The Paul Ricard 1000 is a highly rated race of the Blancpain GT Series calendar as it's seen as a preparation and a preview of the 24 Hours of Spa, a lot alike the Spa-Le Mans period in FIA WEC. In the middle of a multi-brand fight for victory in France the No. 8 M-Sport Bentley of Maxime Soulet, Andy Soucek and Vincent Abril did the homework and stayed out of trouble for a glorious win.
The race started with rather clean runs and the No. 4 Black Falcon Mercedes keeping the initial lead, getting rid of the No. 72 SMP Ferrari and the pack coming along it.
Due to its length the Mistral straight is proven to be a dangerous point for and off, as Pasin Lathouras in the No. 50 AF Corse Ferrari discovered after a contact with the No. 17 WRT Audi, which sent the Thai driver to a spin without more consequences than the scare itself and the loss of positions. The sister No. 51 AF Corse car discovered it in a harder way after a contact with the No. 911 Herberth Porsche, losing a tire and rear first to the wall, ending the race of Motoaki Ishikawa and calling the first caution period.
After 10 minutes of yellow flag the race restarted, only to be neutralized again due to a heavy contact of the No, 24 REITER Young Stars Gallardo in the middle of the Mistral, of which Tomas Enge escaped with everything OK with him. The whole process to pull out the damaged car off the road took around 15 minutes, with the race returning right after this. An engine blow of the No. 777 HB Racing Lamborghini, but the yellow flag was too brief to affect the race.
The No. 84 HTP Mercedes jumped into the lead after the first round of pit stops while the No. 14 Emil Frey Jaguar took the place of the sister No. 114 car in the top ranks, eventually taking the lead as the No. 84 was in a more conservative pace. While that, in a space of 20 minutes two big contenders were kicked out of the race as the No. 7 M-Sport Bentley entered the garage for checks and the No. 5 WRT Audi suffered for a lap with a loose rear left wheel, which tire also had a puncture. After the 2 hour mark the No. 98 ROWE BMW also had a nasty puncture that forced it to the garage once it got to the pits, eliminating another potential winner.
With two hours gone the No. 4 Black Falcon Mercedes lost the lead to the No. 99 ROWE BMW while the No. 50 AF Corse Ferrari made incredible moves and reached third place. As the first two pitted the No. 50 took first place, only to receive a drive-through penalty for pit exit infringement as the car crosse the white line that separates pitlane from track, which didn't affect the lead but reduced what was a giant gap to the No. 8 M-Sport Bentley.
As the No. 50 had a different pit strategy it eventually left the lead pack, leaving the action for the No. 8 M-Sport Bentley, the No. 72 SMP Ferrari and the No. 4 Black Falcon Mercedes, and they kept switching positions like this as the night time was coming, with the No. 99 ROWE BMW going to the garage for further checks, being put out of the lead fight. The No. 23 RJN Nissan was becoming the outsider in the battle as the straight line speed advantage was paying off dividends as the car was already in fifth. When the dark came out for real, only the No. 4 and the No. 8 were in fact in the fight, with the No. 50 and the No. 72 relying on their best drivers to stay in contention as Alessandro Pier Guidi and Miguel Molina were set to drive to the finish.
With an hour and a half to go another big contender got eliminated as an engine failure made the No. 84 HTP Mercedes sit at the middle of the Mistral straight, then retiring as it was and bringing another yellow flag. Until the final hour mark it was a straight Bentley vs. Ferrari battle, but the No. 50 became slow suddenly, limping for half of a lap until pit service, but then the blow in their hopes for the win was dealt as the No. 8 M-Sport Bentley was again on his own in the lead, continuing like this until the finish line as the No. 72 SMP Ferrari was too distant to represent a threat. The No. 1 WRT Audi completed the podium in what was an unlikely territory for Audi to get a good result.
Pro-Am Cup honors went again to Barwell Motorsport as the No. 77 Lamborghini prevailed over the No. 97 Oman Racing Aston Martin. The Am Cup win stayed with the No. 888 Kessel Ferrari despite a comendable effort of the No. 36 Walkenhorst BMW to turn things around.
Now everything turns around the main event of the series, the TOTAL 24 Hours of Spa on July 29th and 30th, with many factory entries predicted as well a grid nearing 70 cars, and the official test day will be on July 4th.
PHOTO: Bentley Motorsport