It’s less than a month until the 2016 Blancpain GT season roars into life with the opening round of the Sprint Cup series at Misano. Most of the teams and drivers have been competing in the Blancpain pre-season test that at Paul Richard in France last week, as the teams and drivers get used to the equipment they will be using in 2016.
There has been plenty of change in the series for 2016, so the established order from 2015 will be shaken up this year. This preview of the Sprint Cup is first part of three looking at the grid for the Sprint cup, before switching focus to the Endurance series that runs concurrently to form the Blancpain GT series.
#1 Belgian Audi Club Team WRT Audi R8 LMS: Laurens Vanthoor/Frederic Vervisch
The Audi factory supported Team WRT of Vincent Vosse return to the Blancpain GT series this year, hoping they can resume their regular place at the front of the grid in both series. In the sprint cup the team returns with a colossal six car entry, and the #1 entry is one of the ultimate favourites for victory this year.
The driver line up of Laurens Vanthoor and Frederic Vervisch is arguably one of the best in the series. Vanthoor is a world renowned Audi GT expert who is as safe a pair of hands as you could put in the Audi R8 LMS, whatever the circuit he will get the best out of the Audi. Frederic Vervisch is a good partner to Vanthoor as he combines prodigious single seater experience from the likes of Superleague Formula and Formula Renault 3.5 series with GT racing experience from the past few years in Blancpain.
The combination of the highly professional Team WRT with the line up of Vanthoor and Vervisch surely makes them serious contenders for the title, although with the series being so competitive choosing an ultimate favourite is nigh on impossible.
#2 Belgian Audi Club Team WRT Audi R8 LMS: Dries Vanthoor/Robin Frijns
The #2 Team WRT Audi entry is similarly strong to it’s sister #1 entry, and the similarities don’t end there. Not content with having one Vanthoor on the team they have now recruited Laurens younger brother Dries into the team. The 17 year old showed well with 6th in his debut car racing season in the Formula Renault 2.0L NEC series, but has now joining brother Laurens in GT racing with WRT.
Whilst Dries will need some time to learn and get comfortable with the Audi and the Blancpain series, he has the perfect team mate to help accelerate his learning curve. Dutchman Robin Frijns is someone who acquitted himself well in his debut season with WRT, and his talent should arguably be gracing the F1 grid and not this series. He is proving himself one of the best up and coming sportscar drivers in the world, and will be looking to continue the form that saw him claim the overall Blancpain GT title in his rookie year.
#3 Belgian Audi Club Team WRT Audi R8 LMS: Sergio Jimenez/Rodrigo Baptista
The #3 Team WRT Audi has an all Latin American line up this year, with Sergio Jimenez linking up with the young Brazilian Rodrigo Baptista for a crack at the Sprint Cup title. Jimenez has plenty of experience since switching across to sportscars, and has switched to Team WRT and the Audi R8 LMS this year after spending last year with the BMW Team Brazil outfit.
He’s a proven commodity at this level and this will help the team greatly as he helps the young Baptista acquaint himself with European racing and the series itself. He has so far shown well in series such as Brazilian F3, although it will be a big step up for him to the cut and thrust of the world’s most competitive GT series. If Baptista can get up to speed quickly this car has every chance of being an outside contender for race victories, although currently there are a lot of unknown’s surrounding this entry.
#4 Belgian Audi Club Team WRT Audi R8 LMS: Stuart Leonard/Michael Meadows
The #4 entry is another one of the massive Team WRT Audi entries in the Sprint Cup this year, and will be piloted by two Brits who have shown their talents in other GT3 machinery. Stuart Leonard has progressed into GT3 racing with Aston Martin, but this year has ditched running his own team and jumped across to the Belgian team.
Leonard a very quick am driver last year in the Pro-Am class of the Blancpain Endurance Series, and took was victorious in one of his first races with Team WRT at last December’s Sepang 12 Hours. Joining Leonard is the very quick Michael Meadows, his team mate from last year. Meadows made a name for himself in the Porsche Carrera Cup GB as a multiple champion, and has translated this form into the Blancpain series.
Both of them work well together as team mates and with the pace and experience they both possess the #4 entry should be one of the favourites to win the Silver Cup for Pro-Am drivers.
