It wasn’t to be! It was written somewhere that success was to be elusive for the Belgian Audi Club Team WRT at the season-opener of the Blancpain Sprint Cup at Zolder, in what has been, otherwise, a great home event, with many spectators and glorious weather. One pole position, two podium finishes in Race 1 (with Vanthoor-Stevens 2nd and Riberas-Mies 3rd), two top 5 finishes by Frijns-Leonard and two wins in the Silver Cup by the stunning duo of Belgian young guns, Gilles Magnus and Alessio Picariello: the overall result is certainly positive, but leaves some frustration as the Belgian Audis R8 LMS certainly proved competitive and deserved more luck. Unfortunately, an overlapped car played for the rivals in the pit stop ‘gamble’ of Race 1, depriving Dries Vanthoor and Will Stevens of a win that within their reach, while a number of penalties dashed the team’s hopes in Race 2.
Team Principal Vincent Vosse wasn’t exactly happy at the end of the weekend: “I am disappointed, and a lit bit annoyed, to say the least”, he admitted, “We definitely feel frustrated by some of the decisions taken and that had a dramatic impact on the team’s weekend. It’s a pill hard to swallow for all the guys, who have done a fantastic work. We did prepare well this weekend, and were consistently on the top… This said, things are what they are, and it is better to look ahead of us. Let’s take the positive out of this weekend: we proved competitive, took podium finishes and points, and had two great wins in the Silver Cup, with our pair of Belgian youngsters, who did a great job…”
Novelties introduced in the Blancpain Sprint Cup this year changed significantly the format of the event, with the re-labelled Race 1 and Race 2 now giving an equal number of points, and having each their own Qualifying session determining the grid.
The weekend started well, with car #1 of Mies-Riberas topping the rankings in free practice 1 and three of Belgian Audi Club Team WRT in the top 5 in free practice 2. Qualifying 1 saw a stunning performance at home from Dries Vanthoor, who claimed pole in 1.28.560, with all the team’s other cars doing extremely well, as Álex Riberas took 3rd, an impressive Gilles Magnus 4th on his very debut in GT racing, and Stuart Leonard 9th.
Race 1, under glorious spring sunshine, was a typical Zolder race, with little possibilities for overtaking. Vanthoor took a perfect start and led throughout his stint, but was always closely followed by the Lambo of Engelhart. Riberas was a solid 3rd while Magnus, after being 5th in the initial laps, lost two positions, “struggling a bit with degradation of the tyres”. Leonard kept 9th thanks to some strong defense of his position. The pit stops would decide the race: they went well for the Belgian squad (except for a ‘difficult’ wheel nut in car #1) but different timing chosen by the top Lambo allowed it to have a clearer track and take the lead. Stevens could do little against the Huracan, finishing second ahead of Mies, with Frijns climbing back to 5th and Picariello taking 7th and victory in the Silver Cup. “It’s really a shame to lose for so little”, said a frustrated Vanthoor.
Race 2 was marred with controversy since Qualifying. Robin Frijns had his superb pole (1.28.363) taken away by the stewards for touching one of the cones at the chicane, although it was reckoned that this brought no advantage. Nevertheless, the session had to be red-flagged and this prompted the sanction. The Dutchman was furious, but had to accept being dropped to sixth row. Stevens inherited P2 on the front row, with Mies starting from P8, and Picariello from P13, having both being disturbed in their effort by one of the red flags.
Again with wonderful weather, Race 2 on Sunday saw the Lambo of Bortolotti imposing its power at first corner, with Stevens having to lift-off a bit to avoid jump start, which allowed also van der Linde to pass him. Frijns was running 7th in the very early stages, with Mies 8th (after being hit on the side at first corner) and Picariello 10th. The pit stop would again be decisive, but by virtue of the many sanctions it generated. A slower stop by the Lambo allowed Vanthoor to start the final part of the race in the lead, but having hit a cone exiting the pit lane, the Belgian was imposed a drive-through, as was car #1 for speeding in the pit lane, and also the leading Lambo. That put the Audi of Stijn Schothorst in the lead, with the best car of the Belgian Audi Club Team WRT being #17 of Leonard, in P6. Incredibly, Vanthoor, who had climbed back to P7, was inflicted another drive-through, allegedly for having overtaken a rival with part of the car off-track. Eventually, Frijns took 5th ahead of Magnus (with the #3 again winning the Silver Cup) and Vanthoor crossing the line in P12. Car #1 had retired in lap 24, with a mechanical issue.
The Blancpain Sprint Cup will return on stage 5-6 May at Brands Hatch. In the meantime, the Blancpain community will convene at Monza on 21-22 April for the season-opener of the Endurance Cup.
Blancpain Sprint Cup – Round 1
Zolder, Belgium, 6-8 April 2018
Race 1 results:
1. Engelhart-Bortolotti (Lambo Huracan) 39 laps
2. Vanthoor-Stevens (Audi R8 LMS) + 3s418
3. Riberas-Mies (Audi R8 LMS) + 4s294
4. S.Schothorst-van der Linde (Audi R8 LMS) + 6s550
5. Leonard-Frijns (Audi R8 LMS) +16s002
7. Magnus-Picariello (Audi R8 LMS) +33s155 (1st in Silver Cup)
Race 2 results:
1. Van der Linde-S.Schothorst (Audi R8 LMS) 39 laps
2. Marciello-Meadow (Mercedes AMG) + 0s6.980
3. Caldarelli-Pérez Companc (Lambo Huracan) +12s244
4. Serralles-Jamin (Mercedes AMG) +14s404
5. Frijns-Leonard (Audi R8 LMS) +24s134
6. Picariello-Magnus (Audi R8 LMS) +24s576
12. Stevens-Vanthoor (Audi R8 LMS) +53s314
DNF Mies-Riberas (Audir R8 LMS) mechanical (23 laps)