They call it the big beast, and it’s easy to see why: Twin Turbo V8, colossal chassis size and one beautiful noise. As the night settled in the South of France, the bright LED headlights on the number 8 Bentley Team M-Sport Continental GT3 burned their way through the dark, leading the car to victory. With Maxime Soulet at the wheel, the big beefy Continental thundered out of the final corner and took the win while co-drivers Andy Soucek and Vincent Abril celebrated in the garage.
The moon and the stars of the night sky a nice contrast from the thirty plus degree temperatures the drivers had to deal with earlier in the race. Speaking of the start, two safety car interventions in the opening hour of the Paul Ricard 1000 kilometres sent teams diving left, right and centre for alternative strategies. All this confusion put the 6-hour race into a bit of a spin with cars off-kilter and at stages completely out of order. With this brought excitement and multiple leaders and lead changes; AMG, Jaguar, Ferrari, BMW and Bentley all pioneering the way at some point. Fortunately for the British Bentley crew, they lead at the time it counted most.
Bentley number 8 crossed the finish line 29 seconds ahead of second place to claim the British manufacturer’s first Endurance Cup win since 2014. The all-star trio of Soulet, Soucek and Abril maximized their opportunities as other cars struck drama or were plagued by issues. Their sister car, the number 7 Continental, suffered a raft of mechanical woes. First it was an oil pressure problem and then their headaches became migraines with an intermittent fuel pickup debacle, putting them several laps down and way out of contention.
The 6 hours of Paul Ricard is often considered the warm up for the big one, the 24 Hours of Spa. But with no shortage of reliability problems up and down the pitlane, a lot of people will be scratching their heads heading into the Spa test day. This year’s attrition rate seemed to be catching manufacturers and teams slightly by surprise. There was a fair few teething issues for cars that have been on the world stage for a number years, such as in the case of the Audi R8 LMS GT3.
A theme seemed to be developing a short while into the 6-hours, as tyres and wheels became the key words. Several teams suffered from punctures and loose wheels, taking out two BMWs, one AMG and a pair of Audis. On top of all this drama, three cars were hit by catastrophic engine failures. White smoke and the smell of burnt oil filled the air as two Lamborghinis and an AMG died on the spot. One of these victims was the ever-strong number 84 HTP Mercedes-AMG GT3 of Maximilian Buhk, Franck Perera and Jimmy Erikson. In the hands of Perera, the AMG coasted its way down the Mistral Straight, smoke pouring out the back like a chimney on a cold winter’s eve.
The drama knob wasn’t going to be toned down for the last hour — far from it. In fact, things got even more chaotic. With 59 minutes remaining on the clock, AF Corse were gobsmacked at the sight of their third-placed number 50 Ferrari 488 GT3 crawling at a failure-indicating rate.
With Alessandro Pier Guidi behind the wheel, the car limped its way back to the pits as Pasin Lathouras and Michele Rugulo bitterly watched on. The outcome for them would be a retirement due to a fuel valve issue. Things got even more electrifying when the second-placed, pole-siting Black Falcon AMG unexpectedly came into the pits. The number 4 car staggered its way down the pitlane, eventually grinding to a depressing halt a couple of hundred metres short of the Black Falcon garage. The mechanics and engineers sprinted up towards it and agonizingly used man power to push the car down to the garage, but it would be no use. A broken gearbox put Yelmer Buurman, Adam Christodoulou and Luca Stolz out of the race. The number 4 AMG was a car and a driver combination that looked so promising and so strong all weekend, but their hopes faded to nothing just like that.
As Bentley Team M-Sport celebrated their fabulous victory for the number 8 car, SMP Racing, who had snuck up the leader board, benefited from all the catastrophes that unfolded ahead of them. The number 72 Ferrari 488 GT3 of Victor Shaytar, Miguel Molina and Davide Rigon stealthily hushed its way to second place, claiming the silverware for the Russian, AF Corse-run team. Rounding out the podium was one of the many German marques in the 58 car strong field. Audi Sport Team WRT came across the line in third with the number 1 car of Antonio García, Nico Müller and René Rast.
24 hours is a long, grueling time for a race. If we times all the drama and action that has happened at Paul Ricard by four and compact it into the Spa 24 Hours, no one will be sleeping.