• GruppeM ends stunning year with Team, Driver and Pro-Am titles
• Squad excels on first season back in full-time motorsport
• Hunter Abbott adds outright GT3 drivers’ title to Pro-Am crown
• Tim Sugden and Jules Szymkowiak take third in Silver standings
• Rain-lashed Zhejiang delivers dramatic finale to Blancpain Asia
GruppeM Racing wrapped-up a truly remarkable history-making season in the inaugural Blancpain GT Series Asia at a rain-hit Zhejiang in China on Sunday, 15th October, by winning no fewer than three championship crowns – the Team title, outright GT3 drivers’ crown and the Pro-Am title.
At the end of what has been a sensational return to full time motorsport for the squad in 2017, the former FIA GT Champions have now entered the record books once again with a dominant team title win, along with British driver Hunter Abbott adding the GT3 crown to the Pro-Am title he secured last time out in Shanghai.
Finishing in third place with team-mate Maximilian Buhk during a wet round 11 on Saturday, 14th October, to close to within just a single point of the outright championship lead, fourth place for the duo in an absolutely soaking round 12 was enough for Abbott to claim the GT3 title…by one point!
Buhk, who was Abbott’s driving partner in the No.999 Mercedes-AMG GT3 for the bulk of the year, ended his part-season fourth in the championship while Tim Sugden and Jules Szymkowiak finished their campaign with a top three championship placing in the Silver class, fifth overall in GT3.
Car No.999 – Hunter Abbott:
“It hasn’t sunk in yet – I never thought I’d be champion at the end of the season! I thought maybe we had a chance of the Pro-Am title and then, after Fuji, I thought wow, maybe we can win it overall. Everything has been right this season, the right people, the right organisation, the right car, the right co-drivers and I’ve just been the one lucky enough to be here when the stars aligned, Everyone’s tireless input made this possible and for that I will be forever grateful to GruppeM.”
Car No.999 – Maxi Buhk:
“It has been a very good weekend for the whole team. We were able to secure the teams’ and overall drivers’ championship, so there is not much more to ask for. I am very proud that everybody kept a cool head under difficult conditions.”
Car No.888 – Tim Sugden:
“What a fantastic weekend! It’s so amazing for the team to have won three titles – incredible! I’m so pleased for Hunter to win the drivers’ championship and, of course, for everyone at GruppeM to have won the team championship.”
Car No.888 – Jules Szymkowiak:
“I’m very happy to have been part of the team, we managed to put it all together once again this weekend by securing the team, overall and Pro-Am championships. Technical issues prevented my and Tim’s car from scoring better this weekend but, as a team, we got the most out of it.”
Both GruppeM cars were incredibly evenly matched in qualifying for round 11, Abbott securing fourth on the grid in the No.999 car with a time of 1m27.184 seconds and Sugden lapping a mere 0.009 seconds shy of the sister Mercedes-AMG GT3.
Saturday’s one-hour race started behind the Safety Car due to a very damp and greasy track surface, with the action proper beginning as the clock ticked down to the 55-minute mark. Abbott and Sugden held fourth and fifth but the action fell back under the Safety Car almost immediately as a result of a Ferrari making contact with the barriers and becoming stranded on the kerbs at Turn 16.
Racing got back underway with 15 minutes gone on lap seven and the two Mercedes stayed close behind the top three. Running as a tail-gunner for Abbott with the latter’s title rival Marchy Lee in sixth place, Sugden made the No.888 car as wide as he could but Lee’s Audi managed to move through just before the race reached the 20-minute mark.
Abbott stayed close behind the third placed Lamborghini but Lee closed and the scrap over the final podium spot soon became a very tight three-way battle as rain began to fall. When the pit-window opened for driver changes on lap 13, Abbott and Sugden stopped as soon as they could from fourth and sixth respectively to hand over to Buhk and Szymkowiak.
Thanks to good work from the GruppeM pit crew, both Mercedes headed back into the race in good order and when the action settled after all stops had been completed Buhk held fourth right behind Shaun Thong – now at the wheel of the title rival Audi – on lap 19. Dramatically, Thong then went wide under pressure and the German sliced past into third place.
Szymkowiak was right there too in fifth and he started to pressure Thong, getting alongside on lap 20 but then having to tuck back in. As the race entered the final quarter of an hour, Thong closed back in behind Buhk’s Mercedes but the GruppeM ace responded and pulled away.
Maintaining position to the flag at the end of lap 32, Buhk secured a vital third place finish 3.5 seconds clear to set up a fantastic final round battle for the title on Sunday for Abbott. Szymkowiak finished fifth, fourth in the Silver class, with Buhk and Abbott’s result also securing them Pro-Am class victory. Combined, the team result wrapped-up the entrants’ title with one race to spare.
For round 12 on Sunday, which took place in even worse conditions than Saturday, Buhk started the No.999 Mercedes from fifth on the grid – having qualified just 0.2 seconds shy of pole – while Szymkowiak lined-up on the fourth row in seventh place, less than two tenths further adrift.
After two laps behind the Safety Car at the start, on a shockingly wet track, the action began with Buhk holding fifth and swarming all over the fourth placed Audi while Szymkowiak held position. Looking very committed and driving superbly in the conditions, Buhk went on to grab fourth from Franky Cheng with almost 10 minutes elapsed and he charged up towards third place.
Szymkowiak, meanwhile, became embroiled in a very tight battle with one of the Porsches and after some back and forth action, during which the rival machine got ahead after cutting the chicane, the Dutchman was ultimately edged back to eighth.
When the pit-stop window opened at the 25-minute mark, both GruppeM cars stayed on track initially before then serving their mandatory driver changes into the second half hour. When the race ordered settled, Abbott held fifth with Sugden in 10th position.
Importantly, Abbott moved up into the top four with around 20 minutes of racing to go in the unrelenting wet conditions and went on to finish the final round just over a second shy of the podium – sparking richly deserved celebrations for GruppeM. Sugden, meanwhile, broke into ninth in the last quarter of an hour where he remained to the conclusion to also finish fourth in Silver.
Blancpain GT Series Asia GT3 Team Standings
CHAMPIONS: GruppeM Racing, 243pts
Blancpain GT Series Asia GT3 Overall Driver Standings
CHAMPION: Hunter Abbott 161pts;
4th Maximilian Buhk, 100pts;
5th Tim Sugden & Jules Szymkowiak 82pts;
17th Maximilian Gotz, 31pts;
18th Raffaele Marciello, 30pts
Blancpain GT Series Asia GT3 Pro-Am Driver Standings
CHAMPION: Hunter Abbott 223pts;
4th Maximilian Buhk, 140pts;
=11th Raffaele Marciello 43pts;
=12th Maximilian Gotz 40pts
Blancpain GT Series Asia GT3 Silver Driver Standings
3rd Tim Sugden & Jules Szymkowiak 132pts