Blancpain GT World Challenge Europe will stage its third doubleheader event of the 2019 season next weekend (12-14 July) when Zandvoort makes a popular return to the calendar.
Just two weeks after its trip to Italy for a pair of 60-minute races at Misano, the sprint-format series will swap the Adriatic for the North Sea as a 28-car field tackles the sweeping corners of the 4.3km track.
The Dutch venue is no stranger to the sprint-format championship: it staged the FIA GT Series for the first time in 2013 and remained part of the Blancpain Sprint Series for 2014 and 2015. The first two events were July dates, while the latter saw Zandvoort host the concluding round of the campaign.
Now it will return to the schedule and is once again a mid-summer meeting, taking place just two weeks before the marquee Total 24 Hours of Spa (25-28 July) and little over a week after the event's official test days (2/3 July)
Another capacity field of 28 GT3 cars will contest the event, where the battle for the championship will continue to build towards concluding races at the Nürburgring and Hungaroring. With everything still to play for, it promises to be a thrilling weekend of racing as the season passes its halfway mark.
Battle for Pro honours reaches make-or-break phase
The big winners from the trip to Misano were Andrea Caldarelli and Marco Mapelli (#563 Orange1 FFF Racing Lamborghini), who delivered a near-perfect showing to close to within just six points of championship leaders Maro Engel and Luca Stolz (#4 Black Falcon Mercedes-AMG). The German pair were satisfied to have performed to their maximum at Misano, but the momentum is now with the Lamborghini crew.
While some might feel that the title battle is a two-way tussle, that opinion is not shared by Belgian Audi Club Team WRT. Charles Weerts and Dries Vanthoor combined to take victory at Misano, keeping both drivers within shooting distance of the points leaders.
The all-Belgian alliance was a one-off, with Vanthoor re-joining Ezequiel Perez Companc in the #1 Audi R8 LMS while Weerts will drive the #2 machine alongside Christopher Mies at Zandvoort. As such, they will now launch separate title bids over the second half of the season.
The #88 AKKA ASP Mercedes-AMG crew is also not out of contention and could well sit atop the standings had luck been on their side. Misano brought more mixed fortunes for Raffaele Marciello and Vincent Abril, who took runner-up in race one but saw a potential win in the second outing slip away in the pits. They need two strong results at Zandvoort to extend their championship assault beyond the August break.
The same is true of Grasser Racing and its #63 Lamborghini, which remains on the fringes of the title dispute. Mirko Bortolotti and Christian Engelhart will be targeting podiums at the very least as they seek to force their way back into contention.
A number of squads scored season-best finishes at Misano, including Sainteloc Racing, which bagged a podium thanks to an excellent showing by Christopher Haase and Simon Gachet in the #25 Audi R8 LMS. Meanwhile, the sister #26 car of Markus Winkelhock and Steven Palette will hope to put a series of setbacks behind them with a similarly strong result in the Netherlands.
R-Motorsport took a season-best finish of fourth and bagged a front-row start thanks to Ricky Collard. The young Brit and co-driver Marvin Kirchhöfer can now target a maiden Blancpain GT World Challenge Europe podium at Zandvoort.
Audi squads Attempto Racing and Phoenix Racing will once again bring two cars each. Phoenix celebrated its best finish of 2019 at Misano, with Finlay Hutchinson and Frederic Vervisch taking a fine fifth-place in the #11 car. They are set to be joined by Kim-Luis Schramm and Frank Stippler, who will go in search of their first points of the season in the #5 machine. The Attempto squad sees Dutch ace Steijn Schothorst joined by Nick Foster in the #55 R8 LMS, while Kelvin van der Linde shares the #66 with Clemens Schmid.
The Pro class will be further bolstered at Zandvoort thanks to a pair of additional entries. Full-season outfit Grasser Racing will add a second Lamborghini Huracan for Michele Beretta and Rolf Ineichen, while Tech 1 Racing brings its Lexus RC F GT3. The French outfit will field Aurelien Panis and Jack Hawksworth in the #23 machine as it expands from its full-season assault on the Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup.
AKKA ASP looks to extend Silver dominance, Pro-Am remains wide open
AKKA ASP has been dominant in the Silver Cup this term, with its pair of Mercedes-AMG GT3s securing four wins from as many races thus far. Three of those victories have gone to the #89 crew of Nico Bastian and Thomas Neubauer, who hold a 21.5-point at the top of the class standings.
But the Misano contest showed signs that AKKA ASP can be beaten, with competitive displays by the #10 Belgian Audi Club Team WRT entry and the #72 R-Motorsport Aston Martin. Further opposition will come from the #17 Belgian Audi Club Team WRT machine and the #56 Attempto Audi – both of which were class podium finishers in Italy – as well as the #555 FFF Lamborghini.
The Pro-Am battle remains impossible to call, with three crews among the winners in 2019 and all five full-season entrants looking capable of reaching the top step of the podium. The #519 FFF Lamborghini crew of Hiroshi Hamaguchi and Phil Keen lead the way ahead of Zandvoort, with the #333 Rinaldi Racing Ferrari of Rinat Salikhov and David Perel just seven points in arrears.
It was the #52 AF Corse Ferrari duo of Louis Machiels and Andrea Bertolini that enjoyed the best weekend in Italy, taking a win and a third-place finish, while the #24 Sainteloc Audi (Nyls Stievenart and Stephane Ortelli) and the #87 AKKA ASP Mercedes-AMG (Mauro Ricci and Jim Pla) have also showed that they are capable of contending for top spot this term.
Finally, following on from a dominant showing at Misano, HB Racing will once again add its Am Cup entry for Florian Scholze and Wolfgang Triller. They will complete a full grid of 28 cars for the Zandvoort event as Blancpain GT World Challenge Europe continues to attract an impressive standard of competitors.
Bumper support package for Dutch return
Zandvoort will provide no shortage of entertainment for its return to the calendar. The main track action kicks off on Friday with free practice sessions at 09.00 and 13.40, followed by qualifying (09.30) and the opening race (14.35) during a busy Saturday.
The event will conclude on Sunday with a second 60-minute contest that gets underway at 14.15. In addition to Blancpain GT World Challenge Europe, an extensive support bill is set to feature action from the GT4 European Series, Lamborghini Super Trofeo, Supercar Challenge, Ford Fiesta Sprint Cup and Mazda MX-5 Cup.
A seven-week break follows the Dutch round, after which Blancpain GT World Challenge Europe will conclude with back-to-back events at the Nürburgring (30 August–1 September) and Hungaroring (6-8 September). As such, anyone hoping to mount a serious title bid will need to leave Zandvoort within reach of the points lead. This should ensure a high-stakes on-track battle as Europe's premier GT series returns to the Netherlands.