The #58 Garage 59 McLaren 650S of Rob Bell, Come Ledogar and Shane van Gisbergen has won the Blancpain GT Endurance Cup Paul Ricard 1000km race, after a late-race pit fire scuppered the chances of long-time leaders Maxime Soulet, Andy Soucek and Wolfgang Reip in the #8 Bentley.
Second place went to the pole-winning #50 AF Corse Ferrari of Pasin Lathouras, Michele Rugolo and Alessandro Pier Guidi, which would have been on course for the win after Bentley’s disaster, only for the fact its last pit stop was under green-flag conditions, whereas the McLaren’s was under a full-course yellow.
Having started at the front in the hands of Lathouras, the #50 initially slipped back to just outside the top 10, but benefitted somewhat from a long full-course yellow following the Team Parker Bentley crash early in the race.
With Lathouras having completed his minimum required driving time in that first stint, Michele Rugolo hauled the car back towards the front of the field during his time at the wheel, allowing Pier Guidi to emerge in third place for the final two hours of the race in full darkness.
The rapid Italian caught and passed Van Gisbergen on track, and a drive-through penalty for the #8 Bentley meant he was within three seconds of Soucek when another full-course yellow came out with just over an hour to run. What happened next determined the outcome of the race: the Bentley suffered a flash fire while refuelling, the fallout from which delayed it leaving the pits for over a lap.
The McLaren made its final stop at the same time, putting it just within the window for the maximum permitted 65-minute stint length. But the the #50 Ferrari didn’t come in until the track had gone back to green, which gave Van Gisbergen an advantage of roughly 20 seconds over Pier Guidi with around 45 minutes to go.
Pier Guidi said: “We were just too close to the pit entry when the FCY came. Maybe if I’d been a little slower up till then we’d have been able to come in!”
Earlier, Bell had gone from fifth to third on the opening lap, before Ledogar did a double and Bell got back in for a single, keeping the Kiwi fresh for the final two hours. “We didn’t really have the pace, but then we never have in the Blancpain races we’ve won,” Bell said afterwards. “We’ve always just maximised what we’ve had, made the right pit calls where others didn’t. There was maybe a bit of luck today, but we’ll take that.”
Third place went to the #3 WRT Audi of Filipe Albuquerque, Jan Magnussen and Rodrigo Baptista, a strong and steady run from the Portuguese-Danish-Brazilian trio putting them in good position to capitalise on Bentley’s misfortune on what was otherwise a forgettable day for WRT.
McLaren’s result sees Bell at the top of the overall Blancpain GT Series standings, with 90 points to Buhk and Baumann’s 70, while the #58 McLaren crew now also lead the Blancpain Endurance Cup points table, with 66 points to the #84 Mercedes drivers’ 44 going into the Spa 24 Hours.
There’s some consolation for Bentley in the fact that Soucek and Soulet move to third in the overall standings, while together with Reip they’re also now third in the Endurance Cup rankings.
The battle for the Pro-Am win went down to the wire as a charging Matt Griffin in the #52 AF Corse Ferrari closed in on Kessel’s Andrea Rizzoli in the long-time leading #11 car (above). And despite numerous setbacks, not least of which was a pitlane start, the #78 Barwell Lamborghini came home on the class podium, in the hands of Phil Keen at the flag.
Am Cup victory slipped from the grasp of the #49 Kaspersky Motorsport Ferrari mid-way through the race and was eventually taken by Liam Talbot, Vadim Gitlin and Marco Zanuttini in the #888 Kessel Ferrari (above).
Hours 5-6 report
Early in the fifth hour, the #84 HTP Mercedes with Max Buhk at the wheel dropped out of contention with an apparent gearbox problem, promoting the #23 Nissan to fourth and Luca Stolz to fifth in the #19 Lamborghini, recovering from a drive-through penalty.
As the leading Bentley came under investigation for a FCY infringement, Pier Guidi was a man on a mission, closing right up on second-place Shane van Gisbergen in the #58 McLaren. The Italian finally got past the Kiwi down the inside through the right-hander after Signes on lap 121, with exactly 90 minutes of the race to run.
Behind Buncombe, Filipe Albuquerque in the #3 WRT Audi overhauled Stolz for fifth, giving the Belgian team something to smile about after a pretty torrid race for the rest of its cars. And behind Stolz, Bernd Schneider was working hard in the #00 Black Falcon Mercedes in seventh ahead of Mike Parisy in the #26 Sainteloc Audi, Patrick Niederhauser in the #101 Lamborghini and Antonio Garcia in the #28 WRT Audi.
There was drama at the front of the Am Cup when Steve Earle had to pit the #111 Kessel Ferrari from the class lead with rear bodywork damage. The team elected to refuel the car at the same time, but the lead of the class went to Gilles Vannelet in the #87 AKKA Mercedes. In Pro-Am, the demise of the #44 Aston had promoted the #78 Barwell Lamborghini to third in class behind the #11 Kessel and #52 AF Corse Ferraris.
With an hour and 15 minutes to go, the investigation into the #8 Bentley concluded and a drive-through penalty was handed out, the lead over Pier Guidi at this point standing at 36 seconds. Soucek held on to P1, but the margin had been slashed to under seven seconds. Pier Guidi began to reel Soucek in as quickly as he had Van Gisbergen, the gap dropping to 5.5 seconds as the final pit stops of the race loomed. With the gap down to just over three seconds, the chase was suspended by another full-course yellow for debris, kicking off those final stops in earnest.
Then, disaster struck in the pits. A flash fire while the #8 was being refuelled led to a flurry of fire-extinguisher activity from both the mechanics and pit marshals. Although it was put out quickly, Soucek wasn’t able to get away immediately and the car lost a lap. The winning McLaren pitted at the same time, gaining an advantage over the second-place-finishing Ferrari, which didn’t come in until after the FCY had concluded.
Soucek rejoined in fourth and demonstrated his frustration at losing the win by setting some very fast laps, ensuring his position wouldn’t be threatened by eventual fifth-place finisher Ordonez in the #23 Nissan. Mike Parisy had to serve a drive-through penalty in the #26 Sainteloc Audi but still managed to hang on for sixth, ahead of the #28 WRT Audi, which was driven to the flag by Rene Rast.