Stephen Errity, GT Correspondent
They qualified third, dropped to seventh on the first lap, but came back to win: Max Nilsson and Mika Vahamaki's progress in the first of today's two GT3 European Championship races in Navarra tells you all you need to know about how unpredictable and eventful it was. Race two was a far more straightforward affair, but it also ended in victory for a Heico-Gravity-Charouz team Mercedes SLS – this time the #1 car of Max Buhk and Dominik Baumann.
At the start of race one, polesitter David Mengsdorf got away cleanly in his Rhino's Leipert Motrosport Lamborghini Gallardo, then led the field through the first couple of corners without incident. He was soon at the front of a three-car group made up of himself, second-place qualifier Baumann and fourth-place starter Michael Lyons in the #51 AF Corse Ferrari 458, which pulled away from the rest of the field.
Further back, eventual race winner Max Nilsson in the #2 Heico-Gravity-Charouz Mercedes found himself in seventh place after a poor start. He sat at the back of a four-car train that also included fourth-place Gaetano Perez in the #50 AF Corse Ferrari, fifth-place Miguel Toril in the #4 Russian Bears Ferrari and sixth-place Ni Amorim in the #14 Team Novardriver Audi R8. Nilsson slipped past Amorim quickly enough, while up ahead, Perez ran wide and lost three places shortly before the pitstops, promoting Nilsson up to fifth before he handed over to co-driver Mika Vahamaki.
Up front, Baumann had been pressuring Mengsdorf hard for much of the first stint, and the two stayed out on track as the first few cars pitted. Their battle was interrupted when Giuseppe Ciro, having taken over the #50 Ferrari from Perez, emerged from the pit lane right in the middle of them, costing Baumann valuable seconds ahead of his stop to hand over to Max Buhk. It was enough to promote Stefano Gai into the lead when he took over the #51 Ferrari from Lyons shortly afterwards.
Heading into the second stint, Gai led from Buhk, while Harry Proczyk was lying third in the Lamborghini that had led the race before the stops with Mengsdorf at the wheel. Buhk piled on the pressure, forcing Gai to go very defensive at every corners, but this allowed Proczyk to close up behind the leading pair and make it a three-way battle for the lead. Vahamaki had jumped into fourth after taking over the #2 Mercedes from Nilsson, and he too was closing up on the squabbling leaders, making it a four-way fight for the win.
Then, Buhk ran wide on the dirt during one of his many attempted passes on Gai. Seizing his chance, Proczyk drew alongside on the straight, but Vahamaki was right with them and the cars went three-wide down the straight. At the next corner, Buhk tried in vain to mantain his position but ended up hitting and spinning Proczyk's Lamborghini. Although the Gallardo recovered and kept going, Buhk's race was ruined, as he'd punctured his SLS' front-left tyre.
Vahamaki now took over his team-mate's pursuit of Gai for the win, while Jonathan Hirschi briefly held third in the Sainteloc Audi R8 before a puncture ended his race prematurely. Another Audi R8 – the Novadriver machine of Amorim/Campanico – also momentarily held third, before a recovering Harry Proczyk got the bit between his teeth and retook the final podium position for the Leipert team.
With just under three minutes to go, Gai was still bravely hanging on to the lead, but it wasn't over yet. He grabbed too much kerb at one corner, allowing the Finn to charge through and take his and co-driver Nilsson's first win of the season so far.
The far less eventful second race saw Dino Lunardi make a very quick start to grab second in the early stages, and the #25 Sainteloc Audi R8 would likely have finished in that position were it not for a miscalculation by the team that saw them miss the mandatory pitstop window. This resulted in a long stop-and-go penalty that dropped the Lunardi/Demay car to ninth and last car running at the flag.
Third-place starter Proczyk held on to that position off the grid, and although the car dropped to fourth at the pitstops, his co-driver Mengesdorf was soon on the case and had hauled the Gallardo back into third before long. This became second after the Sainteloc Audi's penalty, making it a double podium finish for the Rhino's Leipert team in Navarra.
Also benefitting from the #25 car's penalty were eventual third-pace finishers Ni Amorim and Cesar Campanico in the Team Novadriver Audi R8, who scored their first podium of the season as a result. Up front, Buhk and Baumann had a serene run from lights to flag in their Mercedes SLS, adding to their race-two victory in Nogaro at the championship's opening round back in April.