Zero to hero

After a journey through four countries, the Blancpain Endurance Series comes to a close at the historic Nürburgring race track. In the Eifel everything is still to win and lose, as in the short time between April’s Monza season opening race and today, no titles in the Pro and Am Cup have been given away. It’s up to the staggering field of 55 cars to divide the spoils.

Race day is opened by the early morning qualifying session, taking place under the typical Eifel fog and cold temperatures. During qualifying title contenders Nissan and Bentley show great speed, outing themselves as the ones to beat today. Andy Soucek in the number 31 M-Sport Bentley Continental GT3 sets the first real benchmark this morning. At the end of the session, however, it’s Mirko Bortolotti in the number 63 Grasser Racing Lamborghini Huracán GT3 who takes his second pole of the season. A two-tenths of a second faster lap time is enough to beat the Nissan GT-R Nismo GT3’s of Nissan GT Academy Team RJN and Blancpain GT debuting Always Evolving Motorsport.

During the sunny grid walk there is tension in the air: the pressure is on, the stakes are high. Nothing less than four titles in the Pro and Am Cup in the world’s toughest and most competitive endurance series for GT3’s are up for grabs.

As the cars take off for the formation lap, the Lambo, still with a small chance of winning the team championship, is flanked by another title contender, the number 23 RJN Nissan. The rest of the championship aspirants are farther behind: the M-Sport Bentley of Guy Smith, Andy Meyrick and Steven Kane qualified seventh, while championship leaders Stéphane Ortelli and Frank Stippler only manage to start from the fourteenth position, two places behind their rivals from Rowe Racing who placed the Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG GT3 driven by Nico Bastian, Stef Dusseldorp and Daniel Juncadella on P12. Everything is set for a thrilling race.

When the light goes green and the field is let loose for the three hour battle for victory, it’s Craig Dolby in the Always Evolving Nissan who overtakes the pole sitting Lamborghini for the lead. In the laps that follow, the Brit creates a substantial gap to the following drivers. An early intervention of the safety car, however, reduces that gap to zero.

Back under green it is Rowe Racing’s Nico Bastian who makes contact with a McLaren in the first corner and is punished with a drive-through penalty. The number 99 Rowe Racing Mercedes—second in the standings—becomes the first casualty of the battle for the championship as it falls down the order and out title contention, finishing twelfth in the end.

After the first series of pit stops, Always Evovling, having seen their big lead evaporate under the safety car earlier in the race, drops back some places but keeps first place in sight. For now, the fight in front is left to the number 23 RJN Nissan of Alex Buncombe, Wolfgang Reip and Katsumasa Chiyo, and number 63 Grasser Lamborghini raced by Adrian Zaugg, Giovanni Venturini and Mirko Bortolotti, two of the many title contenders.

Vying for the win, Reip and Bortolotti are racing on the limit, with Robin Frijns in the WRT Audi shared with Laurens Vanthoor and Jean-Karl Vernay never very far away. The Dutchman fights a ferocious battle with Sean Walkinshaw in the Always Evolving Nissan for the last step on the podium, keeping hope alive for Vanthoor to repeat his 2014 Blancpain Endurance Series championship.

With Reip placed perfectly to take the championship, the safety car has to make an intervention for the second time as the race is about to enter its third and final hour. This break brings the field back together again and creates some hectic situations in pit lane. Nearly all off the frontrunners come in to do their second and final driver change.

Now with Alex Buncombe in the number 23 Nissan GT Academy Team RJN GT-R Nismo GT3, the Japanese car is challenged around the Eifel course by the Bentley Boys in the number 7 car. Buncombe managed to stay in front of Steven Kane in the big white Bentley, for at least a little while.

They’re not battling for the lead any more, however. Unbeknownst to most people around the track, Von Ryan Racing has opted to follow a risky strategy: Pitting during the first safety car period in which Rob Bell hands over the car to Shane Van Gisbergen, the works supported number 58 McLaren 650S GT3 again comes into the pits at exactly the right moment for the New-Zealander to get out and let Kévin Estre in for the final hour. Now it’s up to the McLaren works driver to close the gap to the leaders. Estre doesn’t let down: the Frenchman sets a lightning pace and gains the lead when Black Falcon and Bentley make their final pit stops.

As the orange McLaren breaks away from the rest of the field, a tough fight over the championship breaks out: Kane in the Bentley needs a win to take the Pro Cup trophy home if the Nissan also climbs the podium, which is exactly how things look. There’s nothing else left to do for the Northern Irishman than to put the Nissan under pressure. But Buncombe makes the Nissan even wider than is already is, not letting Kane through and watching Estre run away with the lead.

