Since its launch in 2011, the Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup has established itself as Europe’s most competitive GT3 category. Originally known as the Blancpain Endurance Series, the championship has earned its reputation thanks to packed grids, a wide variety of machinery, and an intense level of on-track competition. The 2019 season will represent the ninth year of competition for the Endurance Cup, which alongside the sprint-format Blancpain GT World Challenge Europe forms half of the overall Blancpain GT Series schedule.
Cast an eye over the entry list for a regular event and you can expect to see more than 50 cars, with factory-aligned efforts from the biggest brands in motorsport. The field becomes even more impressive at the marquee Total 24 Hours of Spa, with as many as 70 entrants tackling the most important GT3 race on the planet.
These are some of the key Endurance Cup stats and records to keep in mind as we prepare to go racing in 2019.
Eight seasons in the making
The Endurance calendar has been remarkably stable for what is a relatively young series. The first race of the 2011 season took place at Monza, and every Endurance opener since has been staged during the second half of April at the Italian venue. The Total 24 Hours of Spa has also remained in its traditional spot at the end of July.
For 2012 the Endurance campaign began by taking in Monza, Silverstone, Circuit Paul Ricard and Spa. This same succession of iconic circuits has remained unchanged since.
2012 also saw the Nürburgring stage round five while a sixth event took place at Circuito de Navarra (the only time the Endurance calendar has expanded beyond five races). From 2013 through 2016 the Nürburgring remained in situ as the fifth and final outing, before swapping with former Sprint Cup venue Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya in 2017 to give us the calendar we have today.
The inaugural race at Monza saw 37 cars entered, 32 of which took the start. The class structure looked broadly similar to what we will have in 2019, with GT3 cars competing for Pro, Pro-Am and Gentlemen Trophy honours. The latter has since been renamed the Am Cup, while the Silver Cup was added in 2018.
One major difference was the presence of a GT4 category, which existed only during the 2011 season. Since then, the championship has catered exclusively for GT3 machinery, plus the Cup cars that can contest the ‘Groupe National’ class at Spa.
Several of the drivers who raced at Monza in 2011 were still part of the series for its most recent race at Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya last year, and many are likely to compete again in 2019. This group includes Markus Palttala, Maxime Martin and Alex Buncombe, though just one driver has contested every event since the series’ launch. More on that later.
There are also a number of teams that were present for the very first race: Belgian Audi Club Team WRT, AF Corse, Team RJN and Auto Sport Promotion (now AKKA ASP Team) all competed at Monza in 2011 and remained full-time Endurance squads as of 2018. Among these, WRT and AF Corse have never missed an Endurance event, while RJN and AKKA ASP have been absent from only a handful of rounds.
The opening season of competition saw Gregory Franchi and Belgian Audi Club Team WRT secure the inaugural drivers’ and teams’ titles. The same combination also clinched victory at the Total 24 Hours of Spa, where Timo Scheider and Mattias Ekström joined Franchi at the wheel of the winning Audi R8 LMS.
Winning: it don’t come easy
The standard of competition at Endurance events has risen each year since 2011, making the overall winners’ trophy an increasingly prized possession.
This is shown by the fact that, over the past two seasons, there have been nine overall winners from 10 events. Indeed, there were no repeat winners at all during the 2018 season, a first for the series.
As such, it is near impossible to build up a vast number of race wins, while even amassing multiple podium finishes is tough. Looking just at the 2018 season, 13 different crews finished on the overall rostrum across the five races.
With that in mind, here’s a fact that should not come as a surprise: the only two crews that reached the podium more than once in 2018 – the #4 Black Falcon Mercedes-AMG and the #88 AKKA ASP Mercedes-AMG – finished first and second in the Endurance standings.
There is no shortage of competition in the other classes. In both the Pro-Am and Silver Cup categories there were four winners from five races in 2018, while the Am Cup saw three different victors. All of the class titles went to the wire, with Pro-Am and Silver Cup concluding in especially dramatic fashion.
The numbers game
When it comes to outright victories, the most successful driver to date is Maxime Martin. The Belgian ace has triumphed six times, his first win coming at Magny-Cours in 2011 and the most recent at the 2016 running of the Total 24 Hours of Spa.
