Bentley’s challenge for the 2015 Blancpain Endurance Series championship intensified this weekend with a hard-fought podium finish at the Paul Ricard 1000 km, the third round of the series. The #7 Continental GT3 of British trio Guy Smith, Andy Meyrick and Steven Kane finished P2 after an exciting six hours of racing, culminating in Steven closing to within 1.6 seconds of the leader in the final stages. Overall points from the race mean that Bentley Team M-Sport now sits atop the Teams Championships for the first time this year, with the drivers of car #7 now second in the Drivers Championship by one point.
The second Bentley Continental GT3, the #8 car of Andy Soucek, Maxi Buhk and Maxime Soulet endured a more challenging race, after contact for Maxime in the opening lap put him to the back of field. The team recovered well after the incident, only for progress to be disrupted by a pair of stop-and-go penalties later in the race. However, strong pace and a determined attitude saw the #8 car finish P12 overall and P8 in class, which was rewarded with championship points.
Bentley’s Director of Motorsport, Brian Gush, said after the race:
“After some bad luck in the previous rounds, the whole team is ecstatic with the result here. It wasn’t an easy race, but we got the setup of our cars right and came so close to repeating our victory here last year. The last few laps were extremely tense for everyone in the garage, but Steven did what he does best and got the podium. I’m disappointed that car #8 couldn’t join car #7 in the top three, but we’ll review and come back stronger. Our championship challenge is back on-track, and this is a real confidence boost ahead of the most important race of the season at Spa next month. We’re heading from here to the official test session this week to start our preparations, but until then we’ll reflect on what’s been a great race weekend for us.”
The two Bentleys started P4 (#7) and P10 (#8) respectively. After an aborted start that saw both cars in to the top five, the restart saw Guy Smith move the #7 car to P2, but an unfortunate misjudgement by Maxime Soulet in #8 saw him collide with two competitors. A pit stop to check for damage dropped Maxime to P61, reinforced by a stop-and-go penalty, but he rebuilt from there to P35. After a stint from Andy Soucek and a second stint from Maxime, the #8 car was up to P14. The drivers of the #7 car all double-stinted, with Andy Meyrick taking the car from Guy in P4 after two hours, and finished his stint in P3, handing to Steven Kane Thanks to an extremely efficient pit stop from the Bentley Team M-Sport crew, Steven moved up to P2 and immediately started his challenge for the lead, closing a 16-second gap to just 1.6 seconds before running slightly wide and spinning. Steven recovered from the spin to secure P2 at the chequered flag. Meanwhile, after a stop-and-go penalty for pushing, Maxi Buhk in car #8 was able to climb from P30 to P13 before Andy Soucek drove the final stint of the race, coming home P12 overall and P8 in class.
A third Continental GT3 entered by Bentley’s European customer team, Bentley Team HTP, also raced Paul Ricard, finishing P36 overall, P17 in class.
The next race for Bentley Team M-Sport will be the TOTAL 24 Hours of Spa, over the weekend of 25th-26th July.
Guy Smith, car #7: “With the race being over six hours, the most important thing for me was to stay out of trouble, especially at the start, and then try and gain a place or two – which is always hardest at the front! I was pleased with my run and had a great battle with the Bentley Team HTP car – it’s great for us to be fighting them fairly on-track. I finished my stint P4 which set us up really well for the rest of the race.”
Andy Meyrick, car #7: “The car was consistent and easy to drive. It was just as good at the end of the stint as it was at the start, so we got the setup right. I enjoyed some really close racing with a BMW, and we stayed in touch with the leaders from the start which meant Steven could fight for a great finish.”
Steven Kane, car #7: “My stint was pretty exciting to say the least! The car was excellent, so I’d like to thank the team for a job well done. Andy and Guy drove brilliant stints which allowed me to get very close to the leaders. I made a mistake in the closing laps which meant I ultimately couldn’t fight for the win, but we’ve had some bad luck in the last couple of races and P2 here feels really good. It’s kick-started our season and we’re really looking forward to the 24 Hours at Spa.”
Maxime Soulet, car #8: “The start was very difficult. I was focused on a car behind me that was making a move, and I misjudged my braking and hit a Ferrari, which ruined our race straight away. We started a fight-back immediately and fought up the order, and at the end of my second stint I was in to the top 20 having been right at the back. It wasn’t our day today but we’ll start focusing on Spa straight away.”
Andy Soucek, car #8: “I’m very pleased with my two stints. My pace was good in both and I wasn’t overtaken by a single car. I got the second fastest lap of the race, which is also very satisfying, and the car felt great and had consistent pace. Without the incident at the start I think we would’ve been able to fight for the win the same way that car #7 did.”
Maxi Buhk, car #8: “I drove a double stint, and the first half was very good. I made great progress through the field and I was happy with the car. The low sun made visibility very tricky, but once it had gone down the second half of my stint got easier. The track changed as it cooled down but the car is so good on its tyres that it wasn’t difficult to manage. The penalties are a big shame because we had the pace, like we did at Silverstone.”