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Blancpain GT Endurance Cup: 2016 Season Preview

It’s a 57-car grid for this weekend’s opening round of the 2016 Blancpain GT Endurance Cup (no longer referred to as the Blancpain Endurance Series as organiser SRO looks to bring the Sprint and Endurance Cups closer together under the overall Blancpain GT Series banner). Monza is the venue for the season opener, as it has been every year since the GT3 endurance series began in 2011.

Apart from a new minimum pitstop time, there are no major shake-ups to the rules or calendar for 2016; a further three-hour race at Silverstone in May, the six-hour ‘into the night’ event at Paul Ricard in June, the centrepiece Spa 24 Hours at the end of July and the season-ending Nurburgring 500 in September make up the remainder of the schedule as before.

In alphabetical order by manufacturer, here’s our look at the runners and riders for Sunday’s three-hour race at Monza:

Aston Martin (1 car)
44 Oman Racing Team – Ahmad Al Harthy/Jonathan Adam/Devon Modell (Pro-Am Cup)

Oman-Racing-Team-BES-Test-2016

The Motorbase Performance-run Oman Racing Team entry is the sole Aston Martin representative in this year’s Blancpain GT Endurance Cup. Ahmad Al Harthy has long been one of the quicker gentleman drivers in this category and should continue to deliver strong performances this season. There’s no doubting Aston Martin factory driver Jonny Adam’s quality, while Devon Modell has a year’s GT3 experience in the Ecurie Ecosse BMW to draw on as he continues to forge a path in sportscars.

Audi (9 cars)
1 Belgian Audi Club Team WRT – Laurens Vanthoor/Dries Vanthoor/Frederic Vervisch (Pro Cup)
2 Belgian Audi Club Team WRT – Michael Meadows/Stuart Leonard/Robin Frijns (Pro Cup)
3 Belgian Audi Club Team WRT – Rodrigo Baptista/Sergio Jimenez/Filipe Albuquerque (Pro Cup)
4 Belgian Audi Club Team WRT – Adrien de Leener/Peter Kox/Pierre Kaffer (Pro Cup)
28 Belgian Audi Club Team WRT – Antonio Garcia/Nico Müller/Will Stevens (Pro Cup)
25 Sainteloc Racing – Christian Kelders/Marco Bonanomi/TBC (Pro-Am Cup)
26 Sainteloc Racing – Grégory Guilvert/Mike Parisy/Christopher Haase (Pro Cup)
74 ISR – Henry Hassid/Philippe Giauque/Franck Perera (Pro-Am Cup)
75 ISR – Filip Salaquarda/Frank Stippler/Marlon Stockinger (Pro Cup)

WRT-BES_Test-2016

A five-strong, all Pro-Cup WRT entry dominates the Audi contingent in Blancpain Endurance this year and once again the Belgian outfit has to be counted among the pre-season favourites. Laurens Vanthoor needs no introduction and before long his younger brother Dries may not, either. The opening Sprint Cup round at Misano showed there are still some rough edges to be smoothed out, but he has plenty of time. That event also demonstrated Vervisch is a capable co-driver for his fellow Belgian. The second of the team’s R8s sees Laurens’ 2015 co-driver Frijns teamed with British duo Meadows and Leonard. The latter has had a perfect start to his relationship with WRT, winning the Sepang 12 Hours and Dubai 24 Hours over the winter.

The all-Portuguese-speaking #3 car features Audi factory ace Albuquerque, Jimenez (no stranger to Blancpain competition thanks to races for BMW Team Brasil) and Baptista (a 19-year-old Brazilian making his European debut this season). The #4 should also do well: Young Belgian de Leener has shone in Ferraris the past couple of seasons, while both Kox and Kaffer are rapid and seasoned campaigners. Finally, WRT’s #28 teams Corvette stalwart Garcia with DTM ace Muller and ex-F1 driver Stevens in what could turn out to be a very potent combination.

Elsewhere in the Audi camp, Sainteloc and ISR field two cars apiece. The former team has long been there or thereabouts in Blancpain racing, although it hasn’t really demonstrated the kind of crushing consistency needed to win titles. Ingolstadt factory drivers Bonanomi and Haase each anchor a car, although they could be rotated with other Audi GT and DTM faces as the season progresses.

