The 2019 World Challenge Europe season made a trip to the Nürburgring last weekend for the penultimate meeting of the season. There FFF Racing and R-Motorsport took wins, in races which ensured that the title battle will go down to the wire in Hungary.
Four crews representing three brands will go for the premier class title in Budapest. On the drivers’ front, the favourites are Andrea Caldarelli and Marco Mapelli (#563 Orange1 FFF Racing Lamborghini) who enter the deciding weekend on 79 points. Victory in race 1 at the Nürburgring saw the Italian duo take the championship lead for the first time this season, while also becoming the only crew thus far to secure multiple victories in 2019.
It would be a remarkable achievement for the FFF squad, which is contesting its first season in top-line European motorsport after enjoying success in Asia. A repeat of their Nürburgring efforts, where the #563 Lamborghini crew beat their chief title rivals in both races, would be enough to complete the job.
The rivals in question are Luca Stolz and Maro Engel (#4 Black Falcon Mercedes-AMG). The German pairing assumed the championship lead with victory in race 2 at Brands Hatch and did not surrender it until the opening Nürburgring contest.
Until now, their title charge has been built on consistency. Indeed, even when a penalty for an unsafe release appeared to have scuppered their chances on Saturday, they still fought back to claim vital points in P8. But in Hungary, they will need to target a return to the podium, something they have not achieved since the opening race at Misano, to overturn an eight-point deficit.
The other challengers are outside bets and would require a significant turnaround to become champions. Of course, bigger surprises have occurred in GT racing.
Mirko Bortolotti and Christian Engelhart (#63 Grasser Racing Lamborghini) have not won a race in 2019, but four podiums have kept them in the hunt heading to the finale. There is no shortage of pace from this crew and, coupled with the pit stop expertise of the Austrian outfit, they are a dark horse worth keeping an eye on.
The fourth and final pair of contenders drive the #25 Sainteloc Racing Audi, Christopher Haase and Simon Gachet, who have scored four podiums in the past five races, including a victory at Zandvoort. They will travel to Hungary 27 points shy of the championship lead.
Caldarelli and Mapelli take Race 1
Andrea Caldarelli and Marco Mapelli won a thrilling contest at the Nürburgring to seize the advantage in the Blancpain GT World Challenge Europe title battle.
The weekend’s opening 60-minute run ultimately came down to a fight between two Lamborghinis: the #563 Orange1 FFF Racing machine of Caldarelli and Mapelli and the #63 Grasser Racing entry driven by Mirko Bortolotti and Christian Engelhart.
The opening stint was a relatively calm affair and only hinted at what was to come during the second 30 minutes. Bortolotti led away from the pole and was followed by the #4 Mercedes-AMG of Luca Stolz, who entered the race as championship leader along with Black Falcon teammate Maro Engel. The fast-starting Simon Gachet (#25 Sainteloc Racing Audi) challenged Stolz for second during the opening sequence of corners, but the German driver prevailed and settled into a rhythm close behind Bortolotti.
As the stint developed Mattia Drudi moved into third, the Silver Cup racer once again impressing aboard his #56 Attempto Racing Audi. He overhauled Gachet, who also slipped behind Kelvin van der Linde (#66 Attempto Racing Audi) and the #563 Lamborghini of Mapelli during the opening 30 minutes. Van der Linde provided the main entertainment during the opening 30 minutes, scything past the sister machine of Drudi and into third spot as the pit stop window approached.
The leading cars stopped early, with Bortolotti, Stolz, Van der Linde and Mapelli all diving in after 26 minutes. The Black Falcon crew would come off worst from this exchange, as Engel was released into the path of the #10 Belgian Audi Club Team WRT machine. The two cars made contact in the fast lane, immediately drawing the attention of the event’s stewards.
When the stops were complete Engelhart led from Engel and Caldarelli, but the Black Falcon entry was soon hit with a drive-through for its unsafe release. Once the German had served his penalty the race became a straight fight between the two Lamborghini drivers.
Caldarelli was almost immediately able to close up to the rear of Engelhart, but the Grasser Racing driver remained cool under pressure and positioned his car perfectly at each corner. Despite his pace, Caldarelli was unable to get alongside the German. What’s more, as the leaders continued to slow one another down, Christopher Haase moved into contention in third, having taken over from Gachet aboard the #25 Sainteloc Audi.
