When an overall Le Mans winner, Sebring class winner and double FIA GT champion tells a series organiser “don’t change a thing” about their championship, the series organiser in question had better listen. That’s exactly the message Monaco man Stéphane Ortelli had for the SRO Motorsports Group, organisers of the Blancpain Endurance Series, at the final round of the series’ inaugural season last September.
Unlike Stephane Ratel’s other current venture, the FIA GT1 World Championship, the Blancpain Endurance Series doesn’t aim for manufacturer-blessed teams, international TV deals and a high public profile. Rather, it was created with the competitor in mind. Wealthy European gentleman racers told SRO that they wanted an endurance series, and so SRO obliged, returning to a format of three-hour races on high-profile Grand Prix tracks that the FIA GT championship had gradually moved away from. A driver categorisation system ensures almost everyone has something to shoot for, with a GT3 Pro Cup on offer for all-pro driver pairings, a GT3 Pro-Am Cup for gentleman/professional partnerships and a GT3 Citation cup for all-amateur line-ups. GT4 machinery and ‘Supersport’ cars such as the Lotus 2-11 are also catered for, although there were no entries in the latter category at Silverstone.
There were, however, entries for two McLaren MP4-12C GT3 machines, decked out in McLaren corporate orange and being run by McLaren’s development partner, CRS Racing. This was the fourth race outing for the car, following British GT and 24-hour races at Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium and another Blancpain event at Magny Cours in France. This public development campaign was designed to showcase the new machine to potential customer teams, and plenty have liked what they’ve seen so far – French outfit Hexis has purchased two for the 2012 GT1 World Championship, and the Anglo-American United Autosports team has already campaigned a car at the Macau GT event, ahead of a full Blancpain assault this year with lead drivers David Brabham and Mark Blundell. Only 20 MP4-12C GT3s were produced for the 2012 season, and all have now been sold. With an updated Audi R8 LMS coming from Ingolstadt, and the Mercedes SLS AMG now well into its stride after a 1-2-3 result at the Dubai 24 Hours, the standard of machinery at the sharp end of GT grids is now very high.
Back to the race at hand, though, and with the GT3 teams title having been decided at the previous round at Magny Cours, there were seven trophies still to be handed out at Silverstone. Belgian Greg Franchi in the WRT Audi was in a comfortable position in the GT3 Pro drivers standings heading into the weekend, but there were no less than seven drivers waiting in the wings to pounce if he had a below-par performance. Both drivers and teams titles were up for grabs in the Pro-Am, Citation and GT4 catergories, underlining the competitiveness of the series.
Balance of Peformance is probably the most controversial phrase you could have uttered in a European GT paddock this year, but the formula used in the Blancpain series appears to have got things spot on: cars from four different manufacturers (Ferrari, Porsche, BMW and Audi) won the four events preceding the Silverstone round. A wet first practice session on the Friday saw a fifth manufacturer come to the for, as key series sponsor Marc Hayek, CEO of Blancpain, went fastest in his Reiter Engineering-run Lamborghini Gallardo.
The weather had cleared by the following morning, when it was McLaren’s turn to shine in the early pre-qualifying session as the no59 car in the hands of Danny Watts, Oliver Turvey and Alvaro Parente set the quickest time, two tenths ahead of the two Vita4One Ferrari 458s. But come qualifying proper, it was Dino Lunardi in the Alpina B6 and the aforementioned Stephane Ortelli in the WRT Audi R8 that locked out the front row. Championship leader Franchi kept his cards close to his chest by qualifying in 14th overall and 10th in class. An eighth-in-class finish would guarantee him the title on Sunday.
One of the most fascinating aspects of endurance racing is just how close the finishes can be, despite the long distances involved. Audi’s 14-second victory at Le Mans this year was a prime example, and although in this case eventual race winners Bas Leinders, Markus Palttala and Maxime Martin took the chequered flag almost 30 seconds ahead of second place, that second place was still being fought over on the final lap of the race. Ortelli in the WRT Audi chased down Giacomo Petrobelli in the no20 Vita4One Ferrari 458 in the closing stages before pulling off a classic overtake through Abbey corner on the last lap. The Marc VDS BMW Z4’s win was enough to secure Vice-Champion status for Palttala, but Greg Franchi did what was required of him, finishing fifth overall in his Audi R8 and clinching the inaugural Blancpain Endurance Series drivers’ title in the process.
Further down the field, delighted champions were also crowned in the Pro-Am Cup (Niek Hommerson/Louis Machiels), Citation Cup (Geroges Cabannes) and GT4 Cup (Chris Ward/Jordan Tresson/Alex Buncombe) categories. More importantly for the future of the series, though, it seems even those who didn’t win were very satisfied with the experience of taking part. At the time of writing, a whole raft of entries had already been announced for the 2012 Blancpain Series, which visits some very presitigous tracks such, as Monza, Silverstone, Spa-Francorchamps, Paul Ricard and the Nurburgring. This goes to show that a successful race series is not really about ‘if you build it, they will come’ as much as it is ‘if you build what they want, they will come.’ When it comes to customer GT racing in 2012, the Blancpain Endurance Series is giving everyone what they want.
All images: Ed Fahey