Photo: Blancpain GT Series
Thomas Neubauer, at the wheel of the #89 Akka ASP Team Audi R8 LMS GT3 Evo Silver Cup entry he shared with Nico Bastian, took the overall win in Race One of the Blancpain GT World Challenge Europe double-header at Brands Hatch. The young French driver, who only graduated from karts in 2016, took the chequered flag 2.003 seconds ahead of the #4 BLACK FALCON Mercedes-AMG GT3 crewed by Luca Stolz and, driving the second stint, Maro Engel.
Completing the overall podium positions was the #63 GRT Grasser Racing Team Lamborghini Huracán GT3 piloted by Mirko Bortolotti and Christian Engelhart.
The Pro-Am win went to the #333 Rinaldi Racing Ferrari F488 GT3 of Rinat Salikhov and David Perel.
After the challenges that the weather presented for qualifying on Saturday May 4, the 60-minute race got underway with a dry track but with black clouds threatening to provide further tests for the 25-car grid, the #24 Sainteloc Racing Audi R8 LMS GT3 Evo of Nyls Stievenart and Stéphane Ortelli having been withdrawn following damage sustained in qualifying
Diego Menchaca in the #555 Orange 1 FFF Racing Team Lamborghini Huracan GT3 started from the back of the grid after a horrendous accident at Paddock Hill Bend during qualifying left the #555 car on its roof. Menchaca was thankfully unhurt and the team worked through the night to prepare the damaged Huracán for Sunday’s two races.
Luca Stolz in the #4 BLACK FALCON Mercedes-AMG GT3 led the field away from pole position but there was drama at the first corner after contact between the #55 Attempto Racing Audi R8 LMS GT3 driven by Steijn Schothorst and the #5 Phoenix Racing Audi piloted by Kim-Luis Schramm left both cars in the gravel at the bottom of Paddock Hill Bend. The Safety Car was immediately deployed and the race neutralised to allow for safe recovery.
As the Safety Car circulated, Steven Palette brought the #26 Sainteloc Racing Audi into the pits with considerable front-end damage resulting from contact at Turn 1 as the Race Director announced that the incident was to be investigated.
Racing resumed with 49 minutes remaining and Stolz was immediately on his toes, not allowing Mirko Bortolotti in the #63 GRT Grasser Racing Team Lamborghini the chance to get a jump at the restart.
The Race Director then announced a 60-second Stop-Go Penalty for Andrea Calderelli in the #563 Orange 1 FFF Racing Lamborghini for causing the incident at T1. Calderelli, running in fifth when the penalty was announced, was, at that point, effectively out of the race. The Italian team owner and driver circulated twice before calling in to the pits to take the penalty. Calderelli, visibly furious over the penalty, retired from the race minutes later.
There was drama for the #52 AF Corse Ferrari F488 GT3 with Louis Machiels at the wheel, on his twelfth lap, the Belgian driver having an off-track excursion at Sheen Curve and becoming stuck in the gravel.
As the pit-window approached Stolz had a lead of nearly a second over Bortolotti, the #63 Lamborghini .646 seconds ahead of Nico Bastian in the #89 Akka ASP Team Mercedes-AMG GT3.
After the driver changes had cycled through, Maro Engel, at the wheel of the #4 Mercedes, remained ahead of the #63 GRT Grasser Racing Team Lamborghini, now driven by Christian Engelhart. Traffic between the two baulked the #63 car, much to the chagrin of teammate Mirko Bortolotti, now on the pit wall.
The race lead, however, was held by the Thomas Neubauer in the #89 Akka ASP Team Silver Cup Audi entry which, after 24 laps, had pulled out a gap of over 1.7 seconds to Engel in the #4 car.
Issues connected with the earlier Safety Car period still continued to resonate with the #25 Sainteloc Racing Audi, the #19 Akka ASP Team Mercedes and the #1 Belgian Audi Club Team WRT Audi all receiving drive-though penalties for infringements during the race neutralisation.
The battle for second in the in the Pro-Am category was fierce with Phil Keen in the #519 Lamborghini pressuring Jim Pla, at the wheel of the #87 Mercedes.
At the head of the field, Maro Engel was starting to reel in the gap to Thomas Neubauer and, with 14 minutes remaining, the #4 pilot was less than a second behind the young French Silver Cup driver. Neubauer, however, resisted the pressure and was able to pull the gap out once again.
As the race entered its final ten minutes, Taylor Proto, driving the #555 Orange 1 FFF Racing Team Lamborghini he shared with Diego Menchaca, stopped at the bottom of Graham Hill Bend with smoke pouring from the engine compartment.
With three minutes remaining, Raffaele Marciello, piloting the #88 Akka ASP Team Mercedes, continued to fight for fourth overall, the Italian 2018 Blancpain GT Series champion just .191 seconds behind Clemens Schmid in the #66 Attempto Racing Audi. Marciello finally found a way past the Austrian driver on the start/finish straight and immediately set about chasing after Engelhart in the #63 GRT Grasser Racing Team Lamborghini but, by that stage, the remaining laps were running out.
At the chequered flag Neubauer hung on for an historic overall Silver Cup victory. with Engel a little over two seconds behind.
Nico Bastian was delighted at the race win; especially as this was the first time that teammate Thomas Neubauer had competed in a GT car.
“It’s crazy, isn’t it,” said Bastian. “The start was good. I could defend my position. I was very happy with P3. I really like the track – it’s nice to drive – but there’s no place to overtake here. I tried to save my tyres as well as possible because I knew the idea was to stay out longer and then I would have maybe two or three ‘push’ laps where I can get the time which we needed to overtake in the pit lane. It paid off! Team Akka did a mega pit stop!”
Thomas Neubauer showed few nerves as he won his first Blancpain GT World Challenge Europe race.
“He (Engel) was really pushing hard but I was ‘ head down’ and just focusing on what I had to do. I wasn’t expecting that much (from the race) but we’ll take that!”
The lights go out for Race Two at 16:35 local time.