All of Martin’s wins have come in BMW machinery, though he is now seeking to add to his tally as an Aston Martin factory driver. Interestingly, only three drivers have won Endurance races with multiple brands: Yelmer Buurman (BMW & Mercedes-AMG) Frederic Makowiecki (McLaren & Aston Martin) and Cesar Ramos (Audi & Ferrari).
Martin’s former teammates, Bas Leinders and Markus Palttala, are just one behind his wins record on five, while Shane van Gisbergen and Rob Bell both have four. Of those drivers, only Palttala remained active during the 2018 season.
Clinching victory is certainly not easier in the Pro-Am category, where over 70 drivers have stood on the top step of the podium since 2011. Among them, the most successful are Niek Hommerson and Louis Machiels, who have shared six class wins as teammates. The pairing remained on the grid last season and are among the most experienced Pro-Am competitors in the series.
When it comes to overall Endurance podium finishes, Stephane Ortelli leads the way. The Monegasque driver has stood on the rostrum 12 times to date, once more than his former teammate Laurens Vanthoor. Three drivers are tied for third place, with Martin, Palttala and Christopher Mies all recording 10 top-three finishes thus far. In total, more than 150 drivers have stood on the podium at Endurance events, with more than half of those doing so multiple times.
Ortelli also holds the record for Endurance starts, having been present for all 41 events over the combined history of the Blancpain Endurance Series and Endurance Cup. Alex Buncombe is second on 39, with Andy Soucek and Frank Stippler tied for third on 31 starts. All four have been race winners in the series; Ortelli and Buncombe are both past champions, while Ortelli and Stippler are Total 24 Hours of Spa winners.
The record for most appearances by a non-professional driver is held by Jean-Luc Beaubelique. The Frenchman has contested 30 Endurance races – as many as Mies and one more than Martin – and has appeared at some stage during every season with the exception of 2014. A regular class front-runner, Beaubelique clinched the title in the Gentlemen Trophy category (now the Am Cup) during the 2013 Endurance campaign.
Age? It’s just a number
There has always been a significant spread in the age of Blancpain GT Series competitors. This is especially true for Endurance events, where aspiring youngsters, established professionals and gentlemen drivers all share the same grid.
As a general rule the Pro class tends to feature drivers in their twenties and thirties, the Silver Cup category attracts youngsters in their twenties and late teens, while the Pro-Am and Am Cup classes often includes drivers in their forties, fifties and even sixties.
That was the case once again in 2018, when the elder competitors in the Endurance Cup were in their early to mid-sixties. This group included former grand prix ace Riccardo Patrese, who at the age of 64 rolled back the years to contest the Total 24 Hours of Spa.
At the other end of the spectrum, there were a handful of drivers born after the turn of the Millennium who competed last term. They included Nyls Stievenart, who was the youngest competitor on the grid.
Looking across the history of the series, the oldest driver to win an Endurance event is Gianluca Roda. The Italian was 51 when he triumphed at the very first race at Monza in 2011, setting a record that will be very difficult to beat.
Roda is the only driver over the age of 50 to take overall victory, but it remains reasonably commonplace in the Pro-Am category and is a frequent occurrence in the Am Cup. Despite the escalating standard of competition, age need not be an obstacle to success.
The record for the youngest Endurance winner was broken during the 2018 campaign. By triumphing at the 2013 Total 24 Hours of Spa, Mercedes-AMG ace Maxi Buhk set the benchmark at 20 years and seven months. This was toppled by Audi driver Dries Vanthoor, who won at Monza in 2018, just two days after his 20th birthday.
If Vanthoor’s achievement is to be eclipsed, it will almost certainly require a teenager to take outright victory in a Blancpain GT Series event. That is not impossible, but nor is it the most likely record to change hands next term.
What we can predict is another hugely competitive season of Endurance Cup racing. Could we see more than 13 crews stand on the overall podium in 2019? Looking at the stats and how the series has developed in recent years, we wouldn’t bet against it.
Source. SRO Motorsports Group/Photo BMW