Hassid, hands-down one of the fastest and most competitive gentleman drivers there is, has found a berth at Czech squad ISR this year, along with the perennially rapid Perera and Swiss gentleman racer Giauque. The outfit’s other R8 has Audi factory driver Stippler, Swiss single-seater convert Stockinger and Filip Salaquarda, son of team boss Igor, on the books.

Bentley (4 cars)
7 Bentley Team M-Sport – Steven Kane/Guy Smith/Vincent Abril (Pro Cup)
8 Bentley Team M-Sport – Andy Soucek/Maxime Soulet/Wolfgang Reip (Pro Cup)
24 Team Parker Racing – Ian Loggie/Callum MacLeod/Tom Onslow-Cole (Pro-Am Cup)
30 Team Parker Racing – Derek Pierce/Chris Cooper/Chris Harris (Am Cup)

Bentley-BES_Test-2016

It’s two factory and two privateer entries for the Crewe marque, with slightly altered driver line-ups in the #7 and #8 for 2016. One of the biggest stories over the winter was Bentley’s signing of reigning Blancpain Endurance champion Reip from Nissan, a landmark moment for the GT Academy programme as one of its best graduates is snapped up by a rival. The Belgian joins Soucek and Soulet, who finally put to rest the bad luck that has dogged the #8 Continental by winning in the Sprint Series season opener at Misano. In the #7, quick young Frenchman Abril (the reigning Sprint Series co-champion) joins two-thirds of the line-up that finished second in the Endurance standings last season.

BES_Test2016-29

Team Parker Racing has a car apiece in the Pro-Am and Am Cups. Loggie (co-driving with Julian Westwood) won the Am Cup title last year, so Pro-Am is the next logical step. As co-drivers this season he has Onslow-Cole (the former touring-car star now with a GT title under his belt following his exploits in last season’s 24H Series) and MacLeod (who helped Parker to a class win at last year’s Spa 24). The squad’s Am Cup car has Carrera Cup GB regulars Pierce and Cooper, plus BBC Top Gear presenter and Nurburgring 24 regular Chris Harris.

BMW (4 cars)
12 Boutsen Ginion Racing – Olivier Grotz/Karim Oijeh/Julien Darras (Pro-Am Cup)
15 BMW Team Italia – Max Koebolt/Stefano Colombo/Giorgio Roda (Pro-Am Cup)
98 Rowe Racing – Stef Dusseldorp/Klaus Graf/Lucas Luhr (Pro Cup)
99 Rowe Racing – Philipp Eng/Alexander Sims/Dirk Werner (Pro Cup)

BES-Test-2016-rowe-99

Rowe is BMW’s factory representative in Blancpain Endurance this year following the closure of the Marc VDS GT team in mid-2015. Last year when running the Mercedes SLS, the German squad led large portions of the Spa 24 Hours and was on course for a podium finish before a heartbraking engine problem late in the day put paid to its chances. This season, an impressive line-up peppered with BMW factory drivers should keep the M6s at the sharp end on tracks that suit it.

At Boutsen Ginion, Grotz and Oijeh have formed a solid driving pairing over the last season or two, while 18-year-old Darras makes the step up to GTs after a year of French F4 that saw him finish on the podium six times and win once. BMW Team Italia is the fourth Munich machine on the grid, with young Dutchman Max Koebolt (who raced with WRT Audi last year), Stefano Colombo (back in Blancpain after a successful sideways step to Carrera Cup Italia in 2015) and Giorgio Roda (son of WEC racer Gianluca) in the driving seat.

