The #58 McLaren 650S has started the 2016 Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup as it finished the 2015 Endurance Series, with victory in a three-hour race. The 2015 Silverstone and Nurburgring winners Rob Bell and Shane van Gisbergen, along with new recruit Come Ledogar, triumphed in the season-opening three-hour event at Monza on Sunday.
Starting from 16th on the grid, Bell made excellent progress on a hectic first lap to get into sixth. “It was standard Monza stuff, really: nearly 60 cars into a very tight first corner!” he recalled later. “I got a reasonable start and just tried to stay out of trouble. I made two or three correct choices, really: I saw cars heading in a certain direction and thought ‘that might be a problem, I’ll go the other way’. Luck played a part too, though, as it’s always going to in that situation.
“A few guys ahead of us created their own trouble and I avoided all that. So I gained a few places, got in a good rhythm and went from there.” Bell then made on-track passes on track to move up to fifth, fourth and eventually third, from which position he handed the car to Ledogar (who records a win on his Blancpain Endurance debut for McLaren).
Bell added: “The last hour was definitely harder, though, when you’re in-car you do your own thing and you’re the master of your own destiny, but it’s tough to watch when you can’t do anything! It was great racing and another good event for Blancpain. Great for Garage 59 to win their first endurance event, too.”
The polesitting #84 HTP Mercedes led in the early stages in the hands of Dominik Baumann, but some inconsistent laps in traffic from Jazeman Jafaar in the second stint allowed McLaren’s second driver Come Ledogar some breathing room in that portion of the race.
Afterwards, Jafaar elaborated: “I had a problem at the exit of the pitlane: when I switched off the pit limiter, the car turned off completely, so I had to restart it. I fought back trying to keep the gap close to Come, but I had big issues with traffic in my stint. I’m not sure the blue flags were consistently waved for the backmarkers, so we lost a lot of time behind a couple of cars.”
A delay at the second round of pitstops saw the #84 boxed in behind another Mercedes left third driver Max Buhk with work to do in the final stint. In a spellbinding hour of racing, the German chased Van Gisbergen hard as they battled though the heavy traffic of the almost 60-car field. Just three-tenths separated them at the line.
“It was crazy, a little frustrating with the traffic but Max had the same,” said Van Gisbergen afterwards. “The battle for the last 20-30 minutes was pretty cool. It ebbed and flowed with traffic and he had a couple of good goes to get past me. I really enjoyed it, it was pretty tense, but really cool to come away with a win at a track we didn’t think we’d be strong at.”
A clearly downcast Buhk said: “I got closest when one of the Lambos we were lapping didn’t know what way to go out of the second chicane and I thought I could take advantage of that. It was the only point where I thought I could get past, but anyway it was good racing. I’m happy with P2, it was okay, we had good pace and a good, fun battle.”
Behind the battlers for the lead, in the #8 Bentley Maxime Soulet and Andy Soucek followed up their Sprint Series race win in Misano with a third-place finish in the company of new team recruit (and reigning Blancpain Endurance champion) Wolfgang Reip.
Soucek had to let Bell go in the first stint, but passed Lucas Ordonez in the #23 Nissan (who’d started second) and ran a long first stint, being one of the last of the frontrunners to pit. “I wasn’t expecting to do the start, but the team decided at the last minute to put me in,” said the Spaniard afterwards.
“It went well, I overtook two Ferrari, which was good as they were very quick in a straight line. I decided to wait until Lucas degraded his tyres because I knew the Nissan would be harder on them than us. I could pass him and I thought it was better not to fight Rob too much. We played the long game and it worked well, the car was amazing through the whole race.”
A smooth second stop saw Soulet take over to run the car to the flag, but the Belgian had to soak up pressure from Reip’s former team-mate Alex Buncombe, who drove the #23 Nissan to fourth at the flag after newcomer Takaboshi took the middle stint.
The #11 Kessel Racing Ferrari had a typically quick and consistent run to take a clear Pro-Am Cup victory (and fifth overall) in the hands of Michel Broniszewksi, Andrea Rizzoli and Alessadro Bonacini. The car ran in the middle of the top 10 pretty much all race and was never challenged for the class win.
A strong opening stint from Daniel Keilwitz led to the #66 Rinaldi Racing-run Black Pearl Ferrari holding second in Pro-Am for much of the race, with the Oman Racing Aston Martin third in class behind it. However, a storming final-hour performance from Giancarlo Fisichella in the #53 AF Corse Ferrari saw him move that car up to second in the category and 10th overall in the final hour.
The Am Cup looked to be going the way of the #488 Rinaldi Ferrari for much of the race, but a late charge from Gilles Vannelet in the #87 AKKA ASP Mercedes brought victory to the Frenchman and his co-drivers Maurice Ricci and Jean-Luc Beaubelique.