Two thrilling Sprint Cup races brought the Blancpain GT Series back to life with a bang at the Hungaroring. The drivers rose to the challenge of treacherous track conditions by displaying supreme skill, while remarkable battles for two class championships unfolded at the Hungarian venue.
There was cause for celebration, too, as Jack Manchester and Nico Bastian wrapped up the Silver Cup title for AKKA ASP Mercedes-AMG, capping a hugely successful weekend for the French squad.
It was the perfect way to shake off the cobwebs following a five-week summer break. What’s more, it sets up an unmissable Sprint Cup finale at the Nürburgring in a little under two weeks’ time.
While the overall championship is closer than ever and the Pro-Am contest is also too tight to call, the Sprint title in the Silver Cup class was sealed at the Hungaroring. A pair of second-place finishes confirmed Jack Manchester and Nico Bastian as this year’s champions, taking their total to seven class podiums from eight races.
“This is more than we’d hoped for, especially in my first season of GT racing,” said Manchester afterwards. “To win it a round early is a dream come true.”
“Nico [Bastian] has been fantastic. It’s helped massively having his insight into GT racing and being able to feed off his experience. We have such a good relationship off the track and I couldn’t have asked for a better teammate.”
Events at the Hungaroring have set up a truly thrilling conclusion to this year’s Sprint Cup. At the top of the standings, Raffaele Marciello and Michael Meadows (#88 AKKA ASP Team Mercedes-AMG) will travel to the Nürburgring level on points with Chris Mies and Alex Riberas (#1 Belgian Audi Club Team WRT). The WRT duo currently hold a virtual advantage, having scored more race wins than their AKKA rivals.
It is not necessarily a two-horse race, however. The #63 Grasser-Lamborghini, #66 Attempto-Audi and #2 WRT-Audi crews also remain in contention for the title. They would require excellent showings at the Nürburgring and low scores for the current leaders, but the points swing towards Marciello and Meadows that we saw in Hungary shows that it is possible. Reigning champion Stuart Leonard (#17 WRT-Audi) also retains a mathematical chance of retaining his Sprint Cup title.
While Marciello and Meadows have drawn level in the Sprint Cup drivers’ standings, the WRT squad retains the advantage in the teams’ championship.
The Belgian outfit enters the concluding event on 103.5 points, while AKKA ASP Team will travel to the Nürburgring on 93. It is by no means an insurmountable gap, though WRT is the favourite to secure a sixth Sprint Cup crown in as many years.
Heading into the final Sprint Cup event of 2018, the Pro-Am class is almost as close as the battle for overall honours.
The #39 TP 12 Kessel Racing Ferrari pairing of Piti Bhirombhakdi and Carlo van Dam lead the way, as they have since the opening round, but their advantage over Nyls Stievenart and Markus Winkelhock (#26 Sainteloc-Audi) is now just 3.5 points.
The Audi pairing narrowly outscored their rivals in Hungary, taking class honours in race two, to set up another highly unpredictable title showdown.
Two entries were making their maiden appearance in this season’s Sprint Cup at the Hungaroring.
In the Pro-Am category, Kenny Habul paired up with Blancpain GT Series regular Tristan Vautier in the #751 Sun Energy 1 Mercedes-AMG. The AKKA-run crew made an immediate impact by winning their class in Saturday’s opening race, with Habul taking the lead early on before handing over to Vautier to complete the job.
Habul capped off a memorable Saturday by winning the Blancpain GT Sports Club race from pole position. He and Vautier would have been strong contenders for Sunday’s contest, but the Australian driver was forced to sit the race out due to illness.
The Silver Cup field expanded thanks to the #6 Black Falcon Mercedes-AMG GT3 of Hubert Haupt and Luca Stolz, both of whom are Endurance Cup regulars. Stolz in particular delivered an eye-catching performance by taking second overall for Sunday’s second race, and was the only driver able to keep pace with eventual winner Raffaele Marciello during the first half of the contest.
