The Blancpain GT World Challenge Europe field headed to the Netherlands this weekend to race at Zandvoort.
Over the two races, AKKA ASP and Sainteloc took wins.
Marciello & Abril score breakthrough win in the opener
Raffaele Marciello and Vincent Abril produced a faultless showing at Zandvoort to secure their first victory as a duo and kick-start an assault on the Blancpain GT World Challenge Europe title.
The combination of two highly-rated former Sprint Cup champions made the #88 AKKA ASP Mercedes-AMG entry a strong pre-season favourite, but the crew headed into the third of five doubleheader events without a win.
That changed in emphatic style at Zandvoort as the AKKA ASP crew enjoyed a perfect run from pole to the chequered flag. This owed much to Abril’s efforts in qualifying, where the Monegasque delivered a perfectly-timed lap on a drying circuit to secure P1 by exactly half a second.
“We all know that the start of this year has been very tough,” said Abril.
“We had high hopes, but racing doesn’t always go to plan. Still, we have a mega team that believes in us and gave us the tools to fight for victory today. Qualifying was mega and to drive with Lello is a great pleasure. We are really happy.”
He then managed the start well, with the two Lamborghini Huracans of Mirko Bortolotti (#63 Grasser Racing) and Andrea Caldarelli (#563 Orange1 FFF Racing) holding their grid positions and slotting in behind the Mercedes-AMG.
The race was neutralised on the opening lap after a collision in the pack saw the #26 Sainteloc Racing Audi pitched into the barriers, eliminating Markus Winkelhock on the spot. While a number of cars were involved, the #17 Belgian Audi Club Team WRT machine of Tom Gamble was adjudged to have been at fault and subsequently served a drive-through penalty.
When the race went green again Abril maintained his advantage for the entirety of the first stint, but the #88 Mercedes-AMG was never able to pull more than a second clear of the chasing Lamborghinis. Former teammates Bortolotti and Caldarelli battled hard while chasing Abril, keeping up a breathless pace as all three pulled clear of the pack.
The leading trio dived into the pits together shortly after the mid-race window opened and, with little over one second covering them, the pit lane became the new battleground. The AKKA ASP crew kept their cool, sending Marciello out with a slightly increased advantage over Christian Engelhart in the #63 Grasser Lamborghini, while Marco Mapelli took over the #563 FFF machine.
The second stint would become a contest between the two Lamborghinis, with Mapelli spending almost the entire half-hour in Engelhart’s mirrors. This put Marciello in control and allowed the #88 Mercedes-AMG to edge away at the head of the field.
The duelling Huracans were joined by Maro Engel, who had taken over the #4 Mercedes-AMG he shares with Luca Stolz in fourth spot after an excellent stop by the Black Falcon squad. The championship-leading effort applied pressure to Mapelli, while the Italian looked to overhaul Engelhart.
But the Grasser driver was mistake-free as he defended second, never allowing Mapelli a realistic chance to make the move. The three-car battle then became a foursome, with Dries Vanthoor closing up in the #1 Belgian Audi Club Team WRT machine.
There would be no change, however, with all four holding station until the chequered flag. At the front, Marciello had built a lead of more than eight seconds by the time he crossed the line for the final time, sparking jubilant celebrations from teammate Abril.
AKKA ASP had been set for a double win until the final stages of the race, with the French outfit’s #90 Mercedes-AMG looking set to clinch Silver Cup honours. But their hopes were dashed inside the last two minutes as Timur Boguslavskiy slid into the gravel, ending the squad’s run of four successive Silver Cup victories.
The beneficiaries were Aaro Vainio and Hugo de Sadeleer in the #62 R-Motorsport Aston Martin, though this was a deserved win. The car had been competitive throughout and was closing on the AKKA ASP machine during the final stages, eventually securing R-Motorsport its first Blancpain GT World Challenge Europe triumph.
The Pro-Am class was hotly disputed as well. Poleman Nyls Stievenart (#24 Sainteloc Audi) suffered a puncture on lap one that effectively ended his challenge, after which Rinat Salikhov took the #333 Rinaldi Racing Ferrari to the head of the class.
But this car would hit problems shortly after its driver change when a wheel came adrift, bringing David Perel back into the pits and out of the class battle. Phil Keen was the next to lead in the #519 FFF Lamborghini he shares with Hiroshi Hamaguchi. Despite a spirited pursuit by Andrea Bertolini (#52 AF Corse Ferrari), the Lamborghini held on for a third class win of the season. Further back, HB Racing’s lone Am Cup entry finished 24th overall, with Florian Scholze and Wolfgang Triller handling the #444 Ferrari.
Teams and drivers now have less than 24 hours to prepare for the weekend’s second race, which gets underway at 14.15 on Sunday afternoon. The #25 Sainteloc Racing Audi will sit on pole position with Christopher Haase at the wheel, while today’s winners start from seventh on the grid. It promises to be a fascinating contest as the Blancpain GT World Challenge Europe title battle moves towards its final phase.
Sainteloc puts Audi on top in Race 2
Christopher Haase and Simon Gachet made it six winners from as many races in Blancpain GT World Challenge Europe as French squad Sainteloc Racing took a well-deserved victory at Zandvoort, ensuring that La Marseillaise was played during the podium ceremony on Bastille Day.
