The opening Blancpain GT Series weekend of 2018 greeted competitors with glorious spring sunshine at Zolder. With some impressive on-track performances and several dramatic twists along the way, the season began in fitting fashion at the Belgian circuit.
RACE 1: Bortolotti and Engelhart reign supreme in Pro
The opening race of the new Blancpain GT Series season saw the reigning overall champions begin 2018 with a highly impressive victory.
It was well established going into the weekend that the Zolder circuit would suit Audi’s R8 LMS best, with the German manufacturer’s cars dominating the previous two events at the track.
It all seemed to be playing out as predicted when the #2 Belgian Audi Club Team WRT machine scored pole for the opening race, with local ace Dries Vanthoor topping the times in qualifying 1.
But crucially the #63 Grasser Racing Lamborghini had secured second on the grid thanks to Christian Engelhart, putting the reigning overall champions in a position to fight for the win.
Vanthoor led the first stint, but Engelhart kept a watching brief in second. The German then handed over to teammate Mirko Bortolotti following a rapid pitstop from the Grasser crew.
Vanthoor stopped shortly afterwards to switch with Will Stevens, but between a fine in-lap from Engelhart, excellent work from Grasser and rapid out-laps by Bortolotti the Lamborghini was able to narrowly edge into the lead.
Thereafter Bortolotti was able to gradually pull away from the Audi, eventually winning by 3.4 seconds. It was a perfect start for the reigning overall champions, representing the first time Audi had been defeated in a Blancpain GT Series race at Zolder since 2014 and the first win at the track for Lamborghini since 2013.
Stevens took second and, speaking afterwards, he and Vanthoor were both pleased to bank the points despite their obvious disappointment at missing out on the win. Third went to the sister #1 Belgian Audi Club Team WRT effort, with Alex Riberas making an excellent series debut alongside veteran Christopher Mies.
RACE 2: Attempto-Audi bags dramatic maiden victory
Qualifying for race 2 saw Robin Frijns initially credited with pole, but the Dutchman was docked his fastest lap for causing a red flag during qualifying.
That promoted the #63 Grasser-Lamborghini to P1, while Frijns would start from 11th in the #17 Belgian Audi Club Team WRT machine he shares with Stuart Leonard.
Sunday afternoon’s race was to prove dramatic, despite a fairly straightforward first stint. Bortolotti led away from pole and was untouchable at the front, building a lead of almost 8 seconds by the arrival of the pitstop phase.
Behind him the #66 Attempto-Audi snatched second spot from the #2 Belgian Audi Club Team WRT machine of Stevens at turn 1 thanks to a gutsy move by Kelvin van der Linde, though the South African could do nothing about Bortolotti disappearing into the distance.
This was the simple part. But, when Bortolotti came in to hand over to Engelhart, the #63 squad’s race began to unravel. A problem with the Lamborghini’s seat belts cost Engelhart a huge chunk of time, ending their hopes of sweeping the weekend.
The #66 Attempto car had a clean stop, but the #2 Belgian Audi Club Team WRT machine was turned around quicker as Vanthoor took over from Stevens. That handed the #2 Audi the net lead, with Steijn Schothorst now second in the #66.
It looked as though Saturday’s runners-up would go one better, but further drama was to follow when Vanthoor received a drive-through penalty for leaving the pits in an inappropriate manner, having struck the cones at the edge of his box. When the Belgian took his penalty it promoted the #66 Attempto-Audi into the lead.
From this point onwards young Schothorst delivered a cool performance and came home almost 7 seconds clear of the field, securing a superb first Blancpain GT Series win for Attempto on their first weekend using Audi machinery.
The #88 AKKA-Mercedes took a runner-up finish thanks to Raffaele Maricello and Michael Meadows, with the #19 Grasser-Lamborghini of Andrea Caldarelli and Ezequiel Perez Companc completing the podium.
