Andy Soucek will return to familiar surroundings when he contests this weekend’s Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup finale at Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya.
Firstly, this is very much a home race for the Spanish driver. A native of Madrid, Soucek has lived in Barcelona for the past three years and competed at the local track since his earliest days in single-seaters.
What’s more, the Endurance Cup has become a kind of second home for the Bentley Team M-Sport ace. Since making his debut at the final round of the 2012 season he has not missed a single event and accumulated 36 consecutive participations, more than any other driver on the grid.
Indeed, he has become one of the series’ best-known drivers and a firmly established member of Bentley’s global GT3 programme. The current season is his fifth as a Bentley Boy and has seen Soucek competing across Europe, the United States and beyond.
With this in mind, a race at his hometown circuit should be a welcome change. Nevertheless, it promises to be a particularly busy weekend for the local favourite.
Like father, like son
Soucek inherited a love of racing from his father. « He did some touring cars, some single-seaters, some rallying. He was pretty good, according to the people that I’ve asked and from looking at his results, » Soucek says of his dad. This led to an early start in racing – but not on four wheels.
« I had a pocket bike, the kind you start with at three or four years old, » he recalls. « We’d go to the race track every weekend and I was obsessed with it. One day I had a crash and I said to my dad that maybe this was not such a good idea! We went to repair the bike at the local go-kart track and my father met an old friend who used to be his teammate. This guy said: ‘Forget about bikes, it’s way too dangerous. Let him try my son’s go-kart.' »
Once in the seat Soucek « never wanted to get out » and, after the pocket bike had been sold, he eventually had a kart of his own. While it wasn’t exactly brand new, he remembers it fondly: « For me, » says Soucek, « it was like a Bentley! »
He would subsequently move through the regional, domestic and European karting ranks. In 2001, still just 15 years old, Soucek made the step up to formula cars, making him one of the youngest drivers of his generation to graduate to single-seaters. The idea came from his father and Soucek now believes that it gave him a valuable early education.
His first major success came with a domestic F3 title in 2005, which led to a Formula 1 test with Toyota. He impressed in Formula Renault 3.5 and scored podiums in GP2, before taking a gamble on FIA Formula 2. This championship did not feature teams, with each car run by the series to ensure equal equipment. As one of the more experienced competitors on the grid, Soucek was under pressure to perform.
« I think it was a fair way of running the championship, with the driver making the difference, » he says. « I wanted to show people that in equal circumstances I was the best. I felt I was ready for that, but it was a big risk because I had to win and you never know what can happen in racing. »
He delivered in dominant fashion, securing seven victories to end the season with almost double the points of his closest rivals. The significance of this achievement is underlined by the three drivers who finished immediately behind him in the standings: future DTM and IndyCar ace Robert Wickens was runner-up, with current Blancpain GT Series stars Mikhail Aleshin and Mirko Bortolotti taking third and fourth respectively.
Soucek showed well in a test with the Williams F1 squad and came close to earning a shot in grand prix racing, but this ultimately did not come to pass and a frustrating year as a reserve driver followed. « Funnily enough, when I reached F1 I just ran out of options, » he says. Indeed, it would take a little more time before he eventually found his new home.
A fresh opportunity in GT racing
In 2012 the Blancpain Endurance Series was in only its second season, but growing quickly. Soucek was among the first well-established single-seater drivers to try their hand in the championship, a move that has since become the norm.
« There were a lot of cars on the grid and a lot of manufacturers involved, so I decided to see if I liked it, » he recalls. This led to a one-off deal to drive a McLaren run by the Boutsen Ginion squad in the season-ending race at Navarra.
« I remember a lot of water! » he says of his debut, which was hit by a torrential downpour during the final hour. « It wasn’t an easy race, but I was very impressed with the level of the drivers, and also the amount of cars on the grid. I was used to seeing 22 cars on a single-seater grid and all of a sudden there were more than 40.
« I felt, for some reason, that this was my future, » he continues. « I was immediately engaged with the series, with the organisers, so it was all quite natural. » Soucek would spend the following two seasons racing a McLaren for ART, taking several podiums and enhancing his reputation as a GT driver.
