New era begins at Brands Hatch as Blancpain GT World Challenge Europe roars into action
Mercedes-AMG sweeps overall and Silver Cup, Ferrari and Lamborghini share the spoils in Pro-Am
The Blancpain GT World Challenge Europe era launched in thrilling fashion at Brands Hatch today (5 May) as two 60-minute races produced hard-fought victories for Mercedes-AMG squads AKKA ASP Team and Black Falcon.
French outfit AKKA ASP won the opening race, with its #89 Mercedes-AMG securing a phenomenal result for the leading Silver Cup entrant.
The crew of Nico Bastian and Thomas Neubauer beat the pole-sitting #4 Black Falcon Mercedes-AMG, with the #63 Grasser Racing Lamborghini completing the podium in the opening run. This was a remarkable result for the AKKA ASP duo, particularly 19-year-old Neubauer. The Frenchman was making his first appearance at this level of racing after graduating from Formula Renault Eurocup and beat two of the most successful crews on the international GT scene.
The #4 Black Falcon machine started on pole courtesy of Stolz and led the first stint, with Mirko Bortolotti retaining P2 in his Grasser Lamborghini. When Stolz handed over to Engel the #4 Mercedes-AMG looked set for victory – particularly as it had emerged ahead of the #63 Lamborghini. Bortolotti gave the controls to Christian Engelhart, with the German ace only able to hold station behind the Black Falcon car.
But they had not counted on a sensational showing by the #89 AKKA ASP crew. Bastian ran long and delivered rapid laps to conclude his stint, after which the AKKA ASP mechanics delivered a lightning-fast pit stop.
This allowed Neubauer to emerge in P1, though with the vastly experienced Engel hunting him down the 19-year-old looked to have a major threat in his mirrors. That did not prove to be the case, as Neubauer delivered an assured drive to not only hold on to the lead but also edge away at the front. He never really looked to be in serious danger and came home to win by a little over two seconds.
Engelhart completed the podium after a lonely stint that saw the #63 Lamborghini running adrift of P2 and well clear of fourth. Behind him, the battle for P4 was the highlight of the second stint, with the hard-charging Raffaele Marciello (#88 AKKA ASP Mercedes-AMG) eventually passing Clemens Schmid (#66 Attempto Racing Audi) to take the position.
The #89 AKKA ASP crew's stunning overall win should not overshadow a number of other strong runs by Silver Cup challengers. Notably, the #17 Belgian Audi Club Team WRT car of Shae Davies and Tom Gamble was an impressive sixth at the flag, while the #1 WRT Audi and the #56 Attempto Audi were also among the overall top-10.
Rinat Salikhov and David Perel took Pro-Am honours in their #333 Rinaldi Racing Ferrari, with the Russian driver having assumed the class lead after rival Louis Machiels slid into the gravel during the opening stint. Salikhov had been pressuring the #52 AF Corse Ferrari at the time and Perel duly completed the job.
The opening race concluded at 13.10. A little over three hours later, with the champagne still drying on the podium, it was time to go again. On this occasion it was the #4 Black Falcon car that earned a place on the top step, with Stolz and Engel following up their earlier runner-up finish with a comfortable victory.
But this race was far from simple. The early laps were led by the pole-sitting #90 AKKA ASP Mercedes-AMG crew, which retained its advantage in the hands of Fabian Schiller. Behind him, Nick Foster held second in his #55 Attempto Racing Audi, which had been rapidly repaired by the German squad following a lap one accident in the opening contest.
The first stint was disrupted by a full-course yellow period necessitated by a multi-car collision, which began when the #333 Rinaldi Ferrari made contact with the #11 Phoenix Racing Audi. Several others became involved in the incident, for which the #333 of earlier class winner Perel was subsequently handed a drive-through penalty.
When racing resumed the #90 Mercedes-AMG held its lead and elected to run long into the stint. Meanwhile, the #4 Black Falcon Mercedes-AMG stopped early, as did the chasing #88 AKKA ASP Mercedes-AMG of Marciello, who had made good progress from sixth on the grid.
With Stolz now aboard the #4 and Vincent Abril handling the #88, the two Mercedes-AMG cars moved into the overall lead after the #90 stopped and slipped down the order. From this point onwards the #4 Black Falcon car was not seriously challenged, with Stolz easing away at the front.
There was to be yet more drama, however, as the #88 Mercedes-AMG suddenly ground to a halt with what would later transpire to be a clutch problem. Abril was visibly distraught, having looked set for a strong finish to a tricky Brands Hatch weekend.
This moved the #563 Orange1 FFF Racing Lamborghini into second spot, a significant achievement for a car that had started 11th on the grid. Marco Mapelli survived the pitfalls of the opening stint and handed over to team principal Andrea Caldarelli, who delivered a typically cool performance to collect another podium for the squad following last month's runner-up finish at Monza.
