A storming first stint from Alvaro Parente laid the foundation for a dominant win for the ART Grand Prix team of he, Gregoire Demoustier and Alex Premat in the first Blancpain Endurance Series race of the season.
Their teammates finished third in the three hour race at Monza, completing a fine day for the McLaren team as the #98 and #99 MP4-12C sandwiched the Sainteloc Racing Audi driven through the race by Edward Sandstrom, Stephane Ortelli and Gregory Guilvert.
Parente had won the pole position from Saturday’s qualifying session and made the best possible use of it, moving into the lead then pulling into a handsome lead. His ability to build a lead was somewhat helped by Andy Meyrick in second place. He had moved from fourth to second in the charge to the first corner in the #7 M-Sport Bentley, but from then on proved a cork in a bottle as the big Continental GT3 led a train that contained the entire top ten – bar the leader.
Giacomo Petrobelli, leading the train in the #11 Kessel Racing Ferrari tried in vain to pick a path past Meyrick, only succeeding in damaging the front right corner to his 458 Italia as he nipped at the Bentley’s heels under breaking for the Rettifilo chicane. As is in the nature of any group of cars Petrobelli was forced to switch from attack to defense under pressure from Marco Seefried aboard GT Corse by Rinaldi’s #333 Ferrari.
After several abortive attempts to take third place (and the lead of the Pro-Am Cup portion of the field) Seefried succeeded, moving smartly around the outside of Petrobelli under braking for the first chicane. Seefried then made progress against the Meyrick Bentley where Petrobelli had struggled, powering out of Rettifilo chicane to pass the Bentley around Curva Grande.
However, Parente’s lead continued to grow regardless of the identity of his nearest challenger, the #98 McLaren enjoying a near 20 second lead at the end of the opening hour.
The rear tyres on the Bentley starting to give up Meyrick began a slide back down the order, losing places to Petrobelli, Sandstrom and Kevin Estre in the second ART car. Sandstrom continued to move forward, the Swede passing Petrobelli, who fell back into a battle with Estre that ended with some rather agricultural driving as they fought for space approaching the Roggia chicane. Both cars were able to continue, though the Kessel Racing team’s races lasted only just into the second hour before suspected radiator damage – doubtless a result of Petrobelli’s robust driving – put the car out of the race.
Leading the Pro-Am Cup into the pitstops at the end of the opening hour Marco Seefried handed the green #333 over to Russian driver Vadim Kogay. He, however, endured one of the scrappiest stints of GT driving of recent years, with several skips through gravel traps helping to hasten a drop down the order.
In the process he lost the Pro-Am lead to the ROAL Motorsport BMW. The team – Stefano Comandini, Eugenio Amos and Stefano Columbo – held on to win the class in sixth overall ahead of the pair of Bentleys, the #8 team finishing ahead of their teammates in the #7. The second and third team in Pro Am completed the top ten, Francesco Castellacci passing Andrea Sonvico in the closing laps to put the Scuderia Villorba Corse Ferrari ahead of the AF Corse example.
Ecurie Ecosse finished fourth in Pro-Am (12th overall). The #80 Nissan GT Academy Team RJN GT-R fifth despite a stellar opening stint from Alex Buncombe that had hauled the car up the order from a lowly start to briefly run second in class after second driver Nick McMillen had passed the errant Kogay.
The other GT Corse by Rinaldi Ferrari in the race left with the Gentlemens’ Trophy win for Pierre Ehret, Alexander Mattschul and Frank Schmikler in seventeenth overall.
For the overall lead the ART trio proved unstoppable.
Demoustier brought the car in with a 13 second lead to hand over to Premat, who found himself with a 20 second advantage immediately following the stops. Guilvert, anchoring the Sainteloc team, pulled that gap back to 15 seconds at a rate that made a battle for the lead before the end of the race look possible, but there his progress stalled out.
Premat eased back in the closing, completing 96 laps in the three hours with a 5.7 second lead over the Frenchman’s Audi in pursuit.
Andy Soucek, bringing home the #99 car that Estre had handed to Kevin Korjus for the middle stint, completed the podium, withstanding pressure from Belgian Audi Club WRT driver Laurens Vanthoor in the final laps.
HTP Motorsport, with defending champion Maximilian Buhk joined by Harold Primat and Nico Verdonck finished fifth, 46 seconds behind the race winners.