The #25 Audi R8 LMS was the class of the field in Sunday’s contest, starting from pole and never looking to be under serious threat. Both drivers played an important role in the win, with Haase excelling during the first stint and Gachet completing the job in style during the second half-hour.
Having captured pole for the second run, Audi factory ace Haase delivered one of the most impressive performances of the season to build a gap of some 12 seconds by the time the pit window opened. The German driver was relentless at the wheel of his #25 R8 LMS, edging further away from the similar machine of Dries Vanthoor (#1 Belgian Audi Club Team WRT) with each passing lap.
It was telling that Vanthoor, one of the fastest drivers in the series, could not keep pace with Haase. This left the young Belgian to defend from the championship-leading #4 Black Falcon Mercedes-AMG driven by Maro Engel, which remained in his mirrors throughout the opening half-hour.
Haase’s stellar stint put Gachet in a strong position once the driver change had been made, but the Frenchman still had work to do. In particular, he faced the prospect of Mirko Bortolotti chasing him down in the #63 Grasser Racing Lamborghini, which had vaulted to second place during the pit stops.
The Lamborghini had run fifth during the opening stint with Christian Engelhart at the wheel. The German stayed close to the pack, then let the Grasser mechanics do their work. A 41-second stop was enough to promote the car to the second spot, beating the equally accomplished pit crews of WRT and Black Falcon.
But any chance of taking the win soon ebbed away as Gachet maintained an excellent pace throughout the second stint, matching Bortolotti all the way and maintaining a gap of around 10 seconds for the full 30 minutes.
Gachet was able to cross the line 9.9 seconds clear of the Grasser Lamborghini to seal his maiden Blancpain GT Series win and a first overall triumph for the French-based Sainteloc squad since it took victory at the 2017 Total 24 Hours of Spa.
“To be honest, I was surprised to be so far ahead, but I had such good balance and speed in my Sainteloc Audi that I just had to keep up the rhythm,” said Haase.
“For me, today was really the perfect race. Thanks to all the team.”
Bortolotti took a comfortable second place, though the result will remain provisional as the #63 Lamborghini raced under protest. The car was disqualified from yesterday’s second qualifying session after its data logger was found to not be working, a decision that the team has challenged.
The #1 Belgian Audi Club Team WRT entry completed the podium after Ezequiel Perez Companc fought off Luca Stolz in the #4 Mercedes-AMG throughout the second stint. This represented a perfect comeback result for the Argentine driver, who missed the previous round at Misano following his crash in the early stages of the Circuit Paul Ricard 1000kms. Now back to fitness, Perez Companc showed impressive composure to keep Stolz at bay.
The Black Falcon car continued to show metronomic consistency by taking its sixth successive top-four finish in Blancpain GT World Challenge Europe. Today’s result edges the #4 crew further away at the head of the championship ahead of a seven-week break for the sprint-format series.
Charles Weerts completed the top-five in the #2 Belgian Audi Club Team WRT machine he shares with Christopher Mies, while yesterday’s winning #88 AKKA ASP Mercedes-AMG was sixth after fending off the #563 Orange1 FFF Racing Lamborghini during the second stint.
A new title contender has emerged in the Silver Cup class, where the #62 R-Motorsport Aston Martin of Hugo de Sadeleer and Aaro Vainio completed a Zandvoort double by winning for the second race in succession.
The class was led for the first stint by the impressive Mattia Drudi (#56 Attempto Racing Audi), who was able to keep pace with the overall leaders. The Aston Martin then came to the fore during the second stint, with Vainio taking the lead from Milan Dontje in the #56 Audi and building a comfortable gap. While the #89 AKKA ASP Mercedes-AMG continues to lead the class championship, the R-Motorsport squad signalled its intent with two wins in the Netherlands.
Pro-Am honours went to the #333 Rinaldi Racing Ferrari as Rinat Salikhov and David Perel bagged a second class win of the campaign to reignite their title charge. The #333 crew suffered disappointment in Saturday’s race when the car shed a wheel, costing them a potential victory, but there was to be no repeat on Sunday.
Jim Pla led the opening stint in his #87 AKKA ASP Mercedes-AMG and, like Silver Cup ace Drudi, impressed by running with the overall leaders. But the Rinaldi car remained in contention thanks to Perel, and Salikhov delivering an impeccable stint to finish 15th overall, well clear of the #52 AF Corse Ferrari. The lone Am Cup machine, the #444 HB Racing Ferrari, came home 23rd overall in the hands of Florian Scholze and Wolfgang Triller.
The Blancpain GT World Challenge Europe season has now passed its halfway mark, with two doubleheader rounds left to run at Nürburgring (30 August/1 September) and Hungaroring (6-8 September). While the #4 Black Falcon duo of Engel and Stolz lead the way, several crews remain in contention for the series title heading into the deciding events.
Attention now moves away from sprint racing as the 2019 Total 24 Hours of Spa (25-28 July) takes centre stage. The season’s marquee event is just two weeks away.
Photos courtesy of Blancpain GT