Text: Rick Kiewiet
Images: SRO Media
Usually a sunny endeavor in the middle of summer, this year's visit for the GTWC Sprint Cup proved to be a wet and cold one. The predicted storm never came, but rain did play an important role in the outcome of the race.
Pole position for race 1 was for the #14 Emil Frey Lamborghini of Mikael Grenier and Norbert Siedler. It was the first pole for the team since their return to the GT World Series, after their switch from Jaguar and Lexus to Lamborghini in 2019. Jim Pla and Benjamin Hites booked their best qualifying result of the season, completing the first row in the Silver Cup #89 AKKA ASP Mercedes. Ryuichiro Tomita and Kelvin van der Linder put their #31 WRT R8 on p3, joined on the second row by the other AKKA ASP Mercedes (#88) of Boguslavskiy and Fraga. Behind Silver Cup entrants Tunjo en Puhakka in the #2 Toksport Mercedes on p5 was a quartet of Audi's: the #25 Sainteloc of Rougier and Haase, the #55 Attempto of Mosca and Drudi, winners of the last race at Magny Cours Palette and Gachet were 8th in the #26 Sainteloc and championship leaders Weerts and Vanthoor in the #32 WRT R8 were 9th.
The course of the race was largely determined by a necessary decision before the start: start on slicks? Or rain tires? At the start, temperature was as low as 8° Celsius, while track temperature was 0° at 9.00 o'clock in the morning. The sun was shining through the clouds but the track was still wet from rain showers earlier. Mikael Grenier in the Lambo and Jim Pla in the Mercedes on front row took a gamble and started the race on slicks, while Tomita in the WRT Audi played it safe with a start on rain tires.
Already during the formation lap, the race came towards the cars that started on rain tires. A moment after the cars had left the grid, it started raining. At the start, Tomita immediately took the lead from p3. Others on rain tires made huge leaps through the field: the Emil Frey team had bet on two horses, as the #163 entry that started from 10th, was put on rain tires, while the pole sitting #14 was on slicks. After lap 1, Altoe in the #163 climbed up to 2nd, Steven Palette in the #26 Sainteloc moved up to third. Biggest jumps were from Pierre-Alexandre Jean in the #108 CMR Bentley and Ezequiel Perez Companc in the #90 Madpanda Mercedes who were 4th and 5th, coming from 18th and 20th grid positions!
Eight minutes after the start, it stopped raining. Two minutes later, the sun was even out. The challenge now was to keep the rain tires in good condition for as long as possible, on a slowly drying track, to make it to the pit stop window. Cars were waving all over the track, searching for wet parts to cool tires.
When the pit window opened the field was somewhat streched out, except for the two leaders: Tomita was still a second ahead of Altoe. Some nine seconds behind was Steven Palette in the Sainteloc R8, followed at 10 seconds by Pierre-Alexandre Jean in the Bentley. Then there was a considerable gap towards Perez Companc. Chris Froggat in the Sky-Tempesta Ferrari led the Pro-Am class in 6th, showing strong pace in his stint. Panciatici, Panis and Mosca, who had switched to rain tires before the actual start of the race, split the field in two on positions 11, 12 and 13, with all the cars that started on slicks more than 15 seconds behind them. By now, the track had become almost dry and another important decision had to be taken, whether or not to drive the seconds part of the race on wets or slicks?
Most cars waited until the end of the pit stop window to switch to slicks, but this was too late for Altoe in the #163 Lamborghini. He apparently had asked too much of his tires and with 30 minutes on the clock, his left rear tire blew on the main straight. He did make it to the pits and as the field was fairly stretched it didn't cost him too much positions, but his chances for the win were lost.
After the stops, van der Linde was in the lead in the #31 WRT Audi he took over from Tomita. Simon Gachet, now in the #26 Sainteloc Audi was 2nd at almost 15 seconds. The #108 Bentley with now Hugo Chevalier behind the wheel was another 5 seconds further back. Then there was a big 22 seconds gap to Bertolini, on rain tires, in the Pro-Am #52 AF Corse Ferrari, chased by Albert Costa in the #163 Lambo, Jefferies in the Madpanda Mercedes, and fellow Pro-Am contesters Foster (SPS Mercedes) and Cheever in the Sky-Tempesta Ferrari.
On the drying track, the cars on dry tires had more and more of an advantage. Behind race winner van der Linde, Hugo Chevalier in the Bentley had a great run in the second part of the race. He closed the gap in front and passed Simon Gachet to take second place. This also gave him and Pierre-Alexandre Jean the victory in the Silver Cup. Gachet managed to hold on to p3 at the finish. Albert Costa still took 4th in the Emil Frey Lamborghini ahead of Jules Gounon in the #107 Bentley.
Most attention in the last part of the race went to the battle for the lead in the Pro-Am class between Nick Foster and Eddie Cheever. The battle lasted for several laps, before Cheever eventually got past the Mercedes and took the win. Their battle was often interrupted by Pro and Silver Cup cars making their way through, adding to the spectacle.
Rewatch the race: