Stephen Errity, GT Correspondent
They won the last two races of the 2011 season, and now they've won the first two races of 2012: Belgian BMW team Marc VDS Racing continued their remarkable winning streak in the Blancpain Endurance Series today at Silverstone.
The #66 Vita4One BMW Z4 dominated qualifying and the first stint of the race in the hands of Frank Kechele, but after the first round of pitstops, his co-driver Greg Franchi found himself under pressure from Bas Leinders in the #3 car. “Greg defended hard, so I worked the tyres pretty hard trying to pass him, and that's why Vanthoor got ahead of me in my stint,” said Leinders. “He didn't see me and we touched slightly on the exit of Stowe, but luckily we could both continue.”
Having already put in a good performance to get Leinders into the top two after Markus Palttala struggled with oversteer in the first stint, the Marc VDS mechanics produced more slick pitwork during the handover to Maxime Martin for the final stint. The extremely rapid Belgian emerged in a lead he would never lose. “We've had good luck with the weather here and in Monza,” he reflected afterwards. “You can really make a difference put it on the limit in the wet,” Meanwhile, the #66 car's third driver Adam Carroll could do nothing to claw back the time lost by Franchi, so the car ended up ninth at the flag.
After qualifying 22nd and 12th respectively, the #2 and #1 Team WRT Audi R8s made steady but determined progress through the field to come home second and third as Marc VDS' closest challengers. Yet the #2 of Andrea Piccini, Laurens Vanthoor and Edward Sandstrom was still almost a minute behind at the flag. “We struggled in the dry in qualifying,” said Piccini (who drove the first stint) “so I decided not to take big risks and give the car to Laurens in a good position.” Vanthoor noted that he'd never driven Silverstone in the wet before so was broadly satisfied with the result. “We're still lacking some pace in the dry compared to the BMWs, so we have some work to do.” Edward Sandstrom brought the car home in the third stint.
Their colleagues in the #1 car were also reasonably happy with a strong team result. “We kept up a constant pace in the race and I think we gained the most places off the grid of anyone,” said a satisfied Christopher Haase. “The car was getting better and better in the rain, and I think we could have finished second,” declared his co-driver Stephane Ortelli, “but it was good to have a clean fight with the #2 car.”
Just off the podium in fourth was Mark Hayek, CEO of series sponsor Blancpain, in the Reiter Engineering Lamborghini Gallardo he shares with experienced Dutchman Peter Kox. Running fifth in the closing laps, Hayek already had the Pro-Am class win sewn up, but he couldn't resist a pass on the #36 Pro-class BMW Z4 of DB Motorsport around the outside of Brooklands corner. “My car was handling great and I had a lot of fun. In the wet, there can be as much grip off line as on, so I decided to go for it,” he said with a smile.
Kox said: “we were holding our breath, because he didn't really need to do that!” but he was still full of praise for his much less experienced co-driver. He also revealed the result marked a milestone: Reiter Engineering boss Hans Reiter was race engineer for the #24 Gallardo today, and 17 years ago, Kox won a wet GT event at Silverstone in a McLaren F1, also engineered by Hans.
Second in Pro-am, and sixth overall, were Giacomo Petrobelli, Alessandro Bonacini and Eugenio Amos in the #57 Vita4One Team Italy Ferrari 458. “The Ferraris generally struggled in the dry, and we were quite nervous starting down in 30th, so finishing sixth overall is very good,” observed Petrobello. “There are some very fast amateur drivers in this series, so the difference between the fastest Pro and Pro-am cars is very small.” Michael Lyons, Josh Wakefield and Andrea Ceccato in the #59 sister car were seventh overall and third in the Pro-Am class. Lyons commented: “Neither of my team-mates had driven this car before the weekend, and it was the first time in a GT3 car for Josh, so it was great performance.”
After the promise of practice and qualifying, McLaren will be bitterly disappointed that their highest-finishing representative was the #12 ART Grand Prix car in 13th. Duncan Tappy's second-place qualifying time from Saturday had been disallowed after stewards spotted he had all four wheels off the track at one point during his lap. Then, suspected gearbox problems late in the race blunted Tappy and co-driver Gregoire Demoustier's efforts even further. Other McLaren teams suffered due to two-driver lineups, where the pro driver is only allowed drive one of the race's three hours: the #9 Gulf Racing in particular went backwards after running as high as second in the opening stint in the hands of Rob Bell, while Roald Goethe left Jamie Campbell-Walter with too much to do in the final hour.
The #5 Boutsen Ginion Racing car had one of the fastest McLaren driver line-ups, but was sidelined early on by an unscheduled pitstop, while a trip into the gravel put paid to David Brabham's efforts in the #22 United Autosports car shared with Alvaro Parente and young Briton Matt Bell. There was also disappointment for the sole Nissan GT-R in the race, which suffered a misfire after climbing from 34th on the grid to the fringes of the top 10.
Although the top of the field was fairly settled for the final stint, the action continued right to flag in the Gentleman Trophy class, with Mikael Bender making a last-lap overtake to give himself, Jan Brunstedt and Jocke Mangs the win in their #90 JB Motorsport Audi R8.