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Paul Ricard, Bentley Still In Front With Two To Go

Comfortable lead for Soucek in #8 Continental

Into the final two hours of the Blancpain GT Paul Ricard 1000km, Bentley held a commanding 40-second lead with one round of pitstops to go. Andy Soucek was aboard the #8 car at the front, beginning a double stint that would take him to the flag. Leading the chasing pack in second was Shane van Gisbergen in the #58 McLaren, about 10 seconds up the road from Alessandro Pier Guidi in the #50 AF Corse Ferrari. Max Buhk in the #84 HTP Mercedes and Alex Buncombe in the #23 Nissan completed the top five. About 10 minutes into the fifth hour, a very brief third full-course yellow was called to cover the removal of debris from the track.

Earlier on during the second full-course yellow, the organisers elected to place a tyre wall in front of the section of barrier damaged by the #24 Bentley, so the suspension ran until 13 minutes before the two-hour mark. It was thus just about an opportune time make a second scheduled stop and roughly half of the top 20 did so. Unfortunately for the #28 WRT Audi and #90 AF Corse Ferrari, their crews fell foul of the Blancpain GT pit regulations in the process and were handed drive-through penalties.

Bentley pitted its two cars right at the end of the FCY period, but as neither car changed tyres, they were able to get out quickly, the #7 now having Vincent Abril on board in place of Smith. However the latter car almost immediately came back into the pits and was pulled into the garage with an anti-lock braking system problem.

The #58 McLaren made its second stop under green (taking fuel only, with Ledogar staying on board), as did the #56 Mercedes, which made a driver change from Morley to Miguel Toril. Soulet now led from Michele Beretta in the #19 Lamborghini, which had enjoyed a more straightforward second stop than its rivals.

84-HTP-Mercedes-BES-Paul-Ricard-Practice

Further back, Jazeman Jafaar in the #84 Mercedes (above) made up a place to fifth when Rolf Ineichen slowed the #16 Lamborghini due to damaged bodywork rubbing on a tyre. That became fourth after Pisarik in the #34 Ferrari was dealt with and then third when the #75 ISR Audi was passed on the start-finish straight, although that car had still to make its scheduled second stop (and was one of the last of the field to do so).

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Jafaar soon had Dries Vanthoor in the #1 WRT Audi (above) started by Vervisch to worry about, however. The 17-year-old Belgian initially made short work of both his Malaysian rival and third-place Ledogar to move into a podium position on lap 55, but as the three cars scrapped their way through traffic, Vanthoor appeared to misjudge some traffic and lost the positions again, before heading for the pits next lap. Vervisch got back aboard, but it was a long stop and the car dropped right out of contention.

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Having fallen back in the hands of Lathouras early in the race, the #50 AF Corse Ferrari (above) was now running fifth behind Jafaar in the hands of Michele Rugolo, while Daniel Zampieri had also made progress in the #101 Attempto Racing Lamborghini, which had started on the 12th row of the grid with Fabio Babini aboard. Lucas Ordonez was meanwhile running seventh overall in the #23 Nissan.

At the front of the field, Soulet had a 26-second cushion on Beretta, while Ledogar in the McLaren was a further 11 seconds behind but closing fast on the second-place Lamborghini. Rugolo had fourth-place Jafaar in his sights, having got to within a second of the #84 Mercedes.

An impatient Stuart Leonard then attempted to unlap himself from the #34 Scuderia Praha Ferrari, which was leading Pro-Am in the hands of Pisarik, but he ended up spinning the Czech car and damaging the front right of the #2 Audi. Both cars then pitted, handing the Pro-Am lead to Alessandro Bonacini in the #11 Kessel Racing Ferrari, while the #2 was later slapped with a drive-through penalty.

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The #19 Lamborghini (above) kicked off the third round of pit stops about 15 minutes before half-distance. Many of the front-runners elected to put their starting drivers back in at this point, saving their third names for a two-hour stint in the dark towards the end. So it was Reip back aboard the leading Bentley, Beretta into the #19 and Bell into the #58 McLaren. Rugolo and Jafaar stayed aboard the #50 Ferrari and #84 Mercedes, however.

Once everyone’s third stops were in the bag, Reip had a 40-second cushion on Beretta, who rapidly lost second place to Bell. Rugolo was about 10 seconds down the road from this battle in fourth, still ahead of Jafaar in fifth. The #23 Nissan continued to run consistently in the top 10, now sixth with Takaboshi on board and with a good gap to the seventh-place #101 Lamborghini.

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The Pro-Am top three just after half-distance consisted of Andrea Rizzoli in the #11 Ferrari (above, 10th overall), Ahmad Al-Harthy in the #44 Aston (15th overall) and Duncan Cameron in the #52 Ferrari (17th overall). Up front, after losing out to Bell, Beretta fell back into the clutches of Rugolo’s Ferrari. The latter got past with a committed move through the final sequence of corners going onto the start-finish straight.

While Reip looked comfortable in the lead as darkness fell over the circuit, Bell only had a few seconds gap to Rugolo in third, although he did manage to eke it out slightly as it got darker and temperatures dropped. Elsewhere, the long-time Am Cup-leading Kaspersky Motorsport Ferrari came to halt approaching the four-hour mark, apparantley needing a ‘hard reset’ to get going again. This handed the class lead to David Perel in the #111 Kessel Racing Ferrari.

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There was a setback too with two hours to go for the #19 Lamborghini (now being driven by Luca Stolz) which had run strongly all race but received a drive-through penalty for causing a collision. Also, the #44 Aston Martin was spotted going slowly down the Mistral with Jonny Adam driving and a skewed front left wheel, the car having previously been in contention for a Pro-Am podium finish.