M-Sport Bentley triumphed on home soil at Silverstone as Guy Smith, Andy Meyrick and Steven Kane scored the British brand’s first racing triumph as a works team since its memorable 2003 Le Mans victory.
For much of the race, the win looked to be going the way of Monza victors ART Grand Prix, and although Bentley’s cause was no doubt helped by a late-race safety car, the Continental GT3 had the McLarens beaten on pace and even came back from a drive-through penalty in the first stint.
At the start, no-one expected gentleman driver Eric Dermont (driving the #93 Porsche that Franck Perera had put on pole), to stay at the front of the field for long, and so it proved. He was swamped by the field as they dived into Copse for the first time, Alvaro Parente easily taking the lead in the second-place-starting #98 ART McLaren.
The first lap saw the #19 Black Falcon Mercedes and #128 Horsepower Racing Aston Martin spin into the gravel, but it was relatively clean up front. Third-place qualifier Alex Buncombe was baulked behind Dermont off the line, winding up fourth and allowing Guy Smith to sneak into second in the #7 Bentley, ahead of Kevin Estre in the #99 ART McLaren, who’d qualified sixth.
“I was struggling to keep up with the top three to be fair,” Buncombe said later. “It was a shame, really – what I thought was going to happen at the start did, the Porsche was really slow in turn one, and the Bentley and McLaren just came straight round the outside of me. There was nothing I could do.”
The #8 Bentley’s chances of a good result were effectively ended early in the race due to a coming-together with the #43 ROAL BMW exiting the Village complex that left Jermoe D’Ambrosio with a punctured left rear tyre. Up front, Smith had both Estre and Pro-Am class leader Buncombe pushing him hard from behind every lap.
Elsewhere, Ryan Ratcliffe’s one-off appearance in the Blancpain Endurance Series would unfortunately be a brief one – the young Welshman was tapped into the gravel at Copse by Rinat Solikhov’s #333 Ferrari, which resulted in a puncture several laps later that pitched him into the barriers – also at Copse – and out of the race.
Parente was looking controlled in the lead, but wasn’t pulling away as quickly as he did at Monza. Smith was still only 3.3 seconds behind in the Bentley and still pursued hard by Estre’s McLaren. Edward Sandstrom (#26 Audi) and Nico Verdonck (#84 Mercedes) meanwhile stayed out of trouble for much of the first stint, running solidly in fifth and sixth overall.
As the first hour ticked by, there were two mechanical retirements in the shape of the #25 Sainteloc Audi and #14 Emil Frey Jaguar, while Estre’s increasingly racy efforts in the McLaren were rewarded when he and Smith hit a big gaggle of traffic into the Village complex and the Frenchman emerged ahead in second.
A second setback then hit the #7 Bentley crew when Smith (along with eight other drivers) was handed a drive-through penalty for improving his best sector time under yellow flags while marshals recovered Ratcliffe’s BMW.
After bringing the #98 McLaren in from the lead, Parente told us: “To be honest it wasn’t that easy, I always had pressure from behind. The trick is driving a steady pace when going by slower cars – it’s a lot harder here than at Monza, because the gentlemen drivers are so much slower on the high-speed stuff. You have to be careful. It may have looked easy, but we have been having issues with the car, there was a lot of tyre degradation and the rear was moving around a lot.”
Shortly after the first round of pitstops, Kevin Korjus (having taken over from Estre) slipped by Parente’s ART car (now driven by Demoustier) to take the lead, while Stephane Ortelli emerged third in the #26 Sainteloc Audi started by Sandstrom. Nick McMillen was fourth having taken over the #80 Nissan from Buncombe and the Bentley’s penalty left Meyrick in fifth after he stepped in for Smith.
This was when the battle for Pro-Am honours really heated up, as Joe Osborne made the most of Richard Abra’s solid opening stint in the MP Motorsport Aston and began reeling McMillen in. Meyrick began the Bentley fightback by also passing the American, getting the Continental GT3 up to fourth. He didn’t stop there, though, getting back in to podium contention by passing Ortelli at Village.
