Sebastien Loeb claimed victory in the qualifying race at the FIA GT Series opener at Nogaro after coming out on top of a race-long battle between his McLaren he shares with Alvaro Parente and the pole-sitting Audi of Rene Rast and Niki Mayr-Melnhof.
After topping the qualifying session on Saturday in his Pro-Am Belgian Audi Club Team WRT entry, Rast maintained the lead at the start ahead of Loeb’s co-driver Alvaro Parente. The Portuguese McLaren factory driver spent his entire stint looking for a way through, but Rast defended well to keep his Audi ahead.
When the pit window came, both leading cars stayed out later than most, but it was Rast who came in a lap earlier to hand over to his teammate Mayr-Melnhof. When Loeb took over from Parente soon afterwards, he rejoined some way behind the Austrian.
But the nine-time World Rally Champion soon closed on the lead and started making his own attempts to get past the Audi, but the tight French circuit provided few opportunities to do so.
Eventually Loeb forced Mayr-Melnhof into a mistake and slipped through into the lead as his rival ran deep at the hairpin. The victory gives Loeb a winning start to his first full season of circuit racing.
Once Loeb had got past, Mayr-Melnhof fell into the clutches of the charging Maximilian Buhk. After co-driver Alon Day had started from tenth, reigning FIA GT3 champion Buhk hauled his HTP Gravity Charouz Mercedes up into a podium place once the pit stops had played out, but was unable to find a way past Mayr-Melnhof.
Anthony Kumpen finished fourth in the Phoenix Racing Audi he took over from Enzo Ide, narrowly ahead of the similar R8 LMS machine of Novadriver’s Cesar Campanico and Carlos Vieira. Karun Chandhok and Jan Seyffarth were sixth in the Mercedes run by the latter’s family team. The two BMW Team Brazil cars completed the top eight, with Caca Bueno and Allam Khodair ahead of Sergio Jimenez and Ricardo Zonta.
Their compatriots Matheus Stumpf and Claudio Ricci were ninth in their Rodrive Ford, while Andreas Zuber and Mike Parisy were tenth in the second of Loeb’s McLarens. They were forced to start from the same position after having their Superpole times deleted for exceeding their turbo boost limit, and then had a puncture hamper their progress in the race.
Armaan Ebrahim and Lucas Ordonez clashed at the hairpin while fighting over ninth place in the closing stages. Ebrahim finished 11th in the BMW Team India Z4 he shared with Julien Jousse, while the Nissan GT Academy Team RJN car of Ordonez and Alex Buncombe was classified three laps down in 19th after limping to the pits.
Fabien Barthez claimed Gentleman Trophy honours in 15th together with Gerard Tonelli for SOFREV-ASP. That was one place ahead of the #11 WRT Audi of Laurens Vanthoor and Stephane Ortelli, who both ended up in the gravel during their stints, while the team’s #13 car ran third in the hands of Edward Sandstrom during the first part of the race but Frank Stippler never made it back out of the pits.