The 2016 Blancpain GT Series was one of the biggest seen in many years, grid sizes finally reached the potential always spoken of by Stephane Ratel and by god the action was intense. However, Dominik Baumann and Maxi Buhk survived the battles in the shorter Sprint Cup and the longer Endurance Cup to come away with the overall crown.
Strangely though, they didn’t win either cup on the way to overall glory – the winners of those will be revealed further down this review of a mammoth GT3 season.
Blancpain GT Series Sprint Cup
The one hour race format of the Sprint Cup is always action-packed and with grids touching 30 every round of the season, it would always take a very determined driver to make the most of the breaks that come their way and this year that was Enzo Ide, a man deemed an ‘Amateur’ because of his business background but in reality he is anything but.
Starting off the season was Misano and before a wheel had been turned in anger, the first surprise to come from the weekend was the 38 car entry. What made that more surprising was the fact that the last race at Misano – the penultimate round of the 2015 Sprint Cup season – only 15 entries took part in the main race.
That didn’t concern Belgian Audi Club Team WRT’s Laurens Vanthoor and Frederic Vervisch though as they topped the times in both practice sessions, the first part of qualifying and pole position for the qualifying race. They didn’t have it all that easy though as the Bentley Continental GT3 of Maxime Soulet and Andy Soucek claimed victory in the qualifying race which was run in damp conditions.
Come the main race though and the pair would struggle on the first lap as Felix Rosenqvist in the Team AKKA ASP Mercedes AMG GT3 and Vervisch in the Audi R8 LMS relegated them down a number of positions before Dries Vanthoor, the younger brother of Laurens, decided to dive-bomb the Bentley dropping it down to last place.
Those sorts of issues didn’t affect brother Laurens though as he remained calm enough to hold off rivals behind to claim the first Blancpain GT Series victory of the year.
Round two came from Brands Hatch and this is where Ide, and his teammate for all but one Sprint race Chris Mies, started to show they were not to be ruled out in the title fight as a rapid pitstop by the Team WRT crew allowed Mies out to do the second half of the main race in the lead – having pitted from third.
With a hard-charging Jules Szymkowiak to deal with though, that was no mean feat as the Dutchman tried every trick in the book to get his HTP Motorsport Mercedes past Mies. The Audi driver though is no fool himself and crossed the line with just over a second in hand.
Szymkowiak and teammate Bernd Schneider did win the qualifying race though, showing that the Mercedes teams – not just HTP – were not going to be pushovers for the assembled might of Team WRT’s nearly half a dozen cars and that the remainder of the season was to have a decidedly Germanic flavour to proceedings.
However, on the championship’s arrival to the definitely German Nurburgring, there was a bit of a British uprising as the Garage 59 McLaren 650S of Rob Bell and Alvaro Parente took the lead going into the first corner of the main race and held on to it for the remaining 59 minutes.
That doesn’t tell the whole story of the weekend though as Team WRT were on the pace again, with Ide and Mies claiming victory in the qualifying race after Bell & Parente claimed pole position. Indeed it was these regularly points hauls, such as winning quali races, that kept Ide in the title hunt all season – the only time he didn’t score points all season was the Misano qualifying race.
While the Audi won the qualifying race, thanks to a good display of defensive driving from the Belgian, the defence wasn’t as good in the main race as Rob Bell in the McLaren blew past Ide at the start and – having utilised an early pitstop – Alvaro Parente kept setting up quick laps to keep rivals from the four rings from even seeing the tailpipes of the 650S.
Will Stevens though, who was in that second placed machine chasing down Parente alongside Rene Rast, had his best showing of the season in that race and justified his switch to GT and sportscar racing. His work at setting hot laps in the Team WRT Audi just after Rob Bell pitted saw Rast come out of the pits within a hair’s width of retaining the lead.
The next Sprint Cup weekend was at the Hungaroring for the first time and seeing 30 plus cars going into the hairpin first corner was a test of who was brave on the accelerator and who favoured the brakes.
