Alessandro Pier Guidi took pole in Paul Ricard 1000km qualifying on Saturday in the dying seconds of the session as he leapfrogged fellow AF Corse driver Olivier Beretta in the #53.
As is the norm in the Blancpain GT, qualifying was pretty tight all the way through the field and in Q1 the top 7 all within 1 second of each other – the #23 Nissan going fastest with a 1:57.978 from the #84 HTP Mercedes and #75 ISR Audi.
Q2 saw more cars enter the 1 second timeframe and the Ferraris began to show their pace with the #53 AF Corse registering a 1:57.227, just a quarter of a second faster than its stable-mate in the #50. The best of the Audis – the #28 – came a miserly 13th in this session, more then a second off the pace.
Things got evermore interesting in Q3, as they frequently do. As in Q2, it was still 11 cars that managed to compete within a 1 second time bracket in the upper reaches of the quali standings, but Ferrari asserted their dominance of the session, with the #50 and #53 rotating positions. The #50 of Alessandro Pier Guidi clinched pole in the dying stages, registering a 1:56.343 to nudge himself ahead of Beretta, who was deputising for the missing Giancarlo Fisichella. The #8 Bentley crew continued their great form in qualifying by plonking themselves 3rd on the starting grid thanks to Maxime Soulet’s 1:56.512. Audi again disappointed by only managing to put their best-placed car – the #2 WRT – in P11.
The top 20 can be found below, courtesy of the Blancpain GT Series website.
Prior to the race starting, we were informed that the Barwell Lamborghini of Leo Machitski would start from the pitlane due to an engine change. It was due to take a stop-and-go penalty but had that rescinded in favour of the pitlane start. The #76 Porsche also met the same fate.
And so the third Blancpain Endurance race of the season kicked off. Guy Smith’s #7 Bentley had a magnificent start, applying good pressure to Pasin Lathouras in the #50 Ferrari leading into turns 1 and 2, but the Thai driver managed to hold on. The Bentley’s ran side-by-side leading into turn 3 but both managed to get through. As they approached Signes (turn 5), four cars ran side-by-side, with Rob Bell joining the front three. Lathouras subsequently lost his spot as the cars approached the top of the hill, falling back to 4th. Guy Smith nudged himself ahead of his Bentley mate Wolfgang Reip in the #8.
All of a sudden, there was at least a second’s gap between 3rd and 4th and as the cars approached Bausset, Lathouras found himself on the outside line and the #19 Lamborghini edged past. Fantastic opening lap and it was merely a taster for what was to come!
With Paul Ricard being such a power circuit, straight line speed is what counts. Some drivers could’ve done with obeying track limits after pelting down the straights like a bat out of hell though. Michael Meadows in the #2 WRT Audi was warned about precisely that after 5 laps.
As the cars completed lap 7, commentator John Watson was in jovial mood. During the process of judging which cars were better down the straights, the subject turned to the Nissans’ air conditioning system…
‘I’ve often said “Why not disconnect the air conditioning?” because that’ll mean you can go faster down the straights. And I’m sure some teams have tried it and found there’s a difference. Because any extra power that is derived from a pump that’s driving cool air to the cockpit can be used more productively. Let the drivers sweat, these are professional athletes, they’re not little wimps going for a Saturday or Sunday evening drive around the Côte d’Azur!’
At the end of lap 10, the gap between 2nd and 3rd was 3.1 seconds, showing the advantage the Bentley has in a straight line over the McLaren. Inadvertently helping the Bentleys was Matteo Malucelli in the #34 Ferrari, as he battled away with Bell – who’d switched into defence mode – for 3rd place. As they approached Signes on lap 11 though, Malucelli managed to beat the McLaren on the Mistral Straight (no shock there) and claim 3rd position with aplomb.
Malucelli continued his impressive rise through the field for the following half-a-dozen laps and on lap 16 was seen closing on Reip’s Bentley leading into Bendor (turn 7). A lap later, he made the move and also made it stick on the very same corner. Executing it wonderfully as the two cars weaved through the Village corner, into Tour. The Italian was now into 2nd and lapping half a second quicker than Guy Smith in the leading Bentley, just over the half-an-hour mark! Incidentally, Smith – along with Reip – was warned for abusing track limits at turn 10 shortly afterwards. A reoccurring theme throughout the race. The team manager of the Bentley #7 and #8 was then called to the race directors ‘immediately’ on lap 20. Quite right too.
