HEXIS McLaren wins the rain shorten race
Stephane Ortelli, Christophe Mies and Christopher Haase have won the 2012 Blancpain Endurance Series drivers' championship, while their WRT Audi squad have also clinched the teams' title after a disappointing and anti-climactic end to the final race in Navarra due to heavy rain bringing out the safety car for the final 30 minutes.
Making a guest appearance at this round, GT1 World Championship team HEXIS McLaren won after comprehensively dominating in qualifying and all the way through the race. Drivers Alvaro Parente, Stef Dusseldorp and Fred Makowiecki didn't put a foot wrong, leading from lights to flag and building up a gap of over a minute before the first of the race's two safety cars came out.
I'm very happy for the team – I don't really have the words to describe what this means.
As well as taking the title, Mies, Haase and Ortelli also finished second in this race. After qualifying fifth, a cautious Mies lost a couple of places at the start and spent the early part of his stint circulating ninth. “It wasn't easy, because the McLarens are so fast in a straight line,” he said later, “so I just tried to avoid any contact.” He gained one place when Mathias Lauda in the #66 Vita4One BMW had a brief off-track moment, but championship rival Bas Leinders had made good progress from his 15th place grid slot. After the Belgian got past Lauda, Marc Hennerici in the #75 Prospeed Porsche and Marco Bonanomi in the #2 WRT Audi were all that stood between the Marc VDS car and a potential championship win.
Yet the picture changed again as the first round of pit stops approached. Leinders had managed to get past Bonanomi with a hairy side-by-side move through the first two corners, but contact damaged a tyre valve on the BMW and the Belgian had to pit straight away, slightly earlier than the team had planned. He handed the car over to co-driver Markus Palttala, while Bonanomi's Audi was taken over by Edward Sandstrom. A quicker stop for WRT saw the #2 Audi emerge ahead of the #3 BMW and Marc VDS had it all to do once again – six places would have to be made up to stop the #1 Audi crew (who also had a quicker stop) winning the title.
Meanwhile, typically clockwork pitwork from HEXIS got Parente out of and Dusseldorp into the McLaren with a minimum of fuss. The young Dutchman immediately found a good rhythm and was the fastest man on the track by a big margin – pulling out a lead of over a minute on the second-place #5 Boutsen Ginion Racing McLaren. This car was now being piloted by young Swiss Zoel Amburg, after a strong opening stint from Nico Verdonck that included a brave round-the-outside passing move on Stefan Rosina's Lamborghini.
With the #1 WRT Audi's stop having been just as quick as the #2's, Mies' co-driver Haase now held third, ahead of Pro-Am class leader Duncan Tappy in the ART McLaren, fifth-place Frank Stippler in the #6 WRT Audi and sixth-place David Rigon in the #71 Kessel Racing Ferrari. All four of those drivers would soon pass Amburg's McLaren in the increasingly wet conditions, making the title an even stronger prospect for the WRT crew.
However, this dramatic race had one more twist to take. With the rain getting harder, many teams chose to including a change to wet tyres in their second scheduled stops, but around the same time, the safety car came out. The combined effect of this and the pit stops was to leave the Marc VDS BMW in sixth place (with Maxime Martin now at the wheel). Stephane Ortelli was left fourth in the #1 WRT Audi, so the BMW driver only had to make up one place when the race restarted to clinch the title.
But the first safety car hadn't been in long before the rain worsened significantly. This led to multiple spins and accidents on track – one of which eliminated Pro-Am class championship leaders Amos, Bonacini and Petrobelli in the #57 Vita4one Team Italy Ferrari. There was drama in the Pro class battle, too, as Martin had a dramatic spin at turn three. The time lost was minimal, however: thanks to several other incidents and the deployment of the safety car for a second time, the rapid young Belgian was poised and ready in fourth place as the field circulated under yellows. Only Oliver Jarvis in the #6 WRT Audi stood between him and his title rivals in the #1 car, but as before, even finishing directly behind them would have been enough to secure the championship.
Martin's chance never came, however – with no sign of the rain letting up and heavy winds battering the circuit, the race director decided to throw a red flag with five minutes' remaining, bringing the 2012 Blancpain Endurance Series to a low-key finish. ““It was very frustrating, because I think our pace in the rain could have been very strong, quicker than the Audis,” said a downbeat Martin afterwards. “It could have been a big fight, but that's racing – sometimes you don't finish first. The weather was very, very bad at times out there and I think there would have been a lot of incidents if we had been racing in it. In the end, the conditions were bad. When you lead the whole championship and then end the season in second place, it is not a great feeling.” His team boss Bas Leinders was equally disappointed, lamenting a series of penalties that the Marc VDS team have received (at Spa and the Nurburgring) that came to mean all the difference between winning and losing the title.
Mies' co-drivers Ortelli and Haase were understandably delighted at having secured the championship. “I'm very happy for the team – I don't really have the words to describe what this means,” said Ortelli. “I have to thank [team boss] Vincent Vosse. I remember back in Monza – it wasn't a great race but he told me I must keep going because the points we scored could end up deciding the championship, and they did.” Haase added: “We've pushed hard and given our absolute best at every race. The team has always done incredibly fast pit stops, which has been key.” Former GT driver Vincent Vosse, who manages the WRT team, declared: “I'm very proud of our champions and the whole team. It's not just this event – the championship is made up of six long races. I'd also like to congratulate our rivals Marc VDS and hope we can compete with them again next year.”
The retirement of the #57 Ferrari handed the 2012 Pro-Am class drivers title to Louis Machiels and Niek Hommerson, drivers of the #52 AF Corse Ferrari. The Pro-Am race win on the day went to Tappy and Gregoire Demoustier in the ART McLaren, as not even a spin by Demoustier under the safety could undo Tappy's good work in the middle stint. “It was very entertaining race, but I couldn't ever relax,” said the experienced Briton. “I was lucky to escape serious damage due to contact with one of the Audis, then I just got my head down, and then it started to rain.”
Mike Wainwright in the Gulf McLaren was second in Pro-Am after taking the car over from Rob Bell, but he soon lost the place to Oliver Morley in the #19 Black Falcon Mercedes, then spun out of contention entirely when the rain got worse. The lottery of safety cars and pit stops saw the #37 DB Motorsport BMW of Jochen Habets, Andrew Danyliw and Simon Knap get ahead of the Mercedes before the final stoppage, but Morley and his co-drivers Steve Jans and Sean Edwards held on for third in class. “I thought we had a good chance in the rain, but we were unlucky with the safety cars. My team-mates did a great job,” said Edwards, while Danyliw in the #37 recalled his stint had been 'crazy'.
Only three cars were entered for the Gentleman Trophy category at this round and only two finished – Pierre Hirschi and Robert Hissom survived a late scare when they hit the stricken Gulf McLaren, coming home second to win the category's drivers title. Swedish trio Mikael Bender, Jan Brunstedt and Jocke Mangs finished second in the title race, but had the consolation of taking the season's final race win.