Rob Bell will join Balfe Motorsport for a full-season attack on the International GT Open and has immediately set his sights on winning the title.
The McLaren factory driver will partner Shaun Balfe, who finished runner-up in the series last year after a mid-season switch from the venerable Ferrari 458 to the McLaren 650S GT3. However, with regular co-driver Phil Keen already committed to dual programmes in British GT and the Michelin Le Mans Cup, the decision was taken to draft in Bell, the reigning Blancpain Endurance Cup champion.
It will be the 37-year-old’s first full season in the series, having last appeared at Spa in 2015 when he dutifully followed champion-elect Miguel Ramos to the flag in a Teo Martín Motorsport 1-2. This time around however, Bell has eyes only for the top step of the podium.
“We had a good year last year, but you’ve got to really push on from there,” he said. “I think the car is pretty well proven now, it’s reliable and we won the Blancpain Endurance Cup, but we’re certainly not going to rest on our laurels. Yes they finished second last year, but let’s aim to go one higher this time. It always takes a little while to settle into a new car, but Shaun was definitely competitive from what I saw last year, so now we just need to push on.
“The competition in GT Open has been pretty good since I first raced in it in 2011, I’ve kept an eye on it and it’s a good championship. I actually really like the way they do the handicaps, it means you always get a good race where people are potentially getting caught up at the end. In the races I’ve been involved in, the last few laps you have a train of three or four cars together, so I’m really looking forward to that element of it all.”
Balfe is delighted to have Bell on-board and told Racing.GT that it was a statement of the small family-run team’s intent.
“It’s good for the team morale and everybody is very excited about it – it sends a statement of our intentions,” he said. “We were contemplating a part-season with two different drivers, it was a little bit wishy-washy and as soon as the news came through about Rob, the boys were very excited.
“I only met Rob for the first time at the Autosport Awards, but you can see from his CV what he’s achieved and obviously McLaren speak very highly of him. Rob ticks a lot of boxes for us, his pedigree, experience and speed takes away any uncertainty over what a team-mate can and can’t do, so we’ll hopefully get straight down to business.
“As long as the BOP is fair, I’d like to think that based on last year’s results, Rob and I will be equal to any other Pro-Am pairing and stand a good chance. Of course what I don’t know is if any Pro-Pro pairings could be an obstacle again, but I came away from last season with such strong belief in what the team and I know I can do it given the right circumstances, although you also need a bit of lady luck as always.”
Bell’s plans for a Blancpain title defence have yet to be confirmed, although there is one clash between the final round in Barcelona and the GT Open meeting at Monza on October 1st.
“I don’t know my full programme, but I’m pretty sure that I’ll be a busy boy, so it’s nice to be wanted!” he added. “At the end of the day its part of my job to jump in and out of different teams and get on and do a good job, but it definitely benefits you to be in the car. You know the car, you’re comfortable with the car, so there’s no drama there and hopefully that’s an advantage for us.”
2017 will also see the continuation of Balfe’s informal alliance with fellow McLaren outfit Garage 59, which helped Balfe get quickly up to speed with his new mount last year.
“We’re going to run side-by-side with Garage 59 where possible, it works well and we’ll certainly do that over the race weekends, just like last year,” he explained. “We don’t have official briefings, but there’s certainly a free flow of activity between the two teams. We’re sharing both engine and driver data, and that’s been in place since the word go. Obviously we’re wanting to use every bit of information to all our advantage, so if Come [Ledogar] wanted Phil’s lap, he got it, if Phil wanted Come’s lap, and if Mike Benham wanted my lap, he got it – it’s just common sense.”