Raffaele Marciello and Vincent Abril delivered a measured drive to victory in today’s Blancpain GT World Challenge Europe contest at the Hungaroring, securing the first of three class wins for the AKKA ASP Mercedes-AMG squad.
Having earlier taken pole position for both of the weekend’s races, the #88 Mercedes-AMG crew of Marciello and Abril proceeded to lead from lights to flag at the Hungarian venue. There was plenty of drama behind them, with both the Silver Cup and Pro-Am battles decided on the final lap of the 60-minute run. Furthermore, a strong showing by the #4 Black Falcon Mercedes-AMG ensured that the overall teams’ and drivers’ titles will be decided in tomorrow’s season-closing race.
Heavy rain hit the Hungaroring between the morning’s qualifying session and the race start at 15.10. This ensured that the 28-strong field would roll off on wet-compound Pirelli tyres, while also necessitating a safety car start. Once the green flag flew Marciello began to break away at the head of the pack, with Luca Stolz next in the queue aboard the Black Falcon machine.
Stolz did not appear entirely comfortable during the opening stint, allowing the charging Mirko Bortolotti (#63 Grasser Racing Lamborghini) to catch and pass the #4 Mercedes-AMG for second spot. Bortolotti then made efforts to reel in Marciello, though it always seemed that the AKKA ASP racer had the pace to manage his advantage. Both were able to break away from Stolz, who had fallen into the clutches of Kelvin van der Linde (#66 Attempto Racing Audi) by the time the pit window opened shortly before half-distance.
The leading cars ran long into the pit window. Marciello and Bortolotti stopped together, with Abril taking the controls of the #88 Mercedes-AMG and Christian Engelhart at the wheel of the #63 Lamborghini. The gap between the two remained around the one-second mark, followed some five seconds later by Maro Engel in the #4 Mercedes-AMG.
At first it seemed that there could be a battle for the lead as Engelhart closed to within just a few tenths of Abril, though he was not close enough to mount a serious attack on the Monegasque driver. What’s more, Engelhart would soon face pressure from Engel, whose car appeared better suited to the drying track.
With Abril inching clear at the front, Engel closed up to the rear of the #63 Lamborghini. With vital championship points on the line, the Black Falcon driver had to find the balance between trying to make a pass and keeping his car on the road. The pair were nose-to-nail as the final lap got underway, though Engelhart looked to have his fellow countryman covered. Then, with just a few corners remaining, Engel made a move stick, holding his nerve as the two went side by side to snatch the runner-up spot at the last moment.
Ahead of them Abril secured a second Blancpain GT World Challenge Europe victory of the season for himself and teammate Marciello, capping a masterful showing from both drivers and the AKKA ASP squad. Engel, Stolz and the Black Falcon team celebrated second like a win, knowing the importance that it could have once the final championship table is settled tomorrow afternoon. The #63 Lamborghini took third, securing a fifth podium of the campaign for Engelhart and Bortolotti.
Fourth spot went to the #66 Attempto Audi. Clemens Schmid was at the wheel after taking over from Van der Linde, matching the duo’s best finish of the year and ending a run of five races without points. In fifth, the championship-leading #563 Orange1 FFF Racing Lamborghini came home less than a second shy of the Audi. Marco Mapelli made early progress from eighth on the grid, running sixth during the first stint before handing over to Andrea Caldarelli. There was further movement during the second half-hour, with Caldarelli climbing to fifth and closing up to Schmid, but the Lamborghini could not find a way past.
As such, the gap at the top of the Blancpain GT World Challenge Europe drivers’ and teams’ standings has closed up even further ahead of tomorrow’s deciding race. Caldarelli/Mapelli hold a two-point advantage over Stolz/Engel, who will be their only opposition in the deciding contest. The teams’ title is even more hotly contested: FFF enter tomorrow’s race on 87.5 points, with Black Falcon on 84 and AKKA ASP on 83.
