The long winter break is finally over and the Blancpain GT Series is back. Before the new season kicks off under the floodlights in Misano, Racing.GT editor James Newbold spoke to some of the key contenders and raises five major talking points.
1. Can lightning strike twice for Ide?
2016 was a good year for sporting upsets. The Cubs won the World Series for the first time in 108 years, previous season’s relegation fodder Leicester City won the English Premier League and Enzo Ide was crowned Blancpain Sprint Cup champion.
A solid if unspectacular regular in the championship for the past few years, few considered Ide a serious title prospect. Despite the formidable reputation of WRT for producing winners, the Belgian was hardly the most stand-out candidate from their six-car stable – for one, he has a day job in the family business that takes priority over his racing and for two, he is more relaxed than most when it comes to fitness training…
However, with Audi factory gun Christopher Mies alongside to qualify the car at the sharp end and coax the best out of him on raceday, Ide flourished and went on to win four times, while Mies still finished second in points despite missing the final round.
The pair are back this year at WRT, but with the No. 1 on the door comes a new kind of pressure that he has not experienced before. Can lightning strike twice?
“To win a championship is never easy, this you can see from the past – in other series like ADAC, there was never a [repeat] champion, so even for the Pro cars it’s hard to defend the title,” Mies told Racing.GT.
“I don’t think that it really matters for him if he’s the defending championship winner. Whenever he had to start from the front row he was always a bit nervous, but he has probably got more used to it. Before, he was never in the position to win an important championship, but now that he’s done it and he knows how it is to win, probably this time he’s less nervous.”
Misano was Ide’s weakest track last year and Mies expects a difficult time of it again this weekend.
“Probably our hardest weekend will be Misano, because simply Misano is made for motorcycles, so everyone is cutting like hell,” he said.
“I really don’t like it because the quickest cuts the most without getting caught, so actually the quickest is not the quickest on track, it’s who gets away with cutting the chicane. I don’t like it and Enzo doesn’t like it even more. His best tracks probably will be places like Nürburgring and Brands Hatch especially.”
Neither Ide nor Mies will enter the Endurance Cup, but Vincent Vosse’s team will still be very busy looking after four cars in Endurance and five in Sprint.
Will Stevens has committed to a full season with WRT after splitting his attentions with the FIA World Endurance Championship last year. He joins LMP1 refugee Marcel Fassler and Dries Vanthoor in Endurance, and Markus Winkelhock in Sprint. Fassler and Vanthoor will share a car in Sprint, while Stuart Leonard will be joined at Misano by DTM ace Jamie Green in the absence of regular co-driver Robin Frijns on Formula E duty.
Leonard and Frijns will team up for the Endurance races with BRDC McLaren Autosport Award winner Jake Dennis. The GT rookie is set to share with Renault Sport Trophy Pro champion Pieter Schothorst in Sprint, while Fassler’s old pal Benoit Treluyer will head up an all French line-up in Endurance with Nathaniel Berthon and Stephane Richelmi. Championship returnee Niki Mayr-Melnhof is paired with rookies Josh Caygill and Jon Venter in a fourth car.
Of the other Audi entries in Sprint, Christopher Haase will share the Sainteloc car with Romain Monti, while Czech squad ISR have signed Clemens Schmid and Kevin Ceccon to partner Filip Salaquarda and Frank Stippler.
2. McLaren pin their hopes on Strakka
For the second year in a row it’s all change at McLaren GT, with Strakka moving across from the WEC to take over the factory tender from reigning Endurance Cup champions Garage 59.
Strakka has taken on the daunting challenge of running four cars for its first season in GT racing, but according to lead driver Rob Bell, there is no reason why the change in personnel could impact negatively on McLaren, which has won more races in Endurance than any other manufacturer since the 650S GT3 was introduced in 2015.
With two more cars than last year, Bell is optimistic that the Jay Davenport-led squad’s learning curve will be even shorter than Garage 59 found last year.
“They’re a new team so they’re just finding their feet a little bit, but actually they’re a pretty quality outfit from what I’ve seen so far,” he told Racing.GT. “What they’ve done before in WEC is pretty serious stuff, so they’re absolutely on it, which is great for all of us.
“[Having more cars] always helps, with more data you learn faster. I suppose it’s a double-edged sword because there’s more need in terms of resources, but you get double the work done in half the time when you’re there testing at a track and it can make the difference.”
