welshman.

Franck Perera may not have the results of some of the names on the list, but 2016 was further evidence of why the Frenchman merits a chance in an all-Pro line-up. Partnered with single-seater journeyman Marlon Stockinger in Sprint, Perera’s strong qualifying efforts – including poles at Brands Hatch and Barcelona – only translated into a single podium, while in the Endurance Cup, Perera stuck his Pro-Am Audi on the front-row and had Mirko Bortolotti’s number for the first stint. With his bum in a HTP Mercedes next year, Perera would be a good bet to finally break his Blancpain GT duck.

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.