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Blancpain Endurance Series: Paul Ricard 1000, Friday Morning Notes

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The #77 Team Brasil BMW of Bueno/Brito/Jimenez topped Friday morning’s Bronze Test at Paul Ricard – the pro drivers in the lone Brazilian car for this round being given dispensation to run in the gentleman drivers’ session, as this is their first visit to the track.

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The car’s best lap of 1:58.621 was over a second clear of the leading bronze-rated driver, Kessel Racing’s Michael Broniszewski, who did a 1:59.802 in the #11 Ferrari 458.

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The Leonard Motorsport Aston Martin also went well Friday morning, circulating in 1:59.887 as one of the just three cars to record sub-two-minute laps.

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Although not participating in this session, most of the pro drivers were already at the track, keeping an eye on their am co-drivers or doing equipment checks. An upbeat Nicolas Lapierre was clearly still on a high from his LMP2 class win at Le Mans, but confirmed that this would be his last planned appearance in the Von Ryan McLaren for the year, as none of the regular drivers have clashing commitments at Spa or the Nurburgring. The Frenchman is on the lookout for a Spa 24 drive.

guy-smithAt Bentley, Guy Smith (right) spoke about the move from last year’s three-hour format for this event to six hours this time around. “It’s going to be quite physically challenging with the heat,” he said. “We’re running the air-conditioning system we don’t usually have on the car. We’ll be single-stinting the tyres and probably doing double stints at the wheel. New tyres give you a lot at this track and the surface is very abrasive, so you’re better off taking the time to change them at each stop rather than losing the time on track. With driving, we should be fine doing two stints each, it’s better to stay in the car when you’re in the zone rather than breaking it up, and whoever’s in the car at the end will be better off staying in as it gets dark and they get used to it.”

AF Corse Ferrari’s Pro-Am championship leaders Matt Griffin and Duncan Cameron are joined by last year’s Am Cup champion Francisco Guedes in the #51 car for this round. “There are extra points on offer here so we want to defend our championship lead or at least stay in a strong position,” explained Griffin. “If we’d stayed with just two drivers, Duncan would’ve had to do four of the six hours, which is incredibly tough, especially with the level of competitveness here.” Their car was seventh-fastest in the Bronze Test, circulating in 2:00.333.

AF Corse has also confirmed that Ferrari factory driver Gianmaria Bruni will head up a Pro-Am entry for the team at the Spa 24 Hours, sharing a 458 with countryman Alessandro Pier Guidi (who’s driving for the French AKKA ASP team at Paul Ricard), Belgian Stephane Lemeret (who did last year’s Spa 24 in a Delahaye Porsche) and up-and-coming Thai racer Pasin Lathouras (whose main 2015 programme is GT Open with Michele Rugolo).

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Elsewhere, the two factory-blessed Audi teams continue their preparation for the Spa 24 Hours here at Paul Ricard. WRT is reuniting its winning trio from last year of Vanthoor, Winkelhock and Rast in one of three Pro Cup cars, while Phoenix Racing (below) will enter two R8s: one for Nicki Thiim with Nurburgring 24 winners Christian Mamerow and Christopher Mies and another for Le Mans winners Mike Rockenfeller, Andre Lotterer and Marcel Fassler. Mies, Fassler and Christopher Haase are in a new-generation Phoenix R8 here at Paul Ricard, alongside the full-season R8 Ultra entry for Winkelhock, Lee and Thong.

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Also in an Audi here is Adrien Tambey, son of F1 driver Patrick and regular DTM competitor for the Ingolstadt marque. He’s driving the #35 Sainteloc car with his usual DTM team-mate Edoardo Mortara and Frenchman Gregory Guilvert. It’s not quite Tambey’s first time in a GT – in 2012, he made one Blancpain Endurance and one French GT appearance, but it’s still a fairly new experience.

“I haven’t tested beforehand, I’m just jumping straight in,” he said. “It’s good to race with an all-pro line-up and with my DTM team-mate Edoardo. It’s been a few weeks since the last DTM round at Lausitzring, so it’s good to get in the car and stay sharp ahead of Norisring next weekend. I’d like to do more GTs, but it all depends on Audi. I would definitely like to do races like the Spa 24 with a top team in future.”

Audi’s main opposition at the Spa 24 will come from Marc VDS. Although the Belgian squad hasn’t contested the full Blancpain Endurance season for the last two years, it’s kept up its appearances at the centrepiece race and will be there once again this year. A single BMW Z4 has been entered at Paul Ricard for team regulars Lucas Luhr, Maxime Martin and Markus Palttala in order to get up to speed ahead of next month.

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“There are new front tyres from Pirelli with the same construction as last year’s rears, so we wanted to get used to them and the new yellow-flag procedure in race conditions,” said Marc VDS team boss Bas Leinders. This year, the BMW teams have also had their fuel-filler restrictor size reduced from 33 to 32mm in an attempt by the SRO to equalize the fuel filling time across all cars (which also takes into consideration the cars’ fuel usage). The Audi R8’s, meanwhile, has been increased to 34.5mm – a decision that BMW runners like Leinders and Barwell Motorsport’s Mark Lemmer are not overly enthusiastic about.

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The two regular full-season Aston Martin entries are present and correct – but as with last year, the British coupe is suffering on straight-line speed. “We’re losing out there, at the test day the Ferraris were pulling about six car lengths on us,” said Oman Racing’s Daniel Lloyd. “We’re hitting the limiter a lot sooner than them.”

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The MRS GT Nissan squad is looking to build on its strong Silverstone result here, and JRM development driver Craig Dolby is satisfied with how things are progressing so far. “The 2015 GT-R has sacrificed a little straight-line speed for more downforce and better balance in corners,” he told us. “So we may not be quite as quick down the Mistral as the RJN guys were last year.”

Stephen Errity