The battle for overall honours will take centre stage when the 2019 Blancpain GT Series gets underway this weekend (13/14 April), but while the action up front is sure to be frantic there should be just as much to follow in the Silver Cup.
A field of 13 cars will compete for class honours at Monza, with all of them signed up to contest the full Endurance Cup campaign. Some of the world's leading GT squads will be on the grid, while the drivers come from a variety of backgrounds and with very different experience levels.
Though still very new, the Silver Cup has already been a real success story. First introduced as part of the Sprint Cup in 2014 and expanded to Endurance events last year, the category is aimed at Silver-ranked drivers. This makes it something of an intermediate class, with Silver crews generally finishing ahead of the Pro-Am and Am Cup runners and behind the leading Pro contenders.
The class is popular with young racers and can be a significant stepping stone towards a career in professional motorsport. Perhaps the best example of this to date is Luca Stolz, who took the Silver Cup title in 2016. Two years later he won the top-tier title in the Endurance Cup and has since become a Mercedes-AMG works driver. The likes of Vince Abril, Michael Meadows and Lewis Williamson have also successfully used the class as a springboard to the Pro ranks.
But while the young guns make up a large portion of the grid, they are not the only type of driver found on Silver Cup entry lists. Indeed, this is part of what makes the class so interesting: there is real variety among its competitors.
Take the example of Hubert Haupt, who will continue his long association with the Black Falcon squad this term. Haupt has competed at a high level for almost 30 years, but racing is not his day job. Having a full-time career away from the circuit means Haupt fits the profile of a gentleman driver, yet his experience and pace make him overqualified to run as an amateur.
The Silver Cup provides a middle ground for this kind of competitor, pitting them against younger and considerably less experienced rivals. It tends to lead to some very close racing, too. Last term the Endurance Cup saw four winners from five events, with the title eventually going to the #54 Emil Frey Jaguar crew following a dramatic finale.
Even more exciting was the battle for class honours at the Total 24 Hours of Spa. Indeed, with less than two seconds separating the leading duo, it was the closest contest by some distance and provided a perfect advert for the class. It is little surprise that numbers have grown further for the Endurance Cup this term.
There is genuine strength among those entrants, too, with Blancpain GT Series heavyweights Belgian Audi Club Team WRT, AKKA ASP, Black Falcon and Grasser Racing all running Silver Cup programmes alongside their successful Pro efforts. This quartet features machinery from Audi, Mercedes-AMG and Lamborghini, while Honda, Porsche and Ferrari will also be represented. Indeed, this kind of line-up would not seem out of place in a top-tier category.
So, when it comes to the Endurance Cup, where is the Silver class title headed in 2019? In truth, it is almost impossible to say. By its very nature the Silver Cup is unpredictable, with so many young talents on the grid and new arrivals each season. Picking a title-winning crew would be pure guesswork.
If there is one narrow favourite, however, it is the #90 AKKA ASP Mercedes-AMG. Reigning overall Silver Cup champion Nico Bastian remains on board for 2019 and will be joined for Endurance events by Timur Bogulavskiy and Felipe Fraga. It would certainly be no surprise to see the French squad at the sharp end of the class again this year.
The same must be said for the #6 Black Falcon Mercedes-AMG, which only missed out on the Endurance title last year following a technical problem during the season finale. The vastly experienced Haupt will once again anchor the German team's line-up.
But the Mercedes-AMG crews will have considerably more to worry about in 2019, not least a two-car Silver Cup effort by Belgian Audi Club Team WRT. Series returnee Phoenix Racing will also run Audi equipment and has a trio of youngsters ready to make a name for themselves.
Lamborghini machinery will dominate the grid, with five teams running the Italian marque's Huracan model. Top-tier contenders Grasser and FFF Racing lead the contingent, while Italian outfits Daiko Lazarus and Ombra Racing are capable of strong results – the latter having edged that super-close class battle at Spa last year. The team they beat, Barwell Motorsport, also returns to the Silver class with high hopes for its all-British line-up.
The new-spec Honda NSX will contest the full season thanks to Jenson Team Rocket RJN, with Struan Moore leading the line-up. Rinaldi Racing adds a Ferrari 488 – as well as the field's only Bronze-graded driver, Rinat Salikhov. Finally, series newcomer GPX Racing will run a Gulf-liveried Porsche 911, with 16-year-old Benjamin Goethe set to be the youngest driver on the grid this term.
Each squad will have its own targets for the season ahead. In some cases, class success alone will be considered enough; for others, there will be hopes of battling with the Pro cars and showing team bosses throughout the paddock what they are capable of.
That is exactly what happened at the final Endurance race of 2018, when the Emil Frey Jaguar crew sealed the class title with a magnificent fourth-place overall finish. The result was doubly impressive: not only had Alex Fontana, Adrian Zaugg and Mikael Grenier dominated the Silver class, they had fought against the fastest drivers in the series and finished less than a second shy of P3.
The only way to better this will be for a Silver crew to stand on the overall podium at an Endurance Cup round in 2019. Despite the depth of the top-tier field, it is not an impossible task. As the Silver Cup grows stronger, its leading contenders are rapidly closing on the front of the grid.