Raffaele Marciello and Michael Meadows mastered treacherous conditions at the Hungaroring to secure their maiden Blancpain GT Series victory and the first of the season for AKKA ASP Team.
The #88 Mercedes-AMG GT3 started from pole and led from start to finish, yet that does not tell the full story of an extremely challenging Sprint Cup encounter.
A downpour soaked the circuit as the competitors made their way to the grid, leaving race control with no choice but to start the one-hour contest behind the safety car.
When the green flag waved, Marciello led away from Luca Stolz (#6 Black Falcon Mercedes-AMG GT3) and had pulled out an advantage of five seconds over the German driver by midway through the race.
The two Mercedes runners were in a class of their own at this stage, pulling some 18 seconds clear of third-placed Mirko Bortolotti in the #63 Grasser Racing Lamborghini Huracan GT3.
Behind the Italian driver, there was a thrilling scrap between a pair of Audi R8 LMS machines. Christopher Mies (#1 Belgian Audi Club Team WRT) did well to fend off Christopher Haase (#25 Saintéloc Racing) for a number of laps, but the Saintéloc man was eventually able to muscle his way past after going door-to-door with his former teammate.
Haase was the first of the front-runners to stop, handing the #25 Audi over to Simon Gachet. A few laps later Marciello led the remainder of the leaders into the pits, with Stolz, Bortolotti and Mies following.
Mies handed over to Alex Riberas, who was able to emerge ahead of Gachet. Otherwise, the order remained unchanged, with Meadows now leading in the #88 Mercedes from Hubert Haupt in the #6 Mercedes and Christian Engelhart in the #63 Lamborghini.
But there was drama just around the corner. First, Engelhart was hit with a drive-through penalty for an infraction during the Grasser car’s pit stop, effectively ending the #63 crew’s hopes of a top-three finish to back up yesterday’s race win.
Riberas then passed Haupt for the second spot, with Meadows some distance up the road. His advantage would be short-lived, however, as the race was neutralised by a safety car period. While battling for the Pro Am lead, the #39 TP 12-Kessel Racing Ferrari 488 GT3 of Piti Bhirombhakdi spun and was briefly stranded in the gravel.
The final eight minutes of racing became a shootout between the two Sprint Cup title contenders: the #88 Mercedes and the #1 Audi.
Meadows held his advantage at the restart, but Riberas remained in close contact behind him. Meanwhile, Gachet had fought his way past Haupt and into the third position.
When it was needed most, Meadows delivered a flawless performance. After initially coming under pressure from the Audi he began to pull away. Indeed, Riberas was soon under pressure himself as Gachet closed in.
The Frenchman was arguably the star of the race in his Sainteloc-Audi and made the pass to take P2 from Riberas. Meadows found just enough breathing space to complete the victory, the first for both himself and Marciello in the Blancpain GT Series.
Raffaele Marciello had this to say following the race, “The car was amazing today, so it was easy for me to push and pull a gap. Then we were unfortunate with the safety car, but Michael did a perfect job to keep us in front. We scored important points, and I think this was a good win. It’s quite easy to lose or gain points, so we will see how it goes for the Sprint Cup. I think for the overall title we are a bit more competitive and we will push and see where we are in Barcelona.”
The impressive Gachet followed him across the line, but there was even more drama taking place in the Frenchman’s mirrors as Steijn Schothorst (#66 Attempto Racing Audi) dived past the #1 car to snatch a last-gasp podium.
The #66 Audi had started only 14th on the grid but made early progress thanks to the excellent work of Kelvin van der Linde. Schothorst then took the car even further forward, sending the Attempto squad into raptures as he secured an unexpected podium finish.
“It’s quite funny because Kelvin came over the radio during the last lap and said that there was grip on the inside of the last corner”, said Schothorst. “I kind of forced Alex [Riberas] to defend, which washed him outside in the middle of the turn and I dived up the inside to take the position. It was really exciting because it’s the last corner of the last lap, so it was then or never. Like Kelvin, I was happy with P3. I’ve never been this happy with P3, but we deserved it after a tough weekend. This was a good way to finish it off.”
Riberas took the fourth spot, meaning he and Mies are now level with Marciello and Meadows in the Sprint Cup standings. It sets up a thrilling final encounter at the Nürburgring in two weeks’ time.
The Silver Cup and Pro Am categories were as hard to call as the overall result. In the former, Stolz and Haupt led for much of the contest and looked to be in an excellent position when Saturday’s class winner, the #87 AKKA ASP Team Mercedes-AMG, spun in the hands of Denis Bulatov.
But the Russian set about making amends and brought the car back into contention before handing over to Nicolas Jamin. The French ace made quick progress and was able to pass Haupt for the class win with just two laps remaining, capping a perfect weekend for the #87 crew.
In the Pro Am category, Carlo van Dam led early on despite a challenging stint in the #39 Ferrari. But, during the second half of the race, Nyls Stievenart (#26 Sainteloc Racing Audi R8 LMS) came to the fore and had passed the Ferrari before Bhirombhakdi’s spin. The teenager kept his head in extremely tricky conditions to secure a fourth class-win in the car he shares with Markus Winkelhock.
While the battle at the top of the standings is impossible to call ahead of the Nürburgring contest, the Pro Am and Silver Cup titles will also go down to the wire at the German venue. A thrilling weekend is in prospect in the Eifel Mountains as the 2018 Sprint Cup champions are crowned.