Stephen Errity, GT correspondent
The venue was Italy and there were 16 Ferraris on the grid, but it was Belgian teams running German cars that dominated the opening round of the 2012 Blancpain Endurance Series in Monza. The #3 Marc VDS Racing BMW Z4 was the unexpected eventual winner, after struggling on Friday and Saturday with a lack of straight-line speed and qualifying only 18th. WRT Audi showed some of the pace that took them to victory in the first GT1 World round last weekend: their #2 car came in second, just ahead of the #13 KRK Racing Mercedes SLS AMG in a closely fought and very wet three-hour race.
The rain meant the first 30 minutes were run under the safety car, much to the frustration of those Pro-Am teams that had chosen to put their fastest driver in the car first. There was immediate drama when the safety car finally pulled in, as Jack Clarke in the Boutsen Ginion Racing MP4-12C completed two 360-degree spins on the main straight. Miraculously, he didn't collect the wall or any other competitors before rejoining the track. That was about the only bit of good luck afforded to the McLaren teams, however: Friday and Saturday's nightmare continued with a combination of spins, crashes and breakdowns bringing a premature end to many of the MP4-12Cs' races. The highest-finishing McLaren team would be ART Grand Prix in 16th.
With the safety car out of the way, Mirko Venturi in the Black Bull Swiss Racing Ferrari began challenging the polesitting Kessel Racing 458 for the lead. Venturi became the first of many drivers to take a place by finding more grip around the outside of the Parabolica corner, but his time in the lead would be short. Vastly experienced Belgian Marc Goossens was on a charge in his fifth-on-the-grid Prospeed Porsche, and quickly dispatched both Ferraris to take the lead. He then built a comfortable 10-second cushion ahead of the first round of pitstops, where he handed the car over to Xavier Maasen.
Behind the leaders, Mike Stursberg was heading up a train of cars in fifth place in the Haribo Porsche. The car had been qualified second by rapid Briton Richard Westbrook, but gentleman driver Stursberg had already lost places off the grid and was about to lose even more. Former single-seater aces Olivier Pla (SMG Challenge Porsche) and Karl Wendlinger (KRK Mercedes) swiftly found a way past before embarking on their own entertaining battle for fifth. Wendlinger would eventually come out on top just before pitting to hand over to Koen Wauters – lead singer of Belgian pop band Clouseau, but a fast and experienced driver in his own right.
By lap 26, the top four consisted of Goossens, Gattuso, Venturi and Pla – and they all pitted on that lap. Xavier Maassen took over the Prospeed Porsche from Goossens and retained the lead, but the #1 WRT Audi (driven by Christopher Mies in the first stint; now in the hands of Christopher Haas) was promoted to second by slick pit work. Another winner from the first round of stops was Bas Leinders in the #3 Marc VDS BMW, who had taken over from Markus Paltalla. He rejoined in fifth, just behind Gattuso's co-driver David Rigon (the Kessel Ferrari was now fourth after a slower pitstop than the others). After briefly challenging Rigon, Leinders then slowed slightly and had to deal with pressure from Eugenio Amos in the #57 Vita4Italy Ferrari.
But as the second stint unfolded, all eyes were on one man – Edward Sandstrom in the #2 WRT Audi. Works driver Marco Bonanomi had to start the car from a distant 37th after Laurens Vanthoor's qualifying crash, but the combined efforts of Bonanomi and Sandstrom now had it running fifth, which became fourth once Wauters pitted the KRK Mercedes to hand it over to Anthony Kumpen for the final portion of the race.
Up front, Maassen retained the lead in the #75 Porsche during the second stint, then handed over to Marc Hennerici for the final part of the race. Elsewhere, the heroic efforts of the #2 WRT Audi crew were about to become even more significant: the #1 car, running second and looking like a safe bet for a podium finish, suffered a stuck rear wheel during its pitstop, leaving the team's star driver Stephane Ortelli mired in seventh, where he would eventually finish.
With the second round of stops complete, Hennerici was in the lead, but lapping two seconds slower than his pursuers. The chasing pack was now being led by Maxime Martin, who had taken over the #3 Marc VDS from Bas Leinders and continued the team boss' impressive progress up the order. With half an hour to go, he took the lead from a struggling Hennerici with a daring late-braking move into Monza's infamous first chicane. This wasn't the end of Hennerici's troubles, however: over the next 30 minutes, a potential race victory for Prospeed turned into a disappointing fifth place as Hennerici lost places to Vanthoor in the WRT Audi, Kumpen in the KRK Mercedes and polesitter Daniel Zampieri, who was driving the final stint in the Kessel Racing Ferrari he shared with Gattuso and Rigon.
Kumpen pushed Vanthoor for second all the way to the chequered flag, but the Mercedes crew had to settle for third in the end. This was far from a disappointing result for the team, however, as Kumpen explained: “This was one of the hardest races of my career. It was our first time in Monza with the car and we had no data or even a wet set-up to go on. The guys in the pits have to take a lot of the credit, too – the stops were perfect. The cars that beat us were first and second in last year's championship and were expected to do well, whereas KRK had no big expectations, so we're delighted.”
Second was disputed until the flag, but there was no real doubt who the winner would be after Martin had taken the lead – he brought the BMW home 17 seconds clear of second. Team driver-manager Bas Leinders said afterwards: “The result is amazing, and a little bit surprising – the BMW was never going to be the fastest car for Monza. But the rain was like a gift from God, and the team did a perfect job to take advantage of it. The preparation, strategy and pitwork were all perfect, absolutely no mistakes – the pitstops were incredible.”
Valentino Rossi and Alessio Salucci's Ferrari came home 18th, but Rossi, with only one previous GT race under his belt, was far more impressive than his more experienced co-driver. He was fast and consistent in the atrocious conditions early on in the race, holding on to the car's 10th-place qualifiying position. However, after the pitstops, Salucci damaged the car and lost time in a collision with a backmarker, undoing the Doctor's good work.