In terms of cars with problems, the #77 had a bit of a shocker. At the end of lap 23, it was seen with flames billowing from its behind as it purposely beached itself on the side of the track.
Naturally, this led to a full-course yellow. During this time, multiple teams elected to pit, including the #58 McLaren. Rob Bell surrendering his seat to Come Ledogar. The Ferrari of Malucelli lost ground during the cycle and dropped back down to 4th behind the #8 Bentley of now Maxime Soulet. Ledogar into 3rd.
Following a long tussle between Smith and Soulet for a number of laps, Soulet eventually took the lead of the race on lap 32 as the Bentley pair approached the end of the Mistral Straight. He didn’t have to fight for it, Soulet was just on fire and quite evidently the faster driver. Whether the call came from the pit wall or if Smith realised his teammate was the faster driver remains unknown, but with that #8 car’s pace this season, it would perhaps be foolish to potentially throw away the potential of a race win by allowing your leading cars to squabble. Especially Ledogar’s McLaren lapping so quickly.
In stark contrast to the two Bentleys at the front of the field, Ian Loggie found himself in a spot of bother after exiting turn 4. The #24 Team Parker car, was damaged substantially at the rear and managed to break the barrier. A lengthy FCY followed.
When I say lengthy, I mean lengthy. The race organisers eventually decided to place a tyre wall in front of the damaged barrier. Racing was suspended until 13 minutes before the 2 hour mark of the event, meaning many cars took the opportunity to make their second scheduled pitstops. A rare mistake from the WRT pit crew meant that they were handed a drive-through penalty after they abused pit regulations.
Both the leading Bentleys came in towards the end of the aforementioned FCY period and – as they elected to not change their tyres – made a quick getaway. Abril into the #7.
The #58 Garage 59 car of Come Ledogar came in under green flag conditions for a splash and dash, meaning that Maxime Soulet now led the race from the #19 Lamborghini. Abril was of course further down the order at this point thanks to the change that saw him get into the #7.
Dries Vanthoor made a surge up to 3rd on lap 55 by temporarily taking Jazeman Jaafar and Ledogar, but lost it again as the trio hit traffic. The Belgian youngster seemed to lose track of where he wanted to be and subsequently lost his two places once again. He then pitted on the next lap, allowing Frederic Vervisch into the #1 Audi.
A third round of pitstops commenced, 15 minutes prior to the halfway stage and following this period, we saw Wolfgang Reip with a 40 second lead over Beretta in the Lamborghini. Beretta was then to lose 2nd place to Rob Bell.
With just two hours remaining, Luca Stolz in the #19 Lamborghini was handed a drive-through penalty for causing a collision. Sincerely damaging any kind of chance it still had of an impressive result.
During the last two hours, the #8 Bentley stuttered dramatically. First, it served a drive-through penalty (served by Andy Soucek). The lead was cut to just 6 seconds over the #50 AF Corse Ferrari of Pier Guidi. It then pitted, allowing for fuel to be taken on and things got interesting. Fuel leaked onto the brake discs (obviously very, very hot) which caused a flash fire. By the time everything and everyone was calmed down, the #8 had lost a lap and dropped to 4th position in the race.
Whilst this madness was going on, the #58 McLaren, now of Shane van Gisbergen, stopped one last time and emerged ahead of the #50 Ferrari. The Italian squad never able to close on van Gisbergen, meaning the Kiwi took the race win!
McLaren didn’t have the pace of the Ferraris or Bentleys but strategy played a key role in giving the Garage 59 crew a 2 point lead over HTP in the overall championship standings. They also now have a 24 points lead in the Endurance Cup over their German competitors.
An Audi did manage to get on the podium, in third. Fittingly, it was the #3 car of Rodrigo Baptista, Jan Magnussen and Filipe Albuquerque. Incidentally, it was one of 3 Audis in the top 10 with the #26 and #28 making it too.