The Weekend Roundup: Circuit Paul Ricard

4 June 2019
Rarely is a Blancpain GT Series race won with the kind of dominant performance that Bentley Team M-Sport produced during Saturday's Circuit Paul Ricard 1000kms. The #107 Continental GT3's eventual margin of victory – more than 37 seconds at the chequered flag – is the biggest seen at the event and was the culmination of a stellar showing by drivers Jules Gounon, Steven Kane and Jordan Pepper. 

But this result was not a surprise: the Continental GT3 has always performed brilliantly at Circuit Paul Ricard and the #107 crew had a point to prove after losing victory on the final lap 12 months ago. These are some of the key stats and stories to emerge from Bentley's  weekend in the sun.

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Saturday's win ended a two-year victory drought for Bentley and brings the brand level with Lamborghini on four Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup triumphs. Three of those have come at Circuit Paul Ricard (2014, 2017 & 2019), where the M-Sport-run effort has also secured a pair of runner-up finishes (2015 and 2018). The British marque's dominance is underlined by the fact that no other brand has taken more than one race victory at the French circuit.

The win also meant that eight different brands have won the past eight Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup races, a run that began at the start of the 2018 season. The notable exception over this period is Lamborghini. The Italian marque has not been represented on the top step for more than two years, though it is the only brand to have finished on the overall podium at each race this season. 

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Steven Kane is now a three-time Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup race-winner, which puts the Northern Irishman among an elite group of his peers. Indeed, Kane has become one of only 10 drivers to claim three or more victories in the championship, joining the likes of Christopher Mies, Mirko Bortolotti and Maxi Buhk as a triple winner.

Jules Gounon now has two victories to his name, having first triumphed at the 2017 Total 24 Hours of Spa. South African racer Jordan Pepper took his maiden series victory at Circuit Paul Ricard, which is a popular venue for first-time winners. Pepper is the 13th driver to score his maiden triumph at the track, joining a list that includes three of his fellow Bentley Boys: Andy Soucek, Maxime Soulet (both 2017) and Alex Buncombe (2015, with RJN Nissan).

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14 cars finished on the lead lap at Circuit Paul Ricard, exactly the same number as at last season's event. This means that eight cars have completed every racing lap of the 2019 season. Bentley Team M-Sport has been particularly impressive, with both of its Continental GT3s running the full distance at Monza, Silverstone and now Circuit Paul Ricard. That accounts for 329 laps and a distance of a little over 1,900km.

The other cars still running on the "overall lead lap" are the #5 Phoenix Racing Audi; the #6 Black Falcon Mercedes-AMG; the #25 Sainteloc Racing Audi; the #90 AKKA ASP Mercedes-AMG; the #99 ROWE Racing Porsche; and the #563 Orange1 FFF Racing Lamborghini. 

No car was able to finish every lap of the 2018 campaign, with the upcoming Total 24 Hours of Spa (25-28 July) likely to remove several from this season's list.

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Despite significant safety car running during the first hour, this year's race actually set a new record for laps at the Circuit Paul Ricard 1000kms since it became an Endurance Cup event in 2015. The leaders completed a total of 176 tours of the 5.8km track, four more than the previous high of 172 that was set last year. 

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A number of drivers showed impressive speed at Circuit Paul Ricard, none more so than Jules Gounon. The French ace set the fastest time across all three qualifying sessions on Saturday morning, with the Bentley driver's 1m52.671s proving crucial to the squad's pole position. Gounon was also extremely quick when he took over the car for the final stint of the race.

He was not the quickest man in the 1000km contest, however. That distinction went to Jake Dennis (#76 R-Motorsport Aston Martin), who set a time of 1m53.750 to establish the in-race benchmark for the weekend.

In the Silver Cup, Felipe Fraga set a best of 1m53.812s during his stint as he chased down the #5 Phoenix Racing Audi to secure class honours. It was also a winning AKKA ASP driver who set the best Pro-Am time, with Jim Pla circulating his #87 Mercedes-AMG in 1m53.916s. Finally, Stefano Costantini led the way in the Am Cup with a best of 1m55.190s in his #29 Raton Racing by Target Lamborghini.  

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Saturday’s race began with a dramatic incident that saw Ezequiel Perez Companc (#2 Belgian Audi Club Team WRT) and Florian Scholze (#444 HB Racing Ferrari) leave the circuit at high speed. Fortunately, the Ferrari driver suffered no injuries in the crash. The Audi racer was taken to a nearby hospital with a broken vertebra, before being transferred to another facility in Barcelona. Perez Companc will return home to Argentina this week to begin rehabilitation. The whole SRO team would like to wish him the very best for his recovery. 

