Frijns and Leonard give Audi first win of 2017 in hectic qualifying race

3 June 2017 Frijns and Leonard give Audi first win of 2017 in hectic qualifying race
The qualifying race for the Zolder round of the Blancpain GT Series, probably the closest race of the season thus far, was won by the #17 Team WRT Audi of Robin Frijns and Stuart Leonard. The latter held off several other drivers through the second half of the race, crossing the line with a mere 0.8 of a second in hand. The #90 AKKA ASP Mercedes-AMG of Marciello and Meadows finished in second, with the #2 Belgian Audi Club Team WRT R8 of Will Stevens and Markus Winkelhock completing the podium. The top five were separated by under three seconds.

Silver Cup honours went to the #42 Strakka Motorsport McLaren of Lewis Williamson and David Fumanelli, with Piti Bhirombhakdi and Carlo Van Dam taking their first win in Pro-Am Cup at the wheel of the #39 Kessel Racing TP12 Ferrari.

The qualifying race in Zolder was held in excellent and sunny conditions, despite a heavy shower at lunchtime. Plenty of spectators were eager to see the best GT3 drivers in the world in action. Among them was McLaren-Honda F1-driver Stoffel Vandoorne, happy to support the Strakka Racing McLaren GT3-team.

When polesitter Robin Frijns led the pack away at the start, some of the drivers behind him made a great getaway, immediately gaining some positions. Championship leader Mirko Bortolotti was one of them, getting in between the #90 AKKA ASP Mercedes-AMG of Raffaele Marciello and the #74 ISR Audi of Frank Stippler. But with the #43 Strakka Racing McLaren of Come Ledogar passing the Audi on the right hand side, contact was inevitable. Both Ledogar and Bortolotti had to retire.

After a safety car intervention, polesitter Frijns was able to increase his lead to two seconds. Meanwhile, Frank Stippler and McLaren driver Andrew Watson, second at that point of the race, were given a drive-through penalty for being out of position at the start.

Frijns led Marciello when the pit window opened, and after the mandatory driver change, the #17 Team WRT Audi was still in front, now with Stuart Leonard at the wheel. Behind him was his 2016 co-driver Michael Meadows, now driving an AKKA ASP Mercedes-AMG. Meadows had his work cut out in trying to defend that runners-up spot from Franck Perera (#85 HTP Motorsport Mercedes-AMG, who started from 10th) and Markus Winkelhock (#2 Belgian Audi Club Team WRT R8).

The chasing pack managed to close the gap behind Leonard, but Perera dropped back after he was given a drive-through penalty after a pitstop infringement. That gave Markus Winkelhock the opportunity to take third, with Clemens Schmid (#74 ISR Audi) and Felix Serralles (#88 AKKA ASP Mercedes-AMG) right behind him. But although the top five cars were never more than three seconds apart, the running order did not changed and Stuart Leonard and Robin Frijns claimed their first win together, which was also the first for Team WRT this season.

In the Pro-Am Cup, polesitter Carlo Van Dam kept the lead throughout the first part of the race, but right after the driver change there was contact between his #39 Kessel Racing TP12 Ferrari and one of the Bentleys, reducing codriver Piti Bhirombhakdi’s lead. Some fifteen minutes from the end Alexander Mattschull managed to overtake the Thai driver, at the outside of the Kanaalbocht. Bhirombhakdi had set his eyes on win however, and in the penultimate lap he managed to reclaim the lead by outbreaking Mattschull at the hairpin.

The race in Silver Cup was dominated by the #42 Strakka Motorsport McLaren of Lewis Williamson and David Fumanelli, which also claimed 11th overall. Second in Silver Cup, and 17th overall, were Jules Szymkowiak and Fabian Schiller (#85 HTP Motorsport Mercedes-AMG), who had started the qualifying from 33rd and last position. The sole Am Cup entry, the #888 Kessel Racing Ferrari driven by Stephen Earle and David Perel, finished 30th overall.

Tomorrow’s main race starts at 15.30 CEST, and will be streamed live on www.blancpain-gt-series.com.

Stuart Leonard (#17 Team WRT Audi, 1st): “This is definitely one of the nicest wins of my career. I was constantly aware that there were cars behind me, but I knew that if I did not make any mistakes and got the exits of the corners right, it would be difficult for the guys behind me to pass me.”

Michael Meadows (#90 AKKA ASP Mercedes-AMG, 2nd): “We are happy to be able to start the main race from the front row. That was our main target for this race. I did not want to attack Stuart too much, and risk that he would start defending and push me back into the chasing pack.”

Will Stevens (#2 Belgian Audi Club Team WRT R8, 3rd): “Some fifty metres before the accident at the start happened, I knew there would be trouble. I braked a bit early to avoid the mayhem and that paid off. A great pitstop by the boys helped us climb further up the order.

Mirko Bortolotti (#63 Grasser Racing Team Lamborghini): “I don’t know what happened in thstart. I had a great getaway, dived into a gap and was alongside the Mercedes. I kept my steering wheel straight, and then I was hit from the right, which sent me into the wall. This is not the way I want to race.”

David Fumanelli (#42 Strakka Motorsport McLaren, 1st Silver Cup): “The McLaren is quite competitive here in Zolder. We are now just outside the top-10 overall, maybe we can gain some postions tomorrow and score some overall points as well. It would be a great reward for the team.”

Carlo Van Dam (#39 Kessel Racing TP12 Ferrari): “We are really happy with the progress we made over the last couple of weeks. We are new to racing in Europe and when we got some second place finishes, that was a great boost. When Piti told me that we were going to win in Zolder, I felt he was completely ‘switched on’ and this is the result.”

Stephen Earle (#888 Kessel Racing Ferrari, 1st Am Cup): “Zolder is a bit like me: old school. Overtaking is not easy here, you have to have a bit of cooperation from the other drivers, but I really enjoyed myself today.”