Ferrari (15 cars)
11 Kessel Racing – Michal Broniszewski/Andrea Rizzoli/Alessandro Bonacini (Pro-Am Cup – 488)
33 Scuderia Praha – Jiri Pisarik/Matteo Malucelli (Pro-Am Cup – 488)
41 CMR by Sport Garage – Mathias Russo/TBC/TBC (Pro-Am Cup – 458)
42 CMR by Sport Garage – Thomas Nicolle/Niels Stievenart/Marc Sourd (Am Cup – 458)
49 AF Corse – Alexander Moiseev/Garry Kondakov/Ricardo Ragazzi (Am Cup – 458)
50 AF Corse – Pasin Lathouras/Michele Rugolo/Alessandro Pier Guidi (Pro Cup – 488)
51 AF Corse – Peter Mann/Francisco Guedes/Rino Mastronardi (Am Cup – 488)
53 AF Corse – Ishikawa Motoaki/Lorenzo Bontempelli/Giancarlo Fisichella (Pro-Am Cup – 488)
52 AF Corse – Duncan Cameron/Matt Griffin (Pro-Am Cup – 488)
66 Black Pearl Racing – Steve Parrow/Alexander Mattschull/Daniel Keilwitz (Pro-Am Cup – 458)
90 AF Corse – Ezequiel Perez Companc/Raffaele Giammaria/Alessandro Balzan (Pro Cup – 458)
111 Kessel Racing – Stephen Earle/Bernard Delhez/David Perel (Am Cup – 458)
333 Rinaldi Racing – Rinat Salikhov/Marco Seefried/Norbert Siedler (Pro Cup – 458)
488 Rinaldi Racing – Pierre Ehret/Stef Vancampenhoudt (Am Cup – 488)
888 Kessel Racing – Marco Zanuttini/Liam Talbot/Vadim Gitlin (Am Cup – 458)

AF-Corse-BES_Test-2016

Ferrari has long been a favourite in this series and 2016 is no different, with 15 Prancing Horses lining up on home soil in Monza. Nearly half of them are the all-new 488 GT3, but several teams and drivers are sticking with the proven package of the 458, most notably Seefried, Siedler and Salikhov in the #333 Rinaldi. The small German team will have a new 488 for the second round of the Sprint Cup at Brands Hatch, but with gentleman driver Salikhov more used to the established 458, the older chassis will be used at all Endurance rounds. Rinaldi is also running a car for Ehret and Vancampenhoudt in the Am Cup and looks after the Black Pearl Racing Pro-Am 458, too.

Elsewhere, Scuderia Praha is a newcomer to this championship, having got its season off to a controversial start by being ‘uninvited’ from the second round of the 24H Series at Mugello following a crash at the Dubai 24. The team’s lead 24H Series driver Kox is also absent due to his seat in the #4 WRT Audi. There are Pro-Am and Am Cup entries from French squad Sport Garage, as well as a Pro-Am 488 and Am Cup 458 from Kessel Racing, likely to be among the front-runners in their classes.

Finally here, there’s the obligatory AF Corse armada, spanning Pro, Pro-Am and Am entries. The combination of Lathouras, Rugolo and Pier Guidi in the #50 looks particularly threatening, with Thai racer Lathouras having really come into his own last season by winning his class at the Spa 24 Hours. They’ll be pushed hard by the #90 line-up of Giammaria, Balzan and Argentine youngster Perez Companc (above).

Cameron and Griffin are one of the most effective Pro-Am pairings there is and will be looking to make the most of their all-new, distinctively green 488. In the #53, ex-F1 racer Fisichella draws attention, as although the Italian has been a stalwart of Maranello’s GTE programmes for the last couple of seasons, he’s only had a handful of GT3 outings.

The #51 entry has to be considered an early favourite for the Am Cup title, with three drivers who’ve enjoyed sucess at that level of late, but the Kaspersky-backed #49 is a less sure prospect, having been a frequent visitor to the gravel traps last season.

Jaguar (1 car)
14 Emil Frey Racing – Lorenz Frey/Stephane Ortelli/Albert Costa (Pro Cup)

Jaguar-BES_Nurburgring-2015

The independent Swiss outfit turned a corner in 2015, going from years of terrible reliability to winning the Pro-Am class at the Nurburgring Blancpain Endurance round (above). It’ll be looking to build on that in 2016, and to that end former Audi factory driver and 1998 Le Mans winner Stephane Ortelli has been recruited to partner Lorenz Frey, along with young Spaniard Albert Costa (the 2009 Formula Renault Eurocup champion). A 2017 Lexus RC F GT3 programme beckons for this team, but more strong results with the Jaguar before then shouldn’t be counted out.

