Stephen Errity, GT Correspondent
All-Inkl drivers Markus Winkelhock and Marc Basseng secured the first win for the Mercedes SLS AMG in the GT1 World Championship in today's qualifying race at the Autodromo de Algarve in Portimao, Portugal. The duo qualified strongly, and a combination of aggressive overtaking plus smooth pitstops saw them overcome the AF Corse Ferrari challenge and take victory in the one-hour race.
Filip Salaquarda and Francesco Castellaci, driving the pair of AF Corse Ferrari 458s, held on to their front-row grid positions through the first few corners, as did Winkelhock and his fellow Mercedes pilot Thomas Jager in third and fourth. Stefan Rosina fell by the wayside early after his Reiter Engineering Lamborghini Gallardo suffered a puncture, putting him a lap down, but up front, it was the Mercedes men that were making progress. Winkelhock snatched second from Castellaci under braking into the first corner at the beginning of lap three, while his team-mate Jager powered past for third onto the start-finish straight on the next lap.
Castellaci's lack of pace saw Peter Kox in the other Reiter Lamborghini and Milos Pavolvic in the sole Sunred Ford GT queued up behind him. Alvaro Parente in the HEXIS Racing McLaren MP4-12C was also in the mix, and after a late lunge by the Portuguese driver under braking, Kox was left with broken steering and a beached car on the outside of the track. This brought out the safety car, which stayed out until the mandatory pit window opened with 35 minutes of the race to run.
Salaquarda and Castellaci pitted their Ferraris immediately, but the two Mercedes stayed out, as did Parente in the McLaren, temporarily elevating himself to third. On the following lap, Winkelhock was the first of the two Merc drivers to pit, handing over to All-Inkl team manager Basseng, who then inherited a significant lead after the Ferraris suffered starter motor problems that delayed them for around 30 seconds in the pits.
Winkelhock's team-mate Jager pitted a lap later, but a slower stop meant that his co-driver Pastorelli exited the pits behind Fred Makowiecki, who had taken over the #1 McLaren from Stef Dusseldorp. Parente in the other McLaren temporarily held the lead during the stops, but after the car's stop, his co-driver Gregoire Demoustier emerged fifth, behind Frank Stippler, who had taken over the Team WRT Audi R8 from Briton Oliver Jarvis. The safety car had helped Stippler into second, and it also benefitted the two Vita4One BMWs, which were now third and fourth, with Mathias Lauda ahead of Yelmer Buurman.
Lauda did not fight too hard to keep the clearly faster Buurman behind him, however, and soon the co-driver of team boss Michaeal Bartels was in hot pursuit of Stippler, which set up perhaps the race's most entertaining battle. Buurman took better lines and carried more speed into the track's key corners, but Stippler was able to use the Audi's superior grunt in a straight line to pull away. Finally, Buurman varied his line coming onto the start-finish straight, getting onto the right-hand side early and squeezing Stippler out under braking at the end of the straight. Second was his with a little over ten minutes of the race remaining.
Stippler held on to third until the flag, but Buurman's team-mate Lauda lost fourth place to a typically charging Makowiecki with just a handful of laps to go. Pastorelli made a recovery of sorts by passing Demoustier for sixth in the closing stages of the race, while Matteo Cressoni finally managed to convert the strong pace shown by the Sunred Ford GT in the last two rounds into a decent race finish – he came home seventh after also passing Demoustier in the closing laps.