The famous French venue represents one of the fastest and most visually distinctive stops on the calendar for this year’s fourth round of racing and the third on the Endurance Cup schedule, and is seen by many as the ideal warm-up and preparation for next month’s Total 24 Hours of Spa event.
Firstly to this weekend and the focus will be on Circuit Paul Ricard. First opened in April 1970 near the village of Le Castellet, the track’s most famous feature is the long Mistral straight, named after the wind that blows from southern France into the Mediterranean. It stretches to 1.8 km (1.1 miles) and can see Blancpain GT Series drivers reach top speeds in excess of 290 km (180 mph).
The event has run each year since 2012, beginning as a three-hour contest before expanding to its present format from 2015 onwards. During that time it has earned a reputation for some close, unpredictable racing with six different brands triumphing from seven previous runnings. Bentley is the only two-time winner (2014 & 2017), while Audi (2012), BMW (2013), Nissan (2015), McLaren (2016) and Lexus (2018) have each taken one victory apiece.
This weekend’s race also acts as a warm-up for next month’s season-defining Total 24 Hours of Spa (25-28 July), particularly by allowing teams to practice the crucial ‘Joker Pit Stop’ in a competitive environment. Each crew will be able to play one ‘joker’ at the upcoming race, while four will be available during the twice-around-the-clock Spa contest.
Last year’s trip to Circuit Paul Ricard culminated in particularly thrilling fashion, with the #14 Lexus RC F GT3 and the #8 Bentley Continental GT3 going wheel to wheel during the closing stages. In one of the most dramatic conclusions in Blancpain GT Series history, the Lexus made a race-winning pass on the very last lap, securing the Japanese brand an unforgettable maiden victory in the championship.
In what is already proving to be a competitive 2019 season, six different crews have stood on the overall podium across the opening events at Monza in April and Silverstone three weeks ago. The same full-season field of 18 cars will once again contend for Pro class honours at Circuit Paul Ricard, with a number of those squads adjusting their driver line-up ahead of the event.
At Strakka Racing (Mercedes-AMG GT3), David Fumanelli steps into the #43 machine to replace Jack Hawksworth, while Bentley Team M-Sport adds Callum Macleod to the #108 Continental GT3 crew in place of Alex Buncombe. The latter move is part of a planned rotation policy by the British marque, with both Macleod and Buncombe set to form part of an expanded four-car Bentley effort at this year’s Total 24 Hours of Spa. Alex Lynn will make his series debut in the #76 R-Motorsport Aston Martin Vantage AMR GT3, with temporary replacement Nicki Thiim making way.
With two races already completed, the battle for the 2019 championship has started to take shape with newcomer Orange1 FFF Racing leading the team standings, and its #563 crew of Andrea Caldarelli, Marco Mapelli and Dennis Lind heading the drivers’ table. The Chinese squad has shown excellent long-distance performance with the 2019 Lamborghini Huracan GT3, while Grasser Racing has demonstrated the car’s single-lap pace with back-to-back pole positions. It is now more than two years since a Lamborghini took overall victory in the Endurance Cup, but the Italian marque has clearly found the right formula with its new machine.
Porsche and Ferrari have also started this term well after Dinamic Motorsport took a famous victory at a rain-soaked Monza with its 911 GT3 R, while SMP Racing earned a superb win at Silverstone with the venerable 488 GT3. Both squads will be targeting more silverware this weekend, while ROWE Racing adds further competitive firepower to the Porsche effort.
The other two brands to secure podium finishes this term are Mercedes-AMG and Audi, both of which will be represented by three squads at Circuit Paul Ricard. Belgian Audi Club Team WRT, Sainteloc Racing and Attempto Racing will field the 2019-spec Audi R8 LMS, while Black Falcon, AKKA ASP Team and Strakka Racing fly the flag for Mercedes-AMG.
As a two-time winner at Circuit Paul Ricard, Bentley Team M-Sport knows how to succeed at the French event. The squad’s most recent triumph came at the same venue two years ago, which will provide them with hope of a repeat showing this weekend. Fellow British brand Aston Martin will also be targeting a strong result with Garage 59 and the two-car R-Motorsport effort as the latter looks to score its first points of 2019.
There will also be plenty of action to follow beyond the Pro class battle as the Silver Cup can boast a 15-car field for Circuit Paul Ricard, with Scuderia Villorba Corse adding its #133 Mercedes-AMG GT3 in preparation for contesting the Total 24 Hours of Spa. AKKA ASP (Mercedes-AMG) and Grasser Racing (Lamborghini Huracan) emerged on top at Monza and Silverstone respectively, however in such a competitive class there are at least a dozen potential winners. There is a driver switch at Jenson Team Rocket RJN (#22 Honda NSX GT3), where Welsh racer Ryan Ratcliffe steps in for Struan Moore.
There is also very little to choose between the Pro-Am runners with victories for Tempesta Racing (Monza) and AF Corse (Silverstone) giving Ferrari a clean sweep so far. Several other crews will be in contention at Circuit Paul Ricard including the all-French line-up of Jean-Luc Beaubelique, Mauro Ricci and Jim Pla in the #87 AKKA ASP Mercedes-AMG GT3.
In the Am Cup class, a brace of race wins for the #77 Lamborghini Huracan GT3 has seen the Barwell Motorsport crew open up an impressive early lead. The British squad will be looking for a fifth consecutive win at Circuit Paul Ricard, but will face plenty of opposition in this highly competitive category. Most notably Tech 1 Racing looked to have found significant speed at Silverstone where Fabien Barthez recorded the class-leading race lap in the #23 Lexus RC F GT3. The French outfit will be in confident mood as they seek to end Barwell’s run of victories with Eric Cayrolle joining Barthez and Bernard Delhez for the squad’s home event.
As the season’s only 1000 km contest, the event adopts a different timetable from other Endurance Cup rounds, kicking off with the bronze test at 09.00 today (Friday 31 May), before the full field will hit the track for the first time at 13.10 for free practice and again at 17.00 when pre-qualifying begins. Both sessions will give competitors 90 minutes of crucial running.
The grid will be set during qualifying at 10:45 on Saturday morning, while the race will get underway later that day at 18.00. With a maximum time limit of six hours, the winning crew will take the chequered flag around midnight.