Blancpain Endurance Series

Blancpain Sprint Cup Preview Part 1

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.

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#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.

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#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.

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#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.

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#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.

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#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.

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#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.

08This 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.

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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!

 

 

 

 

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Spa 24 Hours Set To Be A Classic

This weekend the sportscar world will once again focus on the annual Spa 24 Hours, which in recent years has become the home of GT3 racing as the category has breathed new life into this classic sportscar endurance race. The entry list excels in both quantity and quality, with 58 cars on the current entry list, all filled with the finest GT works supported drivers in the world.

GT3 racing has provided brilliantly competitive racing since it’s inception in 2006, and this years Spa 24 Hours will likely be a highly competitive sprint race for 24 hours. Last years winners Laurens Vanthoor, Rene Rast and Markus Winkelhock return this year with their new 2015 spec Audi R8 LMS run by the works supported Team WRT. Team WRT and fellow Audi R8 LMS works supported Team Phoenix will provide stern opposition to the rest of the field, although GT3 racing in 2015 boasts a bevy of manufacters and works drivers aiming to topple Audi this year.

Not that Audi have not fully prepared to defend their Spa victory from last year, with a further four works supported Pro cup class entries, with the likes of Robin Frijns, Stephane Ortelli, Andre Lotterer and Mike Rockenfeller joining high quality driver line up’s across all six works supported entries.

Bentley and Lamborghini are the new kids on the GT3 block, although both have shown tremendous pace and have scored some good results, as both will look for a upset victory in this years race. Both have the manufacters full support behind them, along with a bevy of very fast and consistent drivers. The only knock on both manufacters might be their sheer number of entries, as Bentley have three Pro cup cars across M-Sport and Bentley Team HTP, whilst the Grasser Lamborghini team field only two of the new Huracan GT3 cars, compared to the five Audi’s in the Pro cup.

The BMW effort will once again this year be led by the Belgian Marc VDS team, who will field their usual two car effort filled with a line up of factory BMW drivers such as Maxime Martin. BMW have also taken some of the pre-race headlines thanks to the sole Pro cup ROAL Italian BMW entry which will be driven by factory drivers Timo Glock, Bruno Spengler and Alex Zanardi. The Italian will receive a lot of attention throughout the week, and the incredible Italian will be keen to show his pace as he gets up to speed with the Z4 GT3 car.

Once again Mercedes return with four Pro cup SLS GT3 entries, which marks a downfall for the usual hordes of Mercedes SLS entries in the premier class of the Blancpain series. With a new spec SLS due next year this may help explain the slight drop in numbers for this year, however this does not mean a lack of quality from the Mercedes entries, as they will hope to all achieve a good result from the usually bullet proof reliability of the SLS AMG GT3.

As for Nissan, their GT-R Nismo GT3 racer has two Pro cup entries, one of which is the famous GT academy entry. This car is also a very reliable entry, although the relative strength of their two entries compared to the rest may leave them struggling to produce a top three result without any misfortune for others. Do not however underestimate the Nissan entries, including in the Pro-Am class.

For Aston Martin, the majority of their entries come in the Pro-Am class, with only one Pro cup entry for the privateer Oman racing team. Aston Martin has given a lot of support with factory drivers and crew for the Pro-Am entries over the past few years. For the Oman racing team they may also struggle slightly in the highly competitive Pro cup, although a top five result is definitely possible including for the Pro-am factory assisted teams.

McLaren bring two new 650S factory supported entries run by VonRyan racing, with an all star cast driver line up, which should give McLaren a good chance of a good result if they can get the car working with the circuit. If so, a repeat of their dominant Silverstone win earlier this season could be possible, although the old MP4-12C seemed to struggle at Spa in the past. The ultimate potential of the car is currently unknown, therefore the team can only hope the 650S runs reliably, leaving the experienced drivers to show their pace throughout the race.

The only majorly represented manufacter who is not in the Pro cup is Ferrari with their 458 Italia. On the other hand, the manufacter has a good selection of factory supported privateer teams in the Pro-am class, and any Ferrari GT entry with Gianmaria Bruni behind the wheel deserves to be seen as a serious contender in it’s class. Whilst their are no Pro cup 458 entries the driver line up’s in the Pro-am class are good enough for this very quick car to be contending in the top five overall, and most certainly for Pro-am class honors come Sunday afternoon.