Third went to the #55 Attempto Audi, a result that provided fitting reward for the mechanics' hard work to get the R8 LMS on-track. Steijn Schothorst had taken over from Foster and was resolute in his defence throughout the stint, eventually finishing ahead of the sister #66 Attempto machine.
The #89 AKKA ASP Mercedes-AMG took another Silver Cup win, though on this occasion it was further down the overall order in eighth. It was an especially intense finish for the Silver class, as the #89 was handed a drive-through for passing during the full-course yellow. That seemed to have scuppered their hopes, only for the sister #90 machine to come to a halt with smoke billowing from its engine. This allowed the #89 to take a narrow win, ahead of the chasing #56 Attempto Audi.
If that wasn't enough excitement, the Pro-Am battle was settled by just 0.025s at the chequered flag. Brands Hatch debutant Hiroshi Hamaguchi and local ace Phil Keen took the win, with the impressive Japanese driver snatching class honours at the very last moment from the #87 AKKA ASP Mercedes-AMG. Meanwhile, the sole Am Cup entrant survived the drama of the weekend as the #444 HB Racing Ferrari saw the finish in both runs.
There will be little time for reflection on this weekend’s events, with much of the grid set to contest next weekend’s Endurance Cup race at Silverstone. While the venue and format will be different, another thrilling encounter is in prospect as a packed field tackles the historic Northamptonshire venue.
When the dust settles on the British double-header, Brands Hatch will be remembered as a fitting maiden event for Blancpain GT World Challenge Europe. The new championship has enjoyed a suitably spectacular launch and will resume hostilities at Misano on 28-30 June.
In the global Blancpain GT World Challenge standings, Mercedes-AMG has extended its advantage over rival Ferrari. The German marque now has 3,670 points to the Italian firm's 2,122 heading into the upcoming round in Asia next weekend (11/12 May).
Nico Bastian, #89 AKKA ASP Team Mercedes-AMG (P1 in Race 1): "This is crazy, isn’t it? The start was good, I defended my position but there was no way to pass the cars in front of me. With Luca and Mirko I was able to pull away and I tried to save my tyres, because I knew that I would try to stay out as long as possible. Then I had two or three push laps where I could get the time that we need to overtake in the pit lane and it paid off. The team also did a mega stop, the guys are training so much during the winter time and they are a big part of this win. And then my teammate, in his first ever GT3 race, running in front of Maro... he did a mega job."
Mirko Bortolotti, #63 Grasser Racing Lamborghini Huracan GT3 (P3 in Race 1): "I managed to defend my position and stay behind Luca. The maximum was to get alongside him for the first two corners, but it's so difficult to overtake at this track. After the first lap we focussed on our strategy and tried to keep pace with Luca. We thought the undercut would be the best option, the same as Luca and Maro and it was a good stop from our side. The team did a great job and we can be pleased with P3. We'll take the points. The ultimate goal was to finish P2 or even P1, but credit to these guys."
Maro Engel, #4 Black Falcon Mercedes-AMG (P1 in Race 2): "A big thank you to the team, they worked very hard and the level in this championship is, as we know, extremely high. We knew that the pit stops would be a major challenge and our guys worked tirelessly in that area. The car was great and it was very interesting in the first stint, going side by side with Nick [Foster]. Turn one was interesting! A great result, and thanks again to the team."
Andrea Caldarelli, #563 Orange1 FFF Racing Lamborghini Huracan GT3 (P2 in Race 2): "I’m happy for the team. As a driver, there is really big satisfaction to bring back another podium for our guys. They did a mega pit stop and worked very hard during the winter, so we want to give the credit to all of them for this result."
Steijn Schothorst, #55 Attempto Racing Audi R8 LMS (P3 in Race 2): "The first race ended after 300 meters, which was a big shame, especially as the car sustained some damage. Initially, we thought we wouldn’t even start the second race, but the team worked really hard to get it fixed. They did what they could, but it wasn’t the easiest car to drive and also definitely not the fastest! I was lucky that it's so tough to overtake at this track, so once we had the podium position we were able to hold on. Nick also had a great start and did very well to keep second position in his stint."
Hiroshi Hamaguchi, #519 Orange1 FFF Racing Lamborghini Huracan GT3 (Pro-Am P1 in Race 2): "Yesterday was my very first day at Brands Hatch and this is not an easy track for Am drivers. I suffered all day, and today my first race wasn’t going well, but around six laps into the second race I found my rhythm. After that I was just chasing the guy in front and everything worked out very well. I have a good coach [teammate Phil Keen] and he told me what to do, so I took the victory in the last seconds of the race."