Emil Frey Lexus Racing took an outstanding Blancpain GT Series victory at Circuit Paul Ricard when a dramatic final lap pass brought six hours of endurance racing to an astonishing conclusion.
With the French track in darkness, Albert Costa was aboard the #14 Lexus RC-F GT3 for the deciding stint. The Spanish ace made the headline move with just four corners remaining, passing the #7 Bentley Team M-Sport Continental GT3 of Jules Gounon to secure the first Blancpain GT Series win for the Japanese manufacturer.
The #1 WRT Audi of Dries Vanthoor, Alex Riberas and Christopher Mies retired with two hours gone with a starter motor issue when running third.
The #58 Garage 59 McLaren 650S led for the majority of the first five hours. Starting from second on the 50-car grid, the McLaren, driven by Ben Barnicoat, took the lead almost immediately, while the pole-sitting #76 R-Motorsport Aston Martin V12 Vantage of Jake Dennis went back down the order.
“It didn’t exactly go to plan!” said Dennis, who won the previous Endurance race at Silverstone. “I honestly have no idea what happened. I lost all power as it went to green. I pulled every paddle to try and give me the grunt I needed.”
The McLaren crew of Barnicoat, Andrew Watson and Come Ledogar all delivered excellent stints, with their car leading by as much as 12 seconds at one stage. But their race began to collapse after the #72 SMP Racing Ferrari 488 took the lead during the final round of pit stops, having saved their joker stop until the last possible moment.
The Garage 59 crew hit more trouble when they received a drive-through penalty for an infringement during their final pit stop, all but ending their chances of the win.
Saving their joker for the final pit stop was a shrewd move by the SMP-Ferrari crew of Mikhail Aleshin, Davide Rigon and Miguel Molina. It looked like it had ensured them the win, but their hopes were dashed cruelly when a suspension issue forced them out of the race.
Bentley’s #7 Continental GT3 then inherited the top spot, though it was not there just because of the drama ahead of it. The car had moved from 18th on the grid to second thanks to clever use of their joker stop during Jordan Pepper’s opening stint. The pit stop elevated the car to P4, after which Steven Kane pushed the crew further up the order and into second.
Gounon took over for the final stint and got passed by the hard-charging Molina, but when both of the leaders hit problems, the young Frenchman found himself in P1.
But, as the clock counted down, Costa closed in. The Emil Frey driver reduced the gap, even when a late full-course yellow looked to have put Gounon beyond reach. Costa was able to attack once more, but as the final lap began the Bentley still held a slim advantage.
Then, with just seconds left before the chequered flag flew, Gounon suffered a problem with his Bentley’s bonnet. Costa pounced, and the Lexus swept into the lead, crossing the line for the last time as fireworks lit up the skies above Circuit Paul Ricard.
Behind the leading duo, the #58 McLaren salvaged a good result with the third spot. The #88 AKKA ASP Team Mercedes-AMG car of Raffaele Marciello, Adam Christodoulou and Thomas Jaeger took fourth, while GT Sport Motul Team RJN secured their best finish of the season in fifth position.
Silver Cup honours went to the #78 Barwell Motorsport Lamborghini Huracan of Michele Beretta, Sandy Mitchell and Martin Kodric, who took the chequered flag more than half a minute clear of the #6 Black Falcon Mercedes-AMG to secure their first Blancpain GT Series win of 2018.
A Ferrari 488 was on top in the Pro-Am category, where the #51 AF Corse machine took the class win thanks to the efforts of Duncan Cameron, Gianluca de Lorenzi and Matt Griffin. The #49 Ram Racing Mercedes-AMG had led for much of the race but a dramatic final hour also saw changes at the top of the order.
Arguably the most impressive performance of the race came in the Am Cup category, where the #188 Garage 59 McLaren 650 S of Chris Harris, Alexander West and Chris Goodwin delivered a faultless drive to victory. The McLaren finished 18th overall from a starting field of 50, securing the manufacturer a class win.
Reflecting upon the closing stages of the race, a delighted Albert Costa said, “I think I’m still dreaming right now! When I got the radio message saying that the #72 Ferrari had a puncture, I couldn’t believe I was P2. The Lexus had good pace in the final sector, and I managed to reduce the gap six laps in a row until I finally overtook him. I am very proud of my teammates and the whole Emil Frey team, especially when you think about where we have come from.”
Following the dramatic events at Circuit Paul Ricard, the attention of drivers and teams will now turn to both the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the 70th edition of the Total 24 Hours of Spa.