Even though their #8 Bentley Team M-Sport Continental was only ninth on the starting grid, Andy Soucek and Maxime Soulet managed to take the win in the Qualifying Race at Misano, their debut event in the Blancpain GT Series Sprint Cup. In second were Alexander Sims and Philipp Eng, whose #99 Rowe Racing BMW was even further down the grid: they had to start from 30th. Mixed conditions and a Full Course Yellow during the pitstop window meant that polesitters Laurens Vanthoor and Frederic Vervisch had to settle for third.
With the asphalt on the Misano World Circuit being wet at the start of the Qualifying Race, tyre choice proved to be crucial for the first of two races at the opening event of the 2016 Blancpain GT Series. While most of the frontrunners played it safe and fitted rain tyres to their cars, further down the grid some drivers gambled by opting for slicks.
Based on the race’s opening laps that looked like the wrong decision, for some drivers lost 10 positions or more. But, with nearly 40 cars on track, a dry line quickly formed and allowed those on slicks to make progress again.
The drying circuit also forced cars on rain tyres to pit early. Among the first to do so was Laurens Vanthoor, comfortably leading the race in the #1 Belgian Audi Club Team WRT R8. The Belgian polesitter had taken the hole shot, managed to create a seven second gap, and even though Maxi Buhk in the #84 HTP Motorsport Mercedes-AMG reduced his deficit by a couple of seconds at the end of his opening stint, Frederic Vervisch remained the virtual leader after the driver change with the older of the Vanthoor brothers.
However, a couple of minutes before the end of the pitstop window, a Full Course Yellow was called by the race director, to remove debris on the track. That played into the hands of the drivers who had started on slicks and were yet to pit. Thus Maxime Soulet (#8 Bentley Team M-Sport Continental) and Philipp Eng (#99 Rowe Racing BMW) found themselves occupying the top-two positions after their respective pitstops. Vervisch was still in third but, after being informed he was some 30 seconds behind the leaders, decided to settle for the lowest of podium finishes.
At the front Eng made Soulet’s life very difficult, but the Belgian put some air between himself and the Austrian by swiftly lapping the backmarkers. He eventually crossed the line with almost three seconds in hand. For Bentley Team M-Sport, making their debut in the Blancpain GT Series Sprint Cup, it was the best possible way to start the 2016 season.
Obviously, the fight for the class wins was heavily influenced by the changing conditions as well. Giacomo Piccini, aboard the #11 Kessel Racing Ferrari polesitter in the Pro-Am Cup, had a difficult start to the race and lost the class lead to Maxime Martin in the #12 Boutsen Ginion BMW. The Belgian gained more than 10 positions in the opening laps and was running inside the top-15 overall when contact with a Lamborghini dropped him down the order. Piccini managed to claw his way back to the top and a faultless drive by team-mate Michal Broniszewski meant the Kessel Racing duo could claim the top step of the Pro-Am podium.
In Silver Cup drivers Luca Stolz and GT rookie Michele Beretta crossed the line in first. Despite their #19 Grasser Racing Team Lamborghini starting only 32nd, they managed to finish 16th overall as well. The other positions in the Silver Cup were decided in the final corner when both Ricardo Sanchez (#22 Nissan GT Academy Team RJN GT-R) and Nicolaj Moller Madsen (#5 Phoenix Racing Audi) spun off. Indeed, the Dane was fortunate enough to secure second while pirouetting across the start/finish line! Max Van Splunteren in the #100 Attempto Racing Lamborghini took advantage of the incident to pass Sanchez and claim third.
Fastest Am Cup qualifier, the #55 AF Corse Ferrari of Stéphane Lémeret and Claudio Sdanewitsch, had to start the race from pitlane after an engine change. But despite the Belgian-German pairing regaining some of the lost places, they couldn’t deny Black Pearl Racing Ferrari pirates Steve Parrow and Christian Hook from securing class victory.
Sunday’s Main Race, the first of the 2016 season, will start at 14.15 local time and be streamed live on the official website: www.blancpain-gt-series.com.
NB: The #8 Bentley Team M-Sport Continental incurred a post-race penalty for a pitstop infringement. Since they did not gain a sporting advantage, the stewards of the meeting imposed a 1000 euro fine.
Andy Soucek (#8 Bentley Team M-Sport Continental): “Ordinarily our car isn’t great in the slippery conditions, so we had to gamble a bit. But we were also starting in the top-10 so it wasn’t easy. We knew most of the other guys were on wets so the plan was to take slicks and play the long game, but after two laps I radioed in to say we were losing too much time. Of course it ended up drying out and look where we ended up! I really want to thank M-Sport who have been working so hard and deserve this victory as much as ourselves and Bentley. It allowed us to really demonstrate the car’s pace as the track dried.
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