That wraps up my look at all of the major manufacters entered in this weekend’s Total Spa 24 Hours, and in terms of predicting a winner it’s almost impossible to guess correctly who will win. This is because the Blancpain endurance series is so highly competitive, with different contenders at each track.

If I ultimately had to pick a potential winner for me it’s very hard to look past the reigning champion #1 WRT Audi R8 LMS entry. The new car has looked quick this year, and with such a stellar driver line up and well organised team behind this entry they surely have to be car to beat going into the race weekend. What are your thoughts on contenders for this weekend’s Spa 24 Hours, or do you disagree with my prediction. Please comment and let me know your prediction for victory contenders come Sunday afternoon.

What now for Jean Eric Vergne?

First of all, Jean Eric Vergne deserves to be on the grid at the next years Australian Grand Prix. Vergne has shown more than enough potential and results over the past three seasons to warrant a place on the grid in 2015. Vergne has simply become a casualty of the ruthless Red Bull young driver scheme.

Whilst Red Bull have backed him from a young age and gave him a shot in F1 for three seasons, if you don’t show the necessary progress you will quickly be replaced with the next young hot shoe product from the Red Bull line up. With the news last Friday that Red Bull junior F1 team Scuderia Toro Rosso would replace Vergne with their latest prospect Carlos Sainz Jr. For now it seems Vergne has few options to remain in F1 next year, so what options does he have to remain racing next year?

The most likely option it seems for Vergne to remain within Formula One next year appears to be with the Williams team. Rumors began during the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix weekend as Vergne was spotted spending a fair amount of time in the Williams hospitality area. Whilst both Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Massa are confirmed to 2015 their reserve driver role is vacant as Felipe Nasr joins Sauber for next year. If this move comes to fruition it’s likely Vergne will get some Free Practice runs next year, and would be well placed to impress as Williams will be looking to replace Felipe Massa in several years time.

It seems the Williams role seems the most likely option to stay in F1 next year, with the only other likely reserve driver role would be with the Red Bull team, although this is unlikely to interest Vergne as there will be very little chance of being promoted to a race drive.

Vergne can be heartened by the thought that he will likely find plenty of offers from other disciplines of motorsport, and can take heart from the example of fellow Red Bull refugee Sebastien Buemi. Vergne was one of the drivers who replaced Buemi at Toro Rosso for the 2012 season, and Buemi became the Red Bull reserve driver before rebuilding his career with Toyota in the World Endurance Championship, where he has shown his tremendous speed to claim the drivers title in the WEC alongside Anthony Davidson.

The World Endurance Championship is growing in significance every year with Nissan joining Audi, Porsche and Toyota in competing for wins next year. Vergne would be able to retain a reserve driver role in F1 with a WEC campaign with a manufacture or privateer team.

Another option for Vergne could be the new Formula E championship. The series has a prestigious line up of drivers and teams and is growing with every race in it’s debut season and would be an attractive option for next year. Formula E would be another series which could inter link with his reserve driver commitments should he find a drive within F1.

Other much less likely options would be for Vergne to swap F1 for Indycar, with his single seater skills would be clearly evident as he would likely become a household name in the series. Vergne once adjusted to the Dallara DW12 Indycar could become a multiple series champion such is his skill. Another option could be a top line career in GT racing with prominent series such as the Blancpain Endurance Series or GT classes within the WEC would be a great chance to rebuild his career after F1.

From here it’s not known where Jean Eric Vergne will be racing in 2015, with several options for him it’s up to him and his agent to decide which is his best option for next year. For me the best option would be a reserve driver role in F1 to keep his face known within the F1 community, with a sportscar campaign the perfect chance to show his considerable talent such as Sebastien Buemi has done this year. It would be a shame if Vergne isn’t racing at all next year, as he’s shown in his 3 years at Toro Rosso he deserves to remain at the top line of motorsport, where his talents belong.