The #58 Von Ryan McLaren of Rob Bell, Kevin Estre and Shane van Gisbergen took its second Blancpain Endurance Series win of the season at the Nurburgring season finale.
But it was the third-place crew of Alex Buncombe, Katsumasa Chiyo and PlayStation GT Academy graduate Wolfgang Reip who took the driver’s title in the 2015 BES Pro Cup.
A fighting drive from the #7 Bentley saw Guy Smith, Andy Meyrick and Steven Kane come close to snatching the title for themselves, but in the end they had to settle for second in the race and in the final points table.
Third-place qualifier Craig Dolby made a demon start in the #173 Always Evolving Nissan, sneaking down the inside of the front-row cars into T1 and holding onto to the lead through the first sequence of corners.
There was no contact on lap one and when the field came round again, Dolby was leading Adrian Zaugg in the polesitting Lamborghini, with the #21 Black Falcon Mercedes third in the hands of Hubert Haupt and second-place qualifier Chiyo lying fourth.
Chiyo soon got ahead of Haupt and set about harrying Zaugg, allowing Dolby to make hay up front, ekeing out a five-second lead after eight laps. Behind Haupt, the two factory Bentleys were having an intra-team battle. Title contender Smith in the #7 got ahead of Max Buhk in the #31 at the start of lap nine, while ahead the Zaugg, Chiyo and Haupt battle raged on.
Further down the field, title contender Nico Bastian was making progress in the #99 ROWE Mercedes, getting past Jean-Karl Vernay’s #1 WRT Audi to go eighth. The Frenchman lost another place to a Mercedes not long after, this time the Pro Am-leading #18 Black Falcon machine of Maro Engel. Championship leader Frank Stippler was meanwhile biding his time in 17th in the #2 WRT Audi.
After 10 laps, Dolby was nine seconds ahead of the fierce second-place battle, with the cars from Zaugg in second to Engel in ninth running nose-to-tail at this point. The familiar sight of Gary Kondakov in the #50 Kaspersky Ferrari in the gravel then appeared, the Russian having lost it at the chicane and brought out a local yellow.
After several laps and some failed attempts to extract Kondakov’s Ferrari, the safety car was called, wiping out Dolby’s prodigious gap, but picking his car up first. It came in at the end of lap 17, about 35 minutes into the race and everyone held their positions on the restart.
A very racy Bastian was all over the back of seventh-place Alvaro Parente in the #59 McLaren on the first green-flag lap and ended up hitting the Portuguese driver as he made a pass down the inside into turn one. At the same time, Harry Tincknell, running second in Pro-Am in the #22 Nissan, was pushed into a spin and hit the pitwall side-on, ending the car’s race on the spot. The LMP2 ace reported an intermittent engine cut-out that resulted in him being hit by the car behind, the Ferrari of Morgan Moulin-Traffort.
The #58 McLaren with Bell at the wheel decided to gamble on an early pit stop, with 20 minutes of the hour left to run. Bastian followed suit in the ROWE Mercedes (but his hand was forced due to the car having a puncture following the Parente contact) handing to Stef Dusseldorp. Other stoppers at this point included the #1 Audi of Vernay, who appeared to struggle for pace in his stint.
Championship leader Stippler pitted from 15th on lap 23, handing over to Stephane Richelmi who, due to not sharing the car all season long, wasn’t in title contention. Up front, Dolby was managing to pull away once again, five seconds to the good on lap 24. Zaugg pitted from second on the same tour, handing the #63 Lambo over to Bortolotti.
Almost exactly at the one-hour mark, the #99 Mercedes was handed a drive-through penalty for Bastian’s contact with Parente’s McLaren, a severe blow to his and Dusseldorp’s title hopes. Simultaneously, Dolby pitted the AE Nissan from the lead, handing to Sean Walkinshaw. “This has been a mega year for me,” said Dolby. “It’s taken a while but I think I’m starting to show what I can do. The car’s fantastic, the Always Evolving boys have done a fantastic job.”
