The works Bentleys held the top two positions in the Blancpain GT Paul Ricard 1000km race as evening fell on the French circuit. After an hour and a half of racing, the cars were circulating under full-course yellow after a heavy collision for Ian Loggie in the #24 Team Parker Racing Bentley.
At the start, as expected, the third-row-starting Bentleys had monstered the gentleman drivers in the front-row Ferraris, as did Rob Bell in the #58 McLaren (above) that started from fifth. At the end of lap one, it was Smith in the #7 ahead of Reip in the #8, with Bell third, Andrea Piccini fourth in the #19 Lamborghini and Matteo Malucelli fifth in the #34 Scuderia Praha Ferrari, the leading Pro-Am car after the opening-laps scrapping.
Maro Engel (also in Pro-Am) progressed from ninth to sixth in the #56 Black Falcon Mercedes, while Buurman held seventh in the #00 Pro Cup sister car. Michael Meadows in the #2 WRT car was the leading Audi runner in eigth, ahead of front-row starer Pasin Lathouras in the #50 Ferrari, who’d fallen back to ninth, and Will Stevens in the #28 WRT car in 10th.
Behind them, the #66 Black Pearl didn’t make it off grid and was pushed to the side of the track by its mechanics. There was also a right-rear puncture for the #22 Pro-Am Nissan (above, in the garage afterwards) and reports of the #333 Rinaldi Ferrari and #4 WRT Audi having stopped on the track in the early laps. The #66 was later given a drive-through penalty for having a pit stop time in the prohibited 74-94-second range as the team dealt with the issue that struck on the grid.
Malucelli (above) passed Piccini for fourth on lap seven, while further down the top 20, Fred Vervisch began to make progress, taking the #1 Audi from 15th to 13th by passing Jeroen Bleekemolen’s #16 Lamborghini and Henry Hassid’s #74 ISR Audi. Malucelli’s charge also continued as he took Bell for third at the end of the Mistral on lap 11. Lathouras, meanwhile, had lost another flurry of paces and was now running 12th in the pole-sitting car.
After 30 minutes of racing, Smith held a lead of 2.3 seconds on Reip, with Malucelli closing fast behind in the #34 Ferrari. Vervisch had got up to ninth, just behind the Pro-Am Cup #24 Bentley (above) of Calum MacLeod, who was having a great stint to get to eighth overall. Reip then ran a bit wide through turn 10, allowing Malucelli through to second overall on lap 15.
Both Smith and Reip were shown the black-and-white warning flag for exceeding track limits on lap 19, while things really hotted up lower down the top 10 as the #56 and #00 Mercedes got into fourth and fifth past Piccini, which was now being threatened by MacLeod, who himself had Vervisch right on his tail.
Up front, Malucelli continued to pile the pressure on leader Smith, but his charge was temporarily halted when the #77 Porsche (above) came to halt with the rear end ablaze at the final chicane. Driver Jurgen Haring quickly extricated himself as the flames licked around the rear wing and a full-course yellow was soon thrown, prompting most cars to dive for the pits, as it was only 10 minutes from the turn of the hour.
When the full-course yellow was lifted, Smith in the #7 Bentley, doing a double stint, was leading the #8, which had now been handed to Maxime Soulet. Bell had also got out of #58, handing to Come Ledogar, while with Jiri Pisarik now aboard, the #34 Ferrari began to slip down the order, allowing Andrea Piccini back up to fourth in the #19 Lamborghini. Sixth-place Oliver Morley had taken over the #56 Mercedes from Engel and now set about challenging Pisarik for the Pro-Am Cup lead.
The fresher Soulet looked the faster of the two Bentleys, and he slipped past on the Mistral on lap 32 without much resistance from Smith, Bentley’s pit wall possibly taking the long view for the rest of the race. There were contrasting fortunes for the #24 Pro-Am Bentley of Team Parker, which impacted the barrier heavily on the way into T5 in the hands of Loggie, who’d taken over from MacLeod. The damage to the car was quite dramatic, the left rear corner having been shredded and split by the barrier, but Loggie walked away to be taken to the medical centre for checks.