Photos courtesy of GT Report- http://www.gt-report.com
They darted into the pits nose to tail, right on the limit. Clemens Schmid in the #75 ISR Audi led #2 WRT car of Markus Winkelhock. It was all down to the pit crews. All the time they’ve spent practicing, it a comes down to this one moment. A showdown of biblical proportions, a showdown that could win or lose them the race. Never mind the race, this was an inter-brand rivalry at its climax.
After the chaotic start in the Qualifying Race, everyone was on their best behaviour as the cars lined up in “Noah’s Ark”, two by two formation. Stuart Leonard led the charging pack to the green flag but it was the #90 AKKA Mercedes AMG GT3 that got the initial jump, Leonard almost caught napping as Michael Meadows swooped around the outside at turn one stealing the lead from the #17 Audi R8 LMS. It would all shift once again though as Meadows was deemed to have jump started and had to serve a drive through penalty.
Behind; the “herd of ragging bulls” hustled their way around the first corner avoiding contact. That wouldn’t last very long as they all got to the back of the circuit, everything began to tighten up and all of a sudden the mid pack were tripping over each other. Antonio Felix da Costa in the #99 ROWE Racing BMW got tapped by Marcel Fassler in his #5 Audi at the final chicane. Fassler was well up the inside of the #99 but as the track narrowed, Fassler eventually ran out of room and contact was inevitable. Da Costa ended up facing in the wrong direction, but re-joined in last place.
Meanwhile, in the pit-lane, the #43 Strakka Racing McLaren of Ben Barnicoat and Alvaro Parente was forced into retirement with an oil pressure problem preventing the car from going any further. Our eyes were fixed on the lead battle as Winkelhock got passed Leonard for 2nd and began to put pressure on Schmid in the #75 for first.
The Austrian driver fended off Winkelhock for the entire length of the first stint, at times the two Audi’s were bumper to bumper and at a few points, even side by side. But with all this pressure, Schmid kept a cool head and controlled the pace keeping Winkelhock in the #2 at bay.
Both Audi’s entered the pits as one, but it was the pit stop by WRT that made the difference. The Belgian Audi boys produced a stellar 18 second stop as Will Stevens (in the #2 Audi) was able to leave the pit lane with a lead of a couple of seconds over Filip Salaquarda, now at the wheel of the #75. The Czech driver’s position came under threat, when Robin Frijns (who had taken over from Stuart Leonard) set a series of fastest laps. However, try as he might Frijns could not manage to overtake Salaquarda.
With 12 minutes left on the clock, the race was neutralized because of contact between Daniel Juncadella in the #88 AKKA Mercedes and Jimmy Eriksson in the #86. The two AMG’s came together at the final chicane, both suffered major damage but Juncadella continued on. Eriksson however, didn’t get as lucky and ended up crawling to halt on the main straight. The stricken HTP car needing recovery.
With the safety car lights off and time for just about one lap left on the clock, everyone’s palms became sweaty. The tension metres in the cockpits would have been through the roof. Stevens backed up the queue and released his V10 R8 out of the final corner to begin the last lap. He rounded turn one with a slight buffer between himself and Salaquarda in the #75, A backmarker in the shape of Daniel Kelwitz and the #333 PRO-AM Ferrari. Kelwitz stayed out the way and the rest of the top 5 filtered through without harm.
Frijns had several big lunges up the inside of Salaquarda, but once again the #75 Audi dissipated the pressure and held onto second position. The four rings dominated the pointy end of the field with the top four positions all taken out by Audi’s. But it was the Will Stevens/Markus Winkelhock driven #2 car who stole the lead in the pits and went on to take the chequered flag for WRT.
Felipe Salaquarda and Clemens Schmid, who basically drove with their mirrors, did a fantastic job to finish in second place for ISR. Their sister car the #74 was less fortunate. Frank Stippler made contact with the Rinaldi Racing Ferrari of Kelwitz in the closing stages of the race causing terminal damage to the #74 forcing them into retirement. But a solid podium position for the #75 will put a rather large smile on the face of team principle Igor Salaquarda.
Behind the ISR Audi was Robin Frijns and Stuart Leonard in the #17 WRT car, but behind them was the fourth Audi in the queue. Local hero Dries Vanthoor and ex- Audi LMP1 driver Marcel Fassler came across the line in fourth position in their #5 R8 LMS. The duo drove a faultless race after starting from 13th position on the grid. Fassler had a cracking first stint making up a lot of places on the opening lap despite his tangle with the #99 ROWE BMW. When Fassler brought the car into the pits to hand over to Vanthoor, the WRT mechanics delivered once again. Quicker than you could blink, the #5 car was up in fourth and challenging for the podium.
The first of the non-Audi’s came home in fifth. The #7 Bentley in the hands of Vincent Abril and Steven Kane crept up the leader board with next level stealth. On the final lap, Kane went off in pursuit of the Audi steam-roller. The big Bentley carved its way through the back markers and got within a second of the #5 car, but Kane had to settle for fifth.
Next up was HTP Motorsport and the infamous #84 car of Maximillian Buhk and Franck Perera. The Mercedes AMG GT3 started all the way down in 16th position but had a brilliant first stint in the hands of Perera. As the #84 car headed into the pit stops they were sitting in eighth. Buhk did what he does best and charged up the field to sixth as the race drew to a close. The pairing continues their healthy finishing average.
In Silver Cup, pole sitter David Fumanelli made a slight mistake in the second lap, and the #42 Strakka Motorsport McLaren dropped a couple of places. That promoted the #85 HTP Motorsport Mercedes-AMG to first in Silver Cup, but that was not enough for Jules Szymkowiak and Fabian Schiller. The youngest duo of the field had started the Qualifying Race from last, but some inspired driving in both races eventually led to a more than decent eighth place overall.
In the Pro-Am Cup Michael Broniszewski quickly fought his way to the front, at the wheel of the #11 Kessel Racing Ferrari. He passed the leading Ferraris of Piti Bhirombhakdi and Alexander Mattschull in the opening laps and the reigning Blancpain GT Series Pro-Am champion – who had never raced in Zolder before – never looked back. The Ferrari 458 Italia of Stephen Earle and David Perel scoring full points in the Am Cup, the weekend ended on a high for the Swiss Kessel Racing squad.
From Zolder the Blancpain circus heads off to France and the wide open spaces of Paul Ricard. this is where things start to get serious as the teams build up to the big one, the Spa 24 Hours.