Updated: Aug 12
Text: Rick Kiewiet
Images: SRO Media / Blancpain-GT-series.com
A race cut in two just over the halfway mark due to flooding rain, characterized by big crashes, more rain, harsh fights and a thrilling finale with two safety cars in the last 30 minutes, after which the leader and number 2 crossed the finish line no more than 3,5 seconds apart... The GPX Porsche with Richard Lietz, Michael Christensen and one of the stars of the race Kevin Estre, took the chequered flag in the biggest GT3 race on earth. They defeated Mercedes and Audi in one of the closest finishes, albeit helped by the two late safety cars, in recent years.
In both the Silver Cup and the Pro-Am cup, there were victories for British GT regulars Barwell Motorsport and TF Sport (managing the Oman Racing entry). In the #78 Lamborghini the all British line-up of Sandy Mitchell, Jordan Witt and James Pull claimed victory as a sweet revenge for last year's deception
The superpole on Friday was won by Mercedes-regular, and former DTM-driver, Maro Engel. In the #4 Black Falcon Mercedes, he produced a phenomenal 2.18.588, just 0.017s ahead of the #117 Team 75 Bernhard Porsche of Timo Bernhard, Earl Bamber and Laurens Vanthoor. Within the top-10 there were four different brands: besides Mercedes and Porsche, Ferrari was well represented with 2 cars, just like Audi who even had 3 cars among the best 10. The first 15 (!!!) cars were within 0.913 seconds from each other, proving how incredibly competitive this race is, and promising a lot for the 24-hour-battle to come.
The race on Saturday got underway in wet conditions and after four laps behind the safety car. The lead briefly shifted to the #117 Porsche with Bamber at the wheel, but not long later Maro Engel retook the lead and could pull a small gap. Most attention however went to Kevin Estre in the GPX Porsche, who blasted through the field from p11 at the start. At the 90-minute mark he was on Engel's tail, with tenths separating them, and Rast in the #1 Audi not far behind, before (already) the third full-course yellow neutralized the battle.
By that time some of the British GT-regulars were already forced to retire. Most notably was Jonny Adam in #59 Garage 59 Aston, suffering a front hub failure, Callum Mcleod even was the first retiree suffering an oil pressure failure.
At nightfall, the #1 Audi of Rast, Frijns and Nico Müller (all DTM front-runners) was firmly in the lead. The evening was characterized by two lengthy FCY-periods. The first was caused by a huge shunt of the #37 3Y Technology BMW, of which something on the front-suspension seemed to fail, causing the car to break out in the direction of the barriers at full speed. It took well over an hour for the green flags to come out as a couple of yard of barriers had to be completely rebuilt. When racing resumed it didn't last long until the next horrendous crash: this time it was a car we know all too well. Ryan Ratcliffe in #31 Bentley decided to rearrange the tire barriers up to the concrete wall at Stavelot, going off at full speed and flying a couple of yard through the air. Luckily he could get out of the car unharmed.
Just before Frijns in the #1 Audi took the lead, it should've been Dennis Lind in the #563 Lamborghini in the lead, if only the car didn't pick up a penalty after overtaking on pitlane. They were thrown back well down the order.
During the night, the battle for the lead intensified. There were times the top-6 was separated by no more than 45 seconds. Competition between marks was also heavy, with 8 different cars in the top-11 by 2 am. Positions were shuffled on a regular basis as during the night, cars need to make a mandatory technical pitstop of at least 5 minutes to change brakes etc. The first cars out of the top-10 were the leading #1 Audi and the #76 R-motorsport Aston.
At the same time, TF Sport (under the Oman Racing-flag) and RAM Racing were battling it out for the honours in the Pro-Am cup and the #77 Barwell Motorsport Lambo leat the Am-cup. In the silver-cup, the other Barwell Motorsport Lambo was making his way up the field. Drama struck at the front of that class with the elimination of the leading #55 Attempto Racing Audi at Blanchimont.
The second part of the night saw intensifying rain, causing more than a couple of cars sliding off track. In between several FCY-phases the #72 SMP Ferrari managed to take the lead around the halfway mark at 4.30 am, just as it did after 6 hours, to snatch another 12 points for the Intercontinental GT challenge. The Mercedes' of GruppeM (#999) and Black Falcon (#4) were close behind.
By that time the #78 Barwell Lamborghini had made its way up to second in the Silver Cup, with only the #90 AKKA ASP Mercedes ahead. The Mercedes however was almost 2-laps in front at the 13 hour mark.
In the Pro-Am cup RAM Racing fell off the podium to 4th,: now the #97 Aston had to defend his lead from the Strakka Racing Mercedes. The #77 Barwell Lambo was 5th in class at this moment.
At the halfway mark, the top-10 was still all in the lead lap. Just over however, the rain got so bad there was standing water on many places at the track. Race control had no other choice than to red flag the race at 5.40 AM until conditions improved.
At about 11.30, after 6 hours under red flag conditions, racing resumed after two laps behind the safety car. The top 3 consisted of the #63 GRT Lamborghini, the #34 Walkenhorst BMW and the #54 Porsche, but all of these car still had to consume their obligatory 5-minute stop. In 4th was the #72 SMP Ferrari still with Mikhail Aleshin at the wheel. Rast in the #1 WRT Audi was close behind. Both cars suffered from multiple contacts plowing their way through traffic until finally Aleshin lost the car at Pouhon and got hit by a Nissan GT-R who couldn't avoid the Ferrari. Their race was over. This virtually gave the lead back to the #1 Audi, with now the #20 GPX Porsche with Michael Christensen at wheel and the #4 Mercedes chasing.
In Pro-Am the #97 Aston was still 2 laps clear of the competition, running as well as problem free. In the Silver Cup Barwell Motorsport took over the lead from the #90 AKKA ASP Mercedes, the #78 now leading, consolidating a 45-second gap. Their #77 car was now 2nd in the AM Cup.
With 2 hours to go, the #20 Porsche, back in the hands of Kevin Estre, decided to go all out. First he closed the gap towards the #4 Mercedes quickly and shooted past heading for the Les Combes-chicane. Not much later he was on Müllers tail in the #1 Audi. Müller made an error in Les Combes under the pressure, spinning of the track and kissing the tire wall, however still able to resume the race. But the Porsche was now in the lead. In the remainder of the race Estre pulled away from the #4 Mercedes, who in turn came under pressure from another Porsche: the #998 in hands of Nick Tandy closed the gap to the Manga-liveried Mercedes, and with little over an hour to go managed to overtake the AMG, making it a 1-2 for the brand from Stuttgart.
Estre than survived two late safety car phases in the last 25 minutes, which gave his closest pursuers an opportunity to charge again. First the #16 Ferrari crashed out, after which the #54 Porsche and #1 Audi made contact to bring out another SC.
Barwell Motorsport, with the #78 Lamborghini, won the battle in the Silver Cup this time by only 7 seconds, a sweet revenge for last year when it lost the race by mere seconds. TF Sport did not give up the lead for a second in Pro-Am, taking the honours after the huge crash on Thursday and starting the race from pitlane. RAM Racing fought their way back to the 2nd podium position in this class.
Barwell even claimed a second trophy, as the #77 car came in 2nd in the AM Cup, effectively handing the endurance cup title to their drivers Amstutz and Machitski.