Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup decider turns out to be a thriller

© DR

– Final race of the season won by Grasser Racing Lamborghini of Bortolotti, Ineichen and Engelhart

– Garage 59 McLaren-drivers Bell, Ledogar and Van Gisbergen crowned 2016 Endurance Cup winners

– Kessel Racing drivers Broniszewski, Bonacini and Rizzoli win Pro-Am Drivers Endurance Cup

– Talbot, Zanuttini and Gitlin complete Kessel Racing success by taking the Am Drivers crown in the Endurance Cup

– Garage 59 take the Teams’ Endurance Cup, with Kessel Racing taking the crown in the Pro-Am and Am Cups
 
The outcome of the 2016 Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup was only decided on the final lap of the final race at the Nürburgring. In the absence of Shane Van Gisbergen, Rob Bell and Côme Ledogar came to the Nürburgring as the leaders in the standings, but the duo, joined by Duncan Tappy for the occasion, had a horrible weekend. Qualifying did not go their way, and the #58 Garage 59 McLaren had to start from 21st. Rob Bell managed to climb up the order, but when he missed a braking point and made contact with another car, he was penalised with a drive-through. The McLaren dropped some places, but the possibility to finish in the points had not completely gone… until Tappy was hit from behind and had to limp back to the pitlane with a puncture. Taking the wheel when the car was outside the top-30, Côme Ledogar could only pray that their competitors did not manage to close the gap in the cup standings.

When the Frenchman took the wheel of the McLaren, he and Bell and the absent Van Gisbergen were still leading the virtual standings, thanks to a series of unpredictable events. At a certain point during the three-hour race, only one of the four title contenders was in the points.

The #99 ROWE Racing BMW of Eng and Sims, joined by Nick Catsburg this weekend, was never able to make among the frontrunners this weekend, finishing in a lowly tenth. During the first stint it looked as if the #8 Bentley Team M-Sport Continental of Soucek, Reip and Soulet would form a dangerous threat for the McLaren drivers, but trouble during the first pit stop – one of the wheels got stuck and only three tyres were changed, meaning that it did not count as a mandatory stop, and forcing the team to make an additional stop.

That left one car in the way of the McLaren’s glory, namely the #84 AMG-Team HTP Motorsport Mercedes of Buhk, Baumann and Jaafar, but they had to finish on the podium to close the 15-point gap that separated them from the McLaren-drivers. The trio gave it their all, but had to settle for fourth, one place short of a Cup-winning position.

This did not mean that the McLaren’s worries were over. For at the front, two drivers were at it hammer and tongs, trying to claim their first endurance win of the season. For one of them, Christian Engelhart, it would be even his first win in the Blancpain GT Series, for the German made his Series debut at the Nürburgring. After a Safety Car intervention some 40 minutes from the end of the race, Engelhart had none other than Laurens Vanthoor under the back wing of his #16 Grasser Racing Team Lamborghini. The 2014 Blancpain Endurance champion did his utmost to try and pass the green Lambo, because a win would give his Belgian Audi Club Team WRT the teams’ crown. A contact – and possible damage to one of the cars – could promote the Mercedes of Buhk, Baumann and Jaafar to the necessary third place.
But both Engelhart and Vanthoor showed that GT racing on the edge can be fair, even if the stakes are high. Engelhart kept the Audi R8 behind, sharing Grasser Racing Team’s first win of 2016 with his teammates Mirko Bortolotti and Rolf Ineichen, who had set faultless and quick opening stints.
Vanthoor had to settle for second, and that was also the position of the Belgian Audi Club Team WRT in the teams standings, where the squad ended up with 71 points, the exact same number as Bentley Team M-Sport (for which the #7 Continental finished in ninth after starting from the pitlane) and Garage 59 McLaren. But because the McLaren squad has won two races this year, they can claim the biggest cup.

Obviously, the most attention went to the winners of the Drivers Endurance Cup. Côme Ledogar burst into tears when he was radioed the good news, Rob Bell celebrated with the whole of the Garage 59 crew in the box and Shane Van Gisbergen, racing in Australia this weekend and watching the Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup on the livestream, could stop chewing his fingernails and enjoy a well-deserved title. Garage 59 team manager Bas Leinders is the first team manager in the Blancpain GT Series history to claim the overall Endurance Cup with two different teams, having won it with the Marc VDS Racing team in 2013.

In the Pro-Am Cup and the Am Cup, things were much more straightforward, although the leaders in the standings went through some difficult moments as well. #11 Kessel Racing Ferrari drivers Michal Broniszewski, Alessandro Bonacini and Andrea Rizzoli looked set to claim the Pro-Am Cup, up until a Full Course Yellow-period at the end of the second hour played into the hands of their sole rivals, #74 ISR Audi drivers Giauque, Hassid and Perera. Rizzoli was quick to catch and pass the Audi however, keeping the Pro-Am Cups (both Teams’ and Drivers’) inside the Kessel Racing camp. Winning at the Nürburgring proved to be impossible though, because the #66 Black Pearl Racing Ferrari of Daniel Keilwitz and Alexander Matschull proved to be unbeatable. Matschull brought the immense challenge of doing a double stint to a good end and even claimed fifth overall in the end.

In the Am Cup Liam Talbot, Marco Zanuttini and Vadim Gitlin had enough with the points from seventh to claim the Am Cup, but with the trio of AKKA ASP drivers Beaubelique, Ricci and Vannelet dominating the race in the category they could not afford to make any mistakes. And while the French Mercedes-trio drove to a much deserved win – continuing their streak of podium finishes – the Kessel Racing drivers kept their head cool and crossed the line in sixth. After winning the category in the Le Castellet race and the Total 24 Hours of Spa, it was an excellent way to finish an excellent season.

Rob Bell (#58 Garage 59 McLaren): “I still can’t believe that we are the champions, certainly not after the way things went today. I have to thank the whole of the team, they worked very hard this season. I still can’t believe I made a small error, and I have to admit that at that point I thought it was all over. But somebody once said to me that sometimes you have to win ugly, and we won ugly today.

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