After a scintillating hour of action at the Nürburgring on Saturday, HTP Motorsport duo Frank Perera and Maxi Buhk extended their championship lead over the Audi WRT Team pairing of Dries Vanthoor and Marcel Fässler to five points ahead of tomorrow’s climax to the 2017 Blancpain Sprint Cup Championship.
Despite finishing second on track to the Andrea Caldarelli and Ezequiel Perez Companc GRT Lamborghini – the Argentine producing a stoic drive after the pit stops, a one second penalty for a late infringement of track limits gifted a crucial victory to Mercedes.
Having started on pole and lead for the first half-hour, Vanthoor and Fässler looked favourites to take their third successive victory, after a flawless weekend in Budapest three weeks ago. With Buhk and Perera stymied in fourth by the brilliant Pro-Am pairing Daniel Keilwitz and Alexander Mattschull and other main championship rivals Mirko Bortolotti and Christian Engelhart starting in 18th in the #63 Lamborghini and failing to make meaningful progress, their cause looked further strengthened to take the series lead.
Pitstops prove to be the difference
Yet at the ten-minute pitstop window, the complexion of the race changed beyond belief. A slightly slow stop for Fässler was countered by a superb stop for Perez Companc, leaving the relatively inexperienced Argentine leading with twenty-five minutes of racing remaining.
With the far more cultured Swiss swarming all over the back of the green Lamborghini, many weren’t confident about his chances. But he held firm, Fässler taking glances, but no more, and all the while, the duo’s scrap allowed Perera to scythe down the gap, released from the rear wing of the #333 Keilwitz/Mattschull Rinaldi Racing Ferrari – who endured more pain in the form of a drive-through penalty for speeding in the pit lane, falling from fourth to seventeenth.
With Perera looking and diving for an opportunity to pass Fässler, Perez Companc kept his cool, keeping the two at arms length. They’d soon have more company, in the form of Bentley M-Sport’s Maxime Soulet, who was gaining at the rate of two seconds a lap, setting up a four-way fight for the last seven racing laps.
The Belgian set to work, slipping past Perera on the pit straight, despite being pinned within an inch of the pit wall by the stubborn Mercedes driver. Not content with third, he attacked the frustrated Fässler, who bounced over the kerbs at the NG-K Shikane a little too harshly, allowing Soulet the perfect chance to make a move on the inside of the final corner, squeezing him out wide, thus allowing Perera to find a way through too.
Whilst the championship picture changed lap after lap, one thing didn’t – Perez Companc’s consistency enough to stay in the lead despite the relentless pressure. His only error was to take liberties with the entry into the final chicane trying to defend from the Bentley. Soulet tried his luck again, but found himself passed by Perera and Fässler as a result of the rash move.
Crossing the line four-tenths ahead of Perera, Perez Companc claimed victory but his joy was short lived. That robust defence of first from Soulet’s attack came at the cost of a one second time penalty, Perera and Buhk inheriting the eight points in the immediate aftermath.
Markus Winkelhock and Will Stevens recovered well to finish in a lonely fifth after starting in fifteenth for Audi, whilst Engelhart and Bortolotti endured a troublesome race, only able to muster nineteenth after fighting back from first lap contact.
Pro-Am: Penalty doesn’t stop Rinaldi Racing
Having been the stars of Qualifying, Mattschull and Keilwitz took the spoils in Pro-Am despite their costly drive-through penalty, finishing in eighteenth place, in front of overall championship leaders Engelhart and Bortolotti and six places ahead of second placed Pro-Am pairing Rinat Salikhov and Matteo Malucelli in the other Rinaldi Racing Ferrari 488.