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A post-race protest was lodged against the #72 SMP Racing Ferrari by the Attempto Racing squad. The latter's #55 Audi was eliminated after a collision with the Ferrari, for which the stewards elected to take no further action. A final decision will be made in due course, until when the result of the race remains provisional.

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A number of drivers were making their Blancpain GT Series debuts at Circuit Paul Ricard. Among them, former single-seater stars Norman Nato (#10 Belgian Audi Club Team WRT) and Alex Lynn (#76 R-Motorsport Aston Martin) both showed extremely well in their first competitive outings. Nato produced the seventh best lap in his qualifying session, while Lynn ran strongly during the middle stint of the race to help his crew pick up a season-best fourth-place finish. The British driver is set to complete the season, though Nato's participation beyond the weekend's race is unconfirmed.  

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For the 12th race in a row the Pro-Am pole-sitter was unable to convert their qualifying advantage into race victory. The #97 Oman Racing by TF Sport Aston Martin took its third class pole of the season thanks to Ahmad Al Harthy, Salih Yoluc and Charlie Eastwood, but they had to settle for another podium finish as the #87 AKKA ASP Mercedes-AMG of Jean-Luc Beaubelique, Mauro Ricci and Jim Pla swept to victory ahead of the #74 Ram Racing Mercedes-AMG. 

The last time a Pro-Am car won from pole was at Monza in 2017. Coincidentally, it was the #97 Aston Martin that triumphed that day, with Al Harthy and former co-driver Jonny Adam getting the job done at the Italian venue. 

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As well as the action on-track, the Circuit Paul Ricard event also hosted the second round of the new SRO E-Sport Series. Reigning overall Blancpain GT Series champion Raffaele Marciello entered the public contest on Saturday and made it through as one of four on-site qualifiers.

The Mercedes-AMG factory driver did not reach the grand final – which is perhaps for the best being as the prize is a Lamborghini Squarda Corse racing experience! The event was won by David Tonizza, while his fellow podium finishers Amos Laurito and Nestor Garcia will also appear at the Barcelona finale. What's more, they were celebrated on the Circuit Paul Ricard podium following Saturday night's Blancpain GT Series contest. 

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The in-form #72 SMP Racing Ferrari crew now leads the Endurance Cup standings, though this remains provisional due to the aforementioned Attempto Racing protest. Mikhail Aleshin, Davide Rigon and Miguel Molina have 49 points, placing them four clear of the #563 FFF Lamborghini crew of Andrea Caldarelli, Marco Mapelli and Dennis Lind. Victory at Circuit Paul Ricard has brought the #107 Bentley line-up into the mix as well, with the Gounon/Kane/Pepper trio on 34 points.  

In the overall classification, the #563 FFF Lamborghini duo of Caldarelli and Mapelli have moved ahead of Maro Engel and Luca Stolz (#4 Black Falcon Mercedes-AMG), who failed to score at Circuit Paul Ricard. With reigning overall champion Raffaele Marciello enduring a disastrous run of form, these two pairings are emerging as the favourites to take the Italian's crown. This battle will resume when Blancpain GT World Challenge Europe stages its second event of the season at Misano (28-30 June).

In the Silver Cup, the #90 AKKA ASP Mercedes-AMG crew holds a useful advantage at the top of the Endurance standings. Wins at Monza and Circuit Paul Ricard, as well as P3 at Silverstone, put them on 74 points. The #6 Black Falcon Mercedes-AMG squad is next up on 43 points. 

The Pro-Am class saw a third winner from as many races at the weekend – yet none of them are among the leading two in the standings! It is the consistent #97 Aston Martin crew that holds top spot, having taken podium finishes at all three events, with the #74 Ram Racing Mercedes-AMG sitting second. 

Having ended the Barwell squad's Am Cup winning streak, the #188 Garage 59 Aston Martin crew is now within 12 points of the championship leaders heading to the Total 24 Hours of Spa. Of course, the season's main event could dramatically change the outlook in each class, with extra points on offer at six and 12 hours. 

For the Endurance runners, the championship now takes a back seat as preparations turn to the twice-around-the-clock Belgian contest, with the official test days scheduled for 2-3 July. If Circuit Paul Ricard was the warm-up, the main event promises to be an unmissable spectacle.

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