as Collard and Kirchhöfer triumph at Nürburgring
Five brands represented among overall top-five
Title battles go to the wire in Pro, Silver Cup and Pro-Am
Ricky Collard and Marvin Kirchhöfer claimed victory in a dramatic Blancpain GT World Challenge Europe contest at the Nürburgring to seal a maiden series triumph for Aston Martin and the R-Motorsport squad.
The Swiss outfit has shown increasing pace with its Pro class #76 Vantage AMR this season, though the young pairing of Collard and Kirchhöfer had not scored a top-three finish before Sunday's race. They bagged their maiden podium in the best possible fashion, winning through a combination of raw pace, excellent pit work and a touch of good fortune.
Starting fifth on the 28-car grid, Kirchhöfer slipped back a position at the start to run sixth throughout the first stint. Despite losing a place, the German driver was nevertheless able to keep in contact with the leading pack throughout the opening 30 minutes.
At the front of the field Dries Vanthoor controlled the first stint in his pole-sitting #1 Belgian Audi Club Team WRT entry, while Christopher Mies slotted into second aboard the sister #2 machine. They were followed by a competitive pack that featured Maro Engel (#4 Black Falcon Mercedes-AMG), Christopher Haase (#25 Sainteloc Racing Audi) and Andrea Caldarelli (#563 Orange1 FFF Racing Lamborghini).
As is so often the case in sprint racing, the pit stop phase would prove significant. Fast work from the FFF crew saw the #563 Lamborghini emerge ahead of the #4 Black Falcon car, securing Marco Mapelli vital track position over title rival Luca Stolz. Sainteloc Racing also performed strongly to ensure that Simon Gachet came out ahead of this duo after taking over from Haase in the #25 Audi, but the biggest mover was the #76 Aston Martin, now driven by Collard, which emerged from the pits in third position behind the leading WRT Audis.
Ezequiel Perez Companc had taken the #1 car from Vanthoor, while teenager Charles Weerts climbed aboard the #2 machine in place of Mies. It was soon clear that Misano race-winner Weerts was the quicker of the pair as the Belgian ace cut the gap to his teammate. Behind them, however, Collard was going even faster.
Within a handful of laps the Brit had closed on to the rear of the leaders and with 15 minutes left on the clock he went for a move on Weerts heading into turn one. This prompted the Belgian to launch an attempt of his own on Perez Companc, but the two Audis made side-to-side contact in the braking zone and allowed Collard to slip into the lead. The day would go from bad to worse for the Belgian outfit as the collision was significant enough to eliminate both WRT machines from proceedings.
Collard therefore had clean air and faced little pressure from behind on his way to a popular victory. After returning to the pits, the elated British driver leapt on to the roof of his Aston to celebrate while the R-Motorsport crew cheered him on.
Having moved into second spot following the demise of the WRT Audis, Gachet retained the position to the chequered flag to capture a third successive podium for the #25 Sainteloc crew. Indeed, the result means that Gachet and Haase will be the only Audi squad in contention for the Blancpain GT World Challenge Europe drivers' title at next weekend’s Hungaroring finale.
The Mapelli/Caldarelli FFF Lamborghini completed the podium to ensure that the Italian pairing will travel to Budapest with the points lead. Their nearest challengers – the #4 Black Falcon Mercedes-AMG crew – were fourth across the line in Sunday's race.
Fifth place went to the #23 Tech 1 Racing Lexus, which scored a superb result in only its second Blancpain GT World Challenge Europe outing thanks to excellent work by Jack Hawksworth and Aurélien Panis. What's more, this meant that five different brands were represented among the overall top-five in the race.
Sixth place went to the Silver Cup winners, Oscar Tunjo and Rik Breukers, who secured their maiden class win aboard the #10 Belgian Audi Club Team WRT machine. The duo looked to be in control from the start with Tunjo running just behind the overall leaders during the opening stint, before Breukers took over for the concluding 30 minutes.
The Pro-Am battle was less straightforward as pole-sitter David Perel, who started an excellent ninth on the overall grid, was caught up in a first-lap clash. The Rinaldi Racing driver was able to continue and eventually hand the #333 Ferrari over to Rinat Salikhov, but any hope of repeating yesterday's class win was extinguished. This put Jim Pla out front for the opening stint aboard the #87 AKKA ASP Mercedes-AMG, but the Frenchman had the #52 AF Corse Ferrari and #519 Orange1 FFF Racing Lamborghini for company.
The Ferrari moved into the lead during the second stint with Louis Machiels at the wheel, but Hiroshi Hamaguchi was a close second in his Lamborghini. The two swapped positions before Machiels re-took the lead for good, though Hamaguchi was just half a second shy at the chequered flag. The Am Cup battle was won by the #444 HB Racing Ferrari, which reversed the order from Saturday's contest by beating the #111 Kessel Racing Ferrari in Sunday's run.
Competitors will have little time to dwell on this weekend's events as they make the trip to Budapest for the season-deciding Blancpain GT World Challenge round at the Hungaroring. Indeed, just seven days from now the teams' and drivers' titles will have been decided in each class.
Ricky Collard, #76 R-Motorsport Aston Martin: "I'm speechless! I just can't thank everyone enough. I'm new to R-Motorsport and to Aston Martin. Did I think we'd be on the top step? No way! I was hoping for a podium, but when you have a sniff at a win you dig a bit deeper to get it. No one expected this and what the team have done behind the scenes is fantastic."
Christopher Haase, #25 Sainteloc Racing Audi: "To be honest, I’m quite happy with the result. We started P2 and we finished P2, though my start was not ideal as I fell back to P4. The team did a great pit stop and Simon brought it home P2, which was our maximum today. Congratulations to the winners. I think tonight, Simon and I will have a nice dinner together!"
Andrea Caldarelli, #563 Orange1 FFF Racing Lamborghini: "We started P7 so this is a great podium and scores us very good points for the championship. Compared to yesterday the air temperature was very different, but I have to say we didn’t really struggle. It is just when we followed behind it became very difficult to find a good overtaking spot."
Rik Breukers, #10 Belgian Audi Club Team WRT Audi: "First of all, I’m really proud of the team. For our stint it was really tough at the beginning. Oscar had to avoid a crash and came out in P7. I just drove to the finish and in the end we were P6. I didn’t have much traffic, so it was a good stint."
Andrea Bertolini, #52 AF Corse Ferrari: "Finally we scored another victory! It was tough because normally our car is really good on the medium or high-speed tracks. At low-speed tracks with a lot of acceleration, like here at the Nürburgring, we are not the best car. But we worked very hard, like always, and the team did an amazing job in the pits. Louis did a good stint and we scored important points for the championship. We are really happy and looking forward to the final round at the Hungaroring."
Florian Scholze, #444 HB Racing Ferrari: "We are happy that there were at least two Am Cup cars this weekend, but we have not really had a fight. In the end I had a battle with Mauro Ricci [#87 Mercedes-AMG, Pro-Am]. He was really defending his position hard and I just tried not to crash."