Ultimately, this was a race in which the expected front-runners faded away from the lead battle. The #17 was fifth after a rapid first stint from Frijns, repeating the result they recorded on Saturday.
The #63 received a penalty for a pitstop infringement but eventually salvaged useful points in seventh – albeit not the haul they had looked set for when Bortolotti was untouchable out front.
For the #2, things went from bad to worse when Vanthoor took a second penalty for forcing the #25 Sainteloc-Audi off the circuit. The youngster came home in P12.
Ultimately, Zolder delivered a weekend of entertainment befitting the first round of the season. With six cars scoring podium finishes from the first two races, there is clear promise for a highly competitive Sprint Cup campaign ahead.
SILVER CUP – Young stars shine to take double class win
The identity of the drivers for Belgian Audi Club Team WRT’s #3 machine was unknown until Friday. There was considerable interest in who would handle the R8 LMS, given that the Baudour-based squad are experts around the Zolder circuit.
Ultimately a pair of young Belgian drivers were handed an opportunity to shine for Team WRT, and both capitalised fully.
For Gilles Magnus this was a weekend of firsts. Not only was he contesting his first Blancpain GT Series event after graduating from single-seaters, the youngster hadn’t even driven a GT3 car in the dry until Friday’s first practice.
His teammate Alessio Picariello has more experience in this kind of machinery, but having only received the call to drive on Thursday evening the 24-year-old could have been forgiven for showing signs of nerves.
Yet both drivers displayed admirable maturity to comfortably win the Silver Cup on Saturday and Sunday. Moreover, they were competitive with the series’ established stars.
Magnus took a brilliant 4th on the grid for race 1, before the pair steered their WRT machine to seventh overall. The AKKA-Mercedes of Nico Bastian and Jack Manchester took second in class, followed by the sister SMP-branded Mercedes of Vladimir Atoev and Alexey Korneev.
Picariello was disappointed to qualify 13th for race 2 after he was unable to get a clean lap, but the #3 crew made up for this in the race by coming home in an excellent P6 overall. The other spots on the podium were reversed, with the SMP-Mercedes leading home the similar machine of Bastian and Manchester.
For now this remains a one-off outing for both Magnus and Picariello, though WRT have expressed their desire to field the #3 car for the full Sprint Cup campaign and will surely have been impressed by what they saw at Zolder.
PRO-AM / AM – Piti and Carlo get the job done in Pro-Am
Pro-Am was a battle between two Kessel Racing-run cars, but while it was often close the #39 TP 12 machine was not beaten at Zolder.
The #39 Ferrari 488 bagged pole for Saturday and Sunday, with Piti Bhirombhakdi starting first in race 1 and Carlo van Dam doing the honours in race 2.
Bhirombhakdi made a good start in Saturday’s contest, holding position and handing over to Van Dam still in the class lead. But the Dutchman spent much of his stint fending off the sister Kessel-Ferrari of Giacomo Piccini, who shares with Michał Broniszewski.
Van Dam held on to his advantage, but he worked hard for the class win – there was just 0.7 seconds between the Ferraris at the flag – and was visibly relieved afterwards.
Sunday’s race saw Van Damn starting in P4 overall having delivered a stellar qualifying lap aboard his Ferrari. The TP 12-Kessel entry was among the front-runners during the first stint, before Bhirombhakdi took over at half-distance. The Thai driver brought it home for another class win, this time by a far more comfortable margin of 18 seconds.
The Kessel cars were split in race 2, with the Sainteloc-Audi of Markus Winkelhock and Nyls Stievenart taking Pro-Am runner-up and the Broniszewski-Piccini entry third. Finally, in the Am category, the #15 Boutsen-Ginon Lamborghini Gallardo ran unopposed at Zolder to record a pair of class wins for Pierre Feligioni and Claude-Yves Gosselin.
The Blancpain GT Series now moves to Monza, where a packed grid is expected for the opening round of the 2018 Endurance Cup campaign on 20-22 April.