The race rapidly became a three-way battle. But, while this appeared to favour Englehart in his efforts to build a gap at the front, it would ultimately play into Caldarelli’s hands. With 12 minutes left on the clock, the Italian driver got an excellent run on Engelhart exiting the final corner, moving to the outside of the Grasser car on the approach to turn 1. There was minor contact between the two Lamborghinis, which caused Caldarelli to run deep into the corner and allowed Haase to move into second spot.
What could have been the end of Caldarelli’s challenge would turn into his big chance. A few corners later Haase ran wide and Caldarelli went up the inside. This caught Engelhart off guard and, moments later, the FFF car was finally alongside the Grasser machine. It was the chance Caldarelli had waited for and he made it count, going wheel-to-wheel with Engelhart before completing the move.
Now in clean air, Caldarelli was able to establish an advantage at the head of the field. Indeed, the FFF driver built a gap of 9.047s during the final 10 minutes, making his hard-fought win appear comfortable. Engelhart hung on to second, despite intense pressure from Haase and the Belgian Audi Club Team WRT machines of Christopher Mies and Dries Vanthoor.
“We started from P6 and everybody knows it’s not easy to overtake at the Nürburgring,” said Caldarelli. “When I was second, I tried to attack Christian as much as I could. I tried on the outside at turn 1, but we had a small contact. I was afraid to lose my power steering afterwards, but luckily this was not the case. At the end, you just need to be patient and I had an opportunity to take the lead later.”
Sixth spot overall went to the #56 Attempto Audi, which took a well-deserved Silver Cup win thanks to Drudi and teammate Milan Dontje. It marks the duo’s best result of the season and came after excellent showings from both drivers, who are now just four points shy of the class leaders. The #76 R-Motorsport Aston Martin was seventh, while the #4 Black Falcon machine was able to recover to eighth with Engel at the wheel, scoring crucial championship points in the process.
Pro-Am victory went to the #333 Rinaldi Racing Ferrari, which was untroubled as it led from pole position in the hands of Rinat Salikhov. David Perel took the wheel for the second stint and maintained a comfortable seven-second advantage over the chasing #519 FFF Racing Lamborghini. As such, the gap between the two is now just four points in the FFF crew’s favour.
The all-Ferrari Am Cup battle was won by Kessel Racing drivers Stephen Earle and Rory Penttinen. The rival HB Racing machine crossed the line first but was subsequently hit with an eight-second time penalty for causing avoidable contact on the final lap. This promoted the Kessel machine back into the lead, which it had held for much of the contest.
At the top of the Blancpain GT World Challenge Europe drivers’ championship, Caldarelli and Mapelli lead for the first time this season with a six-point cushion over Stolz and Engel. Bortolotti and Engelhart are now third, 18 points adrift of the championship lead. Orange1 FFF Racing also assume the advantage in the teams’ standings, going clear of AKKA ASP after a difficult opening run for the French outfit.
R-Motorsport takes surprise Race 2 victory
Ricky Collard and Marvin Kirchhöfer then claimed a surprise victory on Sunday to seal a maiden series triumph for Aston Martin and the R-Motorsport squad.
The Swiss outfit has shown increasing pace with it’s Pro class #76 Vantage AMR this season, though the young pairing of Collard and Kirchhöfer had not scored a top-three finish before today’s race. They bagged their maiden podium in the best possible fashion, winning through a combination of raw pace, excellent pit work and a touch of good fortune.
Starting fifth on the 28-car grid, Kirchhöfer slipped back a position at the start to run sixth throughout the first stint. Despite losing a place, the German driver was nevertheless able to keep in contact with the leading pack throughout the opening 30 minutes.
At the front of the field, Dries Vanthoor controlled the first stint in his pole-sitting #1 Belgian Audi Club Team WRT entry, while Christopher Mies slotted into second aboard the sister #2 machine. They were followed by a competitive pack that featured Maro Engel (#4 Black Falcon Mercedes-AMG), Christopher Haase (#25 Sainteloc Racing Audi) and Andrea Caldarelli (#563 Orange1 FFF Racing Lamborghini).
