The #8 M-Sport Bentley of Maxime Soulet and Andy Soucek took a surprise victory in the first race of the 2016 Blancpain Sprint Cup season, after a Full-Course Yellow coinciding with a late pitstop vaulted them into the lead of the race.
The track was damp prior to the start of the race, making the tyre choice crucial. Most of the runners at the head of the field opted for wets, while some gambled with slicks at the back; which in the end paid off massively.
“Wanted to put on rains tyres it dried out so it was ok. I can’t believe we won that one,” said a jubilant Soucek after the race.
Early in the race, the #1 WRT Audi of Laurens Vanthoor led the way, pulling out a considerable margin of five seconds over the rest of the field.
Alvaro Parente in the #58 Garage 59 McLaren 650S GT3 which started second, hung onto the back of the Audi in the opening laps, but struggled in the greasy conditions, and slipped down the order to 15th throughout the opening half of the race. Parente and his teammate Rob Bell finished up 10th, after Bell gained five during his stint.
The battle for second spot looked to be the story of the race early on. Robin Frijns in the #4 WRT Audi, Norbert Siedler in the #333 Rinaldi Ferrari and Max Buhk in the #84 HTP Mercedes ran nose-to-tail for much of the first 30 minutes, with Frijns struggling to defend his second place.
After laps of scrapping, Buhk managed to get past Seidler for third and then nab second off of Frijns with a ballsy move up the inside at Turn 16. The trio would head into the stops with the #84 ahead of the #333 and #4.
But the focus soon shifted elsewhere, as a Full-Course Yellow was called at the end of the pit cycle for debris on track, with Andy Souk’s #8 Bentley (which started 9th) and Alex Sims’ #99 Rowe BMW (which started 30th) holding out on slick tyres at the head of the field.
It handed the pair a huge advantage, as after stopping during the caution period, Maxime Soulet and Philipp Eng, who got in the Bentley and BMW respectively, emerged almost 30 seconds clear of Frederic Vervisch in the #1 WRT Audi which was due to re-take the lead, who now sat third.
When the race went green again with 23 minutes remaining in the race, Eng immediately started to reduce the gap to the leader. He was aided massively by Daniel Zampieri’s Attempto Lamborghini which was running 21st. The Italian clearly had no idea Soulet was leading the race in all the conclusion and blocked him for multiple laps, causing Eng to catch the pair and challenge for the lead.
With the Lambo holding the Continental up, Eng tried to pounce a few times, but couldn’t make anything stick.
A second Full-Course Yellow was then called after Alex Buncombe in the #23 RJN Nissan GT-R tagged the back of Stuart Leonard’s #2 Audi and sent him veering into the barriers at the outside of Turn 1.
After the race went green again with 11 minutes to go, the message did finally get through to Zampieri that he was being lapped and Soulet managed to create a gap after dicing through the traffic ahead.
Soulet went on to win the race by just over two seconds, scoring Bentley a win in its Sprint Cup debut. Eng came home second, after a magnificent drive by him an his teammate Simms from 30th, to hand the BMW M6 its first podium.
Third place in the end was the #1 Audi, which had a quiet run to the finish with Vervisch at the wheel. Laurens Vanthoor was clearly disheartened with the result though, despite finishing on the podium.
“We had the right tire choice,” said a perplexed Vanthoor after the race. “We calculated that we’d be about ten seconds ahead of those with slicks. They deserved to win, but they gained everything on the Full-Course Yellow.
“I’m not a bad loser, but this is not really… I mean, if you can gain 40 seconds by luck of a Full-Course Yellow, it’s not motor racing.
“It’s strange, maybe the rules need to be looked at, we were leading then we were 30 seconds behind.”
Laurens younger brother, Dries, came home a very solid fourth on his debut, after managing to muscle past Domink Baumann’s #84 HTP Mercedes in the closing stages. Marco Seefried, who watched the pair battle in front of him, managed to come home sixth.
Another rookie who finished well was Will Stevens, who in the #28 WRT Audi sharing with Rene Rast, came home eighth.
The #19 Grasser Lamborghini won the Silver Cup, and finished 16th overall. The #11 Kessel Racing Ferrari 488 won Pro-Am after finishing up 23rd and the Black Pearl Ferrari took home the Am-Cup win.
Tomorrow’s Main Race kicks off at 14:15 local time in Italy.
Full Qualifying Race results can be found here>>