Despite many impressive showings since joining the championship, Sunday’s win represented Raffaele Marciello’s first in the Blancpain GT Series. The Italian driver had secured nine podium finishes before finally standing on the top step.
It should be noted, however, that Marciello had already taken a number of wins in GT racing, including the Suzuka 10 Hours just one week before the Hungarian event and in the Blancpain GT Series Asia.
The win also represented a first overall triumph for Michael Meadows, whose most recent trip to the top step was also at the Hungaroring as Silver Cup class winner in 2016. For AKKA ASP Team and Mercedes-AMG, this was a first Blancpain GT Series victory since the concluding event of 2017 at Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya.
Marciello was not the only driver to enjoy a strong follow-up to his Suzuka showing. Indeed, Tristan Vautier – with whom he shared the #888 Mercedes-AMG in Japan – was a class winner on Saturday with Kenny Habul, who had himself been the Bronze winner at Suzuka.
There was also more success for Christopher Haase, Markus Winkelhock and Kelvin van der Linde. The trio took a third-place finish at Suzuka as part of the #6 Audi squad and then went on to score strong results on Sunday in Hungary as part of different crews. Haase was second in the #25 Sainteloc-Audi, Van der Linde grabbed P3 in the #66 Attempto-Audi, while Winkelhock was Pro-Am winner in the #26 Sainteloc-Audi.
One of the standout performers of the Hungaroring weekend was Simon Gachet. Driving the #25 Audi R8 LSM for Sainteloc Racing, the French rookie delivered his most accomplished drive yet in Sunday’s contest.
Taking the wheel from teammate Christopher Haase in fourth position, Gachet passed the championship-leading #1 WRT-Audi on his way to a superb runner-up finish in conditions that required immense focus.
The signs of Gachet’s progress have been there for some time. He scored his maiden Sprint Cup podium at Misano, while he and Haase combined to take fourth from Saturday’s race one. After some challenging early season outings, the pair have delivered a strong finish to the 2019 campaign.
The fastest lap of the weekend was set by Raffaele Marciello, who produced a 1m42.688s during qualifying. This was a few tenths short of last year’s best time, which belonged to Dries Vanthoor. The Belgian set a 1m42.359s in his #5 Belgian Audi Club Team WRT entry en route to victory in 2017.
Stephane Ortelli was absent from the Hungaroring as he continued to rebuild his fitness following the accident that ended his Total 24 Hours of Spa. His Emil Frey squad ran with #GetWellStephane stickers on their cars throughout the event, as Endurance Cup regular Markus Paltalla stood in for the popular Monegasque driver.
Joel Do Vale occupied the role of Blancpain GT Series race director during the Hungaroring weekend, filling in for regular incumbent Alain Adam.
But this was not a weekend off for Adam, who was in the United States for the season-ending Pirelli World Challenge event at Watkins Glen. He will add the role of race director for the PWC’s GT category to his list of responsibilities in 2019.
Adam will return to his usual spot in race control for the upcoming Blancpain GT Series round at the Nürburgring.
Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup regulars Seb Morris and Jules Szymkowiak were both on GT4 European Series duty at the Hungaroring. Morris was deputising for his friend and manager Andy Meyrick in the #33 Mercedes-AMG, while Szymkowiak joined Pro-Am title contender Markus Lungstrass in the #77 Audi. It proved to be a stellar weekend for Szymkowiak, who bagged a pair of class wins alongside Lungstrass.
It was confirmed during July’s Total 24 Hours of Spa that the Hungaroring will return to the Blancpain GT Series calendar for a fourth successive year in 2019. It will remain a Sprint Cup event and will be staged in September. As is the case this year, it will represent the penultimate round of the Sprint campaign.
But, before the focus can switch to 2019, there is plenty to be decided during this year’s Sprint Cup finale at the Nürburgring.
Practice will get underway at the German circuit on Friday 14 September, followed by qualifying (09.30) and the opening race (14.10) on Saturday 15 September. The final Sprint contest of the year takes place on Sunday 16 September at 16.00, when a highly competitive campaign will draw to a close.