Lamborghini (10 cars)
9 Konrad Motorsport – drivers TBC (Pro-Am Cup)
10 Ombra Racing – Matteo Beretta/Giovanni Berton/Stefano Costantini (Pro-Am Cup)
16 Grasser Racing Team – Jeroen Bleekemolen/Mirko Bortolotti/Rolf Ineichen (Pro Cup)
19 Grasser Racing Team – Luca Stolz/Michele Beretta/Andrea Piccini (Pro Cup)
38 Antonelli Motorsport – Lorenzo CaseI/William Barbosa/TBC (Pro-Am Cup)
69 ARC Bratislava – Miro Konopka/Andrzej Lewandowski/Teodor Myszkowski (Am Cup)
78 Barwell Motorsport – Leo Machitski/Marco Attard/Marco Mapelli (Pro-Am Cup)
100 Attempto Racing – Max Van Splunteren/Jeroen Mul/Louis Machiels (Pro-Am Cup)
101 Attempto Racing – Daniel Zampieri/Patric Niederhauser/Fabio Babini (Pro Cup)
666 Barwell Motorsport – Mark Poole/Richard Abra/Joe Osborne (Pro-Am Cup)

Lamborghini-BES_Test-2016

Lamborghini has certainly done very well in the winter GT3 sales war, with no less than 10 Sant’Agata Bolognese-built beauties on the entry list for the Monza season opener. Austrian team Grasser Racing ran the one-season-only factory Lamborghini effort that won the opening Blancpain Endurance round last year, but the return to privateer status shouldn’t dull its challenge one bit, as its stunning form in the 2014 Blancpain Sprint Series showed.

British outfit Barwell Motorsport’s two-car effort will be one to watch, too. In the ominously-numbered #666 car, the ever-reliable Osborne joins Poole and Abra, who’ll both be itching to get back to racing after a year on the sidelines. In the #78, Lamborghini factory driver Mapelli joins two British GT champions (Attard, 2014; and Machitski, 2006), a line-up that’ll be further boosted at the Spa 24 Hours by the addition of Tom Kimber-Smith.

Barwell-Lamborghini-BES_Test-2016

Elsewhere, Antonelli Motorsport and ARC Bratislava have one Huracan apiece, the latter team making a return to Blancpain Endurance racing for the first time since its 2013 Porsche campaign. There are also two cars with factory drivers aboard from Attempto Racing, a German team which had an at-times fraught graduation from one-make Porsche racing last season but should have a more solid campaign this time around.

McLaren (2 cars)
58 Garage 59 – Rob Bell/Côme Ledogar/Shane Van Gisbergen (Pro Cup)
59 Garage 59 – Andrew Watson/Struan Moore/Alex Fontana (Pro Cup)

McLaren-BES_Test-2016

The factory-blessed Garage 59 outfit, overseen by ex-Marc VDS BMW team manager Bas Leinders, is pulling no punches in the Blancpain Endurance Cup this season. In the #58 car, Bell and van Gisbergen won twice last season and they’re hoping new recruit Côme Ledogar (the 2014 French Carrera Cup champion) will slot seamlessly into the ‘extremely fast Frenchman’ role vacated by Kevin Estre (now a factory Porsche driver). The #59 car is a showcase for McLaren GT’s Driver Academy talent: Northern Irishman Andrew Watson, Brit Struan Moore and Swiss Alex Fontana all keen to make a name for themselves.