Around the rest of the circuit Ide came into his own as in the qualifying race he put in what should go down in history as a textbook display of defensive driving to hold off Tristan Vautier for the victory.
In the main race though, it was Mercedes that graced the top step of the podium – just not Vautier’s Team AKKA ASP Mercedes. Instead it was the HTP car of Dominik Baumann and Maxi Buhk who claimed victory after an opening lap that saw them perfectly exploit the door-banging escapades of the cars ahead to go from the third row to the head of the pack by the time they filed through turn three.
The pair looked like they would be under threat from Laurens Vanthoor after a typical rapid stop from Team WRT, as he was looming large in the mirrors. However, Vanthoor had to settle for second on track, and then was relegated down the order after WRT were deemed to have released Vanthoor unsafely. That had an unintended silver lining for the team though as the #1’s relegation allowed Ide and Mies’ #33 Audi up into second place, and more valuable points in their title battle with Buhk and Baumann.
That would go down to the absolute wire at the final Sprint Cup round of the year, and the final Blancpain GT Series race of the season, at Barcelona. Where, with Baumann and Buhk fighting for the overall championship, Ide got on with the job of claiming the title with new teammate Robin Frijns – Mies was competing for the ADAC GT Masters title on the same weekend and elected to miss the Blancpain finale.
Starting third in the qualifying race, Frijns and Ide claimed victory and then went on to claim third in the main race. Those two results meant they claimed the title with quite a lot of points in hand – Baumann and Buhk needing to claim at least one victory to throw the title race a touch more open.
Baumann and Buhk did claim the overall title though, more of this is in the Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup section.
For Ide, the championship success was entirely deserved and was the result of good chemistry between Ide and Mies: “I never thought I would win the title because when you look at the entry list, there are a lot of good drivers, with a lot of experience. But after Brands Hatch when we saw where we were, Christopher and I found a good rhythm. I would like to thank him and congratulate him. Without him and Robin it wouldn’t have been possible for me to win this title.”
Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup
If the Sprint Cup was all about Enzo Ide, then the Endurance Cup was all about an antipodean missile going by the name of Shane van Gisbergen. The V8 Supercar driver was a key link in the dominant #58 Garage 59 McLaren which was something of a dark horse at the Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup season opener at Monza which had a mega 57 car grid all looking to claim the first three hour gong of the year.
At the start it was Dominik Baumann, a dab hand at the Endurance and Sprint events, who maintained his pole position going into the first chicane and was doing well at keeping back Daniel Keilwitz in the Black Pearl Racing Ferrari 488 GT3 who was looking to give the locals something to cheer.
Coming into the pitstops Baumann handed the car to Jazeman Jafaar who was looking likely to leave in first place until an issue getting the pit limiter switched off saw him stall the car. That allowed van Gisbergen’s teammate Come Ledogar to sweep past and into a lead that would be held until the very end of the race. However, SVG had to do everything he could to keep Maxi Buhk behind as the Mercedes seemed to be the most comfortable around the Italian circuit, fortunately for the Kiwi he did enough to keep Buhk behind and crossed the line 0.3s in front.
The next race at Silverstone wasn’t as fruitful for the McLaren crew though as Mercedes and Audi really found their rhythm at the Northamptonshire circuit and the battle descended to a three-way scrap between Audi teams Team WRT and ISR Racing and Mercedes team HTP Motorsport.
Leading the charge for HTP was the very same man who fluffed his lines somewhat at Monza: Jazeman Jafaar. In a busy second hour, Jafaar became the traffic master as he spotted the gaps past the slower machines faster than rivals around him and his faster closing speed allowed him to sweep past Dries Vanthoor’s WRT Audi R8 LMS to claim the race lead.
Maxi Buhk would then be tasked with maintaining that position in the last hour and he did a great job in parrying the thrusts of Laurens Vanthoor who had an edge in terms of speed going down the straights.
