Niederhauser/Haase/Winkelhock take hard-earned Brickyard triumph
Late drama sees victory slip away from AF Corse and Team WRT
Saintéloc Racing emerged on top following a wild finish to the Indianapolis 8 Hour Presented by AWS to give Audi Sport a commanding advantage at the top of the Intercontinental GT Challenge Powered by Pirelli manufacturers' standings.
After being defeated by Ferrari at the TotalEnergies 24 Hours of Spa the German marque struck back in perfect fashion at the Brickyard thanks to its #25 crew of Patric Niederhauser, Christopher Haase and Markus Winkelhock. The win extends Audi's IGTC record to eight, four more than its nearest rival, while Haase remains the series' most successful driver with five victories.
Though never far from the lead battle, the #25 Audi was not the clear favourite for this race. The car hit the front during the third hour with the experienced Winkelhock at the wheel but was soon shuffled back to second when Antonio Fuoco made a forceful move for the lead in the #71 AF Corse Ferrari.
Indeed, the Italian marque appeared the best placed to secure victory for much of Sunday's contest, leading the early stages from pole with its #51 crew of Pier Guidi/Ledogar/Nielsen before the #71 of Fuoco/Ilott/Rovera took up the baton at the head of the field during the middle phase.
Shortly after losing the lead the #25 Audi was delayed further by a drive-through penalty for a pit infringement. At this point the race had been green for almost three hours, but the calm early stages gave way to a frantic second half in which several safety car periods shuffled the order and allowed for a variety of strategic options.
Several cars remained in play as the race moved towards the deciding two hours. AF Corse’s #71 Ferrari appeared the strongest prospect after its #51 488 GT3 had lost significant time to a stop-go penalty following a collision with the GT4 class leader. Lamborghini was making good progress thanks to K-PAX Racing's #3 crew, while Audi and Mercedes-AMG both had two potential winners.
The latter led the field to the green flag with 90 minutes left on the clock, Raffaele Marciello having cycled to the front thanks to a clean run from the #89 AKKA ASP effort. But once racing resumed the Italian was quickly under pressure from Niederhauser, who got a run when Marciello dipped a wheel on to the grass between Turns 6 and 7. The pair went side by side, allowing Callum Ilott to pounce in the #71 Ferrari and sensationally snatch the lead.
Niederhauser followed the Briton through and spent the next 30 minutes glued to the rear of the leading 488 GT3. As the race ticked into its final hour these two cars looked set to battle for victory, with Marciello and the #32 Team WRT Audi of Dries Vanthoor disputing the final podium spot several seconds back.
Saintéloc was the first of the lead pair to make its final stop, bringing Niederhauser to pit road with 50 minutes remaining. At the same time Ilott was lapping a GT4 runner on the outside of Turn 1, only to misjudge his move and make contact with both the car and the wall. The outcome was catastrophic for the Italian squad: less than an hour from the finish, the #71 car was eliminated on the spot.
By stopping under safety car conditions Vanthoor was able to assume the lead, while Jules Gounon moved into second at the wheel of the #99 Craft-Bamboo Racing Mercedes-AMG. But the French driver's race was ruined within moments of the green flag when he was hit at Turn 1 by the lapped #37 Team WRT Audi, after which he made heavy contact with the #58 McLaren.
Vanthoor held a four-second advantage over Niederhauser following the next safety car, but in yet another twist Team WRT was handed a drive-through for failing to follow Race Control's instructions. Amid this ever-shifting competitive order, the #25 Saintéloc R8 returned to the lead for the first time since the third hour.
There would be no change this time, however, with Niederhauser pulling 11.9 seconds clear of Marciello by the time he took the chequered flag. The win represents a second major international triumph for the Saintéloc squad, adding to its overall victory at Spa in 2017. On that occasion, too, long-serving Audi Sport racers Haase and Winkelhock were part of the crew. The latter was not there to celebrate with his team today, however, having departed IMS early to attend the birth of his child. It was therefore left to Haase and star-of-the-race Niederhauser to mark their triumph by kissing the yard of bricks.
Runner-up spot was a remarkable outcome for AKKA ASP given that the team did not receive its car until Saturday morning due to a shipping delay. Indeed, the result was a fitting reward for the efforts of Marciello, Dani Juncadella and Timur Boguslavskiy. The final spot on the podium went to the K-PAX Racing Lamborghini, which overcame a pace deficit with a near perfect race performance from Mirko Bortolotti, Andrea Caldarelli and Jordan Pepper.
There was, initially, double delight for Saintéloc as its #26 crew of Aurélien Panis, Lucas Légeret and Nicolas Baert clinched the Silver Cup win in fourth overall. However, a 53s post-race penalty in lieu of a drive-through for entering a closed pitlane dropped the car to seventh overall and behind class rivals Compass Racing who looked to have been denied Silver glory in the final hour when Pier Guidi sent Matt McMurry spinning out of third overall.
Saintéloc’s loss was also AF Corse’s gain, the #51 car ultimately being classified fourth overall ahead of WRT’s similarly penalised R8. The amended result, allied to AF Corse's Am entry finishing ninth amongst IGTC's nominees, means Ferrari must finish first and fourth at Kyalami 9 Hour to have any chance of denying Audi the title.
Compass’ Honda was also the first non-IGTC entry home in sixth overall, while Saintéloc and Racers Edge completed the amended Silver podium and overall top-eight.
Victory in the Pro-Am class went to SunEnergy1 Racing and its #75 Mercedes-AMG of Kenny Habul, Martin Konrad and Mikaël Grenier, while Pro-Am Challenge contender inception racing saw the chequered flag despite a tough day for its McLaren. The #36 BimmerWorld BMW crew of Bill Auberlen, Chandler Hull and James Clay won the GT4 class, matching the result they took at Indy 12 months ago.
Audi's advantage at the top of the Intercontinental GT Challenge Powered by Pirelli manufacturers' standings has increased to 36 points over Ferrari with 43 left to score at the season-closing Kyalami 9 Hour on December 2-4.