One thing I’ve picked up on in the Blancpain GT Series is the lack of banter between fans of certain brands or drivers. Make no mistake, such fans do exist. At the Silverstone event, whilst I was strolling around I sighted Lamborghini jackets, Ferrari t-shirts (albeit Formula 1 oriented), Bentley apparel all over the place, McLaren gear, Mercedes… and then me; the only guy in an Audi t-shirt. One man army!
Despite the obvious devotion to teams and brands, tribalism and rivalry in some series of motor racing (save for F1) seems tame, or arguably it’s just not there at all. This may be down to the fact that I’m looking in the wrong place, perhaps?
Over the years, there have been many a tussle between Audi and Mercedes, and not just in Blancpain GT either. Think DTM. Just last season we had Audi’s Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich utilise the team radio system to give the now infamous ‘TIMO, SCHIEB IHN RAUS!’ command, which saw Timo Scheider pull of a snooker move; shunting into the back of Mercedes’ Robert Wickens, who in turn went into the back of now F1 racer Pascal Wehrlein, sending the young German and his Aussie teammate into the gravel. Ullrich had become incensed by Mercedes’ tactical ploy to get Wickens to hold up Scheider and subsequently lining Wehrlein up to make the move up the inside. In the end, it didn’t play too big a part in the championship, as Wehrlein still won the title, but it was just another episode in the Audi v Mercedes rivalry. Let’s not forget the pit-stop controversy between Gary Paffett and Mattias Ekström, an episode where Paffett well and truly threw his toys out of the pram, despite winning the DTM title.
Beneath the playful surface of flags on plastic sticks, predictable, nicey-nice interview Q&A’s and the family friendly atmosphere, motorsport is deeply competitive and immensely serious business to those at the heart of it.
Even in Blancpain, the two German manufacturers have clashed competitively on enough occasions. Just this season, we’ve seen toing and froing between the two. WRT (Audi) held off HTP (Mercedes) by just 1.6 seconds at Misano, whilst at Silverstone we saw a reversal of that, albeit with a smaller margin of victory; HTP’s Maxi Buhk finishing just 0.963 seconds ahead of Laurens Vanthoor in the Audi.
If we zoom in on Buhk and Vanthoor we’ll find that those two in particular tend to face off pretty regularly as well. In fact, they were indeed title rivals just last season. The story of the little rivalry between them was, as previously mentioned, one of toing and froing. Zolder was the first time in the season where the two finished alongside each other, with Buhk – then driving for Bentley alongside Vincent Abril – finished a good 9.9 seconds behind Vanthoor and Robin Frijns.
Let’s take a look at Buhk’s results with his driving partners and compare them with Vanthoor’s…
Nogaro – Blancpain Sprint: Buhk & Abril – 4th. Vanthoor – N/A
Monza – Blancpain Endurance: Buhk, Soulet & Soucek – 13th. Vanthoor, Vernay & Frijns – 3rd
Brands Hatch – Blancpain Sprint: Buhk – N/A. Vanthoor & Frijns – 1st
Silverstone – Blancpain Endurance: Buhk, Soulet & Soucek – 6th. Vanthoor, Vernay & Frijns – 2nd
Zolder – Blancpain Sprint: Buhk & Abril – 2nd. Vanthoor & Frijns – 1st
Circuit Paul Ricard – Blancpain Endurance: Buhk, Soulet & Soucek – 12th. Vanthoor, Rast & Rockenfeller – 30th
Moscow – Blancpain Sprint: Buhk & Abril – 1st. Vanthoor & Frijns – 5th
24 Hours of Spa – Blancpain Endurance: Buhk, Soulet & Soucek – DNF. Vanthoor, Rast & Winklehock – 21st
Algarve – Blancpain Sprint: Buhk & Abril – 4th. Vanthoor & Frijns – 1st
Nürburgring – Blancpain Endurance: Buhk, Soulet & Soucek – 5th. Vanthoor, Vernay & Frijns – 4th
Misano – Blancpain Sprint: Buhk & Abril – 2nd. Vanthoor & Frijns – N/A
Zandvoort – Blancpain Sprint: Buhk & Abril – 1st. Vanthoor (replaced by Christopher Mies due to injury) & Frijns – 2nd
As you can see, generally, the Buhk v Vanthoor battle is a tight one. Out of the 7 races the pair took part in and actually finished, they finished more than 4 places apart only twice. Vanthoor and his partners taking 3 race wins to Buhk’s 2. Vanthoor not being at Zandvoort for the final sprint race of 2015 may well have been the difference between that title going to Audi or going to Bentley. In the end, it went to the latter.
With Buhk now driving alongside Dominik Baumann and Jazeman Jaafar for HTP Motorsport (Mercedes), this season has spoilt us by adding fuel to the fire, arguably making the battle of the two drivers all the more intense.
The #84 HTP has already shown their hand by generally keeping up with the WRT Audi boys, finishing just 3.17 seconds behind the #1 Audi in the qualifying race at Misano. They then backed that up by coming a very close second in the main race (1.626 seconds). I for one, as an avid Audi nutjob, was delighted with the start the #1 had made, but by the time Monza came around, the weakness of the R8 LMS – its straight-line speed – had been exposed and it came 1:40.277s behind the Merc. Both the qualifying race and the main race at Brands Hatch saw the #1 and #84 miles apart, but Silverstone saw a classic case of Mercedes v Audi at the top of the pecking order. I get the impression Vanthoor probably isn’t all too pleased with how his season has gone thus far, so a good performance in the endurance race will no doubt have pleased him, despite finishing 2nd, less than a second behind Buhk at the end. He’ll take comfort from the fact he took just over a couple of seconds out of the German over the space of 2 or 3 laps though.
The main thing I took away from Silverstone was how much I found myself willing for Vanthoor to catch the #84. I wanted him to beat Buhk last season in the sprints I watched, but the fact I dislike Mercedes so much has made me utterly partisan this season. It’s strange though; despite my loathing for Merc, I actually really quite like Buhk and Baumann. I even quite like Nico Bastian, but we’ll cut off the list of Merc drivers I like before I embarrass myself. The point I’m getting at is that surely one of the things that grips you about a motorsport series is your inexplicable appreciation and attachment towards a certain driver. A will for them to win. Or maybe a will for a certain team or driver to fail. Either way, it’s the competitive edge that sucks you in and I think that is why the lack of tribalism and rivalry amongst fans confuses me in GT racing. Maybe it’s all a bit too grown-up for that, maybe I’m looking at it from an infantile perspective, or maybe people just aren’t as interested as I wish they were. I just believe that a bit of needle and a healthy rivalry in racing can be brilliant and contribute hugely to the all-round show. I wouldn’t want it to get to the pathetic levels some F1 drivers take it to, but can we have a couple of fall-outs at some stage? Rivalry and competition creates stories and interest, can that be such a bad thing?
I can’t help but feel Audi and Mercedes could potentially have a big hand to play here, if they really wanted to. Why not make something of the driver rivalry and the battle of the cars? With Buhk’s former teammates and M-Sport Bentley pairing Maxime Soulet and Andy Soucek looking immensely impressive this season, you never know if they might fancy a bit of the action if it gets fiery too.