The Blancpain GT Series features a wide variety of drivers from across the globe, each with their own unique story to tell.
Ahead of every round this season we will speak to one of those competitors and shed more light on their life both on and off the circuit. We might discuss their journey up the motorsport ladder, their passions away racing, or the car they push to the limit in pursuit of victory.
First up, we spoke with Stuart Leonard about his rapid rise from amateur racer to Sprint Cup champion.
If you were to select the highlights from the 2017 Blancpain GT Series season, the title-deciding Sprint Cup event at the Nürburgring would be an essential inclusion.
The German circuit played host to a breathless contest in which the recipients of the championship trophy seemed to change with each passing lap. Ultimately, the Audi R8 LMS of Stuart Leonard and Robin Frijns emerged victorious after a thrilling deciding race, with the Team WRT duo keeping their cool amid a frenzy of action.
It was a moment to savour for everyone involved with the triumphant Belgian squad, but for Leonard this success was particularly significant. As his first major honour in the sport, the Sprint Cup triumph capped a remarkable five-year journey from amateur to title-winning professional.
The British racer is back to defend his crown this year, while also competing for the Endurance Cup and overall Blancpain GT Series titles. He will once again pilot an Audi R8 LMS fielded by the highly-accomplished Team WRT, with Frijns joining him for the majority of the rounds and Sheldon van der Linde completing their crew at Endurance events.
Leonard and Frijns have quickly formed a strong alliance since pairing up at the start of the 2017 campaign. They have gone on to win the aforementioned Sprint Cup title and in January 2018 claimed victory at the Liqui Moly Bathurst 12 Hour, the opening round of the Intercontinental GT Challenge. This is a formidable duo, yet their professional backgrounds could not be more different.
Unlike the vast majority of his rivals, Leonard has zero single-seater experience and was in his twenties before he even got started in the sport. As recently as 2012, the Brit was yet to turn a wheel in anger while Frijns was winning a third major junior championship in succession and testing Formula 1 machinery. Had you told Leonard they might one day pair up as equals, he would rightly have dismissed you as crazy.
“I always had an interest in motorsport,” Leonard explains, “and when I was very young I used to bug my dad to take me to Thruxton to race on the little corporate karts. But, because of the money involved, I wasn’t able to do anything properly until 2012.”
That year would prove pivotal as it saw Leonard cut his teeth in Caterham’s Tracksport series. Despite competing against drivers with considerably more experience he was quickly running at the front, though any hope of climbing the ladder still seemed far-fetched.
But after taking third in the championship in 2013 – his first full year of motorsport – he began a rapid ascent. In 2014 Leonard threw himself in at the deep end by contesting the Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup, spending two years competing in the Pro-Am ranks aboard an Aston Martin.
“Where I suffered a little bit was technically,” says Leonard. “I had no idea about setup – I was just turning up and driving, having fun. That’s all it was for me initially.”
GIVING UP THE DAY JOB
Alongside his burgeoning racing career, Leonard was also holding down a job several thousand miles away from the European circuits he competed on.
“After university I started working in the oil industry and I guess that’s where I expected to stay,” he explains.
“In 2015 I was working in Texas while also doing the Endurance Cup. I’d fly back to Europe for a day to do a test, then fly right back and be in the office for 12, 14 hours – and that was only five races!
“Honestly, I didn’t expect the motorsport side of things to go the way they did, but it took a big leap at the end of 2015 when I joined WRT. That’s when everything got flipped on its head and I ended up resigning from my job.”
This was a significant step, and one that it is fair to say has paid off. What’s more, Leonard doesn’t believe splitting his loyalties would have been possible.
“To compete at the top of the Blancpain GT Series is a full-time commitment. You can’t juggle a normal job and be able to race at such a high level. For one thing your employer would get super annoyed because you’d need so much time off; and you’d probably end up compromising yourself on-track as well.
Leonard’s switch to WRT – multiple champions for whom winning is part of the culture – required him to strive for new standards of professionalism.
“I’ve had to put a lot more work into getting my technical understanding up to a much higher level,” he says. “I had the raw speed, but there were other sides that I still needed to learn, particularly coming into endurance racing. You need to know when to be patient, when to push and that takes guidance from those around you.”
In this respect, Leonard says he is grateful to be competing with a team of WRT’s experience and particularly thankful for the efforts of his teammate.
“I’ve always believed that in everything, it’s about the people you have around you. If you have good people, you will figure out how to get up to speed.
“Robin has been amazing in helping me to step up to the top level of the sport. He understands that we have to work together in order to get the results and has been able to adapt to help me, which has also been instrumental in getting me to the level I am today. I have proven that I am able to compete with him and others of his experience and talent; five years ago I would never have believed that to be possible.”
QUIET CONFIDENCE FOR 2018
This weekend will see Leonard begin his defence of the Sprint Cup title at Zolder. He is feeling positive – testing has gone well and he knows WRT will provide first-rate equipment – but he is also aware of how unpredictable the Blancpain GT Series can be. Last year’s title decider is proof of that, so his targets are centred on performance rather than results.
“You’ve got to take it race by race,” he says. “I just want to be performing at a very high level; that’s all I can really hope for. There are so many things that could happen along the way. You just need to focus on your own thing.”
That mantra was the foundation for his success with Frijns last term. The pair began slowly, failing to score at the opening two rounds, but by remaining focussed on the prize they were able to build towards the title.
In this sense, then, the 2017 season was like Leonard’s career as a whole. Things may have started late, but hard work and a strong team effort proved enough to hit the top when it mattered.
The on-track action in Zolder begins with free practice on Friday (6 April). Both qualifying sessions will take place on Saturday morning, followed by one-hour races on Saturday at 15.25 and Sunday at 13.30 local time.