Success is not simply about finding the fastest drivers: teamwork, strategy and consistency are perhaps even more important than raw speed, particularly at Endurance Cup events.
Despite this, the statistics tell us that overall drivers’ champion Raffaele Marciello was the quickest man in the series this year. He proved it by setting the best lap of the weekend on three occasions in 2018, topping the timesheets at Misano, Hungaroring and Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya. In contrast, no other driver achieved this more than once.
As well as the overall crown, Marciello also captured the Sprint Cup title in 2018, sharing the #88 AKKA ASP Mercedes-AMG with Michael Meadows, and it was at these events that the Italian ace’s one-lap speed really came to the fore.
He qualified sixth at the season-opening Zolder event, which would turn out to be by far his worst Sprint start of the season. Thereafter he was second at Brands Hatch, on pole at Misano and the Hungaroring, and then second again at the Nürburgring (0.006s shy of the fastest time). This was comfortably the best qualifying average for the Sprint Cup in 2018.
The #54 Emil Frey Jaguar crew was also able to convert impressive raw speed into success this season. The trio of Alex Fontana, Adrian Zaugg and Mikael Grenier took four Silver Cup pole positions from five Endurance rounds and snatched the class title at the season-closing event. The #54 machine sometimes hit problems during races, but its single-lap performance was unmatched among the Silver Cup runners.
But qualifying speed is not always essential. This was proven by the Barwell Motorsports squad, which secured the Am Cup title despite not taking a single pole position. The British effort relied on consistent race performances – particularly at the Total 24 Hours of Spa – to win the championship in commanding style.
While the headlines are often made at the head of the field, there were plenty of standout performances across the classes in 2018.
Among those was the #6 Black Falcon Mercedes-AMG. Competing for Silver Cup honours, the Black Falcon crew finished second overall at the Nürburgring having started from pole position. Both Luca Stolz and Hubert Haupt were in tremendous form on home turf, giving Sprint Cup champions Marciello and Meadows a real run for their money.
There were plenty of other impressive displays from Silver-graded drivers. Denis Bulatov and Nico Jamin were third in the Sprint Cup race at the Hungaroring, while Jamin also took an outright pole position at Misano. Eventual class champion Nico Bastian also showed his ability by topping qualifying at the Hungaroring.
Focussing on Endurance Cup events, the #54 Emil Frey Jaguar scored a superb fourth-place overall at the season-ending Barcelona race. With more than 50 cars on the grid, this represents an outstanding performance by a Silver Cup entrant.
The best outright finish from a Pro-Am car was ninth for class champions Nyls Stievenart and Markus Winkelhock during the Sprint Cup weekend at Misano. Looking only at Endurance Cup races, the standout result came at the Total 24 Hours of Spa, where the class-winning #333 Rinaldi Racing Ferrari came home an impressive 15th overall.
One of the most eye-catching performances in any class came at Circuit Paul Ricard, where the #188 Garage 59 McLaren scored a remarkable 18th place from 51 starters. To make the result all the more impressive, the crew of Alex West, Chris Harris and Chris Goodwin also beat the entire Pro-Am field in the process.
Of the many drivers who have competed in the Blancpain GT Series, Stephane Ortelli (Emil Frey Lexus) is perhaps the most closely associated with the championship. That reputation has been hard earned by Ortelli, who maintained his 100 percent appearance record in the Endurance Cup this season.
The popular Monegasque driver has now contested all 41 Endurance events staged since the series was formed in 2011 and has plainly lost none of his ability. He scored a memorable Endurance Cup podium by taking third spot at Silverstone, his first trip to the rostrum since finishing as runner-up at the Total 24 Hours of Spa in 2015.
Ortelli has a strong contender for his Endurance Cup record in Alex Buncombe, who has started 39 races in the category – all of them for Team RJN Nissan. Andy Soucek has moved into third on the all-time list with 31 starts, having driven every race since the closing event of 2012.
