The 2015 Blancpain Sprint Series season begins this weekend with the Coupes De Paques (Easter Cup) event at Nogaro.
Once again the series has attracted a wide variety of GT3 machinery and plenty of fast drivers. Here is theCheckeredFlag.co.uk’s guide to the 19 entries for the opening round.
Audi R8 LMS Ultra
Splitting up the 2013 title-winning pairing of Laurens Vanthoor and Stephane Ortelli contributed to Belgian Audi Club Team WRT losing its advantage in the Blancpain Sprint Series last year, even though Vanthoor claimed the overall GT Series crown.
A look at WRT’s four-car assault on the 2015 season suggests however that they are likely to be the team to beat. Vanthoor’s #1 should be particularly potent now he’s paired with Robin Frijns. The Dutchman might be new to GT racing, but it’s difficult to see him being anything other than rapid as he looks to grab his first full-time opportunity since winning the 2012 Formula Renault 3.5 title with both hands.
Ortelli continues his pairing with fellow Monegasque man and former GP2 racer Stephane Richelmi that began late last year, while Enzo Ide is joined by experienced R8 racer Christopher Mies in place of LMP1-bound Rene Rast. In the fourth WRT entry, James Nash enters the Sprint Series with another safe pair of Audi hands, Frank Stippler.
In total there’s seven R8s in the field. Phoenix Racing have downsized to a single entry with the capable pairing of Markus Winkelhock and Niki Mayr-Melnhof remaining.
Ex-Formula Renault 3.5 squad ISR field two cars in their first full GT campaign. The first sees Filip Salaquarda join his father’s team after three years in Ferraris and paired with factory Audi driver Marco Bonanomi, while the second is piloted by Danish brothers Anders Fjordbach and Thomas Fjordbach.
Bentley Continental GT3
HTP Motorsport took Maximilian Gotz to the Sprint Series title last year and his regular co-driver Maximilian returns with the Bentley that showed its pace in the Endurance Series in 2014.
Buhk is now paired with young Frenchman Vincent Abril, who impressed with WRT last year and could help Buhk to be a contender again.
The second car sees sportscar regular Olivier Lombard joined by 19-year-old Dutchman Jules Szymkowiak, a points-scorer in European F3 last year.
BMW Z4 GT3
BMW Sports Trophy Team Brazil continues in the series for a third year. For the most part of the season, Caca Bueno and Sergio Jimenez will share the #0 car again while an all-new pairing of Valdeno Brito and Atila Abreu will drive the #77.
However, a clashing Brazilian Stock Car round rules all four out for Nogaro. Instead, ex-F3000 twins Ricardo Sperafico and Rodrigo Sperafico will do another round after their debut in Baku at the end of last year, while factory BMW drivers Maxime Martin and Dirk Muller will pilot the other car and could well be the biggest thorn in the side of the Audis at round one.
Mercedes SLS AMG GT3
Despite HTP’s switch to Bentleys, Mercedes will continue to have a strong presence in the BSS courtesy of the GT Russian Team.
The star attraction in the team is Mercedes DTM legend Bernd Schneider, partnering ex-German F3 driver Alexei Karachev. The other car sees team regular Alexei Vasiliev rekindling a partnership with experienced Frenchman Christophe Bouchut from Le Mans 10 years ago.
McLaren 650S GT3
McLaren’s new GT3 car will be in action in BSS with Attempto Racing, usually known for running Porsches. The lead car could go very well with factory drivers Rob Bell and Kevin Estre behind the wheel. The latter won the German Carrera Cup with the team in 2013.
The second car features a lesser-known pairing of Philipp Wlazik, who raced for Attempto in the Carrera Cup between 2007 and 2010, and Japanese driver Yoshiharu Mori.
Lamborghini Gallardo R-EX
Lamborghini might have introduced a new Huracan model for the Blancpain Endurance Series this year, but a Reiter Engineering-built Gallardo will continue to be seen in the Sprints in the form of the new R-EX model.
Driving the car will be quick Dutchman Nick Catsburg together with Reiter regular Albert von Thurn und Taxis.
Nissan GT-R Nismo GT3
A Nissan will return to the Sprint category thanks to German squad MRS GT Racing.
As a factory driver for the GT-R Nismo GT3’s manufacturer JRM, ex-Superleague Formula star Craig Dolby gets a chance to show what he can do. He’s paired with Sean Walkinshaw, who moves into GT racing after driving F3s in the Euroformula Open.
Ferrari 458 Italia GT3
A sole Ferrari is fielded by the Rinaldi Racing team. The green #333 car gained notiority in the Endurance Series last year for the actions of one of their gentleman drivers, but their pairing for the 2015 BSS is competent and quick.
German team regular Marco Seefried is joined by Austrian Norbert Siedler, formerly a frontrunner in the Porsche Supercup.
Porsche 997 GT3 R
Completing the field of exotic machinery and brand names is a Porsche from Fach Auto Tech, who won the Supercup last year with Earl Bamber.
Their driver pairing is led by experienced Porsche racer Martin Ragginger, who claimed pole for the team in the Dubai 24 Hours at the start of the year. He shares the car with Marcel Wagner.