The Silver Cup and Pro-Am drivers’ titles will also go to the wire after an incredible finish to today’s race saw both classes decided on the final lap. The Silver category was as competitive as ever, with the pole-sitting #89 AKKA ASP car dropping back during the opening stint and the #56 Attempto Audi moving into the lead in the hands of Mattia Drudi. This would change during the pit stop phase, with the #62 R-Motorsport Aston Martin hitting the front thanks to quick work in the pits.
Hugo de Sadeleer now had the advantage, but Nico Bastian made rapid progress aboard the #89 AKKA ASP machine. The Mercedes-AMG overhauled the Aston Martin on the very last lap, ensuring that Bastian and Neubauer will lead the class standings ahead of tomorrow’s finale. What’s more, it secured the Silver Cup teams’ title for AKKA ASP with a race to spare.
The timing of Bastian’s winning pass was made to seem comfortable by Jim Pla in the sister #87 Mercedes-AMG. The French driver secured Pro-Am honours just two corners from home, muscling past Phil Keen (#519 Orange1 FFF Racing Lamborghini) to bag victory for the car he shares with Jean-Luc Beaubelique. The #519 led the bulk of the race, with Hiroshi Hamaguchi at the wheel during the first stint before Keen took over, and despite losing victory looks set to clinch the class title tomorrow. The lone Am Cup entrant came home 27th, with Florian Schulze and then Wolfgang Triller handing the #444 HB Racing Ferrari.
Today’s race sets the stage for a truly fascinating Blancpain GT World Challenge Europe finale, which gets underway tomorrow at 13.45. In the headline battle for the overall drivers’ crown, the #4 Black Falcon Mercedes-AMG duo trail by two points, but they will start fourth on the grid while the leading #563 FFF Lamborghini pair must make forward progress from 13th spot. After a season of action-packed sprint racing, everything will come down to the final 60 minutes.
Raffaele Marciello, #88 AKKA ASP Mercedes-AMG: “It may have seemed easy from the outside, but it’s never easy to win. This is our second victory of the year and we can have plenty of regrets, because if we had not lost points in Brands Hatch [clutch failure] and Misano [pit stop error] we could have been in contention for the championship until the end. Still, this was a nice victory and tomorrow we’ll start from pole again. We hope to win race 2 and end the season on a high note.”
Luca Stolz, #4 Black Falcon Mercedes-AMG: “Maro is the man of the day! I struggled in my stint, partly because the tyre pressure was too high, but Maro managed to catch the leading duo at the end and pass Christian on the very last lap. Tomorrow we’ll start P4, ahead of our rivals, so we still have a good chance in the championship.”
Christian Engelhart, #63 Grasser Racing Lamborghini: “We had a great race today. First of all, Mirko had a fantastic first stint with a great overtaking move to take P2. When I got the car I had a great pace and was able to catch the leader. It seemed very good at the time, but in the end it was also a strategic battle in choosing the tyre pressure. We gambled on a track that would stay wet longer, but it dried a little bit too quickly for us. I couldn’t keep Maro behind me until the chequered flag, so I wish the race had been one lap shorter!”
Nico Bastian, #89 AKKA ASP Mercedes-AMG: “This was a difficult race for us, and difficult for Thomas especially. Our car was more set up for dry conditions and it was very wet at the start, so he was really struggling. When I got into the car I knew that I was 10 to 12 seconds behind our competitors. I pushed like crazy and counted the seconds I won per sector! On the very last lap I overtook the Aston Martin, which is really important for us in the championship. The car was mega and tomorrow is the last race, so it even gets more serious!”
Jim Pla, #87 AKKA ASP Mercedes-AMG: “It was a tough race, but the car was very good in the wet and I was pushing hard. It was difficult to overtake Bertolini because he is a very good driver, and I knew that Phil Keen would be very strong at the end of the race. The last two laps were very good for me. I didn’t have too much tyre degradation, which allowed me to overtake Phil on the last lap of the race. I’m really happy for Jean-Luc, for the team and for myself.”
Source. SRO Motorsports Group