Brands Hatch played host to the third round of this year’s Blancpain GT Series, with the second Sprint Cup event of the season contested against a backdrop of clear blue skies.
That’s not to mention the heat, with sun cream and plenty of refreshments the order of the day for the many fans that had made the journey to the Kent venue.
There were plenty of good-natured jokes from the series’ international contingent about not being prepared for such sweltering conditions, but the heat really was unprecedented. In fact, it was the hottest Early May Bank Holiday weekend since records began in 1978.
Despite the temperatures, Belgian Audi Club Team WRT were able to remain seriously cool throughout the weekend – aided by a few champagne showers, of course – as they took a double one-two finish at the British track.
A MAIDEN BRITISH VICTORY AT LAST – AND THEN ANOTHER
Brands Hatch proved to be a happy hunting ground for British drivers this year, with Will Stevens triumphing in race 1 and his WRT-Audi teammate Stuart Leonard winning race 2.
It certainly gave the home fans plenty to cheer about. This was the first time since the Blancpain GT Series began visiting the Kent circuit in 2014 that a British driver had taken an overall win at the venue.
Five years of waiting, then suddenly two come along at once. What is it they say about London buses?
EMIL FREY DRIVERS GET MAIDEN OUTING AT BRANDS HATCH
Despite being a veteran of international motorsport, Emil Frey Racing driver Christian Klien was competing at Brands Hatch for the first time this weekend. The same was true of Albert Costa, who shares the #14 Lexus with the Austrian driver.
Fortunately, they had some expert advice during Friday’s track walk. The #114 Emil Frey-Lexus driver Stephane Ortelli – who took his first win outside France at Brands Hatch in 1996 – was there to offer the wisdom of experience.
Both newcomers were impressed with the venue, calling it a “proper old-school circuit”. Ortelli was able to point out some tricks of the trade, and spotted sections of kerbing that were unchanged since his first visit in ‘96.
The team showed good progress in qualifying, with the #114 cracking the top-10 in the first session and the #14 repeating the trick during the second segment. Ortelli and Norbert Siedler then managed a brace of ninth-place finishes, bagging the first points of 2018 for the Emil Frey crew’s Lexus.
PRO-AM ACE BRONISZEWSKI MISSES OUT
The Pro-Am field was missing one of its most experienced and successful competitors at Brands Hatch, with 2016 class champion Michael Broniszewski forced to sit out the event due to injury.
The Polish racer was victorious at the circuit in 2016 and would have been among the favourites for another win this year. He is expected to return to the Kessel-Ferrari soon.
WINKELHOCK’S LUCKY CHARM
Ahead of the Brands Hatch weekend, Markus Winkelhock picked up his trophy for winning last year’s Intercontinental GT Challenge drivers’ title.
This isn’t an ordinary piece of silverware – in fact, it’s not silver at all. The trophy is an entirely handcrafted globe, reflecting the international nature of the series. Winkelhock won the 2017 drivers’ title thanks to victories at the Total 24 Hours of Spa and the Mazda Raceway California 8 Hours at Laguna Seca.
And perhaps it brought the German driver luck: after a tricky start to the season, he scored his first Pro-Am pole at Brands Hatch. Winkelhock then ran at the front of the overall classification during race 2, before handing over to young teammate Nyls Stievenart to complete a maiden class victory of 2018.
TAYLOR-SMITH PLEASED WITH GT MOVE
Aron Taylor-Smith is enjoying the switch to GT racing. The touring car convert admitted that “this year is all about learning”, and showed signs of being an excellent pupil with some strong performances at Brands Hatch.
Driving for Team Parker Racing, the Irishman took Silver Cup victory in race 1 alongside Josh Caygill. The pair were unfortunate to be eliminated from race 2 by an opening-lap crash, but could nevertheless reflect on a positive weekend.
MANCHESTER CONTINUES ON LEARNING CURVE
After taking Silver Cup pole in Saturday’s second qualifying session, Jack Manchester was upbeat about his progress since making the step up to the Blancpain GT Series for 2018. Joining the likes of Markus Winkelhock and Dries Vanthoor among the class pole-sitters, he spoke of the strength of the series.
“The quality of the drivers at this table is incredible, so it’s never going to be easy,” said Manchester. “I’m starting to get into the swing of it, so it’s very positive. I learn so much at every race; it’s fantastic.”
The British driver had a highly eventful weekend. Running very competitively in race 1, he later spun into the gravel and out of contention. Manchester was quick to take responsibility for the error, saying afterwards: “I have to own it.”
The #90 AKKA-Mercedes he shares with Nico Bastian then took class victory in race 2, but was subsequently penalised for Manchester’s part in an opening-lap crash and relegated to P2.
REIGNING CHAMP LEONARD SURGES INTO SPRINT CUP LEAD
Reigning Sprint Cup champion Stuart Leonard had a subdued season-opening event at Zolder, picking up a brace of fifth-place finishes, but an excellent weekend at Brands Hatch has sent the Brit back to the top of the standings.
With only two rounds completed the battle is still close, but as it stands Leonard leads the Attempto-Audi pairing of Kelvin van der Linde and Steijn Schothorst by 1.5 points, with the #1 WRT-Audi of Chris Mies and Alex Riberas a further 2 points in arrears.
In the Silver Cup standings, Nico Bastian and Jack Manchester lead the way – despite being yet to take a class win – while Piti Bhirombhakdi and Carlo van Dam head the Pro-Am table with three victories from four races.
BELGIAN AUDI CLUB TEAM WRT TAKE COMMAND OF OVERALL CHAMPIONSHIPS
Following a stellar weekend at Brands Hatch, it is little surprise that Belgian Audi Club Team WRT left the British venue leading the Blancpain GT Series outright in both the drivers’ and teams championships.
The Baudour-based squad enjoy an enviable 25-point cushion in the teams’ standings, with Attempto Racing showing well in second and reigning champions GRT Grasser Racing sitting third.
There has been a change at the top of the overall drivers’ standings. Despite winning race 1 at Brands, Dries Vanthoor slips behind teammates Chris Mies and Alex Riberas. The #1 duo may not have stood on the top step over the weekend, but a brace of runner-up finishes put them on 58.5 points, 3 clear of Vanthoor.
The Attempto pairing of Steijn Schothorst and Kelvin van der Linde sit third on 43.5, while an excellent weekend on home turf vaults Stuart Leonard to fourth overall on 43 points. The best-placed non-Audi entry is the #63 Grasser pairing of Mirko Bortolotti and Christian Engelhart, who sit fifth on 39 points.
The Blancpain GT Series remains in Britain for its next event, with the historic Silverstone circuit playing host to the second Endurance Cup contest of 2018 on 18-20 May.
It is difficult to pick a favourite, with six different manufacturers having won at the British venue in the past six years. BMW took back-to-back victories in 2011 and 2012, but since then we have seen Aston Martin, Bentley, McLaren, Mercedes-AMG and Lamborghini all secure the top step of the podium. The notable absentee from that list is Audi, but with both Belgian Audi Club Team WRT and Attempto Racing on form this could change in 2018.
With that in mind, another competitive and unpredictable race should be in store. A repeat of the glorious Brands Hatch weather might be a little too much to ask, however.