Bell will be joined in the Sprint Cup by McLaren GT Driver Academy member Andrew Watson, reprising a partnership that enjoyed success in GT Open in 2015, before attentions turn to defending his Endurance title with Come Ledogar and newcomer Ben Barnicoat.
The Racing Steps Foundation graduate – who will share in Sprint with Pirelli World Challenge champion Alvaro Parente –was left red-faced after a qualifying accident at Bathurst forced his car to be withdrawn from the race, but Bell believes he will be better for the chastening experience.
“We all took the piss a bit, of course you do, but we’ve all been there and done it,” he said.
“He’s young, he’s quick, no doubt about it, and although he probably didn’t think it at the time, he will benefit from it in the long run. He’s certainly been on the ball in testing, so it doesn’t look like it’s affected him.”
However, important as retaining the title is, Bell has another important goal in mind for 2017.
“One race I would love to win and haven’t yet is Spa – we’ve won Monza, Silverstone, Ricard and Nürburgring in the last two years, but we haven’t won Spa,” he added. “It’s an obvious thing to say, ‘let’s win Spa’, but I would really love to win that this year.
“I’m not thinking about the championship, whoever wins the most races at the end of the year usually wins the championship anyway. Do I think we can go and win races? Yes, absolutely. Do I think we can go for the title? I wouldn’t even think about it!”
Strakka stalwart Jonny Kane is joined in Sprint by Loris Hezemans, with last year’s BTCC runner-up Sam Tordoff and David Fumanelli coming on board for Endurance, while Watson is joined by former Red Bull junior Dean Stoneman and Jazeman Jaafar, a race winner at Silverstone last year with HTP.
Strakka also have a Pro-Am entry for team patron Nick Leventis and the underrated Lewis Williamson, who made his first appearance in a 650S in the Melbourne Australian GT event last weekend. Craig Fleming will join them in Endurance.
3. AKKA-ASP step up to the big leagues
When Felix Rosenqvist and Tristan Vautier were announced at AKKA-ASP for an assault on the Sprint Cup title last year, it seemed only a matter of time before the Jerome Policand’s team were celebrating its first outright victory. After a near miss at the Hungaroring and a second place at the Spa 24, where AKKA-ASP were granted AMG Performance Team status, that elusive win finally came in the Barcelona season finale.
But Policand didn’t rest on his laurels – no sooner had the season ended than he started work on putting together his biggest programme yet for 2017, with four Mercedes-AMG GT3s entered for the full season, including two Pro teams in Endurance.
AKKA-ASP won the race to sign Rosenqvist’s former F3 sparring partner Raffaele Marciello and paired him with factory-supplied AMG ace Edoardo Mortara and Britain’s Michael Meadows to form one of the most exciting line-ups on this year’s grid, while another ex-F3 European champion Dani Juncadella moves across from the DTM to partner Felix Serralles, with Vautier added for the Endurance races.
“You couldn’t wish for a faster team-mate – hopefully he’s not too fast for me!” joked Meadows, who will contest Sprint and Endurance with Marciello.
“He’s obviously got no GT experience at all, but we expected him to be really quick and he hasn’t disappointed. As soon as he jumped in the car on the first day, he was fast straight away – I’m sure he’s going to have a mega career in GT racing.”
Two-time Carrera Cup GB champion Meadows is entering his third year in the Blancpain GT Series and is determined that this will be the year he becomes a regular winner after a middling campaign with WRT last year.
“When you’re at a track, you get a feel for which cars are look quite easy to drive and I thought [the Mercedes] would be a good option for me,” he explained. “I was okay in the Audi, but I never was able to fully extract everything out of it, so it didn’t make much sense to stay.
“I’m hoping to be in the mix, but it’s so competitive in Blancpain that it doesn’t take much to be 12th or 13th as opposed to the top five. We’ve got a really strong driver line-up both in Endurance and Sprint, we know the car is good and the team have got capabilities of winning, which is all the ingredients you really need to be successful. If we don’t do it, then it’s just down to ourselves.
“I’m definitely due a good year, I’ve not had much success since I left Carrera Cup. I’m 29 now so I need to make this a year where manufacturers go ‘this guy is serious, we need to take notice of him’. It will be nice to show some speed this year and from what I’ve seen so far, there’s no reason why that shouldn’t happen.”
Mercedes are also represented by overall Blancpain GT champions HTP Motorsport, with Maxi Buhk and Dominik Baumann both returning, albeit in separate cars. So far, only the three Sprint combinations have been confirmed, with last year’s qualifying king Franck Perera moving across from the ISR Audi team to join Buhk, while GP2 graduate Jimmy Eriksson partners Baumann. Renault Sport Trophy Am champion Fabian Schiller steps up to GT3 in the third car alongside the revelation of 2016, Jules Szymkowiak, who has retained his Silver driver-grading and will thus be eligible for the Silver Cup.
