Bentley Team M-Sport took the race win at the Circuit Paul Ricard 1000km with the #8 Continental GT3 of Vincent Abril, Andy Soucek and Maxime Soulet. It had been a long wait for a return to the top step of the podium for M-Sport, three years in fact. It was far from a dominant win though, as over the course of the six hours, five different manufacturers led the race.
“The team did not tell me to stop pushing, it was only five laps from the end that I was told that I had a 34-second lead,” said Soulet. “That’s when I backed off a bit, but then I started to hear those strange noises in the car. Those last five laps seemed to last so long, but the final one was really good.”
The temperature soared in the south of France and as the cars filed round on the formation lap the crowd waited with baited breath for this stellar field to begin racing. The sight of the 58 car field rounding Virage du Pont onto the start/finish straight was a magnificent sight and as the lights went out they filed into turn one at Verriere battling for positions through the chicane with cars three wide as the exited Saint-Beaurne.
The pole-sitter Yelmer Buurman in the #4 Mercedes-AMG Team Black Falcon began to open up a lead as the cars battled for position behind. Katsumasa Chiyo was on a charge passing cars down the Mistral Straight in his #23 Motul Team RJN Nissan but he was unable to get it stopped in time and ran wide with two other cars at Signes.
The battles raged on through the field and at the halfway mark the #99 ROWE Racing BMW lead the race after pit stops but the race was not to be won by the team as they lost places due to technical issues.
The #51 AF Corse Ferrari came together with a Porsche spinning both cars off circuit which resulted in full-course yellows and ultimately the first of two safety cars for the race. Elsewhere on the track the #777 HB Racing Lamborghini had an engine blow, flames licking out the back of the car as the #7 M-Sport Bentley was having issues of its own with an intermittent fuel problem. It would stop on circuit and limp back to the garage but in the end, after night-fall, the car would be retired.
Andrea Caldarelli in the championship-leading #63 GRT Grasser Team car would receive a one minute stop-go penalty after his contact with the #5 Belgian Audi Club Team WRT car of Marcel Fassler. Another penalty would be handed to Michele Rugolo in the #50 AF Corse Ferrari, a drive-through, for crossing the white line on pit entry.
Approaching sundown and the action on track continued, with the #66 Attempto Racing Lamborghini would have a spectacular engine failure which saw the car retired to the garage. Jamie Green had a tyre blow in his #76 Audi as Sam Tordoff pun off the track in his #43 Strakka Racing McLaren.
Night fell, cars were beginning to fall to the wayside. The #99 ROWE Racing BMW held the lead at the halfway mark, before a technical issue dropped it down the order. The sister car of the Bentley winners was also included in those victims, but the most dramatic retirement would be the #4 Black Falcon Mercedes, which had been so impressive over the weekend and running with the leading quartet retired after a gearbox issue.
Further retirements from the #3 Team WRT Belgian Audi Club, #85 HTP Motorsport Mercedes, #35 Walkenhorst Motorsport and #50 AF Corse Ferrari would dwindle the field down even further.
After the #99 ROWE BMW and #4 Black Falcon Mercedes saw their chances of winning expire, it became a two-way fight for the lead between the winning Bentley and the #72 SMP Racing Ferrari. The #8 Bentley would make its final pit stop and held the lead throughout the closing stages, and crossed the line with a 29-second lead over the #72 SMP Racing Ferrari, which scored its best result of the season.
Third eventually went to the #1 Audi Sport Team WRT Audi, ahead of the #88 AKKA ASP Mercedes and #23 RJN Nissan GT-R that completed the top five.
The Pro-Am would see the Silverstone-winning #77 Barwell Motorsport Lamborghini of Patrick Kujala, Adam Amstutz and Martin Kodric behind the wheel take the class win after a mighty battle with the #97 Oman Racing Team Aston Martin. In the Am Cup the #36 Walkenhorst Motorsport BMW of Henry Walkenhorst, David Schiwietz and Stef Vancampenhoudt would take their first victory.
“I am especially happy about the fact that we won with a big advantage,” said Kujala after his Pro-Am win. “Last time we only had a couple of seconds in hand, but winning with a big margin is a great feeling for a driver. It was a tough race, but the team did a perfect job, again.”
Next up on the Blancpain Endurance Cup calendar is the Total 24 Hours of Spa next month.
Photo courtesy of Blancpain GT