Dries Vanthoor is hoisted up on Christopher Mies and Alex Riberas’ shoulders in celebration. The young Belgian is heralded like a king back from conquest, as it was his stint that determined the outcome of the Blancpain GT race in Monza, and Vanthoor executed his task to perfection. After kicking off the racing season with victory in the 12 Hours of Bathurst, Vanthoor began his 2018 Blancpain GT campaign with a strong but fruitless performance in Zolder, only to rebound in Monza with a stellar race to the win.
The win in the 3-hour Monza endurance didn’t come quite expected to Vanthoor. The Audi R8 LMS GT3 has never won at the high-speed race track and neither is the car a true Monza special. On Saturday during practice the team was way down the order. Only in the qualification session on Sunday morning the car began to show its true colours when it qualified on the second row of the grid.
“After yesterday we were a bit… We didn’t drive on new tyres yesterday so we weren’t sure how well the car would do this morning in qualification,” says Vanthoor.
“On old tyres the car eventually felt very good. We were still far away in the first practice sessions, but we know from experience that when the car feels good on old tyres, it’ll also work well on new tyes—and that was the case this morning.
“The car performed very well on new tyres and in the race I felt the same. There was a bit more fuel in the car, but the feeling was the same. That’s what I thought when I went out and it happened to be the case, so I did the same thing I did this morning.”
Vanthoor’s co-drivers Christopher Mies and Alex Riberas and the WRT crew had perfectly set the stage for the final assault in the last hour. Sporting new tyres and sights set on the win, Vanthoor had to overtake Christian Engelhart in the Grasser Racing Lamborghini Huracán GT3 and Strakka Racing Mercedes-AMG GT3 pilot Maximilian Götz, both of them star drivers with their respective brands.
“I had to go and get it—that was the first time for me. The Lambo didn’t make it too hard for me. It wasn’t easy—I wasn’t directly alongside when I outbraked him, I had to come from pretty far away. But it worked perfectly.”
The next stop for the Dries Vanthoor freight train would be Strakka Racing. A first attempt to take the lead turned out to be an illegal one as the Audi went through into the lead exceeding track-limits via the old oval front-stretch.
“It felt great, I was really pushing. I was getting closer and closer. Then I started to struggle with my tyres. It wasn’t easy and I knew he’d be defending well.
“I really didn’t know I wasn’t allowed to drive over that part of the track as I’ve seen it happen in the past, but every race director sees it differently.
“So, I immediately returned the position and tried again. I wanted to directly try again—I knew I was faster and would be able to drive away once I got past.”
Take two a lap later resulted in a collision between Vanthoor and Götz. After halting his initial overtake going into the first chicane, Vanthoor returned onto the racing line for optimum corner entry. Götz did the same but with the Audi still alongside the AMG, Vanthoor was pushed into the grass.
“He didn’t do it on purpose, but we did hit each other in the first turn. He immediately returned the position—I don’t know if he had to do that or not. It’s not a special or nice way to take the lead like that, but that’s racing. You race with rules and in Zolder they were used against me and now in Monza for me. Racing is with rules.”
As the full lap charts would later show, Vanthoor is quicker than anyone else at any point during the race. Even without Götz being called by race control to yield the lead, Vanthoor believes he would’ve taken it.
“Yes, I think so. I think my brakes were a little bit better than the Mercedes’. I was able to brake later into the first turn, and probably everywhere else as well. I felt good with the brakes, so I definitely would’ve tried again.”
The win in Monza is another trophy in the cabinet of Dries Vanthoor, who seems well on his way to equal big brother Laurens Vanthoor’s success. Comparing the two doesn’t bother the 20-year-old younger Vanthoor; in fact, it’s this brotherly rivalry that motivates Dries to do better.
“I’ve always told my parents and everyone, and Laurens as well, that I want to become a better driver than Laurens. It’s my intention to first win everything he has, and then do even better. That’s what I want to try. Laurens and I have a very good relationship—we are brothers—but of course he also wants to be better than me.”
To accomplish his goal, 2018 has seen a lightning start from the Audi works driver.
“Of course, I’m extremely satisfied with how it’s going. The last few races have been going really well. I’m feeling good with Audi and WRT and I’m very happy.
“I want to make this a long-lasting relationship; I’m not someone who decides to go to another brand within five years. I want to be loyal and try to win as many races as possible for the brand and the team—that’s important to me.
“For the moment we’re doing great, but it’s still a long way to go and we’ll have to see where we end up.”
It all really got going for Vanthoor a year ago, at the Blancpain GT round at the Hungaroring where he and team-mate Marcel Fässler took the double win that weekend.
“I don’t know what it was. It was mostly how I felt—I just felt good. We had done some tests during summer and tried something that made me really feel at ease with the car and let me do with the car whatever I wanted. I didn’t had that feeling before, now I did.
“Since then it’s been like that: whenever I’m out driving, I feel at ease in the car and can do my thing. When I can do that, it goes well.”
The next big race for Vanthoor is the 24 Hours of the Nürburgring. Even at the seemingly endless Nordschleife, VLN victory has already come his way. Now it’s time to attack the big 24 Hours, but Vanthoor has no illusions of it being an easy drive.
“It’s a bit of a special race; a very tough race if nothing else. It’s one of the coolest tracks in the world and to race there for 24 hours will be a lot of fun.
“We’ve got a super line-up; the expectations are very high.
“Of course, I’m looking forward to it, but on the other hand I also don’t want to act like I’m ‘the man’. I just want to do my thing, do my stints, and especially let my more experienced team-mates do their thing. Of course, I want to be fast and try and not make any mistakes—that might be most important for that race.
“Experience is important: it’s in the details. I have great team-mates who will help me with that so it’ll be a great way to gain even more experience with them.”
But first, it’s another round of the Blancpain GT Series. Brands Hatch is already around the corner.
“Zolder wasn’t so great, but we’re gonna try to correct that in Brands Hatch. I want to try to finish as high as possible in both championships, that’s my goal for this year.”