Team Black Falcon could also challenge for victories with an Endurance-only effort. Luca Stolz switches from Grasser Racing to join Adam Christodoulou and Yelmer Buurman in the Pro class, while Manuel Metzger, Miguel Toril and Oliver Morley will start the season as one of the favourites in Pro-Am.
4. Will this finally be Bentley’s year?
Since arriving in a blaze of glory back in 2014 with a victory at Silverstone in only their second race, M-Sport has been the perennial bridesmaid of the Blancpain GT Series. Having finished second in the Endurance Cup the previous two years in a row, 2016 was meant to be the year that Malcolm Wilson’s boys ascended to the peak, but it didn’t quite work out that way.
Likely victories at the Paul Ricard 1000km and Spa 24 Hours were tossed away and a sticking wheel at the Nürburgring finale proved the final straw as the title once again slipped through their fingers. Ironically, Bentley’s only Blancpain titles to date were both achieved by HTP in 2015, as Maxi Buhk and Vincent Abril took the Sprint Cup and Jules Szykmowiak the Silver Cup.
Now in his fourth year with the Continental GT3, Steven Kane is determined to set that statistic to rights.
Having watched as the sister No. 8 car of Maxime Soulet and Andy Soucek stepped up to lead the team’s challenge last season, the Northern Irishman is eager to get 2017 off on the right footing, with Abril alongside him in the No. 7 car.
The 22-year-old Frenchman will move across to partner Soulet and Soucek for the Endurance races, while Kane is joined by Guy Smith and new signing Oliver Jarvis, who impressed on his debut at Bathurst.
“We wouldn’t be going into it otherwise,” he told Racing.GT. “I’m really happy and focused on trying to deliver this year – there’s no reason why we can’t. Bentley has put a good programme together and all the boxes have been ticked, so we’ll just have to see what the first race brings.”
Kane admits that M-Sport did plenty of soul-searching over the off-season to rectify their problems in the big endurance races last year and expects the team to be better prepared as a result.
“The team has tried to cover all the bases where all the small mistakes were made last year, just doing what I suppose every good team would do,” he said.
“When you’re at the very front and you’re pushing like car 8 was at Spa, you can always make small mistakes. It’s all very easy to judge, but when you’re in the heat of the battle, you can’t really look back, you can only try and fix the mistakes that you made and try and not make them again.
“Over the winter we sat down as a team and had a good look at ourselves. We know that every weekend is not going to go our way, but it’s making sure that we pick up all the points when we’re off our A-game and making sure that we’re not making mistakes.”
Multiple Le Mans-winning race engineer Leena Gade will be starting her first full-season as part of the brand in 2017, but Kane reckons an even greater difference will come from Abril, who had a disappointing Sprint Cup title defence in his first season as a factory driver.
“Vince came into a factory team for the first time, he’s still very young and that had an added pressure on its own, but he dealt with it quite well,” he added.
“We were working really well together but we had a lot of bad luck, we just never got our season going and once you don’t hit the ground running in Sprint racing, it can really knock you back. But I really see him as a real star of the future and I’m looking forward to driving with him again this year.”
5. Lambo’s lucky charm
It’s an inconvenient truth that the GRT Grasser Racing Team has started from pole in 50% of the Endurance Cup races it has entered with the Huracan GT3 since 2015, but has only sprayed the victory champagne twice. However, there is a quiet air of expectation in the camp this year as the Austrian team head into the season with its strongest driver line-up to date and a full off-season programme under its belt.
The Hurcan’s speed has never been in doubt – nor Grasser’s ability to engineer the car – but the driving front has at times left a little to be desired. That shouldn’t be a problem this year, as Lambo stalwart Mirko Bortolotti is joined by newly-appointed factory driver Christian Engelhart for the full season, with Norbert Siedler joining Argentinian Ezequiel Perez Companc in a sister car.
Italians Andrea Caldarelli and Rafaelle Gianmaria will act as the third drivers in Endurance.
Subbing for Jeroen Bleekemolen, the hero of Grasser’s 2014 Blancpain Sprint campaign, 30-year-old Engelhart proved something of a lucky charm on his Blancpain GT Series debut at the Nürburgring last year, as he fought off a late challenge from Laurens Vanthoor to score the team’s only victory of the season.