Chiyo inherited the lead from Dolby in the #23 Nissan before he too pitted on lap 32, letting Haupt into P1 in the Black Falcon Mercedes for a lap until that car’s pit stop came due. Reip was now at the wheel of the #23, emerging just ahead of Frijns (who’d taken over the #1 Audi) and Bortolotti’s Lamborghini. The two Bentleys of Smith and Buhk had a longer first stint than any of the leaders, finally pulling in nearly 10 minutes into the second hour.
Once the order shook out after the stops, Reip led in the #23 Nissan from Bortolotti, with the #1 WRT Audi’s quick early stop having inserted Frijns into third ahead of the AE Nissan, now in the hands of Sean Walkinshaw. Meyrick was now seventh in the #7 Bentley, with Yelmer Buurman in the #21 Black Falcon Mercedes between him and Maxime Soulet in the sister #31 Continental GT.
Further back, a move from Richelmi on Shaun Thong’s Phoenix Audi then put the #2 R8 11th overall and 10th in class – a points-paying position for Stippler and Ortelli’s title bid. The Pro Am class was at this point being led by Oliver Morley in the #18 Black Falcon Mercdes started by Engel.
Soulet in the #31 Bentley got past Buurman on lap 41, putting the two Crewe cars line-astern once again. With Reip six seconds to the good over Bortolotti, attention shifted to fourth-place man Walkinshaw, who on fresher tyres closed up and passed the third-place Frijns Audi. The Dutchman then faced an assault from the Bentley pair as the race passed half-distance.
Having despatched with Frijns, Walkinshaw was soon monstering the second-place Lamborghini, nearly getting ahead at the beginning of lap 47 but having to tuck in behind. On the same lap, Soulet snuck ahead of Meyrick in the Bentley battle, taking the #31 car to fifth. Soulet then set to work on Frijns while Meyrick kept a watching brief, while Walkinshaw’s charge was nearly derailed by the spinning Loeb Racing Audi, but he managed to take evasive action.
There was drama before the second round of stops could get underway, as Harold Primat (driving his final race before retirement) was pushed into a big shunt in the HTP Bentley at T6, bringing out the safety car. It picked up race leader Reip, but for some reason waved him through. Meanwhile, a flood of cars headed for the pits as the end of the second hour approached. Reip then corrected the error and dropped back behind the safety car, before he too led a train of cars into the pitlane on the next lap around.
Buncombe took over the leading Nissan for the final hour. A crowded pitlane saw it very nearly fail to get out ahead of the #7 Bentley, which was a big winner in this pit cycle. Steven Kane now on board, it emerged ahead of both the #63 Lamborghini and the #1 Audi. With Venturini and Vanthoor respectively at the wheel, those two cars now embarked on a tough battle for the effective fourth place.
The reason it was for fourth and not third was the #58 McLaren. The Von Ryan car had stopped very early in the first stint and now, with Kevin Estre at the wheel and after some rapid work from the mechanics, it emerged in the lead ahead of Buncombe with just under an hour to go.
Kane was holding second and lapping very quickly in the #7, while Venturini continued to defend from Vanthoor’s Audi. The Belgian managed to get ahead at T3 after lightly tagging the back of the Huracan, moving into fourth. Then, the championship leader Ortelli had an off-track moment in the #2 Audi involving the #173 Nissan, now being driven by Martin Plowman. Ortelli dropped out of the top 10, putting the title even further beyond his and Stippler’s reach as long as the Nissan continued to run strongly.
The scene was now set for an intriguing end to the race. As long as the Nissan remained second, the title would be theirs, however if Kane managed to both pass the Nissan and catch and pass the leading McLaren, it would go the way of the #7 crew. Estre was four seconds up the road from Buncombe, with Kane just tenths behind with the bit between his teeth.
As Buncombe and Kane filtered through traffic, Estre pulled the gap out to seven seconds with just over half an hour of racing to go. In Pro Am, the Emil Frey Jaguar was leading from the #70 GT Russian Mercedes and #52 AF Corse Ferrari. In the closing stages, Leo Machitski spun and stalled at the chicane, bringing out local yellows that swiftly became a full-course yellow.
