to take breakthrough triumph in #88 AKKA ASP Mercedes-AMG
Raffaele Marciello and Vincent Abril produced a faultless showing at Zandvoort to secure their first victory as a duo and kick-start an assault on the Blancpain GT World Challenge Europe title.
The combination of two highly-rated former Sprint Cup champions made the #88 AKKA ASP Mercedes-AMG entry a strong pre-season favourite, but the crew headed into the third of five doubleheader events without a win.
That changed in emphatic style at Zandvoort as the AKKA ASP crew enjoyed a perfect run from pole to the chequered flag. This owed much to Abril's efforts in qualifying, where the Monegasque delivered a perfectly-timed lap on a drying circuit to secure P1 by exactly half a second.
He then managed the start well, with the two Lamborghini Huracans of Mirko Bortolotti (#63 Grasser Racing) and Andrea Caldarelli (#563 Orange1 FFF Racing) holding their grid positions and slotting in behind the Mercedes-AMG.
The race was neutralised on the opening lap after a collision in the pack saw the #26 Sainteloc Racing Audi pitched into the barriers, eliminating Markus Winkelhock on the spot. While a number of cars were involved, the #17 Belgian Audi Club Team WRT machine of Tom Gamble was adjudged to have been at fault and subsequently served a drive-through penalty.
When the race went green again Abril maintained his advantage for the entirety of the first stint, but the #88 Mercedes-AMG was never able to pull more than a second clear of the chasing Lamborghinis. Former teammates Bortolotti and Caldarelli battled hard while chasing Abril, keeping up a breathless pace as all three pulled clear of the pack.
The leading trio dived into the pits together shortly after the mid-race window opened and, with little over one second covering them, the pit lane became the new battleground. The AKKA ASP crew kept their cool, sending Marciello out with a slightly increased advantage over Christian Engelhart in the #63 Grasser Lamborghini, while Marco Mapelli took over the #563 FFF machine.
The second stint would become a contest between the two Lamborghinis, with Mapelli spending almost the entire half-hour in Engelhart's mirrors. This put Marciello in control and allowed the #88 Mercedes-AMG to edge away at the head of the field.
The duelling Huracans were joined by Maro Engel, who had taken over the #4 Mercedes-AMG he shares with Luca Stolz in fourth spot after an excellent stop by the Black Falcon squad. The championship-leading effort applied pressure to Mapelli, while the Italian looked to overhaul Engelhart.
But the Grasser driver was mistake-free as he defended second, never allowing Mapelli a realistic chance to make the move. The three-car battle then became a foursome, with Dries Vanthoor closing up in the #1 Belgian Audi Club Team WRT machine.
There would be no change, however, with all four holding station until the chequered flag. At the front, Marciello had built a lead of more than eight seconds by the time he crossed the line for the final time, sparking jubilant celebrations from teammate Abril.
AKKA ASP had been set for a double win until the final stages of the race, with the French outfit's #90 Mercedes-AMG looking set to clinch Silver Cup honours. But their hopes were dashed inside the last two minutes as Timur Boguslavskiy slid into the gravel, ending the squad's run of four successive Silver Cup victories.
The beneficiaries were Aaro Vainio and Hugo de Sadeleer in the #62 R-Motorsport Aston Martin, though this was a deserved win. The car had been competitive throughout and was closing on the AKKA ASP machine during the final stages, eventually securing R-Motorsport its first Blancpain GT World Challenge Europe triumph.
The Pro-Am class was hotly disputed as well. Poleman Nyls Stievenart (#24 Sainteloc Audi) suffered a puncture on lap one that effectively ended his challenge, after which Rinat Salikhov took the #333 Rinaldi Racing Ferrari to the head of the class.
But this car would hit problems shortly after its driver change when a wheel came adrift, bringing David Perel back into the pits and out of the class battle. Phil Keen was the next to lead in the #519 FFF Lamborghini he shares with Hiroshi Hamaguchi. Despite a spirited pursuit by Andrea Bertolini (#52 AF Corse Ferrari), the Lamborghini held on for a third class win of the season. Further back, HB Racing's lone Am Cup entry finished 24th overall, with Florian Scholze and Wolfgang Triller handling the #444 Ferrari.
Teams and drivers now have less than 24 hours to prepare for the weekend's second race, which gets underway at 14.15 on Sunday afternoon. The #25 Sainteloc Racing Audi will sit on pole position with Christopher Haase at the wheel, while today's winners start from seventh on the grid. It promises to be a fascinating contest as the Blancpain GT World Challenge Europe title battle moves towards its final phase.
Vincent Abril, #88 AKKA ASP Mercedes-AMG: "We all know that the start of this year has been very tough. We had high hopes, but racing doesn't always go to plan. Still, we have a mega team that believes in us and gave us the tools to fight for victory today. Qualifying was mega and to drive with Lello is a great pleasure. We are really happy."
Mirko Bortolotti, #63 Grasser Racing Lamborghini Huracan: "We are in the Blancpain GT Series – you have to attack all the time! This was a great race and a very good performance by the team to get us back on the podium. I could have taken pole this morning and I think that could have given us a shot at the win. But I'm really happy with the podium. Christian did an amazing job defending from four cars, so this is a great team effort."
Andrea Caldarelli, #563 Orange1 FFF Racing Lamborghini: "It was a very tough race, but we were very quick. It's difficult to overtake at this track unless you take massive risks and we have to think about the championship. We have found a very good setup and have shown great pace everywhere."
Phil Keen, #519 Orange1 FFF Racing Lamborghini: "It was a good race for us. Hiroshi did a great job and our pit stop was perfect today. We came out in the lead and that was it, really! It was just a case of keeping it steady, staying out of trouble. Overall, we're very happy."
Hugo de Sadeleer, #62 R-Motorsport Aston Martin Vantage: "We finally had a good pit stop today, which is something we have been working on a lot. It was difficult to get the overtakes done because of the dirty air. In the last few laps the Silver Cup leader started to go quite wide and he finally made a mistake in the last corner and I was able to make the overtake. That was really pleasing and I feel we are progressing every weekend."