Stephen Errity, GT Correspondent
Team Vita4One completed a near-perfect weekend at the Slovakiaring (aka Slovakia Ring) as team boss Michael Bartels and co-driver Yelmer Buurman scored their second victory of the event in Sunday's championship race. It would have been the BMW squad's second one-two of the weekend, were it not for All-Inkl Mercedes driver Markus Winkelhock's canny taking of second place after a late-race safety car.
Buurman held the #18 BMW Z4's pole position at the start, but Nikki Mayr-Melnhof in the sister #17 car quickly saw his second place turn to fourth as the field shuffled through turn one. Peter Kox in the #25 Lamborghini Gallardo had a strong start, making it as far as second, but he was unable to match the pace of those behind him and soon found himself back in sixth.
At the head of the field, Buurman had pulled out a lead of several seconds, while Mayr-Melnhof repeated his performance from the second stint of Saturday's race, regaining two lost positions in quick succession to once again sit second behind the #18. Stephane Ortelli in the #32 Team WRT Audi R8 had followed him past Marc Basseng's All-Inkl Mercedes SLS, and at this stage a podium for the Belgian Audi team looked likely.
Second-place Mayr-Melnhof was the first of the leading group to pit. A slightly slow changeover to Mathias Lauda saw their car lose some time, but they held on to second after the pitstop cycle nonetheless. There was action further down the field as fifth-place Toni Vilander's AF Corse Ferrari 458 nearly came together with sixth-place Kox's Lamborghini at the pit entry. But Kox's hard charge would be for nothing, as a small brake fire delayed his stop. Co-driver Darryl O'Young eventually came home seventh.
Basseng handed the #38 Mercedes SLS to Markus Winkelhock on the next lap, but race leader Buurman left it a little later to stop. Another slow driver change by the Vita4One crew raised concerns for a moment, but the German-Dutch duo retained the lead. Ortelli left his pit stop until the last possible moment, but the WRT team's podium challenge evaporated as a slower-than-usual stop saw them lose third to Winkelhock by the time Laurens Vanthoor took the car out of the pits.
Vanthoor seemed determined to make amends for this, however, and was catching Winkelhock as the race entered its closing stages. But a drive-through penalty for a pit procedure infringement finally ended their charge, and the #32 car would finish fifth in the end. Oliver Jarvis, who had taken over the sister #33 Audi from Frank Stippler, made some amends by passing Filip Salaquarda's Ferrari to take what would become fourth place at the flag.
Ahead of them, the two Vita4One BMW Z4s looked set for another formation finish as the clock ticked down, but a mishap at the chicane for Alvaro Parente in the #2 HEXIS McLaren brought out the safety car in the last 10 minutes of the race. The Portuguese driver ran over the kerbs on the exit, breaking the MP4-12C's rear bodywork and scattering parts across the track. Parente's team-mate Makowiecki had earlier retired with suspension damage after a first-corner accident, capping off a miserable weekend for the French team.
The safety car was on track for less than a full lap, and confusion over whether it would be coming in or not saw Lauda in the second-place #17 BMW caught napping as the race restarted with only minutes to go, allowing championship challenger Winkelhock through to an important second place. Neither Lauda nor his co-driver Meyr-Melnhof were particularly happy afterwards, but it seems like the result will stand.