It was quality over quantity in the Italian GT Endurance Championship season-opener at Autodromo di Pergusa. A meagre field of just 12 cars welcomed the classic Sicilian racetrack back on the calendar, bringing all the action of a full grid.
Race day began with Marius Zug leading the field to the green. Behind the #7 Ceccato Racing BMW M6 GT3 the #3 Easy Race Ferrari 488 GT3 of Matteo Greco, #21 AF Corse Ferrari 488 GT3 of Matteo Cressoni and #63 Imperiale Racing Lamborghini Huracán GT3 Evo of Alberto Maria Di Folco followed closely. While Zug firmly held his ground, the two Ferraris and Lamborghini began battling with each other over second place, allowing the young German to quietly sneak away halfway into the first hour.
After some back and forth, Cressoni managed to grab second and shed himself of Greco and Di Folco. Rapidly closing in the gap to Zug, Cressoni was able to join the BMW but despite his best efforts, couldn’t find a way past.
Cressoni’s high pace did give AF Corse the option of waiting out Ceccato Racing for the pitstops and trying to leapfrog into the lead. In his defense to cycle back into the lead after the pitstops, the experienced Stefano Comandini made a crucial and costly mistake: sliding into one of the many chicanes around Pergusa, the #7 BMW made heavy contact with the tyre stack. With a heavily damaged left-rear side of the BMW, the Italian was forced to retire the car in the pits.
The accident brought out the second Safety Car of the race to allow marshals to clean up the mess at the Proserpina chicane. Now with Am driver Simon Mann behind the wheel of the race leading #21 AF Corse, the Ferrari stood no chance against Pro driver Stuart Middleton – driving the #63 Imperiale Racing Lamborghini – when the race went back to green. The Brit, debuting in the Campionato Italiano Gran Turismo, easily outbraked the Ferrari going into the first turn and took the lead.
The quick AF Corse Ferrari eventually saw everything end in the second hour with a big blown-up of its 3.9-litre twin-turbocharged V8 engine, joining fellow top contenders Ceccato Racing and Easy Race — having thrown in the towel during the first pitstop due to a gearbox problem — in retirement.
While Imperiale Racing looked set to go into the third and final hour at the front of the field, the #12 Audi Sport Italia R8 LMS GT3 had been making headway. What could’ve been a terrible day for the team from Piedmont, turned out to be a successful one instead.
Having started from third and sixth on the grid, teammates Lorenzo Ferrari (#12 Audi) and Filip Salaquarda (#14 Audi) had a coming together in the opening phase when the Czech attempted an overly optimistic overtake on his young teammate, putting himself out of the race. By the end of his stint, Ferrari had dropped down to sixth place, leaving it up to Riccardo Agostini and Mattia Drudi to recover a top result.
Like a jack-in-the-box, Drudi continued the work started by Agostini an hour earlier and appeared in the lead after the final round of pitstops, overtaking Andrea Amici as the #63 Imperiale Lambo left the pits.
Putting his skill to practice, Drudi managed to open an 8-second gap to Amici before easing off again and allowing the advantage to shrink to 4 seconds at the chequered flag. With their triumph in the season-opening race, Audi Sport Italia starts the Endurance season in the same fashion as last year when they won at Mugello.
Amici had to content the final half hour with the unleashed #27 Scuderia Baldini 27 Ferrari 488 GT3 of Giancarlo Fisichella – sharing the prancing horse with Stefano Gai and Daniel Zampieri – pushing him for second. Despite his best efforts, the former Formula 1 driver didn’t find the gap he was looking for. Instead, Fisichella focused simply on keeping the distance close enough to profit from the time penalty the Lamborghini would receive for overtaking under yellow. That plan was executed to perfection, taking a well-earned second place for the Italian GT returnees 7-tenths ahead of the Imperiale Racing Lamborghini of Andrea Amici, Stuart Middleton and Alberto Maria Di Folco.
Antonio Fuoco, the defending Italian GT Endurance champion, finished fourth almost one lap down. The #8 AF Corse Ferrari 488 GT3 he shared with Carrie Schreiner and Sean Hudspeth lost a heap of time in the opening stint and dropped down a lap, leaving the international trio without a shot for the win despite rediscovering their speed.
Kessel Racing’s David Perel and Stephen Earle came home in fifth – two laps down and earning the Pro-Am honours after suffering a puncture – six laps ahead of the #333 SR&R Ferrari 488 Challenge Evo of Luca Demarchi, Nicholas Risitano and Edoardo Barbolini, the only participant in the GT Cup class.
Seventh went to the #215 Ceccato Racing BMW M4 GT4 of Nicola Neri, Guiseppe Fascicolo and Alfred Nilsson, another lone starter in its class.
LP Racing was the last team to see the finish flag, ending the race in eight overall and scoring second in the Pro-Am class, 22 laps down after the #88 Lamborghini Huracán GT3 Evo of Pietro Perolini, Angelo Negro and Lorenzo Veglia lost time due to brake problems.
Next up on the Italian GT Championship calendar are the Misano Sprint races held on 4-6 June, with the next Endurance round scheduled for 2-4 July at Mugello.
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