Sunny conditions, 22.000 fans in the grandstands, a massive grid of 57 powerful GT3 cars: the second round of the 2016 Blancpain GT Series - the first of the Endurance Cup - had the necessary elements to become a success. And all expectations were met.
After the traditional hectic Monza start, the race quickly settled into a fast-paced rhythm. In front, Dominik Baumann had converted the pole position of the #84 HTP Motorsport Mercedes-AMG into first place. But halfway through the first stint, the fastest of the Pro-Am drivers, Daniel Keilwitz in the #66 Black Pearl Racing Ferrari, managed to snatch the lead and to keep it until the first of the driver changes.
That first series of pitstops turned out in favour of the #58 Garage 59 McLaren. Rob Bell had been third when coming into pitlane, but when Jazeman Jaafar hit trouble when switching off the pitlane limiter on the HTP Mercedes - the car briefly stalled - Come Ledogar put the McLaren in first position, ahead of the Mercedes and the Black Pearl Racing Ferrari, now in the hands of Am-driver Steve Parrow.
The gap between the two leaders remained the same for most of the second stint and when Shane Van Gisbergen and Maxi Buhk started their run towards the chequered flag, the gap between the McLaren and the Mercedes-AMG was around ten seconds. Traffic played an important role in the outcome of the race however, and when 'SVG' hit a flock of cars that were fighting for top-15 positions, Maxi Buhk put his Mercedes under the rear wing of the McLaren.
What followed was GT racing of the highest level. For almost half an hour the duo fought for every inch of Italian tarmac, with Buhk getting alongside the McLaren on a couple of occasions, but the Kiwi driver kept his cool and crossed the line first, much to the joy of the recently-created Garage 59 team.
For Buhk and Baumann, second was still good enough to take the lead in the Blancpain GT Series driver standings, as Misano winners Laurens Vanthoor and Fred Vervisch had to settle for ninth in Monza, in the #1 Belgian Audi Club Team WRT R8 they shared with Dries Vanthoor.
Behind the battling duo at the front, Bentley Boys Andy Soucek, Wolfgang Reip and Maxime Soulet produced a steady race to a podium finish. After a difficult start of the weekend. Soulet had put the Continental GT3 in P6 on the grid, which proved an excellent basis to gain some more places during the race.
The Pro-Am Cup was dominated by the Ferrari drivers. Giancarlo Fisichella had put the #53 AF Corse Ferrari on pole, but Ishikawa Motoaki was unable to keep the red car in front. After the first driver change, Alessandro Bonacini pushed the #11 Kessel Racing Ferrari towards the front, overtaking the #44 Oman Racing Team Aston Martin and the #66 Black Pearl Racing Ferrari. Bonacini got the car up to fifth overall as well, and after a faultless stint from Andrea Rizzoli the Kessel Ferrari took the Pro-Am win, just as it did two weeks ago in Misano, at the end of the first Sprint Cup race of the 2016 Blancpain GT Series season.
Behind the leading Ferrari, Giancarlo Fisichella produced a near-phenomenal final stint, climbing from fourth in class (and well outside the top-15 overall) to second in Pro-Am and tenth overall. Driving the #53 AF Corse Ferrari the former F1 driver produced the fastest lap of the race as well.
In the Am Cup the #51 AF Corse Ferrari that started from pole quickly hit trouble during the opening stint, leaving the fight for the class lead to the #49 AF Corse Ferrari, the #488 Rinaldi Racing Ferrari and the #87 AKKA ASP Mercedes-AMG. When the AF Corse machine dropped back and the Rinaldi crew chose to do a three-stop race it was the AKKA ASP French trio of Jean-Luc Beaubelique, Maurice Ricci and Gilles Vannelet who took the chequered flag after a faultless drive.
Shane Van Gisbergen (#58 Garage 59 McLaren): "This was crazy! It was a little bit frustrating with all the traffic, but we all had the same problem anyway. The battle for the last 30 minutes was pretty cool. He had a couple of good goes there, but I really enjoyed it. It was pretty tense, I can tell you that. It's a good thing that we come away with a win on a track where we thought we would not be strong."
Maxi Buhk (#84 HTP Motorsport Mercedes-AMG): "I got close to passing Shane when he was slowed down by a lapped Lamborghini, but it did not work out. That was the closest I got to taking the lead, I think. It was a great race, and I am happy with second as well. When I heard over the radio that Vanthoor had hit trouble, I knew I could score important championship points here, so I did not try anything stupid to pass the McLaren, we just had a good fight."
Andy Soucek (#8 Bentley Team M-Sport Continental): "I only heard minutes before the start that I had to do the opening stint, so that was a bit of a surprise to me. I was a bit worried by the Ferraris in front of me, for they have a great straight-line speed, but I managed to overtake them. When I was behind the Nissan of my friend Lucas Ordonez we had a good scrap and I thought it wise to wait for his tyres to degrade so I could overtake him. The Bentley proved to be amazing all through the race."
Andrea Rizzoli (#11 Kessel Racing Ferrari, 1st Pro-Am Cup): "As an Italian driver, winning with a Ferrari in Monza is a dream come true. It's something you want to do when you are a kid, and to do it in front of so many people and your friends and parents, is just wonderful."
Maurice Ricci (#87 AKKA ASP Mercedes-AMG, 1st Am Cup): "This Mercedes-AMG is a great car for gentlemen drivers like us. It was just fantastic, although traffic was not always easy. But this shows a lot of promise for the rest of the season, and we expect Silverstone to be even better for us."