One week after the start of the Blancpain Endurance Series in Monza, the Blancpain Sprint Series gets underway on the French track of Nogaro, from April 18th to April 21st. The level of the drivers on the entry list is unequalled, with several former F1 drivers and GT champions all fighting for top honours.
The Blancpain Sprint Series is the sprint branch of the newly created Blancpain GT Series. With two one-hour races per race weekend there should be no lack of thrills and spills during the seven rounds of this 2014 season. 20 cars are confirmed for the full season with a couple of extra cars expected at each round on a race-by-race basis. The Circuit Paul Armagnac in Nogaro has the honour of hosting the opening round, as part of the immensely popular Coupes de Pâques meeting.
On the starting grid there will be at least six former Formula 1-drivers. But even though Tomas Enge (Grasser Racing Team Lamborghini), Andrea Montermini (Villorba Corse Ferrari), Giorgio Pantano (Bhaitech McLaren), Nelson Piquet jr. (AH Competiçoes Team Brasil BMW), Marcus Winkelhock (Phoenix Racing Audi) and Alex Zanardi (ROAL Motorsport BMW) have a combined experience of 118 F1 Grand Prix under their belt, they do not start as the only favourites for this opening round.
Among the other candidates for the overall Sprint Series title are also a number of strong GT drivers. There is Maximilian Buhk, the winner of the Total 24 Hours of Spa and reigning champion in the Blancpain Endurance Series, who will drive an HTP Motorsport Mercedes. His rivals include defending Sprint champions Laurens Vanthoor and Stéphane Ortelli, although the Belgian and the Monegasque drivers no longer share the same car. Brazilian Cesar Ramos and Frenchman Grégory Guilvert will respectively be their new team-mates, but both will defend their title at the wheel of an Audi R8 LMS ultra.
In the Pro Category they will have to contend with representatives of BMW (AH Competiçoes Team Brasil and ROAL Motorsport), Ferrari (new entry Scuderia Villorba Corse), Lamborghini (Grasser Racing Team), McLaren (Italian newcomer Bhaitech), Mercedes (HTP Motorsport), and the other Audi representative Phoenix Racing. The latter have former FIA GT1 champions Marc Basseng and Markus Winkelhock in their ranks.
The newly created Silver Cup, reserved for Silver drivers aged 25 and under, will also be the scene of some exciting duels. The young talents are not only eager to claim their place among the frontrunners, they can also pocket the additional prize money awarded to the class, allowing for a 50,000€ reward for winning a race overall.
In the Pro-Am category, President and CEO of Blancpain Marc A. Hayek and his regular team-mate Peter Kox will make their Sprint debut at the wheel of their Blancpain Racing Lamborghini FLII. The Pro-Am class might still be slim for the time being but it is likely to grow with race-by-race entries.
Stéphane Ortelli (G-Drive Racing Audi): “Six former F1-drivers at the start of the championship? But there is a former Le Mans-winner as well! (smiles) Seriously now, their presence is great for the championship. I have no doubt they will be competitive. But among the younger generation of GT drivers there are some guys who have the talent that could have led them to F1 as well. In my eyes Laurens Vanthoor is one of them. The fact we are no longer on the same car does not really change anything for me. You might say that I consider him to be my little brother, but once the helmets are on, I want to beat him. The Audi should be competitive in Nogaro – we won the last two times the Sprint Series was here – but that doesn’t mean we will underestimate the competition.”
Alex Zanardi (Roal Motorsport BMW and Nogaro lap record holder): “I am so looking forward to the start of the season. The Blancpain Sprint Series is a great championship and I am very proud to be part of it with BMW. We had a good testing programme during the winter, so we are well prepared. Still, it is a bit difficult to predict where we will end up. Me personally, I want to be really close to the best BMW’s. The test in Paul Ricard was the only time when we have been running with others, but is not very representative, because you don’t know in which type of conditions the others were running. You also have to consider that the other drivers have more experience than me in this format. It would be fantastic if I could qualify in the top ten for the first race, though.”