Bentley Team M-Sport has won an intense qualifying race at the first round of the Blancpain GT Series Sprint Cup at Misano World Circuit after balancing perfect pit strategy and raw speed.
The start of the race saw drama immediately for the #59 Garage 59 McLaren 650S of Craig Dolby which failed to set off on the formation lap. That would eventually start almost 10 laps down from the pit lane.
Back on track though it was the Laurens Vanthoor show. The ace GT racer kept his advantage from starting on pole in the Belgian Audi Club Team WRT Audi R8 LMS and proceeded to grow his lead lap-by-lap on an Adriatic coast circuit which was retaining enough dampness from earlier rain to catch out those who started on slicks and weren’t prepared for the conditions.
With Vanthoor up the road, the battle turned to who would claim second place and the initially mover and shaker was Robin Frijns in the sister Team WRT Audi who had jumped from fourth to third on the first lap. One task done, he set about targeting Alvaro Parente in the second, #58, Garage 59 McLaren 650S.
Frijns didn’t mess about on the job either, twice in a lap he darted down the inside of the McLaren – the first time he ran too deep and Parente snuck back past, but the second time he made the move stick. To add insult to injury Norbert Siedler in the #333 Rinaldi Racing Ferrari 458 Italia GT3 also found his way past Parente in the same move, relegating the McLaren man to fourth.
Parente’s race would get worse just after the halfway mark as a lick of flame and a shower of molten metal showcased the end of the #58’s engine.
Back to the fight though, and after dispensing with the McLaren, Siedler had his dander up and set about going after the Audi. What he didn’t count on though, was the rapidly closing Maxi Buhk in the #84 AKKA ASP Mercedes AMG GT3 sneaking up behind him and taking advantage when the Ferrari man ran wide trying to get past the Audi.
Buhk certainly had the bit between his teeth and successfully defended against Siedler before jumping up the inside of Frijns and setting off towards Vanthoor whose lead had extended to almost ten seconds by the time the pit window opened with 35 minutes to go.
Felix Rosenqvist in the #88 AKKA ASP Mercedes was the first to make the jump, handing the car over to Tristan Vautier in what would have been a very good pit strategy.
However, ROWE Racing’s Alexander Sims and Bentley Team M-Sport’s Andy Soucek decided to stay out as long as possible during the ten minute pitstop window and, when a full course yellow was announced to clear up debris at turn 12 & 13, both men pitted their BMW M6 and Bentley Continental respectively and came out first and second – with the Bentley the better off.
For the next seven minutes of the hour long race, Maxime Soulet who took over in the Bentley was weaving his way through traffic whilst fending off the attentions of Phillipp Eng now in the BMW.
The race was breathless and – amidst a barrage of flashing lights – the pressure became too much for some as Matsunori Takaboshi in the #23 Nissan GT Academy Team RJN Nissan GT-R Nismo GT3 braked too late and hit the back of Stuart Leonard in the Silver Cup Team WRT entry. Leonard would hit the barriers and beach himself in the gravel, Takaboshi would carry on albeit under full course yellow conditions while the Audi was recovered.
Green flags would fly with just 11 minutes to go and the two entries would continue line astern until four minutes left when Daniel Zampieri in the Attempto Racing Lamborghini Huracan GT3 tried to unlap himself by darting up the inside of Eng. The move sent the BMW wide and made it lose time, with Soulet able to keep picking his way through to cross the line first and claim pole position for tomorrow’s main race.
In the Silver Cup, Michele Beretta in the GRT Grasser Racing Team Lamborghini Huracan GT3 would build on a good first stint by Luca Stolz to take victory from the Phoenix Racing Audi which finished three positions back in 19th place.
In Pro-Am, the battle was quite a bit tougher with the Boutsen Ginion Racing BMW leading most of the early running before losing out to Michal Broniszewski in the Kessel Racing Ferrari 488.
Finally the Am Cup and the AF Corse Ferrari would cruise to class victory after incident and difficulties befell the only class competitor – the X-Bionic Racing Lamborghini Huracan.