The Racing.GT team awoke to blue skies and temperatures already in the high 20’s. With qualifying scheduled to begin at 11:20 local time it was clear that the few clouds present were likely to burn off and we would be in for a scorcher.
The format for the Blancpain Endurance Series Qualifying processconsists of three sessions held over the course of an hour during which each driver has to post three laps of representative times. The drivers are not segregated as they are in other series e.g. British GT where the Pro’s are separated from the Am’s, and the starting order in not predetermined either. The BES drivers are free to go out in whichever session they think best and the best time by any driver in any session counts for grid position. Thereafter, Team Managers in possession of this knowledge have to make their driver order for the three stints known to the Chief Steward three hours ahead of the race beginning.
Qualifying 1 was a relatively pedestrian affair. Perhaps that is harsh but, despite the heat, I had expected more from the drivers than the 1:58’s turned in by the Top 2 #3 Team WRT (Audi) Christopher Mies 1:58.322, #44 Oman Racing (Aston Martin) Michael Caine 1:58.835 gap to leader 0.513s, and the 1:59.218 turned in by Lucas Wolf in the #85 HTP Motorsport (Mercedes). A brief break for driver changes and a splash of fuel and we were back for
Qualifying 2 and things improved marginally with the lead car, #99 Art Grand Prix McLaren of Andy Soucek, clocking 1:58.016. Hardly impressive for a talented driver that has done well here before, but two tenths better than a similar Art GP McLaren achieved here on Test Day. Even so, one got the feeling that Alvaro Parente in the sister car would be able to wring more, and most, from the McLaren platform. Soucek beat the #8 Bentley of Racing.GT’s #OneToWatch for the weekend Duncan Tappy into 2nd by 0.396s who was in turn 0.237s ahead of the first of the Pro-Am cars. Alessandro Bonacini drove the #11 Kessel Racing Ferrari 458 into a Q2 third spot with his 1:58.649. At least in Q2 there was something to pique the interest, other than a paltry seven drivers under 1:59 something 30 cars managed earlier in the year, was Simon Knap’s Sector 2 time of sub-30 seconds. There is no speed trap data available for the Mistral straight but Knap was the only driver to duck under 30s for the second sector, which is an average speed of 280kph!
Qualifying 3 the final session had not long got under way before Katsumasa Chiyo in the #35 RJN Nissan banged in the fastest lap of the weekend, a 1:57.704, only for Alvaro Parente in the #99 Art GP McLaren to bite a three tenth chunk out of it when clocking 1:57.374. The session was briefly red flagged to allow for the safe recovery of the #99 Art GP McLaren that had fuel pump issues. After the green flag waved with 9 minutes of the session remaining Alex Buncombe in the #80 RJN Nissan improved upon his RJN team mate’s time by two tenths, recording a 1:57.531. Katsumasa Chiyo improved his earlier 1:57.704 by 0.015s but it was not enough to beat Nicky Catsburg in the TDS Racing BMW Z4 who took third. That’s the way it stayed over the closing minutes until the last lap. Stef Dusseldorp, who had been lurking around in 4th or 5th, took advantage of a clearing track to record a last ditch 1:57.530 to take the front row position from Buncombe by the slimmest of slim margins, one thousanth of a second. Buncombe then, leading the Pro-Am cars, starts from the second row alongside Catsburg and Chiyo has to be content with Row 3, which he will share with the second of the two TDS Racing BMW’s.
In summary, we are well placed for an exciting start with the talented Parente leading-off followed by Dusseldorp, a young and keen to impress Dutchman. These two Pro drivers will be chased down by two BMWs and two Nissan-GTRs all in the hands of Pro-Am drivers, with the Nissan having the edge over everybody in terms of outright speed down the Mistral straight.
We all know our car is really fast on the straights, and we have worked hard to get a good set-up in qualifying. It is really important to start at the sharp end of the grid, to avoid any incidents in the opening laps. We are aiming to beat the series leaders in Pro-Am [ROAL Motorsport BMW] but this is a long race and anything can happen.
Francisco Guedes was yet again the fastest driver in the Gentlemen Trophy classification, his third pole and three out of three so far this season. Guedes’ 1:58.875, set during Q3, gave a start position of 23rd and, more importantly perhaps, a 1.2s advantage over class leaders GT Corse by Rinaldi who are 8 grid positions further behind meaning that there is plenty of traffic between Guedes and the championship leaders.
Our car may not be the quickest of the lot, but this track suits our Ferrari well. We will try to convert this third pole of the season in a good result this evening.
Some general naugtinesses from various teams were sanctioned by the stewards, mostly non-observances of flags that didn’t have any material effect on the outcomes, however, the #49 AF Corse had its qualifying times scrubbed for not conforming with its homologation file. Also starting from the back of the grid were the #99 ART Grand Prix McLaren and the #79 Ecurie Ecosse BMW Z4 after both required engine changes.
Round 3 of the Blancpain Endurance Series at Paul Ricard, a 3 hour ‘night race’, begins today at 18:15 GMT.