A different kind of endurance was required by AKKA ASP Team. The French squad undertook a huge logistical and operational challenge by running as many as five Mercedes-AMGs at several events. This clearly didn’t affect standards among Jerome Policand’s crew as they captured multiple titles – including overall teams’ and drivers’ honours.
AF Corse and Belgian Audi Club Team WRT were also busy, with both squads running up to four cars in 2018. Like AKKA ASP they were also successful, with WRT clinching the Sprint Cup teams’ title and AF Corse taking the same prize in the Endurance Cup Pro-Am class.
Nine brands on the podium in 2018
The diversity of machinery on show in the Blancpain GT Series was as impressive as ever this season.
A total of 12 brands were represented on at least a part-time basis in 2018. Of those, six won races: Aston Martin, Audi, BMW, Lamborghini, Lexus and Mercedes-AMG.
A further three scored an overall podium: Bentley, Ferrari, and McLaren. What’s more, the remaining trio – Jaguar (4th), Nissan (5th) and Porsche (10th) – all managed a top-10 overall finish in the ultra-competitive Endurance Cup.
Combining the Sprint and Endurance events, Audi was the most successful brand with seven race wins, followed by Mercedes-AMG with three. No brand won more than once in the Endurance Cup, with each event seeing a new manufacturer represented on the top step of the podium.
Among the one-time winners was Lexus squad Emil Frey Racing, which finished the season third in the Endurance Cup and overall teams’ standings. This represented a remarkable step forward by the Swiss outfit, which finished 19th overall in 2017 with just six points.
Unsurprisingly, this was the biggest move up the table by any team. Emil Frey’s highlights included a thrilling final-lap victory at Circuit Paul Ricard and a maiden podium for its new Lexus RC F GT3 at Silverstone.
Total 24 Hours of Spa
The Total 24 Hours of Spa celebrated its 70th running this year and saw BMW score a record-extending 24th win at the Belgian endurance classic. Incredibly, this is more than the next four most successful brands combined. They are Alfa Romeo (7), Porsche (6), Ford (6), and Audi (4).
This was BMW’s fourth win in the past four outings at Spa-Francorchamps, but for the Walkenhorst Motorsport squad it was a maiden Blancpain GT Series triumph. The German outfit is better known for its Am Cup exploits, but claimed the biggest race of the season in style.
For driver Philipp Eng this represented a second Spa win and places the Austrian among a group of 23 drivers to have conquered the race on two occasions. Another win would elevate him to a group of just seven three-time winners, while only two drivers have trumped at Spa on four occasions. There has been a single five-time winner: Eric van de Poele.
The race produced another notable statistic this season, as Honda made a one-off appearance alongside the 12 full-season Endurance Cup brands to bring the total competing to 13. This set a new record for the event’s GT3 era, with Formula 1 legend Riccardo Patrese adding to the list of famous names on the grid in the Japanese marque’s NSX.
There was stark contrast between two of the class battles at this year’s race. Silver Cup honours came down to a stunning last lap battle, with the #12 Ombra Lamborghini winning by just two seconds.
Meanwhile, the #77 Barwell Motorsport Lamborghini was the only car to take maximum points from the race, leading at six and 12 hours on its way to a commanding Am Cup win. The only thing missing was the point on offer for pole.
Returning to the head of the field, by finishing third brothers Kelvin and Sheldon Van der Linde (#28 Montaplast by Land Audi) became the first siblings to share the overall podium since 1986, when Marco and Maurizio Micangeli took runner-up spot driving a BMW 635 CSi. Remarkably, this was 10 years before Kelvin, the elder Van der Linde brother, was even born!
This leaves the South African pair with a very clear target for 2019: become the first brothers to win the race outright since Spa legends Jean-Michel and Philippe Martin in 1980.
With the 2018 campaign complete, the countdown has already begun to next season’s action. That brings us to the most important number of all: there are 120 days remaining until the 2019 Blancpain GT Series roars into life at Monza.