Mercedes (7 cars)
56 Black Falcon – Oliver Morley/Miguel Toril/Maro Engel (Pro-Am Cup)
57 AMG Team Black Falcon – Hubert Haupt/Adam Christodoulou/Andreas Simonsen (Pro Cup)
84 HTP Motorsport – Maximilian Buhk/Dominik Baumann/Jazeman Jaafar (Pro Cup)
85 HTP Motorsport – Clemens Schmid/Indy Dontje/Luciano Bacheta (Pro Cup)
87 AKKA ASP – Jean-Luc Beaubelique/Maurice Ricci/Gilles Vannelet (Am Cup)
89 AKKA ASP – Laurent Cazenave/Michael Lyons/Daniele Perfetti (Pro-Am Cup)
91 Zakspeed – Jean Frédéric Laberge/Alex Tagliani/Darryl O’Young (Pro Cup)

Mercedes-BES_Test-2016

There’s a healthy turnout of brand-new Mercedes-AMG GTs, with cars in all three categories. Team-wise, there’s little to separate HTP and Black Falcon and there’ll be an interesting intra-marque battle to observe here for starters. Black Falcon’s Pro entry has three highly experienced Mercedes GT3 practitioners on board in the shape of Haupt, Christodoulou and Simonsen, while factory driver Engel leads a very strong-looking Pro Am entry that’s completed by Toril and Morley.

In the #84, HTP’s dynamic title-winning duo from the the 2012 FIA GT3 Championship, Buhk and Baumann, are reunited next to Malaysian Jazeman Jaafar, who already dipped his toe in the GT waters with an appearance for this team at the 2014 Spa 24 Hours. The other HTP car is all about raw young talent: Dutchman Indy Dontje, Austrian Clemens Schmid (the reigning Porsche GT3 Middle East champion) and Luciano Bacheta (a Brit of Indian and Italian ancestry coming off a season of Renaultsport RS01 racing).

The French AKKA-ASP team also has a pair of AMGs, after many years fielding Ferraris. Gilles Vannelet is an old hand at this kind of racing (he won a British GT round for McLaren last year), while his compatriot co-drivers are a long-established pairing.

The other car is piloted by quick historic and modern racer Michael Lyons, 2012 British GT co-champion Daniele Perfetti and Laurent Cazenave, who has extensive domestic French racing experience and a handful of Blancpain appearances for the now-defunct Hexis team to his name.

Finally in the Mercedes camp is Zakspeed, which has already won with its AMG-GT (at the Oschersleben GT Masters round). The legendary German squad here fields an all-Canadian line-up of Jean-Frederic Laberge, Darryl O’Young and ex-Champ Car star Alex Tagliani (who warmed up for his first season in GTs with a Dubai 24 appearance in January).

Nissan (2 cars)
22 GT Academy Team RJN – Romain Sarazin/Matthew Simmons/Sean Walkinshaw (Pro-Am Cup)
23 GT Academy Team RJN – Mitsunori Takaboshi/Alex Buncombe/Lucas Ordonez (Pro Cup)

Nissan-BES_Test-2016

Nissan’s step up to the Pro category last year was justified in the clearest possible way by Buncombe, Reip and Katsumasa Chiyo’s winning at Paul Ricard and lifting the title at season’s end. Two-thirds of that line-up has departed (Reip to Bentley and Chiyo to race for Nissan in Japan) but the now very experienced Lucas Ordonez should be able to fill fellow GT Academy winner Reip’s shoes well. Takaboshi is a young talent from Japan, but like Chiyo before him, it may take until his second season in Europe to really shine. In the Pro-Am entry, two recent GT Academy graduates join Sean Walkinshaw, who progressed rapidly in what his first full year of GT racing last season, driving an Always Evolving-run GT-R.

Porsche (2 cars)
76 IMSA Performance – Raymond Narac/Thierry Cornac/Maxime Jousse (Pro-Am Cup)
77 Attempto Racing – Jürgen Häring/Nicolas Armindo/Clément Mateu (Pro-Am Cup)

Porsche-BES_Test-2016

The launch of the GT3 version of the latest iteration of Porsche’s 911 hasn’t prompted an influx of Stuttgart machines into the Endurance Cup, with just two Pro-Am entries flying the rear-engined flag. French outfit IMSA Performance is of course a multiple championship and Le Mans class-winning squad and its Pro-Am line-up here includes the reigning Carrera Cup France champion Jousse and experienced team owner/driver Narac. Attempto Racing, meanwhile had a rough season with McLarens last year (swapping to Lamborghini for its other two entries this season) and its Porsche is unlikely to feature at the front of the class, but watch out for a rapid stint or two from Armindo.