Meyrick then reeled in Demoustier, grabbing second with a robust lunge down the inside into Brooklands. The gap to Korjus in the lead was still a significant 25 seconds, but the Bentley was lapping faster than the McLaren and the race looked finely posed heading into the second round of pitstops. “I pushed as hard as possible without taking any risks,” said Korjus after he got out. “I was on used tyres so I was trying to stay consistent.
“That was really mentally draining,” said Meyrick after handing over to Kane for the last stint. “I didn’t need any extra motivation after we got the penalty, so I just went for it. The battle with the McLaren was good – it was more the backmarkers that caused us a few problems. But the car felt great and it’s very easy on its tyres.”
Stephane Ortelli was less satsified with his middle stint in the #26 Audi. “Sometimes you fight like a maniac, sometimes you have to be careful – we’re still not fully used to this new Pirelli compound in the dry, so I had to manage them,” he said. Gregory Guilvert looked on for a podium in the final stint when Alex Premat in the third-place #98 McLaren lost a couple of places due to a spin, but a hard-charging Laurens Vanthoor in the #1 WRT Audi then took the place with just minutes to go.
That drama came after the most significant moment of the race – the safey car that was called when the #128 Horsepower Racing Aston Martin went off heavily on the Hangar Straight. This wiped out the gap between the leading #99 McLaren (now driven by Andy Soucek) and Kane in the chasing Bentley, which had already been coming down quite rapidly under green-flag conditions. With around 15 minutes remaining, Kane was close enough to attempt a pass, and got by on the inside through Woodcote heading onto the start/finish straight.
The safety car also played a part in the final Pro-Am result, as the gap built up by Abra and Osbourne in the MP Aston disappeared to nothing, meaning Mark Poole now had to fend off the challenge of Florian Strauss in the #80 Nissan, who did a similar attacking job to Kane and did what needed to be done to take the win. “It would have been harder without the safety car of course,” admitted the 2013 GT Academy Germany winner post-race, “but the other guys and the team did a great job all race and we’re really happy to achieve our goal of winning here after being on the podium in Monza.”
Kane, Smith and Meyrick were obviously delighted to have given the Continental GT3 its maiden win. “It’s always fantastic to win for the first time with a brand-new car,” said Kane. “We used a good setup we’d found in testing, and the car felt great.” Meyrick added: “I was going as quick as I could go in my stint, despite all the traffic. It was great to see cars from two British brands going toe-to-toe around Silverstone and I have to say all credit to the team – there were one or two areas we needed to improve since Monza and they came through.”
Guy Smith was of course on the driving strength for Bentley’s last big international win – the 2003 Le Mans 24 Hours. “I thought it was over when we got the drive-through,” he admitted. “It’s a shame, but it definitely wasn’t intentional. We made great gains in the pit stops, which were our Achilles’ heel in Monza, so the work the mechanics put in is a big part of this victory.”
The #99 ART crew were understandably despondent at being outclassed by Bentley. “Without the safety car, it would still have been quite tough,” said Korjus. “I think P2 was the max result we could have got here today.” On the plus side, the combination of second place here and third in Monza last time out puts him, Estre and Soucek at the top of the Pro Cup standings going into the next round at Paul Ricard in late June.
Premat’s late-race troubles, which also included running wide at the safety-car restart, helped WRT’s run to third and also allowed the #85 HTP Mercedes to complete a fighting drive from 17th on the grid to fifth at the flag. Driver Luca Wolff was understandably satisfied with the day’s efforts, saying: “Sergei [Afanasiev] was perfect, he had a good start without any contact. We’d moved up to 12th when I got in the car. It was my first time in dry conditions in a GT car at this track so it was really new to me, but I am really happy with my performance. The pit stop was also really good, we were under no pressure for the driver change. Stef [Dusseldorp] did the final stint, getting us up to fifth in the end. I hope we can do more like that in the future.”
Stephen Errity & Stephen Kilbey