The German acknowledges that it will be a tough ask to keep up his 100% winning record, but is confident that he and Bortolotti can fight at the front.
“We are confident and for sure we will give our best to put up a real fight for the whole season and to fight for the championship. This is our target, it’s clear, especially when you come with a line-up like this,” he said.
“Obviously it’s a very, very tough championship and I was extremely lucky to have a chance to win directly in my first race, you don’t get that chance in every race in a championship at this level. I guess probably the end of the season we will not be at 100% anymore because the competition is very high, but maybe we can get a few more wins, we’ll see.”
Both Grasser and Engelhart have had a busy winter, competing in the Dubai 24H, 24 Hours of Daytona and Sebring 12 Hours, in addition to extensive testing with the IMSA Sportscar Championship’s control Continental tyre. Although the races didn’t yield the results hoped for, Engelhart hopes the extra time spent together in a competitive environment will help Grasser to hit the ground running at Misano as rivals shake off the cobwebs.
“There are new Pirelli tyres for this season which came quite late, so we don’t have a lot of mileage on them yet, but it’s been great to be working in the winter already a lot with the whole team, so I hope from this side that we are really well prepared,” he added.
“We have to see where we land, but I think we have a really good chance. We have two drivers that have proven to be really fast and we have good support from Lamborghini, so everything is looking good at the moment.”
The addition of GT Open champions Orange 1 Team Lazarus, Super Trofeo champions Raton Racing and GT Masters regulars HB Racing boost the Huracan population to 10 in Endurance. Of these, Raton could be ones to watch, with Denmark’s Dennis Lind joined by GT Asia champ Andrea Amici and Stefano Constantini.
There is also a single Gallardo R-EX entered in the Sprint Cup by Reiter Engineering, with Caitlin Wood and Marko Helistikangas set to drive as a prize for winning the inaugural Reiter Young Stars competition last year.
Any other business?
Factory BMW squad Rowe Racing return for the full season with Spa 24 Hour winner Philipp Eng. The Austrian will be joined by Antonio Felix da Costa in Sprint, although his Formula E commitments mean the multiple Macau GP winner is replaced this weekend by DTM ace Tom Blomqvist. Finnish dynamic duo Markus Palttala and Jesse Krohn will share the second car and are likely to continue in Endurance. A third works-supported M6 GT3, run by Walkenhorst Motorsport, will be entered in Endurance for promising juniors Mikkel Jensen, Nico Menzel and Christian Krognes.
There are no Pro Ferraris entered in Sprint, although Maranello is well-represented in the Pro-Am divisions with reigning champions Kessel Racing and Rinaldi Racing, which boast the talents of GT Masters all-time winningest driver Daniel Keilwitz. Spirit of Race will run a 488 GT3 in the Silver Cup for Phil Quaife and Lorenzo Case.
However, it’s a different story in Endurance, where the Kaspersky Ferrari of James Calado, Giancarlo Fisichella and Marco Cioci will go in as early championship favourites, while the SMP-liveried 488 of Davide Rigon, Miguel Molina and Viktor Shaitar will also be a solid bet for a podium at Monza. The No. 50 AF Corse entry which so nearly won at Paul Ricard last year has an unchanged line-up and will surely be in the mix again, with Pasin Lathouras joined in the yellow machine by the rapid Alessandro Pier Guidi and Michele Rugolo.
The RJN Nissan team have down-scaled to an Endurance-only operation after a tough 2016 season. Alex Buncombe and Lucas Ordonez are joined by returning 2015-champion Katsumasa Chiyo, while GT Academy winner Matt Simmons remains aboard the sister car alongside GP3 convert Matt Perry and Struan Moore, who moves across from Garage 59.
The Emil Frey Jaguar squad will expand to two cars for the full Endurance Cup after outings at Spa and the Nürburgring last year. The No. 14 line-up of Albert Costa, Stephane Ortelli and Lorenz Frey remains unchanged, while Christian Klien and Jonathan Hirschi are joined in the No. 114 by Marco Seefried.
British GT champions TF Sport have taken over from Motorbase as the lone Aston Martin representative on the grid in an Endurance-only entry. Double British GT champion Jonny Adam will again share with Ahmad al-Harthy in the Pro-Am class.
Finally, Porsche hopes lie with Dubai 24H winners Herberth Motorsport, debuting in the Blancpain Endurance Pro-Am class. Twins Robert and Alfred Renauer will share team management and driving duties, with Jurgen Haring as the Bronze-rated driver.