The Blancpain GT World Challenge Europe season began last weekend. The series, formerly the Blancpain GT Sprint Cup, held its opening round at Brands Hatch in Kent with two 60-minute races. Five manufacturers were represented for the opener, but one was dominant, that being Mercedes, after AKKA ASP Team and Black Falcon each took a win.
AKKA ASP strikes first
French outfit AKKA ASP won the opening race on the Brands GP Loop, with its #89 Mercedes-AMG securing a phenomenal result, as a Silver Cup entrant.
The crew of Nico Bastian and Thomas Neubauer beat the pole-sitting #4 Black Falcon Mercedes-AMG to the victory, with the #63 Grasser Racing Lamborghini completing the podium in the opening run. This was a remarkable result for the AKKA ASP duo, in particular, for 19-year-old Neubauer who made his Blancpain debut in the process.
The #4 Black Falcon machine started on pole courtesy of a blistering lap from Luca Stolz and led the first stint, with Mirko Bortolotti retaining P2 in his Grasser Lamborghini.
But, it all changed in the second half of the race. When Stolz handed over to Engel, the #4 Mercedes-AMG looked set for victory, particularly as it had emerged ahead of the #63 Lamborghini. Bortolotti gave the controls to Christian Engelhart, with the German ace only able to hold station behind the Black Falcon car.
The #89 AKKA ASP crew emerged in the lead though, after the team opted to leave Bastian until the end of the pit window.
A rapid stop allowed Neubauer to emerge in the lead, with the vastly experienced Maro Engel hunting him down the 19-year-old looked to have a major threat in his mirrors. But he held on, and won the race in rather comfortable fashion, by just over two seconds.
“This is crazy, isn’t it?” said Bastian. “The start was good, I defended my position but there was no way to pass the cars in front of me. With Luca and Mirko I was able to pull away and I tried to save my tyres because I knew that I would try to stay out as long as possible.
“Then I had two or three push laps where I could get the time that we need to overtake in the pit lane and it paid off. The team also did a mega stop, the guys are training so much during the winter time and they are a big part of this win. And then my teammate, in his first ever GT3 race, running in front of Maro. He did a mega job.”
Engelhart completed the podium after a lonely stint that saw the #63 Lamborghini running adrift of second and well clear of fourth. Behind him, the battle for fourth was the highlight of the second stint, with the hard-charging Raffaele Marciello (#88 AKKA ASP Mercedes-AMG) eventually passing Clemens Schmid (#66 Attempto Racing Audi) to take the position.
The #89 AKKA ASP crew’s stunning overall win should not overshadow a number of other strong runs by Silver Cup challengers. Notably, the #17 Belgian Audi Club Team WRT car of Shae Davies and Tom Gamble was an impressive sixth at the flag, while the #1 WRT Audi and the #56 Attempto Audi were also among the overall top-10.
Rinat Salikhov and David Perel took Pro-Am honours in their #333 Rinaldi Racing Ferrari.
Black Falcon completes the Mercedes sweep
Three hours later, Race 2 began, and once again it was a Mercedes that would take the win. This time though, the #4 Black Falcon AMG GT3 that earned a place on the top step, with Stolz and Engel following up their earlier runner-up finish with a comfortable victory.
But this race was far from simple. The early laps were led by the pole-sitting #90 AKKA ASP Mercedes-AMG crew, which retained its advantage in the hands of Fabian Schiller. Behind him, Nick Foster held second in his #55 Attempto Racing Audi, which had been rapidly repaired by the German squad following a lap one accident in the opening contest.
The first half of the race was disrupted by a full-course yellow period, following a multi-car collision, which began when the #333 Rinaldi Ferrari made contact with the #11 Phoenix Racing Audi. Several others became involved in the incident, for which the #333 of earlier class winner Perel was subsequently handed a drive-through penalty.
When racing resumed the #90 Mercedes-AMG held its lead and elected to run long into the stint. Meanwhile, the #4 Black Falcon Mercedes-AMG stopped early, as did the chasing #88 AKKA ASP Mercedes-AMG of Marciello, who had made good progress from sixth on the grid.
With Stolz now aboard the #4 and former Bentley Boy Vincent Abril handling the #88, the two Mercedes-AMG cars moved into the overall lead after the #90 stopped and slipped down the order. From this point onwards the #4 Black Falcon car was not seriously challenged, with Stolz easing away at the front, taking the flag.
“A big thank you to the team, they worked very hard and the level in this championship is, as we know, extremely high,” Race 2 winner Engel said. “We knew that the pit stops would be a major challenge and our guys worked tirelessly in that area. The car was great and it was very interesting in the first stint, going side by side with Nick [Foster]. Turn one was interesting! A great result, and thanks again to the team.”
There was to be yet more drama, behind, however, as the #88 Mercedes-AMG suddenly ground to a halt with what would later transpire to be a clutch problem. Abril was visibly distraught, having looked set for a strong finish to a tricky Brands Hatch weekend.
This moved the #563 Orange1 FFF Racing Lamborghini into second spot, a significant achievement for a car that had started 11th on the grid. Marco Mapelli survived the pitfalls of the opening stint and handed over to team principal Andrea Caldarelli, who delivered a typically cool performance to collect another podium for the squad following last month’s runner-up finish at Monza.
Third went to the #55 Attempto Audi, a result that provided a fitting reward for the mechanics’ hard work to get the R8 LMS on-track. Steijn Schothorst had taken over from Foster and was resolute in his defence throughout the stint, eventually finishing ahead of the sister #66 Attempto machine.
The #89 AKKA ASP Mercedes-AMG took another Silver Cup win, though on this occasion without winning the race overall. Instead, the winners from earlier in the day took the class win with an eighth-place finish after a drive-through. The penalty, for passing under an FCY, made it an intense battle for the class win. That seemed to have scuppered their hopes, only for the sister #90 machine to come to a halt with smoke billowing from its engine. This allowed the #89 to take a narrow win, ahead of the chasing #56 Attempto Audi.
If that wasn’t enough excitement, the Pro-Am battle was settled by just 0.025s at the chequered flag. Brands Hatch debutant Hiroshi Hamaguchi and local ace Phil Keen took the win, with the impressive Japanese driver snatching class honours at the very last moment from the #87 AKKA ASP Mercedes-AMG. Meanwhile, the sole Am Cup entrant survived the drama of the weekend as the #444 HB Racing Ferrari saw the finish in both runs.
Many of the teams will race at Silverstone this weekend in the second round of the 2019 Blancpain Endurance Cup, before the second round of World Challenge Europe at Misano in June.
Photos courtesy of World Challenge Europe