#5 Phoenix Racing Audi R8 LMS: Markus Winkelhock/Niki Mayr-Melnhof
Another factory Audi supported team is the German Phoenix racing outfit, as they return to the Blancpain series for another crack at the overall Blancpain GT title. This #5 entry is led by former F1 racer Markus Winkelhock, who is a factory Audi driver and stunningly quick in an R8 LMS. His results speak for themselves and will always be someone to watch this year.
Joining Winkelhock is the Austrian Niki Mayr-Melnhof. He has progressed from GT4 into the GT3 ranks and has proven he can cut it at this level for the past few seasons. He finished third in the 2013 FIA GT series and was in the top ten of the Pro Cup last year in the Blancpain Endurance Series. Both of these drivers have extensive experience with the Audi R8 LMS, and as such expect this team to be taking the fight to Team WRT and the rest this year.
#6 Phoenix Racing Audi R8 LMS: Markus Pommer/Nicolaj Moller Madsen
The second Phoenix Audi entry is piloted by two sportscar rookies this year, so how quickly they can adjust to the car will be a huge factor in how well this car does. Markus Pommer will likely be the quicker of the two drivers, as he has extensive experience in junior single seater racing. Having jumped from the European F3 series to Blancpain he will be looking to show his pace as he looks to build a career as a professional in sportscar racing.
Partnering Pommer will be the similarly young Danish racer Nicolaj Moller Madsen. He has carried over his impressive karting success into cars, and finished second in the inaugural year of the Audi TT Cup last year. He now progresses into GT racing as he builds towards his goal of competing at Le Mans in 2017. How quickly both Pommer and Madsen can develop across the year will be an indication of their competitiveness, although maybe by the end of the year they could spring a surprise or two.
#7 Bentley Team M-Sport Bentley Continential GT3: TBC/TBC
#8 Bentley Team M-Sport Bentley Continental GT3: TBC/TBC
The factory M-Sport Bentley GT3 operation returns again this year with an updated Continental GT3. As of yet the team have not announced their driver line up’s for their two entries in the Sprint Cup, although the team have a bevy of factory drivers to choose from.
Bentley and M-Sport quickly adjusted to GT3 racing, and the Continental is now a very quick as well as proven reliable car. The manufacture has six works drivers to choose from. They consist of German GT specialist Maxi Buhk, Spanish former GP2 racer now sportscar ace Andy Soucek.
They also have young Frenchman Vincent Abril, the talented Belgian Maxime Soulet along with the two experienced Brits Steven Kane and former Le Mans 24 Hours winner Guy Smith. Whichever pairing they choose both Bentley’s will be serious contenders for both the Sprint series and overall Blancpain GT title. Now is the perfect time for this factory effort to bring home a title.
#11 Kessel Racing Ferrari 488 GT3: Michael Broniszewski/Giacomo Piccini
Long time Ferrari customer team Kessel racing return with the latest Ferrari 488 GT3. Very few Blancpain team have more experience with Ferrari GT machinery than Kessel, therefore they will have plenty of experience to get to the bottom of the new 488 contender and what is needed to get it running at the front of the Pro-Am class.
On the driving front they have signed the pairing of experienced am rated racer Michael Broniszewski with the similarly experienced Giacomo Piccini. Broniszewski is one of several am rated drivers who has plenty of experience from the last few years, and will do everything that is asked of a silver or bronze rated driver. His stints across the year will be important to how they finish.
Piccini has been and done almost everything in sportscars, with two Italian GT titles and top five placings in everything from the Le Mans Series LMP2 class to International GT Open. The Italian will bring even more experienced to this team along with a fast pace that they hope will seperate this #11 entry from the rest in the Pro-Am class.
This is the Kessel racing 458 Italia GT3 as the 488 is not yet ready for public on track action.
#12 Boutsen Ginion Racing BMW M6 GT3: TBC/TBC
Boutsen Ginion are yet another team who return to the Blancpain GT series this year but with a new car. The team have traded in their Z4 GT3 for a new M6 GT3, as they look to improve on what was an understated 2015 for the team.
In the Endurance series the team have resigned long time team mates Karim Ojjeh and Oliver Grotz along with Julian Darras. It’s likely that for this Sprint entry the team will partner am rated driver Karim Ojjeh and Oliver Grotz. They have proven themselves to a very solid driver pairing in Blancpain and will be yet another good contender for the Pro-Am honours.
That’s it for part one of my Blancpain Sprint series preview, I would like to thank Dailysportscar.com for their help with the high quality information and pictures that grace this page. I would finally like to say a huge thank you for reading and any comments would be greatly appreciated!