A new era began at Brands Hatch last weekend (4/5 May) as Blancpain GT World Challenge Europe staged its opening event at the British venue.
It proved to be a highly entertaining contest as mixed weather conditions on Saturday made qualifying a major challenge for competitors, while a hectic Sunday saw two fast-paced races play out on the 3.9km circuit.
Each produced plenty of excitement, with a surprise winner in the opening encounter and an all-action second run ensuring a fantastic season-opening spectacle. Here are the key stories and statistics to emerge from the Brands Hatch weekend.
ace 1 saw Thomas Neubauer and Nico Bastian triumph in their #89 AKKA ASP Mercedes-AMG entry, which represented the first overall victory for a Silver Cup entrant in Blancpain GT Series history. It follows directly from the 2018 season-ending Sprint Cup race at the Nürburgring, which saw the Silver pairing of Luca Stolz (since upgraded to Gold) and Hubert Haupt finish second overall in their Black Falcon Mercedes-AMG.
19-year-old Neubauer joins Dries Vanthoor in becoming a teenage race-winner in the Blancpain GT Series. Vanthoor achieved the feat at the Hungaroring in 2017, driving for Belgian Audi Club Team WRT, and remains the youngest winner in series history. Paris-born Neubauer will turn 20 in June.
Prior to the Brands Hatch weekend, Neubauer’s experience in GT cars was extremely limited. The Frenchman contested a handful of Ferrari Challenge Europe races earlier in the year, but the bulk of his short career has been spent in Formula Renault machinery.
In contrast, teammate Nico Bastian is a GT veteran. The 29-year-old became an overall Blancpain GT Series race-winner on Sunday, seven years after making his debut and following multiple Silver class wins. It has been a superb start to the season for the AKKA ASP Team driver: he has claimed Silver Cup honours in all three races this season and sits second in the overall Blancpain GT Series standings.
The Black Falcon squad enjoyed an excellent start to its full-time participation in the series with a pole position, runner-up in race 1 and victory in race 2. The German squad is the reigning Endurance Cup champion and contested two Sprint Cup events last term before committing to a full Blancpain GT World Challenge assault in 2019.
Brands Hatch represented the first time that Raffaele Marciello did not achieve a podium during a sprint-format weekend since the final round of the 2017 season. The Italian ace and his AKKA ASP teammate Vincent Abril were fourth in the opening run and looked set for a runner-up finish in race 2 until a clutch problem forced their Mercedes-AMG out of contention.
This was the first time since 2014 that Belgian Audi Club Team WRT did not achieve a podium finish at Brands Hatch. The squad’s best results of a challenging weekend were a pair of sixth-place finishes. The #17 Audi R8 LMS of Shae Davies and Tom Gamble achieved this in the opening race and were matched by the #2 of Chris Mies and Charles Weerts in the second run.
Despite not taking a headline result, WRT remained fast on multiple fronts. The best race lap of the weekend was set by Dries Vanthoor, who registered a 1m23.950s in his #1 Audi R8 LMS, while the #2 crew won the Pit Stop Challenge for the quickest stop of the weekend.
Audi’s best results at Brands Hatch came courtesy of Attempto Racing. The #55 machine of Nick Foster and Steijn Schothorst bagged a podium in race 2, making up for a lap 1 accident in the opening contest. The sister #66 car of Kelvin van der Linde and Clemens Schmid took fifth in the opening run and concluded the second race in P4, which leaves them third in the drivers’ standings.
In stark contrast, Sainteloc Racing endured a luckless weekend. The French squad lost its #24 Audi R8 LMS of Stephane Ortelli and Nyls Stievenart to a qualifying accident, while the #26 machine of Markus Winkelhock and Steven Palette suffered a brace of retirements. The #25 crew of Christopher Hasse and Simon Gachet was a victim of the multi-car crash during race 2, but the crew did well to salvage a seventh-place finish and end the weekend on a positive note.
There was even less fortune for AF Corse as the #52 Ferrari 488 of Louis Machiels and Andrea Bertolini registered a pair of DNFs. Machiels slid into the gravel during the opening stint of race 1, while Bertolini was unfortunate to be eliminated by the multi-car crash in race 2. The same car also sustained heavy damage after being taken out of the season-opening Endurance Cup race at Monza.
The race 2 crash, combined with a qualifying order affected by Saturday’s rain, allowed for some strong comeback drives. Notably, the #6 WRT Audi of Mies and Weerts took sixth at the flag despite starting from 23rd on the grid. There was also a strong recovery by the #63 Grasser Racing Lamborghini, which rose from 25th at the start to take the final point in 10th– despite also becoming involved in the multi-car incident along the way.
As the second race concluded, it seemed certain that the #87 AKKA ASP Mercedes-AMG was headed for Pro-Am victory. But, in the most dramatic class battle of the weekend, the #519 Orange1 FFF Racing Lamborghini Huracan swept past on the run to the chequered flag, securing the win by just 0.025s. This represented an excellent showing by local ace Phil Keen and reigning Blancpain GT Series Asia Pro-Am champion Hiroshi Hamaguchi. The Japanese ace was making his first appearance at Brands Hatch and found the sweet spot during race 2, allowing him to reel in and pass Jean-Luc Beaubelique in the #87 Mercedes-AMG.
The #4 Black Falcon Mercedes-AMG crew of Stolz and Engel have established an early lead in Blancpain GT World Challenge Europe, registering an excellent 29.5 points to place them 11 clear of Bastian and Neubauer after the opening event.
The same two drivers also lead the overall series standings on 44.5 points, ahead of Silver Cup standout Bastian on 30.5. Reigning overall champion Marciello has work to do: the Italian sits 17th in the overall standings after the opening two rounds.
In the global Blancpain GT World Challenge, Mercedes-AMG has extended its advantage over rival Ferrari. The German marque saw its nominated drivers secure excellent results at Brands Hatch, with Neubauer and Stolz taking overall wins and Marciello and Beaubelique also showing strongly at times.
Mercedes-AMG now has 3,670 points to Ferrari’s 2,122 after a mixed weekend for the Italian marque, particularly its AF Corse duo of Bertolini and Machiels. There was more joy for Ferrari’s other nominated drivers, Rinat Salikhov and David Perel, who bagged Pro-Am victory in race 1.
The next Blancpain GT World Challenge event will see the Asian series resume this weekend at Buriram in Thailand. The European championship will be back in action at Misano, which hosts the season’s second double-header race on 29–30 June.
As for the Blancpain GT Series, a quick turnaround will be required as the Endurance Cup stages its second round of 2019 this weekend at Silverstone (11/12 May). Fortunately, competitors don’t have far to travel as they get set to contest their second British event in the space of a seven days.