For Garage 59’s Come Ledogar, Shane van Gisbergen and Rob Bell, a sixth place finish was enough to keep them sitting pretty in the points table but they were unlucky that a late safety car – which was out a lot longer than necessary – destroyed a lot of late momentum they had built up.
They managed to carry that momentum onto the next race instead though – the six hour 1000km of Paul Ricard – where the #58 was starting on the front row in the hands of Rob Bell. They didn’t have a competition-free getaway though as Pasin Lathouras in the Spirit of Race Ferrari 588 was in the mood for scrap and, combined with the pair of Bentley Team M-Sport Bentley Continental GT3s looking to get in the action, the Mistral Straight became a four car battle ground. As the quartet decided to go four abreast, the Crewe machines swooped into the lead and Bell settled for third – Lathouras majorly lost out and slipped to tenth.
The race settled down until the last hour, where a mega stint by Come Ledogar saw the McLaren lying in second place with van Gisbergen behind the wheel fighting off the attentions of Alessandro Pier Guidi who had taken over the Spirit of Race Ferrari. On a few occasions Pier Guidi managed to sneak past the McLaren, but SVG was keeping his cool and managed to keep jumping back past.
A late fire for the lead Bentley, which was because of fuel spilling on a hot brake in the pits where thankfully no one was hurt, saw the McLaren inherit the lead after a well-timed pitstop and Pier Guidi was able to do nothing else but settle for second.
After the fun of France it was time for the big one, the Total 24 Hours of Spa, and with the nature of the Ardennes being completely unpredictable it seemed only appropriate that the results of the race were equally unpredictable (for the full story of the race check out The Checkered Flag’s coverage here).
With heavy rain on and off for the whole race, teams dropped off – and crashed – while others made the right moves at the right time to push themselves ahead. At the start of the race one emerging title contender, the HTP Motorsport car of Buhk, Baumann and Jafaar (who were also doing their overall title hopes no harm with their Endurance exploits as well), had to start at the back and serve a five minute stop/go penalty because they – and other Mercedes AMG teams – were deemed to be breaking technical rules in qualifying.
That didn’t hamper them throughout the 24 hours though as they finished fifth and if not for the time penalty they would have comfortably got onto the podium.
However, they probably wouldn’t have got the better of race winners ROWE Racing whose trio of Alexander Sims, Philipp Eng and Maxime Martin in the BMW M6 GT3 were a class of their own around Spa-Francorchamps and made the right the calls following a rather heavy shower with just over an hour to go to take victory two minutes ahead of the Team AKKA ASP Mercedes.
For SVG, Ledogar and Bell, they could have only hoped to have been that close to the sharp end, a multitude of issues saw them finish down in 31st place – with the bulk of the Pro-Am Cup entries sitting ahead of them.
That didn’t affect them too badly going into the last round – another visit to the Nurburgring – and they knew they could claim the teams and drivers championship for the Blancpain Endurance Cup if they could either outscore the #84 HTP machine, or rely on them to not claim a podium finish. Bell could also claim overall honours if he could outscore Buhk and Baumann
Garage 59 did have one issue though, because of a clash in Australia SVG was forced to sit out of the finale and was replaced with the equally rapid Duncan Tappy.
Unfortunately for the team, they didn’t enjoy their second trip to Germany in a season as various issues meant they finished down in 30th place. The silver lining though was that the HTP squad was beaten to the podium by a resurgent Nissan GT Academy Nissan GT-R of Alex Buncombe, Lucas Ordonez and Mitsunori Takaboshi in what was their best result in a season they’ll definitely want to forget.
Their fourth place meant Garage 59 won the teams championship due to the fact they claimed victory at Paul Ricard, and claimed the drivers championship by just one point. They couldn’t claim more though as Bell needed points to have any chance of claiming the overall drivers title, that honour went to Buhk and Baumann who were consistent in Endurance and Sprint throughout the 2016 Blancpain GT Series season.