Stephen Errity, GT correspondent
The revised Audi R8 and Mercedes SLS AMG were the pace-setting cars at the GT3 European Championship's opening race weekend in Nogaro, France. Sainteloc Audi and Heico Mercedes scored a pole position and a win apiece across the two one-hour races.
The late withdrawal of Luxury Racing's pair of Ferrari 458s left the entry list at a disappointing 12 cars, but damp conditions for Sunday's first race meant even this modest turnout produced some entertaining battles. Sainteloc Audi R8 driver Marc Sourd capitalised on an early mistake from Heico's polesitter Max Buhk to snatch the lead in the early laps, and then had to spend almost all of his stint defending from the determined Mercedes SLS pilot.
Behind the Sourd/Buhk battle, Giles Vannelet and Filip Sladecka were men on the move in their Rhino's Leipert Motorsport Lamborghini Gallardos. Vannelet passed Micheal Lyons' AF Corse Ferrari for fifth, but then lost out to his team-mate Sladecka while trying to attack Ni Amorim in the Team Novadriver Audi R8 for fourth. Having re-passed Sladecka and dispensed with Amorim, Vannelet then set about attacking third-place Jerome Demay in the second Sainteloc car.
His charge came to an end at this point, though, as a moment of over-enthusiasm saw him spin into the grass and tumble down the order. Sladecka then took Vannelet's place in attacking Demay, but proved equally short of patience as he nerfed into the side of the Sainteloc Audi, sending both cars into a spin and damaging bodywork.
A robust move down the back straight allowed Buhk to snatch the lead from Sourd just before the pitstops, but the Heico team then threw away their advantage with a disastrous decision to switch both their cars onto slick tyres. Dominik Baumann took over the leading car from Buhk; while Finn Mikka Vahamaki took the place of Max Nilsson in the team's other car.
Both drivers found themselves scrabbling for grip and losing places hand over first when they rejoined. A similar poor tyre decision ruined the race for the Novadriver Audi, now in the hands of Cesar Campanico. Up ahead, Gregory Guilvert had taken over the #16 Sainteloc Audi from Sourd, but kept the same set of wet tyres on the car. This gave him the double advantage of a shorter pitstop and rubber more suited to the conditions, which he quickly converted into an unassailable lead right up the chequered flag.
Further drama during the pitstop window came courtesy of Gaetano Ardagna-Perez in the #50 AF Corse Ferrari, who overshot the pitlane entry and had to reverse to make his way in for his stop. His team-mates Lyons and Stefano Gai in the #51 car made a better fist of things, staying on used wets for the whole race like the winning car to claim third on the road at the chequered flag, which would swiftly be upgraded to second following events elsewhere on track.
Those events primarily concerned the #11 Rhino's Leipert Lamborghini Gallardo. After taking over the car, Sladecka's co-driver Gerhard Tweraser ignored both a drive-through penalty applied to the car for Sladecka's misdemeanour and the resulting black flag. This caused the car's exclusion from second place after the chequered flag, and the promotion of the Baumann/Buhk Mercedes to third – small consolation after their disastrous change to slicks cost them probable victory.
Monday's second race took place in misty but dry conditions, and was a much more straightforward affair than the comedy of errors that characterised race one. Once again, second place on the grid snatched the lead from the polesitter in the early laps, Dino Lunardi in the #15 Sainteloc Audi getting ahead of Sunday's race winner Guilvert in the #16 sister car. Lunardi's time at the top was short-lived, however. First Guilvert reclaimed the lead, then Baumann in the #1 Heico Mercedes and Giuseppe Ciro in the #50 AF Corse Ferrari found a way past, sending Lunardi from first to fourth in a matter of moments. But his see-sawing pace returned ahead of the pitstops, when he retook third from Ciro.
Baumann was the first of the leading group to pit, handing his Heico SLS over to Buhk. Ardagna-Perez then took over the #50 Ferrari from Ciro, but the sister #51 car was hit with a drive-through penalty when Stefano Gai crossed the white line while entering the pits. The two Sainteloc Audis stayed out as long as possible, pitting together at the very end of the pitstop window. Guilvert handed over to Sourd and Lunardi to Demay. The latter sneaked out of the pits ahead of Sourd, but the #1 Heico Mercedes' faster pitstop had now pushed that car into the overall lead.
Sourd set about aggressively attacking his team-mate at every corner of the circuit, but his efforts proved unnecessary, as Demay's car became the second entrant to get a drive-through penalty for crossing the pit line. He yielded to Sourd, but by now Buhk in the Heico Mercedes had built up a lead he would not lose.
Both AF Corse Ferraris then came alive. Ardagna-Perez put Sunday's embarrassing pitlane overshoot behind him, taking third place from Nilsson in the #2 Heico SLS with a neat move at the end of the back straight. Perez then hunted down and passed Sourd, who was struggling for pace for the first time all weekend.
Lyons was also on a charge after his car's drive-through penalty. He pressured Nilsson into running wide, and then made short work of Sourd, too. It was now an intra-team fight to see which AF Corse Ferrari would take which podium position behind the winning Heico car. In the end, Perez just held off Lyons to retain second, but both crews were very pleased with their results.
Much further down the grid, Briton Tom-Kimber Smith was unable to make an impression in either race in the sole Aston Martin entry. The European Le Mans Series star was sharing Valmon Racing Team Russia's outdated DBRS9 with a hopelessly uncompetitive Natalya Friedina, who regularly ran 15 seconds off the leaders' pace and therefore kept the car at the bottom of the results sheet for both races.