Image credit: Olivier Beroud / Vision Sport Agency.

The #8 M-Sport Bentley of Maxime Soulet and Andy Soucek took advantage of changing weather and a Full Course Yellow to seal a surprise win in the Sprint Series season opening qualifying race this evening at Italy’s Misano circuit.

With the asphalt on the Misano World Circuit being wet at the start of the Qualifying Race, tyre choice proved to be crucial for the first of two races at the opening event of the 2016 Blancpain GT Series. While most of the frontrunners played it safe and fitted rain tyres to their cars, further down the grid some drivers gambled by opting for slicks.

Based on the race’s opening laps the slicks looked like the wrong decision with some drivers losing 10 positions or more. But, with nearly 40 cars on track, a dry line quickly formed and allowed those on slicks to start making progress back towards the pack.

“Ordinarily our car isn’t great in the slippery conditions, so we had to gamble a bit.” said  Soucek after the race “We knew most of the other guys were on wets so the plan was to take slicks and play the long game, but after two laps I radioed in to say we were losing too much time. Of course it ended up drying out and look where we ended up!

The drying circuit also forced cars on rain tyres to pit early. Among the first to do so was the Belgian Audi Club Team WRT’s Laurens Vanthoor in the #1 Audi R8 LMS who at this point was comfortably leading the race. The Belgian polesitter had taken the hole shot, managed to create a seven second gap, and even though Maxi Buhk in the #84 HTP Motorsport Mercedes-AMG reduced his deficit by a couple of seconds at the end of his opening stint, Frederic Vervisch remained the virtual leader after the driver change with the older of the Vanthoor brothers.

However, a couple of minutes before the end of the pitstop window, a Full Course Yellow was called by the race director, to remove debris on the track which played into the hands of the drivers who had started on slicks and were yet to pit.

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Thus, in one of the more unexpected moments of the day Maxime Soulet, now at the helm of the #8 Bentley Team M-Sport Continental and Philipp Eng in the #99 Rowe Racing BMW found themselves occupying the top-two positions after their respective pitstops. Vervisch was still in third but, after being informed he was some 30 seconds behind the leaders, decided to settle for the lowest of podium finishes.

While the battle for the top-spot seemed lost for the Belgian Audi squad Eng in the #99 BMW was making Soulet’s life very difficult until the Belgian started to ease out the gap between himself and the Austrian by swiftly lapping the backmarkers. He eventually crossed the line with almost three seconds in hand. For Bentley Team M-Sport, making their debut in the Blancpain GT Series Sprint Cup, it was the best possible way to start the 2016 season.

Looking at the class wins, Giacomo Piccini, aboard the #11 Kessel Racing Ferrari polesitter in the Pro-Am Cup, had a difficult start to the race and lost the class lead to Maxime Martin in the #12 Boutsen Ginion BMW. The Belgian gained more than 10 positions in the opening laps and was running inside the top-15 overall when contact with a Lamborghini dropped him down the order. Piccini managed to claw his way back to the top and a faultless drive by team-mate Michal Broniszewski meant the Kessel Racing duo could claim the top step of the Pro-Am podium.

Despite their #19 Grasser Racing Team Lamborghini starting only 32nd, Luca Stolz and GT rookie Michele Beretta crossed the line to take first place in the Silver Cup and rack up a 16th place overall finish. The other positions in the Silver Cup were decided in the final corner when both Ricardo Sanchez (#22 Nissan GT Academy Team RJN GT-R) and Nicolaj Moller Madsen (#5 Phoenix Racing Audi) spun off and, in another unexpected ‘turn’, the Dane was fortunate enough to secure second while pirouetting across the start/finish line! Max Van Splunteren in the #100 Attempto Racing Lamborghini took advantage of the incident to pass Sanchez and claim third.

The fastest Am Cup qualifier, the #55 AF Corse Ferrari of Stéphane Lémeret and Claudio Sdanewitsch, had to start the race from pitlane after an engine change. But despite the Belgian-German pairing regaining some of the lost places, they couldn’t deny Black Pearl Racing Ferrari pirates Steve Parrow and Christian Hook from securing class victory.