Kane slipped past in traffic on lap 78 with exactly 20 minutes to go, but contact while he was doing so meant he was instructed by race control to hand the position back to Buncombe. Estre was now 15 seconds up the road, however, so Bentley’s chances were getting slimmer by the second.
With just over 10 minutes to go, Kane drew alongside on the start-finish straight. Sensibly, Buncombe didn’t do anything drastic to defend, as the Estre McLaren was now 17 seconds ahead, leaving Kane with a near-impossible task to secure the title for Bentley. And so it proved, with the McLaren taking a win very reminscent of their Silverstone triumph earlier in the year.
“We didn’t get to show our pace in qually with the changing conditions, so we knew we could move forward, but 24th to first is still a bit unexpected,” said Rob Bell. “Our engineer called two really well timed stops and Kevin just had to bring it home.”
Van Gisbergen was nearly caught off guard with the early stop. “I was just getting my helmet on when they saw the opportunity,” he added. “So I had to be quick. The next stop was perfectly timed, too, I think Kevin left the pits with an hour and nine minutes on the clock. The car was really good, we just struggled a bit in traffic.”
Estre voiced the trio’s frustration at what might have been had their car not been taken out on lap one at Paul Ricard. “Monza wasn’t our best event but we were quick everywhere else. The Paul Ricard retirement cost us the championship for sure. But we won two really important races on pace and strategy, so it was a good year for the 650S. I’m proud of the team.”
The tension for Nissan didn’t abate once Kane had got past, as Buncombe had to deal with a rapid Vanthoor in fourth in the #1 Audi, although with the Nissan having scored a win (Paul Ricard) and the Bentley not, the Nissan would still have taken the title with fourth place, despite them being equal on points.
“It was a tough stint, the hardest of my career probably,” said Buncombe. “I knew the Bentley was going to be quick so I pushed hard for the first five or 10 laps. I struggled with the tyres towards the end and keeping Vanthoor behind me was a challenge.”
Reip, who just four years ago had never raced a car, added: “I was hiding in my rental car towards the end, I couldn’t watch. I said I’d come back with five minutes to go. It’s been an amazing three years to go from GT Academy to a pro-class champion. I have to thank Nissan, GT Academy and my team-mates. This was a dream and a highlight of my career so far.”
A clearly crestfallen Bentley trio reflected on their second year of coming second in the Blancpain Endurace Pro Cup standings. “I got the car in a good position, but it was difficult to pass the Nissan,” commented Kane. “After I had to give the first pass back, it was a bit too late to catch Kevin.”
“It’s always tight at the start with the way the first corner is here,” added Smith. “For me it was a case of staying out of trouble and going as deep as possible into the race. We were a bit surprised by the McLaren, but all credit to them and to Nissan, it’s been a really good season.”
Behind the first three cars, Vanthoor came home fourth, ahead of Soucek, Venturini, Christopher Mies in the #35 Sainteloc Audi, Plowman, Al-Faisal in the #21 Black Falcon Mercedes and Rory Butcher in the #44 Oman Racing Aston Martin. Erstwhile title leader Ortelli was 11th at the flag, just outside the points.
The Emil Frey Jaguar (above) took a memorable and popular win in the Pro Am class, just holding off the #52 AF Corse Ferrari at the flag. “This is the culmination of four years of tears and hard work, sometimes more tears than work,” said driver Fredy Barth. “It was a difficult race,” said his team-mate Lorenz Frey. “But we saw the car could be fast and reliable in practice and this is a really nice result.” Third driver Gabriele Gardel added: “We’ve been four years working, pushing and developing this car and this is the result. You have to be perfect everywhere in this championship.”
The #11 Kessel Ferrari was third in Pro Am, while the Am Cup was won by the #16 AKKA-ASP Ferrari (above).
The title in this category went to Ian Loggie and Julian Westwood in the Team Parker Audi (above), the British duo coming home 43rd overall and fifth in class to take the honours with a point to spare.