« The first time you get into a car with a roof above you it’s weird! » he remembers. « The GT car has a lot of weight, a lot of body transfer and movement, but I think that a good driver will be fast in every car. »
For the 2015 season Soucek joined Bentley, which has been his home ever since. He currently competes for the M-Sport squad in the Endurance Cup and Intercontinental GT Challenge powered by Pirelli, as well as for K-PAX in Blancpain GT World Challenge America.
Picking his highlights from the past five seasons, the 2016 and 2017 campaigns stand out. In 2016 the crew of Soucek, Wolfgang Reip and Maxime Soulet finished third in the standings, which could have been even better had they not been hit by problems while out front at Circuit Paul Ricard and the Total 24 Hours of Spa.
« In a way it was a good year because we finished third in the standings and we were leading the two biggest races. But obviously it was a big disappointment that we didn’t finish those races where we should have, » he says.
« 2017, with Maxime and Vince Abril, was the year that we really had a chance to win the title. We finished sixth at Monza and fifth at Silverstone, then won at Circuit Paul Ricard and came second at Spa. Normally when you do that you become champion. »
But 2017 was a particularly competitive year, with the Grasser Lamborghini squad having taken two wins to open the campaign. The Bentley crew led ahead of the finale at Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, only to be forced out with a gearbox problem. Grasser finished third to snatch the title by just three points.
Still, it had been a superb season for the Bentley Boys. Indeed, in every other year since 2015, their final total of 79 points would have made them champions.
Soucek is philosophical about missing out on that title, knowing that life is good as a long-term Bentley factory driver. He’s also positive about his experience competing in America, where he shares the #9 K-PAX car with Alvaro Parente.
« I’m enjoying it a lot, » he confirms. « The U.S. is a very different kind of racing from Europe. It’s more relaxed, but it’s not less professional. At the same time there is a really good level of engineers, mechanics and teams. The championship is growing every year and there are some really good cars and drivers. »
This weekend he will be back on home turf, competing in the Endurance finale with Callum Macleod and long-time driving partner Soulet aboard the #108 Continental GT3. The European season has not gone their way, but the chance to race in Spain is something that Soucek relishes.
« I have massive support from everybody, » he says. « The fans have been following my career for many years and I feel very supported when I go to the track. I’ve also got my whole family and a lot of friends coming. I always compare it to a soccer team playing at home: the support of the people gives you an extra boost and makes it more special. »
This weekend will carry even more significance for Soucek thanks to his involvement with Legado Maria de Villota, a movement that continues the late Spanish driver’s legacy. De Villota passed away in 2013, as a consequence of an accident testing a Formula 1 car the previous year.
« After her accident Maria realised that she wanted to help other people, based on her own values, » explains Spucek. « Her family, who are very strong, have decided to carry on that legacy.
« I had the pleasure of sharing the track with Maria and recently I was named ambassador for
the legacy. It’s not a foundation: it’s a movement that helps other charities to raise money for people who really need it. »
This weekend’s events will feature a fundraising dinner on Thursday evening, with attendees including Spanish motor racing stars such as Pol Espargaro, Alex Rins, Carlos Checa and Luis Moya. Soucek’s fellow Bentley Boys will be present, too.
« I’m really thankful to my teammates for joining, » says Soucek. « It’s not a cheap dinner, but when I told them they said they would come and help. I really appreciate that I can count on all my teammates, because it’s a very special event for me.
« What we have achieved is quite impressive, » he continues. « When we started three months ago, we didn’t know how we would be able to do all of this. We’ve been overwhelmed by people and by companies. »
All things considered, it promises to be a busy and emotional homecoming race for Soucek. Seven years on from his series debut at another Spanish circuit, he’ll be hoping to end 2019 with a flourish at Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya.
The weekend will follow the usual schedule for Endurance Cup events. Following paid testing on Friday morning, the first official session will take place later in the day when the 60-minute bronze test begins at 17.00. A 90-minute free practice will follow on Saturday morning at 10.20, with pre-qualifying at 15.05 providing the same amount of track time.
As ever, the main action will be staged during a busy Sunday. Qualifying will go green at 09.30, setting the grid for the afternoon’s deciding three-hour race. Scheduled to get underway at 15.00, this final contest will settle the outcome of the 2019 Blancpain GT Series and Endurance Cup titles. With plenty of silverware still to play for, it promises to be an epic Spanish showdown.