After winning the Silverstone round of the Blancpain Endurance Series, the #7 M-Sport Bentley also claimed victory in the third round of the Series at Le Castellet. At the end of the three-hour evening race, Guy Smith, Andy Meyrick and Steven Kane had a mere 1.1 seconds advantage over the #98 ART Grand Prix McLaren of Parente-Demoustier-Lapierre. The Bentley trio now lead the Pro Cup driver standings as well. The battle for third was decided after a frantic fratricidal battle between the two HTP Motorsport Mercedes. Eventually it was the #85 machine of Wolf-Afanasiev-Dusseldorp that ended up on the podium. The Pro-Am Cup was won by the #12 TDS Racing BMW of Catsburg and Hassid, while the #458 GT Corse by Rinaldi Ferrari of Schmickler, Matschull and Ehret took its third win in as many races in the Gentlemen Trophy.
The three-hour race at Le Castellet started with a shock. The #99 ART Grand Prix McLaren, championship leader in the Pro Cup driver standings, had to retire on the opening lap with suspension damage. Kevin Estre, who started from the back after the team had to change the engine after qualifying, had tried to make up positions as quickly as possible, but was involved in an incident with the #14 Emil Frey Racing Jaguar.Meanwhile, their ART GP team-mate Alvaro Parente was leading the race. The Portuguese driver had taken its second pole position of the season, and once the lights went out he disappeared into the distance. Just before the driver change, the gap to Guy Smith in the #7 M-Sport Bentley, who was lying second after overtaking the #35 Nissan GT Academy Team RJN Nissan of Japanese youngster Katsumasa Chiyo, was just over nine seconds.
However, during the middle stint of the race, that lead disappeared quickly. Just minutes after Jérôme D'Ambrosio had to park the #8 M-Sport Bentley behind the wall with suspected transmission damage, Andy Meyrick took the lead of the race away from Greg Demoustier. At the end of the second stint, the gap between the sole remaining Bentley and the ART McLaren had grown to almost nine seconds.A slight problem at the front left wheel during the Bentley pitstop erased that advantage, and Steven Kane only just managed to hold on to the lead after Series newcomer Nicolas Lapierre had taken over the wheel of the #98 ART Grand Prix McLaren. The gap between the two fluctuated, depending on which driver hit traffic, but with fifteen minutes to go, it was back down to one single second. Nevertheless, Steven Kane managed to hold on to a slender lead, and crossed the line in first, handing the Bentley crew a second consecutive win and the lead in the Pro Cup standings.
The fight for third turned out to be even closer, when Nico Verdonck and Sergei Afanasiev hurtled both HTP Motorsport Mercedes nose to tail around the Circuit Paul Ricard. The difference between the two machines during the final hour of racing was never bigger than one second. The Belgian looked set to take the third podium step, but in the penultimate lap Sergei Afanasiev managed to overtake Verdonck and crossed the line less than a second in front of Verdonck.
The win in the Pro-Am Cup went to the pairing Nick Catsburg-Henry Hassid. Catsburg, who had qualified the #12 TDS Racing BMW third on the grid, made up a lot of places during the middle stint, passing the car to Hassid when in fourth overall. Despite being under pressure from Francesco Castellacci in the #90 Scuderia Villorba Corse Ferrari, Hassid managed to hold on to the first place in Pro-Am. Because the Series Pro-Am leaders, the #43 ROAL Motorsport BMW, hit trouble, the Villorba Corsa trio of Castellacci-Rizzoli-Gai now lead the Pro-Am driver standings.
In the Gentlemen Trophy Alexander Matschull and Frank Schmickler again dominated proceedings. Joined by Pierre Ehret, who skipped the Silverstone round, the drivers of the #458 GT Corse by Rinaldi Ferrari took the lead of the category just before halfway through and never looked back.
Steven Kane (#7 M-Sport Bentley): “It was a hard race in these temperatures. Especially coping with the traffic proved to be very tough sometimes. Sometimes I had to go off line, but if you go off line, the tyres pick up a lot of dirt, so you have to be careful during the next two or three corners. But the Continental GT3 looks after its tyres immensely and it got us to the end, thanks to a brilliant strategy of the team as well.”
Guy Smith (#7 M-Sport Bentley): “We are all looking forward to Spa now. I realise that there are double points for grabs, but we will absolutely be going for the win. Spa is the biggest race of the year, and even though it is fantastic to win here at Le Castellet, winning Spa is what everybody wants.”
Sergei Afanasiev (#85 HTP Motorsport Mercedes): “It was a fantastic fight at the end, but among team-mates we had to keep it clean. I was faster than Nico, but I had to find a way around him. I spent most of the stint looking for a way to pass, and when I did, he immediately overtook me again. I managed to get back in front, though. This result should get us going for the rest of the season, in the Blancpain Sprint Series as well.”
Nicolas Lapierre (#98 ART Grand Prix McLaren): “This was my first GT-race since a long time, first time in a McLaren as well, so I had to be careful in the beginning of my stint. When the temperatures dropped, I managed to get closer to the Bentley. I was not yet sharp enough in lapping the backmarkers though, so I have to work on that. Still, I think this was an excellent preparation for Spa.”
Nick Catsburg (#12 TDS Racing BMW): “Our car has been really strong all weekend long, so during my stint I was able to fight with some of the Pro Cup cars. That was really nice. And hats off to Henry. He might be 55, but he drives like a 25-year old. He matched some of the Pro Cup lap times, so he’s been doing really well. Now I am really looking forward to Spa. We will have a strong line-up for both cars and our BMW likes the Belgian track, so we should be able to perform well.”
Alexander Mattschull (#458 GT Corse by Rinaldi Ferrari): “This was a really difficult race for us. We had to fight early on, and could only take the lead during the middle stint. The warm conditions made it really tough, but the car ran perfect all race long. We have three wins now, but the Total 24 Hours of Spa will be a different story. The competition will be harder there, but we will try to make it four in a row.”
#7 Smith/Meyrick/Kane - M-Sport Bentley 88laps#98 Demoustier/Lapierre/Parente - ART Grand Prix McLaren +1.178 #85 Wolf/Afanasiev/Dusseldorp - HTP Motorsport Mercedes +49.206#84 Primat/Verdonck/Buhk - HTP Motorsport Mercedes +50.015#26 Sandström/Ortelli/Guilvert - Sainteloc Racing Audi +50.550#12 Hassid/Catsburg - TDS Racing BMW +57.645#3 Mies/Nash/Stippler - Belgian Audi Club Team WRT Audi +1 :05.582#90 Rizzoli/Gai/Castellacci - Scuderia Villorba Corse Ferrari +1 :09.557#19 Haupt/Al Faisal/Simonsen - Black Falcon Mercedes +1 :29.645#35 Aksenov/Faisca/Chiyo - Nissan GT Academy Team RJN Nissan +1 :49.042First GTR #458 Ehret/Mattschull/Schmickler – GT Corse by Rinaldi Ferrari 2LAPS