Aleksey Basov and Victor Shaitar head into the next round of the Michelin GT3 Le Mans Cup leading the points standings after taking an impressive victory at Paul Ricard on Saturday evening.
The Russian duo led home Egidio Perfetti and GT3 debutant Ben Barker in the Mentos Porsche, while third place went to the TF Sport Aston Martin of Euan Hankey and Salih Yoluc, a car that may have figured even more prominently were it not for Yoluc picking up two drive-through penalties, one for a jump-start and one for on-track contact.
Having qualified second, Yoluc had squeezed past polesitter Basov on the run down to T1 (above), but the latter didn’t let things lie and had muscled his way back past after the first few corners. Yoluc then came under pressure from the #7 BMS Scuderia Italia Ferrari of Matteo Cressoni, pretty much the only Pro driver to have taken the start, with every other car being driven by the Am that qualified it.
Cressoni was past before long and set about pursuing Basov for the lead, while behind the top three Perfetti lay fourth in the Mentos Porsche, Hiroshi Hamaguchi was fifth in the FFF McLaren and Nicolas Tardif was sixth in the CMR by Sport Garage Ferrari.
Then came Mark Poole in the Barwell Lamborghini, Filipe Barreiros in the #71 AF Corse Ferrari, Flick Haigh in the Optimum Audi, Thomas Flohr in the #51 AF Corse Ferrari, Cedric Mezard in the Villorba Corse Ferrari, Ivor Dunbar in the FF Corse Ferrari and Adrien de Leener in the #14 AF Corse Ferrari.
After 15 minutes, Yoluc’s chances were dealt a blow when he was handed a drive-through penalty for jumping the start. This dropped the TF Aston Martin to eighth on track, just behind Barreiros. “I thought it was an okay start so I was surprised to get the call over the radio,” Yoluc said later.
There were problems too for Hamaguchi, who had to retire the FFF McLaren with an apparent recurrence of the engine problem that required an all-night repair in the small hours of Saturday morning.
Shortly afterwards, Yoluc’s efforts to claw back his lost positions resulted in Mark Poole’s Lamborghini spinning out of seventh at turn one (above), bringing out the yellows briefly and prompting a stewards’ investigation. Basov, meanwhile, was managing to preserve a reasonable gap to second-place man Cressoni, who was a fraction under three seconds behind with 10 laps in the bag.
The under-investigation Yoluc continued to reel off fastest laps and was up to fourth by lap 14, before the safety car was deployed when Cressoni suffered a right-rear puncture on the Mistral straight, spreading rubber debris across the track. With Cressoni demoted to 11th by the puncture, the order after the restart was Basov from Perfetti, Yoluc, Barreiros, Tardif, Flohr, Haigh, Mezard, Poole and Dunbar.
Yoluc wouldn’t stay third for long, however: a second drive-through penalty, this time for causing the collision with Poole, was awarded by the stewards. He would rejoin 10th ahead of Cressoni, but once again had the pace to claw back most of the lost positions. “I misjudged it, I didn’t think the Lamborghini would brake as hard as he did,” commented Yoluc. “I tried to avoid him but it was a silly mistake on my part really.”
As the race approached half-distance, Mezard had managed to make his way up to fourth, while Tardif had gone in the opposite direction, dropping all the way down to 11th. Behind Flohr, Poole had a coming-together with Haigh as she turned into T3, leading to another stewards investigation as the pair rejoined in seventh and eighth.
After the mandatory driver-change pit stops, Richard Abra would have to take a drive-through penalty on behalf of his co-driver Poole, who was found by the stewards to be at fault in the clash with Haigh’s Audi, now being driven by Joe Osborne.
Up front, Ben Barker had taken over the Mentos Porsche (above) and was chasing down the SMP Ferrari, now in the hands of Shaitar, while Hankey was third in the TF Aston started by Yoluc.
Behind Hankey, in the Villorba Ferrari started by Mezard, was Steve Hiesse, who withstood a robust passing move from Francesco Castellaci in the #51 AF Corse Ferrari that would later result in that car’s retirement.
And behind them, an on-the-move Osborne despatched with Mads Rasmussen in the #71 Ferrari to take fifth, while the Dane also had to give best to a recovering Abra in the Barwell Lamborghini and Jonny Mowlem in the FF Ferrari started by Dunbar.
Barker’s pursuit of Shaitar was temporarily baulked by Soheil Ayari, a lap down in the CMR Ferrari started by Tardif, but he eventually got past the Frenchman and just two seconds separated the leading pair with 30 minutes of racing left to run.
Luigi Lucchini then suffered an almost-identical left-rear puncture to the one experienced by his co-driver Cressoni in the first stint, while elsewhere Abra and Mowlem got into a close and entertaining scrap for sixth, which was sadly brought to an end after a couple of laps by a front-right puncture for Mowlem.
In the end, Shaitar kept the gap to Barker at around a second and a half. “I came out in second and was pushing very hard,” Barker said afterwards. “The car stayed strong throughout but the rear tyres started to go off a bit. With all the Ferraris having blowouts, I was mindful of looking after them a bit.”
Third-place Hankey echoed those thoughts, saying: “I was lucky because I had a very fresh set of tyres, Salih had only done two laps on them in qualifying. I heard the gap was 22 seconds, which was a bit demoralising, but I just went for it and got it down to seven or eight I think. There was a slight vibration from the fronts, so I was worried about the tyres, too.”
The real action at the end of the race took place further down the field, as Osborne finally found a way past the Ferrari of Hiesse to cross the line fourth, with Abra, Rasmussen, Ayari, De Leener, Mowlem and Lucchini rounding out the 11 finishing cars.