Mercedes-AMG sweeps honours as Blancpain GT World Challenge Europe era launches at Brands Hatch
Mercedes-AMG squads AKKA ASP Team and Black Falcon secured hard-fought victories at Brands Hatch on Sunday as the Blancpain GT World Challenge Europe era launched in thrilling fashion.
French outfit AKKA ASP won the opening race with its #89 Mercedes-AMG securing a phenomenal result for the leading Silver Cup entrant, before the #4 Black Falcon car earned a place on the podium in race two.
The first race saw the crew of Nico Bastian and Thomas Neubauer beat the pole-sitting #4 Black Falcon Mercedes-AMG, with the #63 Grasser Racing Lamborghini completing the podium in the opening run. The result was all the more significant for the AKKA ASP duo, particularly 19-year-old Neubauer. They beat two of the most successful crews on the international GT scene whilst the Frenchman was making his first appearance at this level of racing after graduating from Formula Renault Eurocup.
The #4 Black Falcon machine started on pole courtesy of Stolz and led the first stint, with Mirko Bortolotti retaining P2 in his Grasser Lamborghini. When Stolz handed over to Engel the #4 Mercedes-AMG looked set for victory – particularly as it had emerged ahead of the #63 Lamborghini. Bortolotti gave the controls to Christian Engelhart, with the German ace only able to hold station behind the Black Falcon car. But they had not counted on a sensational showing by the #89 AKKA ASP crew. Bastian ran long and delivered rapid laps to conclude his stint, after which the AKKA ASP mechanics delivered a lightning-fast pit stop.This allowed Neubauer to emerge in P1, though with the vastly experienced Engel hunting him down the 19-year-old looked to have a major threat in his mirrors.
That did not prove to be the case, as Neubauer delivered an assured drive to not only hold on to the lead but also edge away at the front. He never really looked to be in serious danger and came home to win by a little over two seconds. Engelhart completed the podium after a lonely stint that saw the #63 Lamborghini running adrift of P2 and well clear of fourth. Behind him, the battle for P4 was the highlight of the second stint, with the hard-charging Raffaele Marciello (#88 AKKA ASP Mercedes-AMG) eventually passing Clemens Schmid (#66 Attempto Racing Audi) to take the position.
The #89 AKKA ASP crew’s stunning overall win should not overshadow a number of other strong runs by Silver Cup challengers. The #17 Belgian Audi Club Team WRT car of Shae Davies and Tom Gamble was an impressive sixth at the flag, while the #1 WRT Audi and the #56 Attempto Audi were also among the overall top 10.
Rinat Salikhov and David Perel took Pro-Am honours in their #333 Rinaldi Racing Ferrari, with the Russian driver having assumed the class lead after rival Louis Machiels slid into the gravel during the opening stint. Salikhov had been pressuring the #52 AF Corse Ferrari at the time and Perel duly completed the job.
Race two three hours later saw the #4 Black Falcon car earn a place on the top step of the podium, with Stolz and Engel following up their earlier runner-up finish with a comfortable victory, but the victory and this race was far from straightforward.
The early laps were led by the pole-sitting #90 AKKA ASP Mercedes-AMG crew, which retained its advantage in the hands of Fabian Schiller. Behind him, Nick Foster held second in his #55 Attempto Racing Audi, which had been rapidly repaired by the German squad following an accident on the first lap in the opening contest.
The first stint was disrupted by a full-course yellow period necessitated by a multi-car collision, which began when the #333 Rinaldi Ferrari made contact with the #11 Phoenix Racing Audi. Several other cars became involved in the incident for which the #333 of earlier class winner Perel was subsequently handed a drive-through penalty.
When racing resumed the #90 Mercedes-AMG held its lead and elected to run long into the stint. Meanwhile, the #4 Black Falcon Mercedes-AMG stopped early, as did the chasing #88 AKKA ASP Mercedes-AMG of Marciello who had made good progress from sixth on the grid. With Stolz now aboard the #4 and Vincent Abril handling the #88, the two Mercedes-AMG cars moved into the overall lead after the #90 stopped and slipped down the order. From this point onwards the #4 Black Falcon car was not seriously challenged, with Stolz easing away at the front.
However there was more drama in store as the #88 Mercedes-AMG suddenly ground to a halt with a clutch problem. Abril was visibly distraught, having looked set for a strong finish to a tricky Brands Hatch weekend.
This moved the #563 Orange1 FFF Racing Lamborghini into second spot, a significant achievement for a car that had started 11th on the grid. Marco Mapelli survived the pitfalls of the opening stint and handed over to team principal Andrea Caldarelli who delivered a typically cool performance to collect another podium for the squad following last month’s runner-up finish at Monza.
Third place went to the #55 Attempto Audi, a result that provided a fitting reward for the mechanics’ hard work to get the R8 LMS on-track. Steijn Schothorst had taken over from Foster and was resolute in his defence throughout the stint, eventually finishing ahead of the sister #66 Attempto machine.
The #89 AKKA ASP Mercedes-AMG took another Silver Cup win, though on this occasion it was further down the overall order in eighth. It was an especially intense finish for the Silver class, as the #89 was handed a drive-through for passing during the full-course yellow. That seemed to have scuppered their hopes, only for the sister #90 machine to come to a halt with smoke billowing from its engine. This allowed the #89 to take a narrow win, ahead of the chasing #56 Attempto Audi.
If this action and excitement was not enough, the Pro-Am battle was settled by just 0.025s at the chequered flag. Brands Hatch debutant Hiroshi Hamaguchi and local ace Phil Keen took the win, with the impressive Japanese driver snatching class honours at the very last moment from the #87 AKKA ASP Mercedes-AMG.
Meanwhile, the sole Am Cup entrant survived the drama of the weekend as the #444 HB Racing Ferrari saw the finish in both runs.
Upon the conclusion of this weekend’s action at Brands Hatch, the battle is set to continue next weekend with much of the grid set to contest the Endurance Cup race at the historic Northamptonshire venue of Silverstone where the venue and format will be different but another thrilling encounter in prospect.
The new Blancpain GT World Challenge Europe championship will resume hostilities at Misano on 28 to 30 June.