As is so often the case in sprint racing, the pit stop phase would prove significant. Fast work from the FFF crew saw the #563 Lamborghini emerge ahead of the #4 Black Falcon car, securing Marco Mapelli vital track position over title rival Luca Stolz. Sainteloc Racing also performed strongly to ensure that Simon Gachet came out ahead of this duo after taking over from Haase in the #25 Audi, but the biggest mover was the #76 Aston Martin, now driven by Collard, which emerged from the pits in third position behind the leading WRT Audis.
Ezequiel Perez Companc had taken the #1 car from Vanthoor, while teenager Charles Weerts climbed aboard the #2 machine in place of Mies. It was soon clear that Misano race-winner Weerts was the quicker of the pair as the Belgian ace cut the gap to his teammate. Behind them, however, Collard was going even faster.
Within a handful of laps the Brit had closed on to the rear of the leaders and with 15 minutes left on the clock, he went for a move on Weerts heading into turn one. This prompted the Belgian to launch an attempt of his own on Perez Companc, but the two Audis made side-to-side contact in the braking zone and allowed Collard to slip into the lead. The day would go from bad to worse for the Belgian outfit as the collision was significant enough to eliminate both WRT machines from proceedings.
Collard, therefore, had clean air and faced little pressure from behind on his way to a popular victory. After returning to the pits, the elated British driver leapt on to the roof of his Aston to celebrate while the R-Motorsport crew cheered him on.
“I’m speechless!” said Collard. “I just can’t thank everyone enough. I’m new to R-Motorsport and to Aston Martin. Did I think we’d be on the top step? No way! I was hoping for a podium, but when you have a sniff at a win you dig a bit deeper to get it. No one expected this and what the team have done behind the scenes is fantastic.”
Having moved into second spot following the demise of the WRT Audis, Gachet retained the position to the chequered flag to capture a third successive podium for the #25 Sainteloc crew. Indeed, the result means that Gachet and Haase will be the only Audi squad in contention for the Blancpain GT World Challenge Europe drivers’ title at next weekend’s Hungaroring finale.
The Mapelli/Caldarelli FFF Lamborghini completed the podium to ensure that the Italian pairing will travel to Budapest with the points lead. Their nearest challengers – the #4 Black Falcon Mercedes-AMG crew – were fourth across the line in today’s race.
Fifth place went to the #23 Tech 1 Racing Lexus, which scored a superb result in only its second Blancpain GT World Challenge Europe outing thanks to excellent work by Jack Hawksworth and Aurélien Panis. What’s more, this meant that five different brands were represented among the overall top-five in today’s race.
Sixth place went to the Silver Cup winners, Oscar Tunjo and Rik Breukers, who secured their maiden class win aboard the #10 Belgian Audi Club Team WRT machine. The duo looked to be in control from the start with Tunjo running just behind the overall leaders during the opening stint, before Breukers took over for the concluding 30 minutes.
The Pro-Am battle was less straightforward as pole-sitter David Perel, who started an excellent ninth on the overall grid, was caught up in a first-lap clash. The Rinaldi Racing driver was able to continue and eventually hand the #333 Ferrari over to Rinat Salikhov, but any hope of repeating yesterday’s class win was extinguished. This put Jim Pla out front for the opening stint aboard the #87 AKKA ASP Mercedes-AMG, but the Frenchman had the #52 AF Corse Ferrari and #519 Orange1 FFF Racing Lamborghini for company.
The Ferrari moved into the lead during the second stint with Louis Machiels at the wheel, but Hiroshi Hamaguchi was a close second in his Lamborghini. The two swapped positions before Machiels re-took the lead for good, though Hamaguchi was just half a second shy at the chequered flag. The Am Cup battle was won by the #444 HB Racing Ferrari, which reversed the order from yesterday’s contest by beating the #111 Kessel Racing Ferrari in today’s run.
Competitors will have little time to dwell on this weekend’s events as they make the trip to Budapest for the season-deciding Blancpain GT World Challenge round at the Hungaroring. Indeed, just seven days from now the teams’ and drivers’ titles will have been decided in each class.
Images courtesy of Blancpain GT