The 2020 GT World Challenge Europe Powered by AWS season got underway on Sunday with a hugely competitive 46-car grid going wheel-to-wheel at Imola.
Sweltering temperatures added to the challenge faced by drivers, but the #31 Belgian Audi Club Team WRT crew of Mirko Bortolotti, Kelvin van der Linde and Matthieu Vaxiviere remained cool, calm and collected throughout. The trio delivered a faultless performance to capture overall victory in what was their first race together – and the first in Audi equipment for both Bortolotti and Vaxiviere.
Following an extended off-season, there was plenty to discuss about the opening event. Here are some of the key stories that emerged from a busy weekend in Italy.
Imola became the ninth circuit to host the Endurance Cup and met with significant approval from the drivers, who enjoyed the challenge of the unforgiving Italian venue. It kicked off the 10th season for the Endurance format and brings the total number of races staged to 47.
The event represented the return of international GT racing to the 4.9km track, which previously hosted the FIA GT Championship in 2004 and 2005. There were two drivers on this year’s entry list who also competed in those events: Chris Goodwin drove an RML-run Saleen in 2004, while Andrea Bertolini contested both at the wheel of a Maserati MC12.
Victory for WRT’s Audi R8 LMS ended a run of more than two years without an Endurance Cup win for both the team and the German brand. Their previous triumph also happened on Italian soil, with the #1 WRT Audi taking top spot at Monza in 2018. Each race since has been won by a different team.
The victory also allowed Audi to draw level with BMW as the most successful brand in Endurance Cup history. Both now have eight overall wins, followed by McLaren on six and Mercedes-AMG on five.
Sunday’s race saw an Audi start from pole for the first time since the final round of the 2017 season thanks to the #66 Attempto Racing crew of Frederic Vervisch, Mattia Drudi and Kim-Luis Schramm. This also represented a maiden overall pole for the German team and all three drivers.
Mirko Bortolotti made a dream start to life as an Audi driver by taking his fourth Endurance win on home turf. He is now one of three drivers to have scored four overall victories in the series and is two shy of equalling Maxime Martin’s record of six.
Matthieu Vaxiviere took his second series win, having previously triumphed at Silverstone in 2018 for the R-Motorsport Aston Martin squad. Kelvin van der Linde scored his first Endurance Cup victory on Sunday afternoon.
Van der Linde’s performance was the most eye-catching of the race as he passed Louis Deletraz on lap 25, Timur Timur Boguslavskiy on lap 28, Sergey Sirotkin on lap 31 and Nicklas Nielsen on lap 33 to assume the lead. The South African subsequently built a gap of 20 seconds at the head of the field.
There were four first-timers on the overall podium on Sunday afternoon: Matt Campbell and Mathieu Jaminet in the second-placed #12 GPX Porsche, and Felipe Fraga and Timur Boguslavskiy in the #88 AKKA ASP Mercedes-AMG which finished third. Notably, Campbell became the first Australian driver to stand on the overall Endurance Cup podium.
SRO E-Sports GT Series Pro champion Louis Deletraz made his series debut at Imola, finishing a strong ninth overall as part of the #40 GPX Racing Porsche crew. The Swiss youngster is in the midst of a hectic schedule: he ran three successive FIA Formula 2 races prior to this weekend’s contest and will now undertake three more without a break. He is likely to be back in the GPX car later this season.
Optimum Motorsport made a fine start to its GT World Challenge Europe Powered by AWS programme by taking eighth overall. The car made consistent progress throughout the race and began the final hour in 11th spot, after which 2016 Endurance Cup champion Rob Bell picked up three more positions. The Optimum car was there best-placed newcomer in the field, while Julien Andlauer (#99 ROWE Porsche) was the top rookie driver in sixth.
A post-race penalty for the #163 Emil Frey Racing Lamborghini saw the #54 Dinamic Motorsport Porsche promoted to 10th place, earning the Italian squad a point at its home event. This also ensured that all four of Porsche’s full-pro crews were among the top-10 at Imola.
American squad K-Pax Racing also debuted at Imola and showed strong pace throughout the weekend. Its #3 Bentley qualified eighth, but a technical problem at the start dashed all hope of a top-10 finish. The sister #9 machine was also quick and rose to seventh in the final stint, when Alvaro Parente made contact with another impressive newcomer, the #100 GetSpeed Mercedes-AMG. The latter was left in the gravel, while the #9 Bentley was penalised for the incident.
Reigning champions Orange1 FFF Racing were notably absent from the lead battle. The #63 Lamborghini qualified 19th and ran as high as 11th before problems forced it out, making Imola the first Endurance Cup race in which the team has not scored points.
Barwell Motorsport scored yet another class race victory thanks to its new Silver Cup crew of Patrick Kujala, Alex MacDowall and Frederik Schandorff. The Lamborghini squad has won 10 races since the start of the 2018 season: four in the Am Cup and three each in Pro-Am and Silver. Kujala has won races for Barwell in all three classes and was among the fastest Silver drivers throughout the weekend.
Garage 59 made a fine start to its new Pro-Am programme by taking a commanding victory at Imola. Alexander West, Chris Goodwin and Jonny Adam came home 14th overall, on the lead lap and just one place behind the Silver Cup winner. This represents the fourth class win in 11 races for the #188 machine, which spent the previous two seasons competing in Am Cup. Adam, meanwhile, scored his first Endurance Cup win since Monza in 2017.
Most of the 46-car field ran new liveries at the season opening race. Among them, the #74 RAM Racing Mercedes-AMG attracted particular attention thanks to its multi-colour paint scheme, which was designed by the Czech artist Michal Skapa.
The fastest driver in qualifying was Frederic Vervisch in the #66 Attempto Audi, who posted a 1m41.213s lap to secure pole for his crew. The Belgian ace narrowly beat Jules Gounon (#3 K-Pax Bentley) who was just 0.018s shy of the absolute best. Vervisch also set the fastest racing lap – a 1m42.420s – while running in clean air during the opening stint.
The quickest Silver Cup qualifier was Thomas Neubauer, who posted a 1m41.631s lap. In Pro-Am, Jonny Adam was the pace setter (1m41.837s) while the best lap by a bronze-graded driver was set by Clement Seyler in the #26 Sainteloc Audi (1m42.855s).
A total of 28 teams were present at Imola, 10 of which were not on the grid in 2019. Four were in the Mercedes-AMG camp: Haupt Racing, GetSpeed Performance, Madpanda Motorsport and SPS Automotive. Bentley added CMR and K-Pax Racing, Lamborghini was represented by Emil Frey Racing and one-off entrant Imperiale Racing, while Optimum Motorsport and 59Racing debuted with McLaren machinery.
Looking at the drivers, there were 26 different nationalities on the grid at Imola. France was the best-represented with 23, closely followed by the UK (22) and Germany (20). There were 18 Italians entered for their home event, two of whom (Mirko Bortolotti and Raffaele Marciello) finished on the overall podium.
The 2020 GT World Challenge Europe Powered by AWS campaign continues next weekend at Misano (7-9 August). The Italian track will stage the opening Sprint Cup event of 2020, with a trio of one-hour races set to kick off the short-format championship. The next Endurance Cup round will be a six-hour contest at the Nurburgring on 5-6 September.