Mercedes-AMG is the new Intercontinental GT Challenge championship leaders after claiming a one-two finish earlier this evening at the inaugural Suzuka 10 Hours where Intercontinental entries filled the overall top-12 positions.
GruppeM Racing’s perfect performance saw Raffaele Marciello, Maro Engel and Tristan Vautier lead 222 of 276 laps en route to a 31.6s victory over Strakka Racing’s Lewis Williamson, Alvaro Parente and Maxi Goetz, while the Audi Sport Team Absolute Racing R8 LMS GT3 shared by Markus Winkelhock, Christopher Haase and Kelvin van der Linde completed the overall podium.
Audi Sport Team WRT’s fourth place also limited some of the damage inflicted by Mercedes-AMG, which has turned a seven-point deficit into a nine-point lead ahead of the final round (the California 8 Hours) on 26-28 October.
Today’s results have also seen Vautier and Marciello leapfrog erstwhile leader Robin Frijns at the top of the Drivers’ standings thanks, in part, to the Dutchman’s absence from Suzuka.
“I think we led something like nine of the ten hours. It was flawless and felt like it was going too well at one point, something had to happen! It was perfect execution from the team, the car was strong all weekend, and we knew that we had a good chance if we just kept cool heads and managed everything well.”
“Overall I’m thrilled and thankful to GruppeM, and of course, what a day for Mercedes-AMG, with class wins everywhere and a one-two overall. The car was so strong in all conditions, plus, leading both the manufacturers’ and drivers’ championships by the end of the day is perfect,” said a delighted Vautier.
Nick Foster’s pole-sitting HubAuto Corsa Ferrari led the opening stint before a drive-through penalty for a grid infringement dropped the team’s #28 entry out of victory contention after just one hour.
That handed the lead to GruppeM who duly led every lap after that apart from the inevitable to-ing and fro-ing either side of pitstops.
Their only minor problem came at the final round of stops when the combination of hot exhaust and replacement number panel caused a harmless flash fire.
Meanwhile, Strakka Racing’s #43 Mercedes-AMG moved into podium contention at the three-hour mark. Goetz, Parente and Williamson remained within 10s of GruppeM until after the penultimate round of pitstops when Marciello was able to build his advantage.
Instead, Williamson slipped back into the clutches of Absolute Racing and Team WRT whose Audis were a near-permanent fixture inside the top-six all race long.
Both cars closed right in on the Mercedes-AMG during the final stint but were unable to find a way past Strakka’s second Pro entry, which ensured neither Audi was ever close enough to challenge Williamson.
An exciting fight for fifth between Mercedes-AMG Team Good Smile and Bentley Team M-Sport also literally illuminated the final hour. Maxime Soulet threw everything at the leading Super GT entrant whose driver, Tatsuya Kataoka, was visibly willed on by the passionate home support.
He eventually took the chequered flag 1.4s ahead of the chasing Continental GT3.
Strakka’s second Pro entry finished seventh, another of the Japanese squads, Audi Team Hitotsuyama, was eighth, and WRT’s other factory R8 LMS GT3 ninth.
On outright pace, SunEnergy1 Racing’s Mercedes-AMG would have been an overall victory contender but ultimately settled for Pro Am class honours in 10th. Mikael Grenier and Luca Stolz both ran at the front early on after the latter recovered from a poor start to lead by the end of the opening stint.
A drive-through penalty for a pitstop timing infringement also set them back, but Kenny Habul still strengthened his bid for the Intercontinental GT Challenge Bronze Drivers’ title by claiming class honours after mixing it with the Pros.
His prospects were boosted by Black Swan Racing’s Tim Pappas finishing fourth in class, as well as Nick Leventis’ early retirement.
Elsewhere, three setbacks in quick succession put paid to the #07 Bentley’s podium chances, while Craft-Bamboo Racing finished best of the Porsche entries in 11th after Dirk Werner’s late spin dropped Manthey-Racing’s 911 GT3 R out of the top-10.
The hopes of Intercontinental’s other full-season manufacturer, McLaren, rested with Garage 59’s sole 650S. However, the car shared by Ben Barnicoat, Andrew Watson and Come Ledogar failed to make it beyond the third hour after crashing out at 130R in an incident that necessitated the race’s only Full Course Yellow and Safety Car period.
Both of the KCMG Nissans were also top-six contenders before reliability issues curtailed their involvement, while HubAuto’s victory hopes ended when the #07 Bentley hit its second, #27 Ferrari.
The final round of this season’s Intercontinental GT Challenge, the California 8 Hours, takes place at Laguna Seca on 26-28 October.