Then Kane has enough: the Bentley Boy gives the Nissan a little push under breaking and slips the Bentley past the GT-R. The move, however, is seen by race control, and he has to let the Nissan through again. When Kane tries a second time to take second, he does succeed in slipstreaming past the Nissan at the end of the start finish straight. Now his move is clean and he directly starts to reduce ground to Estre.

Buncombe doesn’t try to hunt down the Continental again: there’s only minutes left to go and being third with Kane finishing second still means they score enough points to become champions. In spite of Kane’s best efforts, the Bentley never really stands a chance against the relentless Estre, who is now comfortably leading in the McLaren.

Still, the championship is not won just yet for Nissan: there’s still Laurens Vanthoor coming up behind them. The Belgian is the only one left who can still change the outcome of the championship in his favour and now in fourth place, the WRT Audi R8 LMS ultra GT3 racer is charging hard to get to the back of Buncombe in hope of repeating his 2014 Blancpain Endurance championship title.

But there is no time. Even though he puts the Nissan under pressure, Buncombe manages to fend off Vanthoor’s attacks during the last laps. Crossing the finish line in third is enough for Alex Buncombe, Katsumasa Chiyo and Wolfgang Reip to claim the 2015 Pro Cup for drivers, beating the Bentley Boys by a mere three points.

“I thought that I had to keep the Bentley behind me so I didn’t know we had won the title,” says Buncombe. “It feels unbelievable to win. I’ve worked very hard over the years with Nissan and RJN to get to this point and I have to say that it’s probably the best day of my life—apart from the day my son was born!

“It was definitely the hardest stint of my life. It was full pressure from the word go. It was tough to keep the Bentley behind for all of that time and then I had to do the same with the number 1 Audi. That was as close as it gets and I couldn’t be happier with the result.”

McLaren works drivers Kévin Estre, Rob Bell and Shane Van Gisbergen give the Von Ryan Racing team their second win of the season, after they were victorious in McLaren’s home race at Silverstone earlier in the year. It was Rob Bell who had taken the start from only 24th on the grid, came in early to hand over the car to Van Gisbergen who drove a phenomenal stint, which enabled Estre to finish the job by putting down fast laps as the others pitted. Then the McLaren suddenly emerged at the front and with the ever quick Estre now in the car, it was just a matter of staying out of trouble.

“[That was] an amazing strategy call by the team and a bulletproof car won us that race,” says Bell. “It’s fair to say qualifying didn’t go to plan, but we knew we were in a good position with the set up of the car so we had a strong chance, but the decision to pit early was what made the difference.

When the call came over the radio from my engineer that we were going to ‘roll the dice’ with the strategy, I was a little bit surprised, but it was absolutely the right move. A fantastic way to end the year with Von Ryan Racing, and score another victory for the 650S GT3 in its debut season.”

Vanthoor’s fourth place wasn’t enough for him to take the drivers title, but it did bring WRT Audi the teams championship.

I think we got the maximum out of it and drove a good race,” Vanthoor says. “The strategic decision to come in early for a pit stop was definitely the right one. When it came to pure speed and we were out on fresh tyres just like the others, it was impossible to keep up with them. But when their tyres also started to wear down, we were definitely more competitive. That’s also why at the end I could close the thirteen second gap to the Nissan. I tried to overtake him, but with a top speed that is ten kilometres per hour faster, that’s very hard.

That’s why I’m mostly satisfied that our fourth place was decisive in winning the teams championship. We didn’t have the best car this year, but the team did a beautiful job and I want to thank them for it!”

Surprisingly, Frank Stippler and Stéphane Ortelli, the championship leaders going into the weekend, never recovered from their fourteenth place on the grid. Although placed well halfway through the race, a collision with Martin Plowman’s Always Evolving Nissan sent the car down the order and out of the points at the waving of the chequered flag.

Out of the spotlights and far away from all the works action, the small time Emily Frey Racing squad took the top honours in the Pro-Am class with their privately developed Jaguar XK GT3 for the first time ever.

At the end I had to fight hard and lost time due to lapped cars,” Gabriele Gardel says after crossing the finish line only tenths of a seconds in front of second place. “This victory, though, was not going to fall from my grasp.”

And so the 2015 Blancpain Endurance Series has come to a conclusion. A thrilling 3 hours of the Nürburgring decides the championship in the waning moments of the afternoon. No Audi this time, at least in the drivers championship, but Nissan’s young guns from GT Academy Team RJN, this year for the first time participating in the Pro Cup.

Once again, Nissan’s support for the GT Academy is paid out.

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A motorsports fan first, JP loves to cover all the action with his camera. Shooting for a newspaper and a race team around the Nürburgring, but also travelling to Spa-Francorchamps to cover selected events.

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JP Wagner

A motorsports fan first, JP loves to cover all the action with his camera. Shooting for a newspaper and a race team around the Nürburgring, but also travelling to Spa-Francorchamps to cover selected events.